Trees aren’t always just trees

Long, slim hanging scroll painting in ink of a pine tree with a sinuous trunk

There were some kind of cypress (I think) trees near our home in south India that looked like guests at a cocktail party, one limb reaching out for a drink, another curling back as though to bring a cigarette to the lips.  Maybe that’s why I get such a kick looking at the inventive depiction of trees in Chinese painting, like this dragon-shaped pine tree by Wu Boli (late 14th-early 15th-century).  Trees also appear in indoor scenes in the form of  trained and miniaturized specimens known in China as penzai or penjing  (bonsai in Japan).  Grown in pots, they create tiny landscapes and scenes.

There is one in the foreground of this scholar’s studio, 

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Qianlong Emperor appraising: Qing dynasty, Qianlong period 1736–95 (The Palace Museum, Beijing)

another in the lower left corner of this 18th-century painting by Jin Tingbiao in the collection of The Palace Museum in Beijing.

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But at LACMA’s show “Where the Truth Lies: The Art of Qiu Ying,” I spotted another, bigger and bolder variation.  At first, it just looked like a weird tree in the handscroll painting of “The Jiucheng Palace.”  See the pavilion in the foreground of this photo?  Now look to its right…  

… by the first set of steps…. Detail of Qiu Ying's The Jiucheng Palaceweirdly birdlike, right?  Well, here’s a close-up:

 A phoenix-shaped tree complete with weird eyes and then the realistic detail of a supporting pole without which it wouldn’t have a prayer staying upright.  

I mention this pinzai in my WSJ review.  And now that you’ve seen the small ones you’ll understand why I speculate that this huge pinzai might convey extravagance.  There is also an 8th-century poem by Du Fu that mentions “numinous mushrooms” at this palace, mushrooms that assure longevity.  So, given the phoenix’s association with immortality, perhaps a double-entendre?

Here’s what I know for sure:  Qiu had a reason for adding this tree — and stumbling on it tickled me no end.

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