Friday, November 15, 2013

Clouds and Mist in the Mountains

Ten landscape highlights from the V&A's exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900
(1) Possibly Yan Wenghui - Landscape with Pavilions (early 11th century)
There is an aura of great age about this scroll, although its exact date and the authenticity of its signature are in doubt.  Peering through the mist of fine grey ink and sepia-coloured paper you can discern little figures with umbrellas: it is a landscape in bad weather.  The catalogue describes the sky as 'dark and leaden' - 'as one moves towards the last section, the mountains become increasingly steep and rugged; a swiftly moving stream appears, and bent trees tell of the power of the wind and rain.'  The painting's fine details draw you into its world: you feel that with a magnifying glass it would be possible to enter even further into the past.  The Song Dynasty critic Liu Daochun found in Yan Wengui's paintings that 'the ship is like a leaf and the figures are like seeds of millet ... A thousand miles in a single foot - such was his subtlety!'
(2) Unidentified Artist - Reading the Memorial Stele (14th century or earlier)
This is a remarkably atmospheric painting, darkened by age (although not as dark as it appears in the catalogue, which is either badly printed in places or aiming to convery what these ancient silk hanging scrolls would look like in the shadows of an old library; fortunately it is much easier to see online.) Skeletal trees surround the stele and you wonder how the two travellers have the courage to linger there to decipher the inscription.  The warlord Cao Cao remains baffled as they ride away, but his attendant realises immediately that it commemorates a famously filial daughter of the Han Dynasty.  Another inscription to one side of the stele identifies the artists as Wang Xiao (the rather stylised figures) and Li Cheng (the extraordinary trees and rocks).  Li Cheng (Li Ch'eng, 919-967) was the great early Song Dynasty painter but sadly this scroll is probably from a later date, executed in his style.
(3) Mi Youren - Cloudy Mountains (1140s)
This painting has been impressed with the red seal marks and colophons of collectors and admirers over the course of 800 years, and yet it seems to be nothing more than an empty landscape of a few trees and distant peaks, brushed in thin dabs of watery grey ink.  It is owned by the Met who explain the appeal of the 'cloudy mountain' genre developed by Mi Fu and his son Mi Youren: 'referred to by scholar-artists as "ink play," the style suggests the importance of the painter's psychological expression, thereby raising the status of painting to that of poetry and calligraphy.'  The Mi style became popular again in the early Yuan dynasty, when the calligrapher and scholar Xianyu Shu wrote in his colophon to this painting (quoted in the exhibition catalogue) that 'an artisan's painting is short in ideas but long on representative likeness, but the opposite is true with the works of lofty souls and superior scholars.'  The vagueness of the view is such as to leave the viewer free to imagine 'a choice stretch of river shore lying far beyond the actual brushwork.'

(4) Qiu Ying - Saying Farewell at Xunyang (early 15th century)
Leaping forward from the early Song Dynasty due to my self-imposed limit of choosing just ten, and passing over works like Ni Zan's Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu (which you can see in an earlier post here), I come to this scroll, which is still 600 years old, although its colours remain as vivid as enamel. You can see it at the Google Art Project and even from the small reproduction above, it should be evident that this is a beautiful example of 'green and blue' landscape painting, the style that had arisen in the Tang dynasty when the subject of this scroll, Bai Juyi (Po-Chü-i) was writing his poetry.  In the middle a small group of men can be seen in a boat, listening to a woman playing a pipa, the Chinese lute.  It is a scene from Bai's famous poem 'Song of the Lute', written in 816.  Hearing the the sound of a pipa, Bai and his friends ask the musician to join them, but after playing some selections she puts down her plectrum and lapses into silence.  Then she tells them of the sad contrast between her youth as a beautiful courtesan in the capital and her current lonely existence.  Bai, who had been exiled from the capital the year before, is moved to tears.  There is a lovely translation of this poem in Burton Watson's Po Chü-i: Selected Poems.
(5) Wen Zhengming - Garden of the Inept Administrator (1551)
I have chosen this one partly for its amusing title: 'Inept' is rather different from 'humble', the usual translation of the name for this famous garden in Suzhou.  In 1535 Wen Zhengming painted aspects of it in a 31-leaf album for Wang Xianchen, its owner and designer.  This exhibition includes a different, later set of eight views, drawn in a 'humble' style so understated that the garden architecture has been diminished in size. The artist himself might be described as an inept administrator, having first sat the civil service exam in 1495 and failed another nine times before at last being granted an honorary position in 1522 (extraordinary to think that Wen, China's most famous sixteenth century artist, spent the whole period of the Italian High Renaissance failing to become a government administrator).  Having finally made it into the elite Hanlin Academy he resigned, disillusioned, after just three years and devoted the rest of his life to painting and calligraphy.  
(6) Fan Qi - Yangzi Riverscape (1660s)
'Fan Qi was one of the first artists in Chinese art history to paint a true horizon, namely a horizontal line separating heaven and earth.  In earlier and most later Chinese painting, including most landscapes by Fan Qi himself, the meeting of earth or water with the sky is ambiguous and blurred by clouds and a misty vagueness.  In fact, in the revolutionary horizon line here, which is about 75 centimetres long, there are only two short stretches of about 5 centimetres where sky and water really touch: at the three boat sails, and to the right of the tip of the tallest tree.  Everywhere else, shoals and clifs in pale grey and brown washes without contour lines appear behind the horizon, as if floating on it.  It is as if Fan Qi was afraid to show directly the full implications of his line: the earth is round, and even the tallest mountain, if far enough away, sinks beneath the horizon.'  (Kure Motoyuki, writing in the exhibition catalogue). 
(7) Wang Jian - Landscapes in the Manner of Old Masters (1669-73)
Twelve large scrolls in a row, each showing mountains and rivers in a different style but composed in a similar way: as the catalogue points out, 'from the stones and banks to the soaring peaks near the apex: a ridge almost like the undulating backbone of a dragon runs through each work.'  This ought to be a fascinating lesson in the history of Chinese landscape painting but neither the exhibition or the catalogue explain whose work Wang was imitating.  All we are told is that 'while some of the original paintings on which this set was based remain obscure to us today, others are instantly recognisable' (Fan Kuan's famous Travellers amid Streams and Mountains is clearly one of them).  Wang Jian was one of 'The Four Wangs', influenced by Dong Qichang (who I mentioned here last year), working in the lineage of literati-painters going back to Wang Wei.  The exhibition contrasts their more orthodox work nicely with the individualistic styles of Shitao and Bada Shanren.
(8) Fa Ruozhen - Clouds and Mist in the Mountains (c. 1690)
Fa Ruozhen is known now for cloud and mountain paintings in which the mist and rock are hard to distinguish.  The Met has one: ' like a great cumulonimbus cloud, the landscape billows upward in roiling layers of earth punctuated by misty vales harbouring half-concealed groves of trees.'  For this exhibition the V&A have borrowed a hanging scroll from Stockholm, and, as the catalogue says, 'it is sometimes difficult to decide whether cliffs and rocks are protruding or receding.  The space is relatively constricted, he clouds and mist failing to create any sense of depth.  The crags reaching almost to the top of the painting contribute to an almost claustrophobic atmosphere.'  Entering this place you would encounter cumulus boulders and trees like dark rain clouds; ascending through the mist you could never be sure how far the mountain extended.  If you kept on going you might realise you had left solid ground behind some time ago without ever having reached a summit.
(9) Bada Shanren - Flowers on the River (1697)
This painting of lotus flowers is so long, 14 metres, that following it feels like walking by a real riverbank.  What you can't really appreciate from reproductions is the sense of joyous freedom in Bada Shanren's gestural brushstrokes.  His poem at the end concludes: 'Happily singing my way, I immerse myself in the splashes of spring water and the sprays of flowers.  East and west, south and north after all are the same.'  A contemporary wrote that the artist's colophons 'were so strange that no one could understand them.  His brushwork was impulsively reckless; he did not stick to any established method, but worked in a firm and thorough and often unrestrained manner.' Michael Sullivan quotes this in his book Symbols of Eternity and goes on to wonder how Bada Shanren (Pa-ta Shan-jen) would have explained another landscape scroll which I have reproduced to the right.  'He might (if he were sober) have spoken of the Tao, or of the Void out of which form is manifest and into which it dissolves again.  This picture, executed with no preconceived composition in a kind of aesthetic ecstasy, carries us to the outer limits of pictorial art, to the edge of Void, stopping just short of the point of pure abstraction.'
(10) Xu Yang - Prosperous Suzhou (1759)
Finally, in complete contrast, this scroll is similar in length to Flowers on the River, but so detailed it seems to contain a whole world.  On reaching it, visitors to the exhibition stop and become immersed in its detail, edging along the display case from the morning light on Lingyan Hill past wharves and workshops, streets and shops, to the evening mist over the outskirts of the city.  It was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, whose own paintings and poetry I have described on this blog before.  Five years after completing it, Xu Yang and his assistants were asked to create scrolls depicting the Emperor's southern tours.  Six years and a hundred and fifty metres later they finished in time for his sixtieth birthday.  Art historians (and David Hockney) have compared these unfavourably with a similar set of scrolls painted in the 1690s by Wang Hui, attributing a certain stiffness in Xu Yang's work to the deleterious influence of new Western pictorial conventions that had arrived with the Jesuits.
NB: for copyright reasons I have not included images here beyond what is on Wikimedia Commons, although I have added links where possible.

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