Wu Wei was born in Wu-ch'ang in Hupei province and received the early education necessary to follow his father into civil
service. However, his father died when he was quite young so Wu turned to painting, first in Nanking and then in Peking under
imperial patronage. He was a favorite of the emperors Hsien-tsung and Hsiao-tsung.
Wu is best known as an extremely eccentric painter, mainly of figures, who led a dissipated life of drinking and carousing
yet retained support and patronage at the highest levels. His escapades are duly recorded - including reporting to the emperor
in a state of total inebriation.
"This is . . . [a] horizontal scroll by Wu Wei, a Ming dynasty artist, active in the late fifteenth, early sixteenth centuries.
It represents fishermen on the river, leading a sort of ideal life. Wu Wei painted in a kind of rough style, which is perfect
for this subject - relaxed and easy. He used a brush that was either worn down or trimmed off so it would be kind of blunt
instead of fine, elegant brushwork. Now, [something] bothered me when I first saw this painting. I could see there were lots
of great things happening in it, a passage here where the fishermen have their nets drawn up and somebody is in a house looking
out at the fishermen and so on. [What] I realized eventually, or what was pointed out to me, is that it is actually two sections
of a scroll that had been pieced together, and when they had put them together they had to make certain adjustments to paint
in a bush here and to finish the riverbank [there]. [In] one part of the scroll there is a willow tree and you can see the
branches coming in, but the tree is now lost, so it is a willow tree without any trunk. Then you go on to the major part of
the scroll, which is where the fishermen are all living this happy bucolic life with their children, drinking wine, not very
actively fishing - it is a very highly idealized version of the life of the fisherman [who] had the same kind of position
in Chinese art as shepherds and shepherdesses did in the pastoral mythology of France or Europe."
In discussing how he included in his teaching the importance of the physical characteristics of a work of art, Cahill remarked,
"I used [the Wu Wei] to point out the necessity for looking hard at the painting and seeing what's been done to it. I've tried
to convey that involvement with the painting apart from being an academic. It's too easy to go from dealing with photographs
and slides to putting the same things on the screen as if this is all disembodied. Collecting makes you think about art as
solid things. Collecting also sharpens your eye for quality. [The same is true for] students; seeing the [object] and developing
a passion for it, or dislike, is very different from simply having a string of slides presented to you in a lecture."
Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive
15 - early 16 century A.D.
Handscroll: ink and color on paper
h 10 -3/4 x w 87 -7/8 inches