Week XI: Part 2


Key Works:

  • Li Cheng, "A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks"
  • Fan Kuan, "Travellors among Mountains and Streams"
  • Xia Gui, "Sail Boat in Rain"

    READING: La Plante, Asian Art, pp.150-160.




    TIME LINE: (1027 A.D.)


    NOTES: How is Neo-Confucian philosophy important to the development of landscape painting?


    In 755, a provincial Chinese commander named An Lushan rebelled, marched on the capital and forced the elderly Empe ror Ming Huang into exile in Shu (see painting, Lee, S., Far Eastern Art, p. 278). This much repeated subject celebrated the full flowing and downfall of the enlightened leadership of the Emperor (713-756). In his liberal and extravagant court th ere were, for instance, eight orchestras, two from Central Asia, and 400 horses trained to dance at banquets. His enthusiastic patronage and collecting of art led painters, poets and philosphers to new ideas and subjects. The Tang period brought landsca pe painting and nature poetry to life - human beings were earthbound, but clouds, rocks, streams exuded qi, or breath of life - that quality was examined by artists.

    To the Chinese, a picture was a mysterious thing containing the essence of the w orld of nature. Standards for painting were set down in the mid-sixth century by an obscure portrait painter name Xie He in his Gu hua pin lu (Classified Record of Ancient Painters). In a few brief paragraphs he defined the famous Six Laws which became the cornerstone of all later Chinese aesthetics: spirit consonance and life movement; structural strength in use of brush; fidelity to object; correct color; proper placing and disposition; transmission of ancient masters by copying. With the example set by Tang artists, landscape became the central topic for literati painters in the later Dynasties.

    In the picture "Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks", attributed to Li Cheng (active from about 940 to 967; the autumn skys are clearing, leaving o nly mist in the low valleys and above the mountain pathways. In the immediate foreground are a group of huts and two pavillions built over water. The buildings and figures are painted with such careful detail that we can distinguish both peasants and courtiers at their meals in the rustic inn and scholars at the wine shops gazing off into the landscape from the pavillions. The temple with its hexagonal tower occupies the very center of the painting just parallel to the peaks which dominate the far dist ance and the top of the picture. Such axially-symmetrical monumental configurations of mountains and water came to be associated with the imperial institution in the tenth century—grand, ordered, realistic and powerful.

    Li Cheng as a person repr esented the ideal Chinese painter—an artist who claimed descent from the imperial clan of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), was educated in the humanities through study of the Classic Books (ancient texts on history, philosophy and literature) and was occupied with painting for his own delight without ambition for honors or advancement. He was a scholar and a gentleman who enjoyed a quiet life devoted to the philosophic study of Nature as opposed to merely copying forms in the out-of-doors (nature). Monochrom e ink painting of landscape was the most preferred type produced by Li Cheng and his colleagues.

    Like many other landscape painters of the tenth century, Li Cheng had a preference for autumnal or wintry scenes full of bleak, stony craigs, gnarled trees with leafless crab-claw shaped branches and looming distant peaks. Li shares with other landscapists of the period a preference for monochrome ink laid on the silk in broad and jagged strokes which describe the essential outlines of forms (rocks, trees, buildings). These shapes were then broken up and modelled with washes of ink. On top of that were placed cun, small brushstrokes dabbed on quickly to create the sense of texture. Such paintings were then mounted on a vertical hanging scroll (or horizontal hand scroll) for occasional viewing by peers. Closely associated with calligraphy, the brush paintings of China were produced for and by the intelligensia who painted as an avocation.

    The ideals of painting of the tenth century were written down by a contemporary of Li Cheng named Jing Hao. In his essay, the Record of Brush Methods or Essay on Landscape Painting, Jing Hao recorded his thoughts through a narrator, an old man whom he pretended to meet while wandering in the mountains. This wise man told him the six essentials of painting: first is spirit, second rhythm, third thought, fourth scenery, fifth brush and sixth ink. This is a logical system (based on Xie He) which first lays down the concept of painting and then its expression, distinguishing further between resemblance which reproduces the formal, outward aspects of what is depicted and truth (or spirit) which involves knowing and representing inner reality. Correct balance between representing visible forms of nature and their deeper significance was the goal of these painters.

    This doctrine of realism aims for truth to natural appearance but not at the expense of pictorial examination of how Nature operates. Trees, for instance in Li Cheng's painting, are bent and twisted but are organically constructed to expose their full skeletons roots, trunk and branches including on their tips the dormant buds ready for spring awakening. Moreover, this approach to realism explains the attitude behind shifting perspective in Chinese painting. In Solitary Temple, we are invited to "enter" the picture on the lower left and to explore as we move through the landscape. We can wander across the bridge, look down at roof tops, up at pavillions and the temple, and across to the towering peaks. One cannot take a panoramic view from a single position from outside or inside the painting, and the artist does not intend that we do so. Rather, little by little, Nature is revealed as if we were actually walking in the out-of-doors. In this sense the painter combines the element of time in this art form in much the same way as in music. Shifting perspective allows for a journey and for a powerful personal impact on the individual viewer/participant. These paintings were meant to be visual exercises which allowed for examination of minute details as well as the structure of Nature or the Universe. The power of these great paintings is to take us out of ourselves and to provide spiritual solace and refreshment.

    Guo Xi, a pupil of Li Cheng, and perhaps the best known of the eleventh century landscapists, declared in his famous essay that, "the virtuous man above all delights in landscapes". The virtuous (or Confucian) accepts his civil responsibilities to society and state which tie him to an urban life as an official, but can nourish his spirit by taking imaginary trips into nature through viewing a landscape painting. Such paintings as Solitary Temple and Early Spring (see La Plante, Fig. 16.3) describe the potential of nature in landscape form and set a standard which was followed throughout Chinese history.

    The impetus for the first of these painters was found in the Five Dynasties (907-960) and the Northern Song (960-1127). A most important occurrence of the period was the initial printing of the Classical Books finished in 953. For the first time the supply of books became cheap and abundant. Scholars multiplied, and the knowledge of ancient literature was more widely spread throughout the nation. The consequences of the expansion of the literate class was manifest in the Song when Chinese lands were reunited into the third centralized empire in Chinese history. The unification of the empire was the work of policy rather than conquest, a powerful submission of an aristocracy weary of disunion and aware of its own cultural identity. The acknowledged, ancient civil service examination system returned civilians to positions of prestige and power in government lost under previous military dictatorships. The prevailing pacifist policies and a series of enlightened sovereigns who were tolerant, humane, artistic and intellectual, provided substantial and consistent patronage for the arts. The collection of the Song Emperor Hui Zong (1100-1127), for example, claimed 159 paintings by Li Cheng. The Song period produced the first important academy of painting in the Far East and among the early members were the landscapists.

    The Dynasty was an age of many-sided intellectual activity: poetry, history and especially philosophy. Characteristic of Song thought was the return to older Chinese sources, a conscious archaism and cultural introspection. The renaissance of classical literature branched off into the formation of a new system of philosophy called neo-Confucianism, enveloping traditional moral and ethical teachings with Daoist thinking about nature and the cosmos, especially as presented in the Yi jing (Book of Changes). No distinction was made between the law of nature and moral law. The world was thought to be inspired by the "Supreme Ultimate" (or what the Daoists called the "Way"), which the neo-Confucianists called li (law), a moral law identical to the ethical code upon which human conduct should be modelled. These Song thinkers were also interested in correspondences in Nature. The manifestation of li in painting included faith fulness to nature as well as conventionalized symbols for representation of rocks, foliage, bark, water, and so forth. Li also governed the way a picture was put together. Painters of the tenth and eleventh centuries were interpreters of li, and landscape became the principal subject for their considerations.

    FROM: Linduff, K.M., "Chinese Landscape Painting," in Art Past/Art Present, by D. Wilkins and B. Schultz, New York, 2000, 4th ed.