Sunday, December 16, 2018

Water Village

Zhao Mengfu, Water Village, 1302
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have been reading Shane McCausland's scholarly study, Zhao Mengfu: Calligraphy and Painting for Khubilai's China, which focuses not just on Zhao's paintings, but on the colophons added to them over the years by writers wishing to comment on the artist and his work.  These are not usually visible in reproductions - the photograph of Water Village above shows only the annotations and seals visible on the composition itself.  Below I've photographed the colophons for Water Village reproduced in McCausland's book (pp242-3).  A footnote lists the authors of these - most were writing soon after the painting was finished but others date from the late Ming Dynasty.  It would be natural to consider these as critical texts rather than works of landscape art themselves.  But the fact that these colophons were composed in verse and written in beautiful calligraphy mean that they form a kind of secondary landscape art themselves.  Zhao Mengfu himself was a renowned calligrapher and his own artistry can therefore be seen in colophons he added to other scrolls of paintings or poetry.

Water Village has a pictorial realism that impressed its colophon writers - one said you could almost forget it is actually a picture.  The handscroll 'begins' at the far right with a vertical title, leading the eye down to a bluff with bushes sprouting from it (see below).  McCausland sees this as having a 'liminal role', marking the transition from calligraphy to painting and from surface to illusionistic space. From there the eye can explore the low-lying landscape, arranged in an X-shape and centred on a tiny bridge. There are few people, just a few isolated huts.  Zhao Menfu himself wrote that this subject captured the ideal hermitage, a place of scholarly retreat. Other colophon writers were reminded of Wang Wei, the great landscape poet and painter who wrote about his own retirement from the world in the Wang River Sequence.

The most intrusive colophons to Water Village were added by the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned over China for much of the eighteenth century.  He added two seals and a poem to the painting itself.  In one of the first posts on this blog I wrote about the way the emperor filled his own painting of Mount Pan with no less than thirty-four later descriptions.  He also added a colophon to Zhao Mengfu's Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains (1296) pointing out an error in the artist's  geography (this painting is discussed in an earlier post).  For Water Village, he wrote a colophon referring to Qu Yuan, an early Chinese poet I wrote about here in March, who drowned himself after being wrongly banished from court.  The emperor read this act as a gesture of loyalty, perhaps reflecting his own anxieties as a Manchu ruler of the Chinese.  He also described taking the painting with him on a visit to the Eastern Mountains, where Water Village is set (somewhere near Sonjiang). 'In surveying the scene,' McCausland writes, 'the emperor drained this place and its depiction of any symbolism as a private refuge of the literati from the affairs of state and government.'

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