Look at the three paintings above. If you are untutored in the history of Chinese art, they may look very similar. In many respects they are. They are all painted within about a century of each other, around the start of the Song Dynasty (960–1279). This was the period that established monumental landscape painting as a major genre in Chinese art. Differences are readily discernable too, but it would be hard to determine which differences matter from an art historical perspective without learning more. Maybe you like them; maybe you don’t. Maybe you can rank them in order of preference. But how deeply are you looking? If you were tested tomorrow, would you know which paintings you had seen today?
For the untutored, paintings in this millennium-long tradition may blend together. Which are masterpieces and why? What variations were important innovations? Someone unfamiliar with the European cannon might be equally incapable of discerning relevant difference. A Madonna and child by Bellini and Botticelli might look interchangeable, even though they represent competing traditions (Venetian and Florentine), and it would be difficult to judge whether either is a masterpiece or a minor work.
As it happens, all three of the paintings above are regarded as works of enormous art historical value. Two of the three would be included in top-ten lists of the most important landscape paintings in the history of Chinese art (and, hence, arguably, world art). Here I offer an appreciation. Before looking at our three Song Dynasty masterworks in more detail, lets trace back to the origins of this tradition. Later, we will move forward in time three dynasties and seven centuries to see how the tradition developed. In all, we’ll span some twelve hundred years of landscape painting.
Before looking at examples, it will help to get some sense of why landscapes are so important in Chinese art. Europeans came to landscape painting late, in the 17th century. The Protestant reformation increased the demand for secular topics in the Low Countries, and bucolic landscapes fulfilled the pastoral fantasies of a growing urban bourgeoisie (see the Rubens example below). Before that, landscapes were background elements for figure painting (think of the twisting waterways and jagged cliffs that flank the Mona Lisa, above). As Marjorie Hope Nicholson argues in her book, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, Europeans regarded mountains as unsightly and uninviting. This ultimately changed, and mountains feature prominently (so to speak) in the landscapes of Romanticism (as in the Friedrich painting below).
Consider the main choice of subject matter. Chinese landscape paintings are called shan-shui or mountain-water, since both elements are usually included. But mountains dominate in these compositions, with water as a contrasting accent. So we can ask, why mountains?
Mountains are the ultimate representation of nature’s grandeur, and thus fit with Daoist precepts, but they also represent something stable and enduring, like the ancient traditions emphasized by Confucius. Mountain scenes are hierarchical, with peaks at different heights, and tree-lined waterways below. Each thing has its designated place, and each kind of entity is painted in a particular way, as Confucianism would prescribe. At the same time these landscapes serve as places of retreat, refuge, and withdrawal.
These features are evident in Li Tang (c. 1050-1130), called Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys (1124). The central mounting is imposing, and flanked by sharp peaks, which might be seen as a retinue of guards buttressing imperial power. Li Tang painted during a time when the Song Dynasty was under threat and forced to move the capital further south. At the same time, Tang captures the organic and mysterious power of nature, emphasized in Daoism. Following Confucian strictures, he paints each element with different brushstrokes. He popularized “axe-cut” strokes, made with the side of the brush head, to emphasize sharp rocks. These contrast with his treatment of the dense foliage and gnarled roots at the bottom of the composition. The dialectic between the rigid rockface and the lush greenery also exemplified the Daoist fascination with dualities – the Yin and the Yang
Confucianism and Daoism also offer some perspective on the tiny figures that appear in some landscape paintings. The diminutive status can be read as a metaphor for our place in the social world (both relative to those in power and the greatness of those who have come before), or as a reminder that we are one with all-powerful nature. Both Confucianism and Daoism talk of the dao (the way), and these paintings are often about wayfaring; they are filed with winding streams and paths. In the case of handscrolls, viewers trace a path through the landscape as they unroll the scroll, often several meters long. In the case of monumental landscapes—often painted on silk nearly two-meters high—viewers explore the terrain with their eyes, discovering hidden temples and travellers, and linking the two by traversing imaginary pilgrimages. Such wayfaring can be taken to represent our journey towards ethical conduct, as Confucius would have it, or the flow of nature, as Daoist teachings might suggest.
In Xu Daoning’s (c. 950-1052) gorgeous handscroll painting (above), tiny figures can be seen in the lake below, busy with their daily work. This celebrates the Daoist ideal of a life immersed in nature, and may even recall a famous parable from the philosopher, Zhuagzi, which compares the Daoist approach to life as floating aimlessly in a boat. At the same time there is something almost authoritarian about the peaks overhead. The title of the work, The Fisherman’s Song, alludes to a story in an early anthology of Confucian literature called Songs of Chu. It describes an encounter between a fisherman and the scholar, Qu Yaun (the same story was later retold by Zhuangzi, replacing Qu Yaun for Confucius, and it appears in another version in the work of the famous Confucian, Mencius). The fisherman says:
The Wise Man is not chained to material circumstances but can move as the world moves. If all the world is muddy, why not help them to stir up the mud and beat up the waves? (The Songs of the South, Hawkes trans, 1985, p. 214)
Given these links to Confucianism and Daoism, it might be surprising to learn that landscape painting did not take hold until the Tang Dynasty (618- 907), about a millennium after these philosophies were forged. One can find mountains represented as early as the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), but these take the form of incense burners, not paintings. The striking example below was created for Prince Liu Sheng in the second century BCE. Paintings before the Tang Dynasty were largely figurative, and, when natural background scenery is included, more emphasis is placed on trees than on mountains.
There are a few pioneering exceptions to this rule. The most striking, perhaps, is a mountain scene in the Admonitions Scroll (below), attributed to the legendary Jin Dynasty painter, Gu Kaizhi (344-405 CE). All extant versions of this work are later copies, and the original may have been created in the late Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) a century after Gu Kaizhi (see Yang Xin’s chapter in Gu Kaizhi and the Admonitions Scroll, 2003). Still, even that date would make this mountain one of the earliest images of its kind in Chinese art. The accompanying text teaches that, “To rise to glory is as hard as to build a mountain out of grains of dust” (Waley, An Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting, 1923, p. 51).
The Admonitions Scroll mountain image anticipates later landscapes, but also differs in striking ways; for example, the hunter and animals in the scene are enormous, manifesting an archaic disregard for scale. It is also just one small element in a long scroll, dominated by figurative art (see the whole scroll above for context). The concept of painting a landscape as such, rather than as an element in a larger work, does not appear for another couple of centuries.
There are various possible reasons for the late appearance of landscape painting. One possibility is that another factor was needed: Buddhism. Buddhism entered China around the second century CE, and its influence spread over time, but it did not become the state religion until the short-lived Sui dynasty (581–618). It was then adopted by the Tang. During this time, new forms of Confucianism also took hold—so called Neo-Confucianism. These developments were, in part, a response to anti-Confucian sentiments in the Tang court. Some Neo-Confucians were hostile to both Daoism and Buddhism, but others, such as Li Ao (772-838) sought reconciliation by integrating ideas from all three. Perhaps this blend of China’s three main belief systems created fertile soil for landscape art to flourish.
Adding Buddhism to the mix may have been especially potent during the Tang Dynasty, because Buddhism took on forms during this period that had less to do with mastering liturgy in formal settings and more to do with personal spirituality. This was the time when Chan Buddhism emerged (what became Zen in Japan). Chan, emphasizes meditative practice and the idea that each person has a Buddha nature within. China’s striking Mountain ranges were already regarded as sacred places under Daoism, but they now became sites for Buddhist shrines and popular sites for meditative contemplation.
Buddhism also made an aesthetic contribution to Chinese art. It arrived from India along the Silk Road, passing through remote mountainous regions where monks would pause to worship. Here shrines were constructed. The most famous of these are the Mogao caves—hundreds of spectacularly decorated chambers carved in a limestone cliff face. The earliest of these appeared during the Six Dynasties Period, a time of disunity proceeding the Sui and Tang Dynasties. Their walls are covered with murals depicting Buddhist legends. The example below shows a tale in a past life of the Buddha, when he encountered a starving tiger who could not feed her children. The Buddha lay before her offering himself as food. Realizing she would not kill him, he leapt from a mountain, at which point she and her cubs were able to feast on his remains.
The styles in the Mogao caves vary. Many of the earliest paintings, including the example above, show strong Indian influence. In these images, one can trace the evolution of mountain paintings from simple overlapping triangles (above) to more delineated forms, ridges, and other surface features (below). It is in visual laboratories like this that methods of painting landscape evolved.
Buddhist influence continued throughout this history of Chinese landscape paintings in a variety of different ways. Consider the late Song master, Ma Yuan (c. 1160-1225). He popularized the “one-corner” composition, in which much of the painted surface is concentrated in the lower right or left, leaving large region of empty space. This can be seen in Facing the Moon, a painting attributed to Ma Yuan. Empty space corresponds to the Chan ideas of nothingness, as well as related ideas in Daoism. There is a story about a Chan monk, Yaoshan Weiyan (751-834), who, while climbing the mountaintops, saw the moon appear through a break in the clouds, causing him to laugh (see Barrett, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in the Though of Li Ao, 1978, p. 151). In Ma Yuan’s painting, the resignation into nothingness is balanced, perhaps, by the reverberant affirmation of Weiyan’s laughter.
It will not escape notice that the most famous Chinese landscape paintings are almost entirely devoid of color. One can detect some deep greens in the Li Tang painting that I mentioned above, but if this pigmentation is subdued, and many mountain landscapes are entirely monochromatic. This cries out for explanation.
Here again, Daoism played a role. Laozi's Tao Te Ching—a seminal text from the 6th century BCE—asserts, “The five colors make our eyes blind.” Though probably an injunction against ostentatious materialism, this aphorism establishes a negative association with colors, and may be taken to imply that black and white artworks have more spiritual integrity.
When landscape painting took off in the Tang Dynasty, colored mineral pigments were commonly used, especially blues and greens, giving birth to the concept of the blue-green (qinglu) style. This was popular in court paintings, and would be referenced again and again through the later history. A stunning example is Li Zhaodao’s Emperor Ming Huang’s Journey to Shu. Below is an 11th century copy of the 8th century original (now lost). The color imparts a sense of courtly opulence. It also reduces the emphasis on textured brushstrokes (cun), which became so important to painting in the centuries that follow.
The full turn away from color would not take place until the turbulent Five Dynasties period that followed the Tang and set the stage for China’s classic landscape tradition in the Song Dynasty. Still, there were already artists in the Tang who were beginning to see the virtues of monochrome painting. The earliest text on the topic can be found in Zhang Yanyuan's (845) Li Tai Ming Hua, written in 845 CE:
Now Yin and Yang fashion and form (all things)... For this reason one may be said to have fulfilled one’s aim if one can furnish (a painting) with all the five colors by the management of ink (alone). But if one’s mind dwells on the five colors (only) then the shapes of things will go wrong. Now in painting (any) subject the things which one should especially avoid are a methodical completeness in delineation and coloring... It is not that there is (really any) incompleteness here: it is not recognizing (when the thing has reached) its own completeness that is the real incompleteness. (Chi, II, ii)
The explicit invocation of Yin and Yang brings us back to Daoist dualisms. Monochrome is a play of black and white, a play of paper and ink, a play of water and pigment (often made from soot). There is also an injunction against aspirations to completeness. Filling in every detail undermines the spontaneity of the work (a key theme in the surrounding text). Daoism emphasizes the idea of effortlessness—trying to not try. The skilled painter can produce works without much planning or revision on this model.
Spontaneity and the superfluity of color are also mentioned in a Tang Dynasty essay on painting written by Jing Hao (c. 880–940). He tells us, "Divine work is that in which there are no artificial elements and the images are formulated spontaneously as the brush moves.” He also praises another artist for attaching, “little importance to the five colors” (in Ching Hao's "Pi-fa-chi", translated by Kiyohiko Munakata). This is significant because Jing Hao also happens to be the artist credited with the shift to monochrome landscapes. None of his paintings survive, but the example below, Mount Kuanglu (below), is believed to be a copy of one, painted a century or two later, during the Song Dynasty. Structurally, the mountains resemble those in the colorful Li Zhaodao painting above, but the monochrome adds atmosphere. Li Zhaodao feels decorative; Jing Hao has spiritual depth.
This brings us to another concept relevant for understanding the appeal of monochromes. The earliest Chinese essays on painting was written by Xie He in the 6th century. The author insisted that artworks must have both “correspondence to the object” – they must capture aspects of the appearance – and “spirit resonance” (of qi yun), which is a kind of dynamism that captures vital energy. By reducing the painting process to spontaneous brushwork, artists could impart both the resonance of nature and their own vital energy (think of action paintings). Better yet, they could bring these two energies into alignment.
The foregoing explanations ground monochrome painting in Daoism, but Buddhism and Confucianism also play a role. Chan Buddhists (like their Zen counterparts) emphasized rustic simplicity. In China, artists who worked for the court were sometimes encouraged to capture royal splendor, but there was an increasing interest, including among Buddhists in the Tang court, to embrace simplicity, and the idea of a hermit artist, taking refuge in nature became popular. The idea was all the more attractive during the period of strife that followed the Tang. Centuries later, the artist Dong Qichang (see below) would look back and distinguish the Northern Schools or courtly style from the Southern School, which he associated with this retreat from urban society (“north” and “south” allude to distinct schools of Chan Buddhism, not geographic regions). In truth, many artists blur this distinction, but it reminds us how rusticity became an aesthetic ideal.
Confucianism is part of the story as well. During the Tang, Neo-Confucians updated the civil-service examination that has been initiated in the Sui Dynasty—a demanding test, which required memorization of Confucian classics. Under Neo-Confucian influence, the updated exam encouraged more individualism than earlier instantiations; for example, those taking it were tested on their poetry-writing skills.
The civil-service exam solidified the idea of a scholar official—someone whose scholastic performance granted the right to serve in government posts. Once more restricted to the gentry, the revised system opened up this status (though preparation still required leisure time and resources), and a significant class of scholar officials (or “literati”) emerged. The literati were trained in writing, calligraphy, and the arts, and they increasingly became the prominent painters of China, taking the center of artistic innovation away from the imperial courts.
The Confucian emphasis on writing fuelled the development of calligraphy, and it would be difficult to overstate the importance of calligraphy to Chinese art more broadly. Most Chinese paintings incorporate calligraphy. They include colophons by artists, critics, and collectors, added at the time of creation or sometimes much later. These were originally lines of verse, but later amusing or self-effacing remarks were added as well. The style of this writing varied over time, both in content and form, and the formal developments comprise a history that parallels the history of painting. The example above comes from Su Shi, the most celebrated calligrapher, poet, and critic of the Song Dynasty, who also received highest marks in the civil-service exam at the young age of 19. Though I neglect calligraphy here, it is important to recognize that this art form co-evolved with painting. Both were seen as expressions of an artist’s inner state. This relates to both Daoist ideas of spirit resonance, and also the Confucian focus on character development: scholars were constantly refining their character, and calligraphy served to express their level of learning, integrity, and refinement. Against this background, artists saw painting as an extension of calligraphy and brushwork is often described as calligraphic.
This link between painting and calligraphy contributed to the ideal of monochrome painting. If painting is an extension of calligraphy, and calligraphy is done with black ink, it is natural to use the same medium. Moreover, if painting is done by scholars, it should be done with the tools used for writing. Confucianism can be credited with inculcating this mindset.
Millennial Master of the Song Dynasty
Let’s turn at long last to the three paintings that initiated these reflections. The Song Dynasty is both the time when monochrome landscape painting solidified as a genre, and also a high water mark that later painters would return to again and again. It can be compared to the Italian Renaissance, and, like the Renaissance, there was a century of profound innovation with regional and individual differences in style that laid the foundations for later developments. The three paintings I will look at capture some of that variation.
The first painting is by Fan Kuan (c. 950–1032), titled Travelers among Mountains and Streams (c. 1000). Fan Kuan is considered one of the greatest masters of the Northern Song (the period in the early Song Dynasty had it’s capital in the north). China had just emerged from a period of intense conflict, and Fan Kuan’s painting centers around an imposing rectangular mountain that feels like an impermeable wall. This is not a mountain that invites exploration and ascent; it instills a sense of reverence and security, separating from human affairs by a glowing mist. Below that mist, human life carries on peacefully. Atop a densely vegetated hill, one can make out a monastery, situated, no doubt deliberately, below a waterfall on the mountain. This spiritual retreat in the high point on the paintings middle plane, suggesting, perhaps, that it is a close as humans can come to the majestic heights above. Below the monastery, there is path along which two figures walk, attending a group of donkeys. Their tiny scale is emphasized both by the mountain, and by imposing boulders in the foreground.
Formally, Fan Kuan’s painting is an essay in geometry. The mountain is rectangular, the vegetation below is grouped into two triangles, the path is a horizontal stripe, and the boulder form a semicircle aligned with the gap between the patches of vegetation. This created a Confucian sense or order. Fan Kuan also embodies Confucian attitudes in his brushwork, since each element is painted with a distinctive style—each in it’s place, both compositionally and stylistically. He was noted for his use of “raindrop” strokes (yu-tien), vertical dabs that add textured to the mountain’s surface, and, like other earthy Song painting, he makes ample use of ink washes, adding dimensionality to the work, contrasting with the light mist and path.
Fan Kuan is a naturalistic painter, who spent time in mountain scenery, but this is a study creation, and it implements conventions that would become standard in Chinese painting. This is not a view one could ever actually occupy. Each item is seen straight on, rather than from above or below. There are clearly delineated planes: background, middleground, and foreground. There is no fixed light source and no cast shadows. There is also, in some sense, no particularity. We do not find Fan Kuan painting an actual rock, or tree, or donkey driver. Each is an eternal archetype, imparting a timeless quality to the work. These are not idealizations, in the sense of Western art, but rather essences: the artist seems to be aiming at capturing the nature of each thing he depicts.
Fan Kuan’s naturalism contrasts in some respects with the next painting: Guo Xi‘s (c. 1020–1090) Early Spring (1072). Where Fan Kuan’s painting is rectilinear and naturalistic, Guo Xi’s painting is curvilinear and fantastical. One can trace multiple S-curves throughout the composition. Where Fan Kuan is static, Guo Xi is organic. The sharp twisting trees are budding with new life, and they weave through like veins injecting vital energy. Like Fan Kaun’s, Guo Xi’s painting can be divided into distinct planes, but the foreground stacks up on the middleground and background, leading you deeper into the composition. That sense of penetrable depth is greatly enhanced by the subtle traces of a landscape in the far distance. Fan Kuan gives us a wall, cutting us off from the world beyond, and Guo Xi gives us a whole world.
Fan Kuan’s temple and figures are tiny but salient elements; his temple is silhouetted by fog and his figures pop out against the white road. Guo Xi includes such elements as well, but the viewer must work hard to find them. Fishing scenes flank the lake below, another fisherman encounters a pilgrim by a bridge, and a misty temple complex is nestled behind rocks and trees half way above (see if you can find them!). Where Fan Kuan’s figures reside in his landscape, Guo Xi’s are practically consumed by it.
If asked which of these paintings represents imperial strength, you might be forgiven for picking Fan Kuan’s. His mountain is stable and powerful. Guo Xi’s world seems tottering in comparison, and at the same time more approachable. The break from naturalism also presents Guo Xi as an individualist: more concerned with personal expression than expressing the conservative value of the court. This knee-jerk response may be mistaken. The meaning of Fan Kuan’s painting is uncertain. He spent time both as a court painter and as a recluse. The meaning of Guo Xi’s work, in contrast, is suggested to us by the artist himself. He was the favorite painter of emperor Shenzong, and he tells us that he wanted his landscapes to convey both cosmic and imperial power. In a treatise called Lofty Message of Forests and Streams, assembled by Guo Xi’s son, the artist tells us:
A great mountain is dominating as master over the assembled hills. So it orders the ridges and peaks, forests and valleys by hierarchy, which are far or near, large or small in relation to its sovereignty... Even though a hundred nobles hasten to his court, [the mountain] is without an arrogant or capricious disposition. A tall pine stands erect as model for all other trees. So it orders the vines and creepers, grasses, and trees by hierarchy, which, stirred and aroused, lean and rely on its teaching. (Quoted in Foon Ping’s The Efficacious Landscape, 2015, p. 8-9)
We have, in other words, a pictorial metaphor for benevolent kingship. There is a visual hierarchy, expressed by the height of different elements, as well as a sense of moral rectitude (standing erect) and obedience (bending in). The sovereign peak is broad-shouldered and commanding, but also flexible, approachable, and abounding in fecundity. The distant background may reflect his vast dominion.
A contrasting sensibility can be found in the third example, Buddhist Monastery by Streams and Mountains, attributed to Juran (active 960-985). Juran was a Buddhist monk, born in Nanjing during the Five Dynasties period and trained by Dong Yuan (c. 934– 962). He and his teacher are considered founders of the Southern Style of painting. Their landscapes have a lighter touch. Juran uses pale ink (hsi-mo) rather than deep ink (sheng-mo), which we saw in the Song painters from the North. His forms are also more inviting. Where Fan Kuan gives us an impassable wall, and Guo Xi gives us the molten crest of a cosmic wave, Juran gives us a downy ladder into the heavens.
Both Guo Xi and Juran use pronounced S-curves on their mountains, but to different effect. Guo Xi stirs up a primordial stew, and Juran lays down a gentle path. His moss dotted (t’ai-tien) rounded rock patches, known as “alum heads” (fan-t’ou), add a playful touch. This contrast with the stark geometry of Fan Kuan and the frenzied delirium of Guo Xi. His brushstrokes have a tempering effect as well. He uses long hemp-fiber strokes (p’i ma ts’un), long slightly wavering lines, that stream down the mountain, making it look soft, like flowing hair.
There are no figures in the Juran scroll, but he includes the proverbial monastary, easily spotted in the center of his composition, and occupying more space than the religious buildings in the paintings of his Northern counterparts. He also places a modest thatched hut at the bottom of his composition. One can easily imagine the stroll from one to the other, and that serves to impart a more human-scale to the picture. Juran’s landscape does not dominate or consume us, but rather nestles and sooths.
Of these three, you might be thinking Juran is the lightweight. By aiming for a softer touch, he forgoes that majesty of the other two painters. Of these three paintings, his is the least appreciated (and the most contested attribution). But, before relegating him to second-tier status, it is important to see that the Southern style, which he helped create, had a lasting influence. To see this, we must move forward in time.
Landscapes in China’s Later Dynasties
Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368)
The Song Dynasty ended with invasion and conquest. In the 13th century, China fell to the Mongols, a nomadic people who created one of the greatest empires in world history. Many Han Chinese refused to work for the Yuan court—a fact that help the development of individualist scholar painters. Others tried working for the Yuan court, but left or found subtle ways to express dissent.
The most innovative and important painter of the early Yuan Dynasty is undoubtedly Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322). He is a descendent of the first Song emperor, Taizu, and the nephew of one of the Song’s last emperors. Despite this, he accepted an invitation from Kublai Kahn to work for the Yuan count in 1286. This was a controversial decision, but Zhao Mengfu resolved to serve ethically, living by his own principles. Such an approach to public service is called ch’ao-yin (reclusion at court), and it combines the Confucian commitment to civic duty, while also preserving Daoist strictures of free thinking (being a recluse in thought when you can’t live in reclusion). His ethical and independent spirit served the Han people; for example, he courageously raised corruption charges against a powerful minister.
Zhao Mengfu also served the Han people in another way. Concerned that China’s cultural heritage was under threat with foreign rulers in office, he worked to preserve Chinese painting traditions. His oldest known landscape painting dates from around 1287 and it is a remarkable word. Called The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu, Zhao resuscitates the Tang style of blue-green painting, and he adopts other archaic practices, such as the emphasis on trees, and a figure who is oversized relative to the background. Indeed, the painting pays tribute not just to Tang landscapes, but to Gu Kaizhi, the aforementioned 4th century painter. To see the similarities consider this detail from a (later copy of) another handscroll attributed to Gu Kaizhi, The Nymph of the Luo River.
The subject of Zhao Mengfu’s “mind landscape” is Xie Youyu, a 4th century statesman who was said to exemplify ch’ao-yin (see Sou-Chien Shi’s discussion in Wen Fong’s Images of the Mind catalog, 1984). Zhao evidently identified with this ancient personality, and many think his Landscape of the Mind is actually a self-portrait. An account of Xie’s life written in the 5th century indicates that Gu Kaizhi painted his portrait, situated among hills and streams, to indicate his freedom of thought. That painting was long before the Yuan Dynasty, by Zhao recreates it in his painting. He places Xie on a tiger skin (another symbol of freedom) among trees that resemble Gu Kaizhi’s. Together with his Tang color scheme and ink shading techniques that borrow from Song masters, Zhao’s painting makes a political point—a justification of his service to the Mongols—while encapsulating a millennium of Chinese artistic traditions.
Zhao Mengfu had a distinguished career earning a reputation as a painter and also as one of China’s leading calligraphers: his writing became a model for early printed text. He also was known as a philosopher and was appointed director of Confucian studies in 1297. By his later years, his painted has shifted from antique styles to something strikingly different: a modern style that set the tone for much painting to come.
Above is Zhao Mengfu Water Village (1302). It may sound hard to believe, but this unassuming landscape was revolutionary. Indeed, it is revolutionary in part because it is unassuming. Rather than painting dramatic mountains, like the Northern Song masters, Zhao presents an unremarkable vista, and rather than layering on washes and textured strokes to create atmosphere and dimensionality, he uses ink sparingly. The painting presents nature in a light, accessible way that owes much more to Juran than to Fan Kuan, but it pushes even further, breaking fully with the formality of court painting. Here Zhao epitomizes “restrained understatement” (pingdan). He also entirely blurs the boundary between painting and calligraphy. Zhao’s painting earned a secure place in the canon of Chinese art (the red seals indicate how many distinguished owners it has had), and his innovations had a lasting impact.
To see this, let’s examine the art of another Yuan master: Huang Gongwang (1269-1354). Like Zhao Mengfu, Huang Gongwang joined the Yuan court, but his service ended prematurely. Huang worked for an imperial censor, but ended up in prison when his boss was changed with mishandling a tax case. The charges were later dismissed, at which point Huang left the court and joined a Daoist sect. He was over 50 when he began to paint, but still managed to earn a reputation as one of the greatest artists in this century of foreign rule.
Huang Gongwang’s masterpiece (above) is a handscroll called Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (1347-1350), which may seem unassuming to the uninitiated. But Huang builds on earlier traditions and bounds forward in ways that open up new possibilities. Ostensibly, he is drawing on Juran’s Southern style; he makes use of both the alum-head motif and hemp fiber strokes. But he takes Juran’s work to its logical conclusion. Huang strips things down to a point where painting can be characterized as truly calligraphic. In this he follows Zhao Mengfu, but he takes it to the next level. Zhao’s Water Village opens up possibilities; Huang’s Fuchun Mountains realizes those possibilities to a degree that was never surpassed.
Look at the detail above. Dimensionality is imparted by concentric line-work that became an often-imitated trademark of Huang’s style. Washes are reserved for impressionistic strokes on the horizon that suggest distant peaks, in sharp contrast to the northern painters who use washes generously to impart mood and depth. There is total virtuosity in Huang’s brushwork. No stroke is out if place. Though ostensibly the most boring painting in this survey, it’s also the one that most makes me want to paint. And in calling it boring, I don’t mean to imply that it lacks conceptual interest. There is a kind of austerity Water Village. Huang leaves buildings unembellished and makes much use of empty space, harking back to Ma Yaun and Buddhist teachings on emptiness. Huang demonstrates the power of economy: less is more. In this gesture he puts the weightiness of Northern Song landscapes to rest. He preserves Fan Kuan’s naturalism—you can tell Huang lived among mountains—but he paints in way that makes technique as important as subject matter. This is a painting about the process of painting.
One might think Huang Gongwang’s Fuchun Mountains is the ultimate distillation of landscape painting. The tradition is reduced to its fundamentals. But another Yuan Master pushes that reduction even further: Ni Zan (1301-1374). The painting above, Six Gentlemen, was created arount the same time 1345. Both have adopted Zhao Mengfu’s practice of treating painting as calligraphy (Ni Zan was a fan of Zhao’s and wrote a colophon on his Mind Landscape). Ni Zan can even be said to be quoting from Zhao or Huang here, but he has transitioned from horizontal hand scrolls to a vertical hanging scroll, elevating this informal style to a rank once held by monumental landscapes. It is an ostentatious display of "plainness and blandness" (p'ing-tan)(see Cahill, Hills Beyond a River, 1976, p. 70).
Still, we mustn’t think of Ni Zan’s innovation s a mere exercise in minimalism. It is also a political comment. Unlike Zhao Mengfu and Huang Gongwang, he refused to work for the Yuan court. His Six Gentlemen are not people, but pine trees, that enduing symbol of Confucian rectitude. But this rectitude comes not from civil engagement, but from reclusion. Ni Zan came from a wealthy family but his life was uprooted as the Mongol Dynasty began to destabilize. He distributed his possessions among friends and moved to a houseboat. Known as a drinker an eccentric, his painting can be seen as an expression of his irreverent personality. The gentlemen—perhaps he and his friends—loom large in the foreground, with a mountain in the far distance, and a vast gulf of emptiness in between. This inverts to Song formula of presenting small trees at the base of grand mountains. If mountains represent the state, Ni Zan’s trees have kept the distance from it, and, in so-doing, they also kept their dignity. Ni Zan repeated this formula again and again, and every collected tried to obtain an example. Later artists may countless copies and tributes.
This tour of Yuan painting might give then impression that the Mongol period was a linear progression of increasing reduction in visual form. This is not the case. I will end this survey with a painter who contrasts sharply with this trajectory: Wang Meng (c. 1308–1385). This is also a good place to end our survey of the Yuan Dynasty, since Wang Meng was the grandson of Zhao Mengfu, with whom we began. Wang Meng also lived through the defeat of the Yuan and the rise of the Ming Dynasty. One might think that the return of Han Chinese would have been good news for scholar painters, but things got off to a bad start. The first Ming emperor, Chu Yuan-chang, invited scholars to join his court, but he began his life as a peasant, and lived as a bandit, leading a rebel group called the Red Turbans that seemed unlikely, at first, to defeat the Mongols. When he took the throne, he was distrustful of the scholar class. Accusing many of plotting against him, he ordered purges of literati. Wang Meng was not executed, but he spent his final years in prison—a victim of Emperor Chu Yuan-chang paranoia.
Before the Yuan fell, Wang Meng produced some remarkable paintings. There are no dated works from the early Ming years, so it is unknown how his style progressed. These paintings have a strikingly different sensibility than the works we’ve just considered. While those tend toward understatement and calligraphic refinement, Wang Meng is a painter of excess.
Consider Dwelling in the Qingbian Mountains (1366). Like his predecessors, there is no doubt that Wang Meng was influenced by Southern Style painters such as Juran . Indeed, alum head—those round stones that adord Juran’s peaks—are a staple feature of Wang Meng’s paintings. But, in other respects, he is Juran’s opposite. Where Juran’s world is light and lyrical. Wang Meng’s is terrifying. Like Gua Xi, he depicts a mountain that departs from naturalism and teems with vital energy, but the energy here is more menacing than alluring. The mountain is almost impossible to parse. It is difficult to distinguish follow a peak to it’s valley, and there is no certainty about which rocky surfaces jut forward and which recede back. Were one to encounter such a berg, one would never approach it, for fear of immanent collapse. But one would never find a mountain like this in nature. Wang Meng has rendered an anxious fever dream.
In discussion Juran, I noted how easy it is to imagine the path from the thatched cottage in the foreground to the monastery. Wang Meng is quoting Juran’s style but he his world makes any journey look hazardous an uncertain. There is a figure (a pilgrim?) in the lower right, and a building complex in the upper left, lying precariously below an unstable cliff (see details above). If one tried to trace a path from pilgrim to refuge, it would be impossible. This is not a world that shelters those seeking escape urban life. It is a world that devours those who dare to enter. And so it was for Wang Meng. He lived at a moment of Chinese history when few were safe; the countryside became a battleground for warring bandits. Artists and intellectuals found no terra firma. Their world collapsed beneath their feet.
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
The Ming Dynasty got off to a rocky start for scholar painters, and it remained a rocky ride for some. Those literati who accepted government posts often experienced changing fortunes as political moods shifted, and periodic purges kept everyone on guard. Still, this long and final period of imperial rule by a Han family proved to be enormously productive and inventive.
In the first half of the Ming Dynasty, an art collective formed in the city Suzhou, removed from the imperial court. The founder of this group—called the Wu school—was Shen Zhou (1427-1509). His Poet on a Mountaintop (c. 1496) is reproduced in most surveys of Chinese paintings, since it captures the spirit of the independent and proudly amateurish literato perched on a peak far away from count life. The flat plateau and staffed figure became Wu school tropes.
For another example of Wu School plateaus, consider Qiu Ying’s (c. 1494-1552) elegant masterwork, Pavilions in the Mountains of the Immortals (c. 1550). The tall peaks that form a diagonal down the center of the composition have flat tops, ad if they were platforms for sages from the ancient past to alight and observe. Qiu Ying uses subtle greens and blues, gesturing to antique painting techniques, but his delicate lines demonstrate that this could have been produced only after the reductive innovations of the Yuan masters. (Qiu Ying is somewhat understudied. The leading scholar in English is Ellen Johnston Laing, and there is also a recent dissertation by Quincy Ngan linking Qiu's use of azurite and malachite to Chinese alchemy.)
Qiu Ying’s integration of past and present sets the stage for the late years of the Ming Dynasty. This has been termed a period of decadence, though that epithet is contentious (see Katherine Burnett’s “Decadence Disputed”). It was, at the very least, a period of bold experimentation. It was also a time on connoisseurship, when artists and others began to more fully appreciate the long history of Chinese painting, incorporating past styles and taking them in new direction.
The center of gravity for the late Ming art world was undoubtedly Dong Qichang (1555-1636). Dong considered himself the most important artist in 300 years, the greatest since Zhao Mengfu (see Nelson Wu’s chapter in Confucian Personalities, 1962). Whatever ones thinks of this assessment, it must be granted that Dong’s impact on the study of Chinese art history is second to none. His theories impacted understanding for his contemporaries and for every generation since.
Dong Qichang’s lived much of his life as a statesman and aristocrat. He was regarded as a corrupt landlord, and, after an incident involving a young woman and a book condemning him, villagers attacked his family’s homes, looting and burning much of his collection (for details, see the Wu chapter and Cecelia Riely’s lengthy biography in A Century of Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang, vol. 2). Dong escaped with his life and retreated to the mountains, retiring from public life. His political standing was later restored, but his reputation has been clouded ever since. For years he was renounced and ignored in Communist China, but there has been a steady revival of interest. He is now widely regarded as the most important painter of the Ming.
It is impossible to separate Dong Qichang’s connoisseurship from his art. He thought it was vitally important to copy past masters and incorporate their styles. At the same time, he is the most influential champion or originality in Chinese art. When we copy past masters, he said, we must do so in original ways. To illustrate, consider the painting below. The inscription tells that Dong based this on his memory of Zhao Mengfu’s Village By the Water. One can also see the influence of Huang Gongwang (the unadorned houses) and Ni Zan (the foreground trees), but it could never be mistaken for these other masters’. The style is almost child-like—primitive in execution, yet erudite in influence—with mountains deconstructed into rounded lumps and an angular horizon that perverts Yuan naturalism. Dong made folios of works “in the style of old masters”, that deconstruct their source material while paying tribute. Such folios became popular in the Ming Dynasty, indicating the new art historical consciousness that Dong ushered in.
For a more ambitious example, let’s examine Dong Qichang’s Wanluan Thatched Cottage (1597)(below). Commentators have identified the influence of Guo Xi, Dong Yuan (Juran’s teacher), and Huang Gongwang, among others, yet is looks like none of their work. The strong contrast between dark and light, for example, is original. Notice too that Dong’s landscape violates physical laws, even more than Wang Meng whom he greatly admired: the pine-topped cliff on the left teeters impossibly and the heart-shaped plateau on the right seems to be bending toward the viewer (though it might also be compared to the top of the largest peak in Qiu Ying’s Pavillions painting, which we examined earlier).
Under Dong Qichang’s influence, landscape painting was no longer about nature but about art. Each work is a commentary on what has come before, and a foray into new possibilities. Creating believable scenes with pathways that invite exploration is less important that interrogating techniques. Dong’s paintings eschew illusion and even representation; they reside at the surface in the application of ink. His work is also described as intellectual, since ideas outweigh emotions. Dong openly embraced elitism; he abandoned traditional aspirations, such as beauty, sublimity, verisimilitude, and expressiveness. Instead, he emphasized insider-knowledge. Still, it must be granted that distortions can have a visceral effect.
For all his avant garde aspirations, Dong Qichang also appreciated more conventional work. Indeed, he is sometimes regarded as conservative in taste.
He was able to see the good in artists who were more traditional, and he was generous with praise. Among those he admired was Lin Xue (early 17th c.). An untitled landscape from 1630 is presented below, showing her distinctive style. Breaking from both monochrome and Tang blue-green, we presents a cloudy wind-swept landscape in natural tones. The Yuan tradition speaks through her work, but this is more an essay in tone than is line.
Lin Xue is the only female artist in this survey, but she was not alone. There were many female artists in China’s long history. Zhau Mengfu was also married to an artist, Guan Daosheng (1262-1319), known for her paintings of bamboo. Much of the earlier work by women is now lost. It was rare for women to get illustrious commissions, and also harder to explore grand landscapes with bound feet. But a number of works have been preserved, including the Lin Xue painting above and some from artists in the next generation, including Cai Han (1646-1686) and Ch'en Shu (1660–1735). For a book on this topic, see Marsha Weidner’s Flowering in the Shadows, 1990. A recent exhibition at Taipei’s National Palace Museum celebrated the women who contributed to Chinese art.
Lin Xue reminds us Ming Dynasty artists had varied relationships with tradition. Where Dong Qichang appropriates and perverts past masters, artists like Lin build on what they were doing. Others break more radically. The seventeenth century was a golden age for artist eccentrics. I will finish this survey of the Ming with two examples.
First, let’s look at Chen Hongshou (1598–1652), a widely recognized figure among experts, but rarely presented as part of the canon. To me, Chen Hongshou epitomizes what was best about this period in art: the license to experiment. Though mostly celebrated in his lifetime as a figurative painter, and also as a woodblock printemaker and bird-and-flower painter, Chen also produced some fascinating landscapes. One of my favorites is The Mountain of Five Cataracts (1650)(above). Chen rejected Dong Qichang’s injunction to imitate past masters, as well as the focus on painters of the Yuan Dynasty. He looked further back to the Song Dynasty and more archaic times, but also developed his own style. Two things stand out. First, Chen uses washes not to model surfaces, so much as to differentiate forms. He omits texture-strokes on his rock faces as well. The result is a play of tones that works as much as an abstraction as a rendering of nature. Second, and more significantly, Chen is master of pattern. His creates mountains out of lines that are at once angular and curved, then treats us to an explosion of dark, speckled leaves, shot through with claw-like arteries of light. These lush limbs are supported by tightly-wound tree-trunks that are infested with eye-like knots—a Chen trademark. This fascination with texture is also evident in another work: A Tall Pine and Daoist Immortal (1635). Though a figurative work, not a landscape (indeed, a self-portait), I include it here because Chen’s treatment of the central tree departs from all we have seen. It is the opposite of Ni Zan’s minimalism: an orgy of compulsive patternmaking and excess.
With these Chen Hongshou confections as an appetizer, we turn to my favorite Ming master: Wu Bin (c. 1543-1626). Little is known about Wu Bin’s like and some of his finest works have received little scholarly commentary in English. (Katherine Burnett has gone a way toward correcting this with her 1996 dissertation and subsequent work, and there are also important discussions in several James Cahill books.) His reputation seems to be on a rapid assent. Recently a series of stunning studies he painted of a single rock sold for a record-breaking 77 million dollars at auction (Ten Views of a Lingbi Stone, from 1610, sampled below). Wu Bin can be described as the greatest surrealist in the history of Chinese art.
Wu Bin knew Dong Qichang, and both looked to the past for inspiration, but in entirely different ways. Dong gravitated toward painters with informal styles, and, even so, pushed toward greater informality, abandoning detail and precision. Wu Bin, in contrast, returns to the grandiose naturalism of the Northern Song Dynasty. Where Dong abbreviates, he embellishes, filling every inch of his compositions with minute details that would take hours to visually explore. “Naturalistic” however must also be qualified by the most striking feature of Wu’s mature work: his worlds are phantasmagoric. Think Fan Kuan on acid.
Let’s look at three examples. In Pine Lodge amid Tall Mountains (c. 1608-1617), Wu Bin depicts a tall scaly mountain with a narrow base that twist improbably like a mobius strip. Near its midpoint, there is an inaccessible lodge with a semi-circular courtyard that juts out, defying gravity. Below, a twin-masted sampan sails towards a willow-shaded dock on distant shore, which stands before a gated village. A Thousand Peaks and Myriad Ravines (1617) is equally mysterious. There are three building complexes: one has a waterfall flowing from it, another has a circular form, and a third is suspended on an unreachable cliff. The most striking feature is an ovular opening in the face of a central mountain, giving the impression that these rocks grow like the roots of tree. The third image, Mt. Fanghu (1623), is even more improbable. A tall mountain, grooved like driftwood or ossified bones, thrusts up from a turbulent sea; a thick cloud snakes around, cloaking a pagoda-crowned complex of buildings. The architecture and geology in these paintings is realistically rendered but entirely otherworldly. Each feels like a riddle with no solution. Are they Buddhist allegories? Escapist fantasies? Enchanting fairytales?
For another example, have a look at Wu Bin’s handscroll, On the Way to Shanyin (1608)(above). Nearly 10 meters in length, Shanyin is easily one of the most extraordinary works in all of Chinese art. Katherine Burnett offers one of the only published analyses in her book, Dimensions of Originality, along with detailed reproductions and a translation of Wu’s inscriptions. Burnett finds allusions to the Neo-Confucian and Daoist idea that we should strive to recapture our infantile thoughts—the ideas that can arise before the corruption of learning. Perhaps Wu is trying to capture the kind of creativity that children have. But, is so doing, he also breaks from both Confucian rule-fetishism and Dao nature workshop; Shaylin is a subversive work. It is a series of crimes against nature. Mountains sway and drip and twist and loop, trees grow upside down, waterfalls pour from clouds. Amidst this madness, buildings propagate like mushrooms, as in the detail below.
Throughout Chinese painting, nature is presented as a refuge. In Wu’s hands, nature remains amiable but hardly a tranquil sanctuary for meditative contemplation. It is a wild playground for the imagination. My best guess is that Wu Bin is a painter of dreamscapes. As Lynn Struve argues in a recent book, there was great interest in dreams in the late Ming Dynasty (The Dreaming Mind and the End of the Ming World). This interest included renewed veneration for with a 10th century Daoist sage named Chen Tuan, who developed a meditative practice that involved the exploration of sacred realms in dreams. Here is a dream description that is credited to Chen (from Lishi zhenxian tidao tongjian 47.1a−14b 73; rendered in English by Livia Kohn in Chen Tuan: Discussions and Translations):
My spirit up! Now is the time! Get ready you to rise.
Ascending into Heaven’s spheres, Nine Palaces your prize.
In radiant azureness I frolic all around,
I step on emptiness as if on solid ground,
I rise up just as if I was in downward fall,
And hardly feel the wind’s persistent haul.
Madly I whirl, appear and vanish with the clouds alight,
Sitting quiet, I well reach the purple Kunlun height.
With ease I pass through Heaven’s caves and power spots of Earth,
Inhale the flowery essence the sun and moon disperse.
Sporting in the wondrous scenery of vapors and of haze,
I visit sylphs and talk about the marvels of our days.
I join immortals in their visits to strange lands,
And get to see the green sea turning into strands.
I point at yin and yang and screech with exultation,
I cease to care about all rules and worldly limitation.
Like stepping on clear wind my feet rise high and bright,
As my body floats along with the falling rays of light.
Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)
I will end this survey with the first century of China’s final dynasty. In 1644, the Ming court fell to Manchu armies from the northeast. Today the Machu people are a sizeable minority in China, assimilated but also marginalized. Forever depicted as foreigners, Manchus are integral to Chinese history, and the Qing Dynasty was a long and formative period. It was also another fertile time for landscape painting. I will focus here on three eccentrics who took painting in new directions. I will also touch on ways in which the Qing qualifies as a period of modernization—a time of looking forward that contrasts with the emphasis on historical self-reflection during the Ming Dynasty.
Let’s begin with a study in contrasts. Hongren (1610-1664), with whom I begin, developed a distinctive style characterized by spindly brushwork, almost devoid of shading. Hongren was active during the tail end of the Ming, but his mature work dates to the Qing. He lived through the turbulent transition. Hongren spent his formative years in Anhui. During the power struggle, he fled and became a Buddhist monk, but the region left a permanent mark on his work. Anhui is a region to the west on Nanjing and home to Huangshan, a striking mountain range. The artists who work in this region comprise a collective called the Anhui school, and they are known for the linear style of brushwork. The mountains of Huangshan are marked by vertical ridges that inspired artists and poets for generations. Hongren is the preeminent painter in this group.
The most famous Hongren painting is called The Coming of Autumn (1660). It perfectly encapsulates the style that he developed. Some aspects of the work will look familiar by now the trees in the foreground echo Ni Zan, and there are clear debts to the Wu Schook: the plateaued peaks may be a nod to Shen Zhou, and the slim vertical lines bring Qiu Ying’s Pavillions painting to mind. But Hongren has also created his own distinctive visual vocabulary. His forms are rectilinear, like Fan Kuan’s but radically different because he has eliminated and texture strokes and ink washes, except as accents here and there. His lines are so sharp that they almost appear to be etched into the paper, and effect augmented by their scratchy texture. At the level of formal abstraction, Hongren might be compared to Malevich or other Russian constructionists, but Hongren is equally concerned with content. His mountains are almost skeletal. They are free from the tufts of vegetation and lush foliage that enliven Song Dynasty paintings. The mountains’ edges are punctuated by little marks that suggest plant stems dried form drought. The trees are nearly bare. Beneath the mountains resides a modest hut, but no figures appear. It is hard to imagine that this arid world could support life. These are more like the ruins of a ruins. For all that, there is nothing dramatically apocalyptic here. The delicate rectangles that comprise this space impart a sense of serenity. This his a place, not so much of refuge, but of resignation.
For an opposing sensibility, let’s turn to Hongren’s contemporary, Gong Xian (1617-1689). Where Hongren brings unprecedented lightness to landscape painting, Gong Xian goes in the opposite direction. His landscapes are almost oppressively weighty, claustrophobic and shrouded in dark chiaroscuro. These features are on full display in his masterful Thousand Peaks and Myriad Valleys.
Superficially, this painting might recall the use of high contrast in Dong Qichang’s Wanluan Thatched Cottage. Gong Xian admired Dong, and took this technique to the next level. Both may have also been influenced by the shading methods in European art, brought over by the Portuguese and Dutch. Still Gong Xian was no Dong Qichang accolade. Where Dong is an intellectual painter, Gong is an expressionist. Notorious for his cantankerous personality, Gong Xian brings an emotional intensity to his landscapes that is rare in this tradition. He was also known for his cynical poetry. A few lines from his verse can illustrate the grim outlook that animates his paintings (see Jerome Silbergeld, "Kung Hsien's Self-Portrait in Willows” 1980):
In a corrupt world, even sages become thieves.
In these branches is the Kingdom of the Ants.
Thinking of the magic ch'un-tree, one laments the shortness of life.
The peach and plum flowers blown about by the wind,
In their blooming and falling, what is achieved?
In a handscroll inscription from 1688, Gong Xian writes, “You may say this is a visionary world, but it has its own Way, and is, while you look at it, just the same as the real world” (translated in Helmut Brinker, “The Masterpiece: A Thousand Peaks and Myriad Ravines by Gong Xian”, 2003). Gong’s remarks remind us that realism in art is not always a matter of capturing sensory experiences.
From the weighty poetics of Gong Xian, we can now turn to another poetic and visionary painter, Shitao (1641-1720). Like Gong Xian and Hongren, Shitao developed an original style of painting. Like Dong Qichang, his work is a celebration of process. He paints paint as much as he paints nature. But he replaces Dong’s intellectualism with a lyricism that has had an enduring impact on Chinese painting.
Unlike many of the greats before him, Shitao seems to have preferred the album format to monumental landscapes. He produced series of small works that impact us not through grandeur but through intimacy. Each puts us in contact both with the artist’s hand, a spontaneous moment of creation. Sbitao’s most famous folio is known as the Album for Daoist Yü (1680s-1690s). The most celebrated leaf is presented below (for lengthy discussions of the album, see Jonathan Hay’s book on Shitao and essays by James Cahill in The Compelling Imageand Fantastics and Eccentrics). Shintao preserves the S-curve of Song mountains and solitary recluse of the Wu School, but his application of paint is unorthodox. This leaf is a dialect between the dark, unsteady dry brush, and soft pigmented tones that speckle the surface. These are not the ink washes of old that added form and volume. Nor to we see the classic textured brushwork, like the hemp fiber stroke. Rather, Shintao peppers the work with red and blue speckles that refuse to adhere to the mountain’s surfect.
There is something almost contemporary about Shitao’s work, as if he teleported to the 20th century. This is no more evident than in his 10,000 Ugly Inkblots (1685), which anticipates Pollack by almost four centuries (below). In leaping so far forward, Shitao can serve as a symbolic farewell to traditional Chinese landscape painting. At the same time, everything he did was informed by that tradition, and he is as much a culmination as a departure.
Landscape painting continued past Shintao in the Chang Dynasty, and it continues to this day, but this was a period of transformation. Already in the Ming Dynasty, European art was beginning to circulate, and Chinese art was being exported. It was during the transition from Ming to Ching that the Dutch started importing Chinese porcelain, and, but the beginning of the Ching, Delf potters were producing imitations. At this time, Christian missionaries were also gaining favor in Chinese courts, and artistic intermingling became more common.
I end this survey with the curious case of a missionary named Guiseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). Skilled in European techniques, Castiglione took on the name Lang Shining and became a painter for the imperial count. Among his most celebrated works is a handscroll called One Hundred Horses (1728). I reproduce a detail from the end of the scroll. It includes an expressive tree in the foreground, a sparse waterway, and a distant mountain—exactly the composition that Ni Zan made famous. Much here is Chinese: mountain, water, mist, and a division into identifiable spatial planes. The style, however, is decidedly Western. It is fully and faithfully colored, constrained by the laws of perspective, and illuminated by a consistent light source. I am struck too by the incline of the foreground tree. Where Ni Zan gave us dignified pines, Castiglione’s tree is weathered, drooping, and losing its leaves. The great landscape tradition would carry on, but much had changed.