Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Inexhaustible Song Dynasty: Northern Song Painting

The Song Dynasty created what is Chinese about Chinese painting.  The Song defined perimeters for Chinese art in a manner similar to the Renaissance in the West.  Like the Renaissance artists in the West, the Song artists created a standard for later generations to emulate, to measure themselves by, and to rebel against.

Critics consider Eight Gentlemen on a Spring Outing by Zhao Yan from the 10th century to be an almost perfect painting.

 Zhao Yan, Eight Gentlemen on a Spring Outing

 Zhao Yan, Eight Gentlemen, detail

  It shows eight riders, probably princes from the Imperial household, riding magnificent spirited horses in what is probably a palace park.  The grouping of the riders finds its subtle compliment in the spreading trees in the center.  The riders’ left to right movement is picked up by the single zig zag of the balustrade behind them.  An ornamental rock on the left echoes both the trees and the rider group.  This is as architectonic and integrated a composition as anything in Western classical painting.
The horses and the riders are all individualized, each as spirited as the next.  Brilliant local colors of the princes’ silk clothes beautifully light up the tawny silk ground and the more subdued colors of the landscape setting.  The equal weight Zhao Yan gives to the landscape setting is a legacy of the Song Dynasty.  Landscape painting would come into its own as a dominant form of painting during the Song.  The craft and professionalism of this painting would be remarkable in any age in any culture.   Remarkably, Zhao Yan was no humble craftsman.  He was an imperial son-in-law noted for his scholarship and his ability as an artist.  Many other great artists of the Song Dynasty were high born (though not all of them).  One of them reigned as emperor.  Painting for the Song nobility meant much more than a gentlemen’s hobby.

I have an old and very personal relationship with Chinese painting.  My first art historical love was not the Italian Renaissance.  It was Chinese painting, and specifically Chinese painting from the Song Dynasty (spelled song, but pronounced soong).  My first lessons in the connection between form and meaning were not in Italian, or in ancient Greek, or in French, but in Mandarin Chinese. 
I first encountered Chinese painting in, of all places, Kansas City when I was a student at the Kansas City Art Institute.  I was a callow young art student barely 20 years old.  Next door to the Art Institute is the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, or the Nelson Gallery as we called it.  It turns out that the Nelson Gallery is home to one of the best and most comprehensive collections of Chinese art outside of China.  Its only rivals are all American; the Metropolitan Museum in New York, The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Freer Gallery in Washington DC, and the Boston Museum of Fine Art.  There are no comparable collections in Europe (not even The British Museum which has some fine Chinese antiquities).

 The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City, Misssouri; the new wing to the left was added long after my years at the Kansas City Art Institute

 Part of the Chinese Galleries of the Nelson Gallery, Kansas City, MO

 Retired curator Marc Wilson together with students from the University of Kansas at Lawrence install an exhibition of Chinese paintings from the museum's collection.

Laurence Sickman, a graduate from Harvard’s pioneering Sinology department fluent in Mandarin, put the collection together during a trip to China in 1930 funded by Kansas City publishing magnate William Rockhill Nelson.  Sickman took advantage of the turmoil of early 20th century China to buy up major masterworks from all factions in the war torn country, each desperate to raise hard cash (the National Gallery in Washington took advantage of a similar situation in early Soviet Russia; Andrew Mellon bought up Catherine the Great’s collection of Italian paintings for the National Gallery from Stalin who needed the hard cash).  I’m not sure, but I think at least some of the paintings in the museum’s collection come from the Imperial Collections that were split in half with the Communist victory in 1949, one half remaining in Beizhing with the Communists, and the other taken by the Nationalists to Taiwan and housed in a museum in Taichung.  I don’t know, but I suspect that some of the Imperial Collections ended up in this country.  American museums own major historic masterworks of Chinese painting celebrated by generations of Chinese scholars and connoisseurs.  The Nelson Gallery owns a number of them.
I spent hours in the museum in the dimly lit Chinese painting galleries looking at these very strange and wonderful paintings.

I still love Chinese painting, though I’m not quite sure what to do with it.  The light touch of brush and ink on paper or silk does not translate very easily into turgid Western oil paint.  And most Chinese painting is meant to be seen episodically instead of all at once.

The great historian of China, John King Fairbank in his last book China, A New History titles one of the chapters “China’s Greatest Age:  Northern and Southern Song.”  Western and Japanese historians see the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) as an age of tremendous achievement and enterprise.  China was the most advanced nation on earth during the Song Dynasty in every field of endeavor from science and technology to arts and letters.  The dynasty’s first capital city, Bianjing (now modern Kaifeng) was the largest city in the world at the time, though it was smaller by about a fifth than the great Tang Dynasty capital of Chang’an. China under the Song produced more iron and steel than 18th century England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  Under the Song Dynasty, China pioneered printed books, paper money, gunpowder, the spinning wheel, the magnetic compass, and even the fishing reel.  Domestic trade in Song Dynasty China was larger in volume and more extensive in area than foreign trade in the West at the same time. 

The Song Dynasty was not alone, and the enterprise that marked it began before the dynasty started.  The fifty year interval between the end of the Tang Dynasty and the beginning of the Song is known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms.  The Tang Dynasty came to an end after a long decadence.  China broke apart in a way similar to the end of the Han Dynasty.  In the northern part of China, a rapid succession of dynasties ruled a rump state.  The south and west of China divided into ten separate kingdoms.  All of them competed with each other to see who would unite the country under their rule.  All of them cultivated education, letters, and art as they competed to claim the Mandate of Heaven.  Art in all cultures plays a central role in establishing legitimacy.  Cultivating the arts demonstrates fitness to rule.  It’s no coincidence that the Mall in Washington DC is lined with museums, including three major art museums.  Great accomplishments in art began even before the Song Dynasty started, and were not confined to the area directly ruled by the dynasty.    Just to the north including the region around Beizhing was a rival dynasty, the Liao, founded by the Qidan nomads.  The Song kept them and others like the Tanguts in the west pacified through very expensive bribes, trade concessions, and by exploiting rivalries among them.  Zhao Yan who painted Eight Gentlemen on a Spring Outing at the top of this post was a member of the Liao imperial court.

The Chinese take a more jaundiced view of the Song Dynasty.  The Song Dynasty is divided into two periods, the Northern Song (960 – 1127) and Southern Song (1127 – 1279).  Those divisions are not arbitrary.  China suffered attacks and partial conquest by nomadic invaders in the 12th century.  The Jurchen nomads captured the capital city of Bianjing and conquered most of northern China founding their own dynasty, the Jin.  The Song Imperial family fled south and established a new capital at Hangzhou.  The Southern Song and the Jin in the north had to contend with a much larger threat to them both, the emerging Mongol Empire.  The Mongols would end both the Jin and Southern Song in a massive invasion in 1279.  The last Song Emperor at Hangzhou threw himself into the sea when the city fell.  For the first time in its history, all of China came under foreign rule.  Chinese in the 20th century, looking back on their own experiences of humiliation and suffering at the hands of Western colonialism and Japanese conquest, regarded the Song, especially in its later years, as corrupt and incompetent, rolling out the red carpet for the Mongols, a parallel in their minds to the decadent 19th century Qing Dynasty.  Perhaps that judgment is not entirely fair.  The Song could indeed be faulted for military weakness and bungled diplomacy, but they held off the Mongols for 45 years while other nations like Persia and the Abbasid Caliphate folded at the first onslaught of the Mongol legions of charging horseback riding archers.

The energy and vitality of Song Dynasty China comes to life in a famous long handscroll painting by Zhang Zeduan, Spring Festival on the River, 11th – 12th centuries. 

  In this central section of the painting, note the "rainbow bridge" in the center, and how the artist with great precision shows us how it was constructed; the crew on a boat struggles to lower the mast as it is about to pass under the bridge; people crowd onto the bridge to watch;  a tower is under construction on this side of the bridge to the left

 In this final section of Zhang Zeduan's painting, we are in the central section of a major city; note the number and variety of shops open, and the variety of traffic from camel caravans to the sedan chairs of noble ladies

This is an immense handscroll painting, one foot wide and seventeen feet long. We read the scroll in sections from right to left.  We arrive gradually at a large bustling city by a river, perhaps Bianjing itself.  It is a manager’s eye view from above of a busy and productive city at peace and enjoying prosperity.  It is precisely the image that a successful minister wishes to conjure in the minds of his superiors at the Imperial Palace.
The artist Zhang Zeduan pays great attention to the precise appearance of everything.  The art historian Robert L. Thorpe compares this interest in appearances on the part of Song artists with the same in the Renaissance.  The motivation was the same, a preoccupation with life and success in this world.  China during the Song, like Italy during the Renaissance, was dominated by commerce.  There is very close attention to technical details of construction of buildings, boats, and bridges, and to the various activities of commerce and manufacturing taking place.

Another handscroll painting shows us the urbanity and sophistication of Five Dynasties and Song society, especially among the educated elite; The Night Revels of Han Xizai by Gu Hongzhong from about 970.


This painting was intended to shame Han Xizai, a noted scholar, who refused a request to become prime minister of Southern Tang, one of the Ten Kingdoms during the fifty year interval that preceded the Song Dynasty.  Curious what it could be that would cause anyone to pass up so high an honor, the king sent the artist Gu Hongzhong to record what went on at Han Xizai’s home.  This painting is supposed to show Han Xizai spending the time drinking and partying with his friends, and in the company of women of questionable virtue.  By our standards, this is a very decorous scene of debauchery.  It is no sketch.  This is a very fine and sophisticated painting that takes us through many rooms in the scholar’s home as we unroll the handscroll section by section showing Han Xizai repeatedly listening to music, carousing with women, and drinking instead of cultivating virtue and attending to his duties.  The painting shows us the sophistication and elegance of Song Dynasty elite life.  It also shows us numerous examples of landscape paintings and how they were displayed and distributed in the home of a member of the scholarly gentry.

The lower classes also appear in art.  The artist Li Song worked for the imperial court, but was himself from very humble origins, the son of a carpenter.

  He shows us a scene far removed from the urbane refinement of the revels of Han Xizai.  He shows a commonplace scene in a village with a toy peddler carrying an amazing array of objects all carefully rendered in very precise line.  The peddler is eager to make a sale and works his charm on the barely controlled children of the increasingly irritated and hard-pressed mother.  Even the infant at her breast makes a grab for the toys.  This small fan-shaped album painting was probably made for the amusement of members of the educated gentry that we see in Gu Hongzhong’s painting above.  Li Song shows another aspect of the prosperity and vitality of Song society.

An early masterpiece from just before the beginning of the Song Dynasty is Zhao Gan’s Along the River at First Snow from around 910.

 This is the entire handscroll.  It is meant to be read from right to left.  At the end of the scroll to the left is the colophon page containing commentary by admirers, and the seals of the scroll's owners down through time.

This handscoll painting shows river life in the area around Nanjing in the former Southern Tang Kingdom.  It is a brilliant and very exact depiction of peasant life along the lower Yangtze River on a bitterly cold day with the early winter wind rippling the water.  Zhao Gan pays close attention to fishing nets, boats, huts, clothing, the details of the toil of daily life and its appearance in this rural setting in a way similar to Zhang Zeduan in his great handscoll painting of the turmoil and activity of urban life.  Like Zhang Zeduan, Zhao Gan uses a very fine and exact line to describe the appearance and the experience of this cold winter day on the river.  The artist created the impression of falling snow by lightly splattering white pigment across the scroll.  This painting is a much more serious and even sympathetic depiction of peasant life than Li Song’s album painting.

The enterprise of the Song Dynasty came out of an earnest desire to begin anew and to put things right after the long decline of the once great and accomplished Tang Dynasty.  The Song Dynasty burgeoned with occasionally conflicting reform movements.  Among them was a major philosophical movement that the Jesuit missionaries of the 16th century called Neo Confucianism.  It was a reaction against the State Confucianism of the Tang Dynasty that became riddled with corruption and self-serving as that dynasty ended.  Neo Confucianism came out of a desire to return to the original greatness of Confucianism during the Han Dynasty, and back to its original sources in its founder who lived during the Warring States Period.  Kong Fu-tzu (551- 479 BCE), or Confucius as the Jesuits knew him, was a minor government official in the Kingdom of Lu who had a career of very mixed success.  Confucius proposed a very novel idea during a violent age when life was very cheap (it was common during this time for a ruling lord to be accompanied by all of his servants and horses into the afterlife upon his death, a practice that ended with the influence of Confucius’ teaching).  Confucius posited that the most precious thing in the world was human life.  He was interested in preserving human life as much as possible, and in making it bearable for everyone.  One of the most famous anecdotes about Confucius says that after the stables burned down, he asked if anyone was hurt, and he did not mean the horses (a lord of that time would first have asked about his valuable and prized horses, the stable hands didn’t matter and could be easily replaced).  Confucius believed that general happiness could be achieved by the cultivation of virtue by all members of society.  He was no revolutionary.  Confucianism is deeply conservative.  It does not aim to overthrow tradition or class structure.  Society according to Confucius is hierarchical and built on mutual loyalty and responsibility.  Confucius took for granted the superiority of princes over commoners, of parents over children, of men over women.  Rulers have their responsibility to the ruled, and the ruled have their obligations to their lord. Parents have their obligations to their children and children to their parents.  Everyone kept their place and did their duty.  Princes and fathers were expected to rule not by force, but by the example of superior virtue.  My friend David Kaplan says that American conservatives are really Confucians at heart rather than Christians (see David Brooks, George Will, and Ross Douthat among others).

Below is a Song Dynasty painting attributed to Li Guanglin of the great Tang Dynasty General Guo Ziyi receiving the submission of Uighur soldiers.  It is an episode of conspicuous Confucian virtue.

The general faced a superior fighting force of rebel Uighurs in the west of China.  He went into their camp alone and unarmed.  Uighur soldiers and officers who once served under him immediately recognized him, dismounted, and paid their homage to him.  Virtue triumphs over force.  The civilized prevail over the barbarians.  Hierarchy and harmony are restored.

This is what Neo Confucianism wanted to restore.  This painting is part of that restoration effort.  Reformers wanted to restore a selfless sense of duty and the cultivation of virtue in all levels of society.  The Song prime minister Wang Anshi took reform into a direction that chillingly anticipates future Chinese history.  He attacked inequality and corruption with vigorous state intervention, eventually calling for an end to the distinction between state and society.  Wang Anshi proposed breaking up great hereditary estates and organizing the population into mutual responsibility groups dependent upon the imperial government and under state control.  There would be no independent means of support or initiatives outside the state.  Opposition was immoral and would not be tolerated.  The Emperor withdrew his support after the turmoil created by Wang Anshi’s reform program became too much, and the prime minister was replaced. 

In Confucian China, the Emperor, The Son of Heaven, was the sole source of political power.  It never occurred to the virtuous minister to go around the Emperor or to work without his consent or knowledge.  The commoners were considered the passive recipients of wise policies of the benevolent despotism of the Emperor and his ministers.

An example of ministerial virtue is this famous Song Dynasty painting by an anonymous master of an episode from the Han Dynasty.

 Anonymous Song Dynasty artist, Breaking the Balustrade

 Breaking the Balustrade, detail

The Han Emperor Chengdi orders the minor magistrate Chu Yun hauled off and executed for delivering an impassioned speech condemning the flattery of vain and corrupt officials, an indirect attack on the Emperor’s prime minister and favorite Chang Yu who stands next to the throne in this painting.  Chu Yun stands his ground demanding to be killed on the spot rather than recant his speech.  He clings to the balustrade and breaks it as the soldiers struggle with him.  Another official in attendance, Hsin Ch’ing-chi, is so moved by Chu Yun’s courage that he offers his own life instead.  The Emperor quits his rage, spares both men, and has the broken balustrade left unrepaired as a reminder.  Virtue is defended by virtue.  Hierarchy is preserved and its authority restored.  An episode from China’s distant past is used to instruct the Song Dynasty present.

Of more lasting consequence was the deepening of Confucian thought through the influence of Daoism and Buddhism during the Song Dynasty.   This would be most fully articulated during the Southern Song Dynasty in the writings of the great scholar Zhu Xi.  Confucianism remained resolutely anti-mystical, rejecting Buddhist ideas of dharma and reincarnation, and Daoist transcendentalism.  The Confucian scholars declared the material world of ten thousand things to be quite real and no illusion.  However, the Neo Confucians began to see the idea of virtue embedded in the very workings of the cosmos and nature.  To contemplate the immutable, harmonious, and virtuous workings of nature was itself virtuous and a way to cultivate virtue.  In common with much Chinese thought, Neo-Confucianism thought of nature less as mechanical processes than as manifestations of life force that both forms and gives life to all the things in nature.  To make contact with this life force and its larger manifestations of natural harmony and virtue required self-discipline and a measure of renunciation of the petty ambitions of urban and court life.

Chinese painting before the Song Dynasty was primarily figurative painting on a large scale in murals on the walls of palaces and temples.  The great painters recorded in the writings of the Tang Dynasty were primarily figure painters and large scale mural painters.  Their work perished with the buildings they adorned.  We get some glimpse of what it was like in Tang Dynasty tomb painting and in Buddhist cave paintings such as those found in remote places like Dunhuang
That large scale mural painting continued during the Song, but it was mostly in the context of Buddhist religious painting.  In 845 during the final years of the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism in China suffered its worst repression.  The Emperor Wuzong forbade foreign non-Chinese religions and singled out Buddhism for particular scorn accusing the monks and nuns of tax evasion and disloyalty.  Thousands of temples were destroyed and thousands of monks and nuns were dismissed into the peasantry.  Chinese Buddhism never quite recovered from this episode, and its effects appear in the Buddhist art of the Song Dynasty.  We can see something of the lasting trauma of the Buddhist repression in the work of the artist Guanxiu from the Five Dynasties period.  Guanxiu was a Buddhist monk celebrated by later generations for his poetry, calligraphy, and painting.  His most famous surviving paintings are a series of imaginary portraits of Arhats, or the original disciples of the Buddha. 

Instead of the traditional Buddhist otherworldly serenity, Guanxiu’s Arhats are worn and deformed by age and suffering.  These paintings are a strikingly original and personal interpretation of a traditional Buddhist subject.

 In the Song Dynasty, painting became much more intimate in scale, hanging scrolls and handscrolls to be shown to friends on special occasions, and rarely left out for permanent display.  Mural painting continued in temples, but the art that was most esteemed was literary in form and in scale, made on the same materials as books, paper and silk, and stored like books.  This was work not meant to dazzle the general public, but for the mutual enjoyment of friends in small intimate groups.  These groups of friends were usually members of the scholarly gentry in government service or retired, and sharing a common interest in the pursuit of personal and social virtue. 

It is at least in part because of the influence of Neo Confucianism that landscape comes to play such a dominant role in Song Dynasty painting.  The Northern Song Dynasty artists would create some of the finest landscapes ever painted.  The vicarious contemplation of nature in the work of a great painter was almost as effective a method of cultivating virtue as looking at nature itself.

The artist credited by tradition with beginning Song Dynasty landscape painting lived before the beginning of the Dynasty, in fact was alive for the end of the Tang dynasty, Jing Hao (c.815 – 913).  Jing Hao wrote the first theoretical and practical treatises on landscape art, and taught the formative generation of Song Dynasty painters.  Only two paintings, probably neither of them autograph, survive.  One is a badly damaged hanging scroll that supposedly was found in a tomb.  Jing’s students quickly excelled their teacher, but this painting sets up the basic format and aesthetic for Song landscape art.

 Jing Hao, Travelers in Snow Covered Mountains

Chinese landscape painting is almost never topographic, in other words, it’s almost never a rendering of a specific place.  A landscape painting is supposed to be a vicarious experience of walking around, exploring, and contemplating nature.  This painting has a tall peak with an impossible overhang dominating the whole center and splitting the perspective.  The painting is an accumulation of small incidents and details that add up.  To the left, a distant vista opens up.  To the right, we are climbing up a series of steep chasms toward more distant peaks at the top.  In the bottom center, we see travelers crossing a bridge and proceeding along a path that we are invited to follow into the painting.  Magnificent trees dominate the foreground in the center.  Landscapes like this are meant to be seen, not as a single coherent composition as in most Western painting, but as a series of episodes that transition one into the next.  The only Western artist that I can think of does something similar might be Pieter Brueghel in his landscape paintings.

The founder of the mature Northern Song landscape art was Li Cheng, from an old Tang Dynasty aristocratic family.  He presents us with a much refined, more sophisticated, and ambitious version of the landscape format pioneered by Jing Hao.

 Li Cheng Buddhist Temple in the Mountains

The lower half of the painting is as precise and full of incident and detail as the panoramas of Zhang Zeduan or Zhao Gan.  A small village stands by a river at the approach to a Buddhist temple on a rocky hill.  As we follow the path up, we move into a grand exhilarating landscape of tall soaring peaks and plunging waterfalls, made to seem even larger by the intervening mist.  The peaks are beautifully arranged in a sequence of ever higher mountains as we move back into the distance.  We see Jing Hao’s split perspective once again, but used with a much more gratifying sense of transition and sequence.   The near absence of color gives the composition solidity and a sober sense of purpose.

Li Cheng’s student, Fan Kuan painted one of the world’s most celebrated landscape paintings, Travelers By Streams and Mountains around the year 1000. 

 Fan Kuan, Travelers By Streams and Mountains

A huge peak that forms the center of a wall of mountains dominates three quarters of the painting.  Its base is concealed behind foreground rocky hills.  The stone cliffs and a waterfall in a vertical chasm fade into concealing mist.  Li Cheng’s sense of transition from near to far, Jing Hao’s split perspective are both discarded to create an effect of almost overwhelming natural grandeur.  The carefully detailed painting of the foreground rocks, trees, and streams with the tiny travelers forms a foil to set off the huge size and scale of this landscape.
Fan Kuan was a sharply different man from Li Cheng.  Fan Kuan was a mountain hermit who lived in the Qiantang Mountains of Shanxi province.  He spent most of his life as a recluse.  And yet, Fan Kuan writes about how much he learned from Li Cheng’s paintings.  He reminds us that Li Cheng based his work on the direct observation and experience of nature, that nature is the first and best teacher.  And yet, we must remember that Chinese landscape painting is not topographic.  It is a concoction, and yet a concoction made out of actual experience.  Leonardo da Vinci would have understood this since the landscapes in his work are also imaginary creations based on a direct study of nature.

The virtue of nature manifested itself not only in grand sweeping vistas and soaring peaks, but in small details and incidents.  During the Five Dynasties Period just before the start of the Song Dynasty, a dynasty of painters in Sichuan province, the Huang family, created a whole new genre of painting which the Chinese critics called Bird and Flower Painting.  This demanding genre required both skill with a brush, accurate rendering of animals and plants, and the ability to set them in dramatic motion.
A painting by the founder of this dynasty of painters, Huang Quan, gives us some idea of its difficulty.  It is a painting of various birds and animals probably meant for the instruction of his sons Huang Jubao and Huang Jucai.  

 Huang Quan, Birds and Animals

Huang Jucai combines his father’s studies from nature with elements of landscape painting to create the format for this particular genre of painting as seen in this painting of a magpie with finches in a thorn bush.

 Huang Jucai, Blue Magpie and Finches on a Thorn Bush

Later artists like Cui Bai would make masterful and dramatic compositions from these small arrangements of birds, animals, rocks, and plant life.

 Cui Bai, Hare and Two Magpies

A hare turns back to look at two magpies calling at him.  The scene takes place in autumn with fading leaves and bare branches bending in the cool autumn wind.  The composition is a beautiful series of diagonals and arcs that focuses upon the eye of the hare and repeats the contours of his small body throughout the picture.  The angry magpies appear to be caught just in the act of alighting on a windblown branch as though this was a still from a film.

The artist Liu Cai painted what is probably one of the finest and most inventive fish pictures ever, Fish Swimming Amid Falling Flowers from about 1075.

We look down through the surface of the water, which is nowhere indicated, into a kind of watery world of all kinds of teeming and swarming fish of all sizes, and of small forests of waterweed filled with even smaller fishes.  Everything is in motion here.  The convincing depiction of the actual motions of fish is astonishing and certainly the result of much observation and experience.  The fish and their water world are painted with a combination of very fine and precise line, and a most sure ink and color wash technique.

The second generation of Northern Song painters flourished with the active support of the Emperor Shenzong who employed many of them (including Cui Bai above) to work exclusively for him.  One of those artists was the brilliant and scholarly artist Guo Xi.  Guo Xi was a prolific painter and essayist whose writings on art were compiled and edited by his son into a book called The Lofty Power of Forests and Streams.  Guo Xi argued explicitly for the moral regeneration that comes from the contemplation of nature, and that painting was a generous act of sharing by creating a vicarious experience for those bound by duty or disadvantage.  It is not hard to imagine how such ideas could appeal to the Emperor Shenzong.  It was almost impossible for him to enjoy nature as a normal person would, alone or with a small group of friends hiking down a rambling trail or gazing at a distant vista from a hilltop.  He was bound to his palace, and the palace traveled with him wherever he went.

It was for the Emperor Shenzong that Guo Xi painted what is to my mind one of the greatest landscape paintings ever made, Early Spring from 1072.

 Guo Xi, Early Spring

It is both an homage to the great Li Cheng, and a departure from his legacy.  Guo Xi returns to the split perspective and piled up peaks composition that Li Cheng perfected more than a generation earlier.  But Guo Xi takes it in a very different direction.  Instead of the calm monumental grandeur of Li Cheng or Fan Kuan, Guo Xi’s painting seethes with life.  Mountains and rocks heave up before us and twist and turn mightily into the misty distances. The two split perspectives in Li Cheng’s painting become multiple perspectives as we journey from bottom to top, from front to back, through multiple episodes of sweeping vistas, towering peaks, plunging gorges, and meandering streams, rivers, and waterfalls.  As in Fan Kuan’s Travelers by Mountains and Streams, tiny figures in the foreground set the scale.  As in Li Cheng, a small Buddhist temple nestles in a chasm by a waterfall to the right.  There is a wide variety of plant life from towering ancient pine trees to all kinds of small ground cover.
This is a cosmic landscape in the fullest sense.  That Chinese vitalist concept of nature receives its greatest and most eloquent expression in this work.  It is a vision of the world Under Heaven laid out for the contemplation of the Son of Heaven.  This painting expresses great cosmic and moral forces far greater than all the human activity that takes place upon the land.  As the Emperor and the peasant must understand, their very being and sustenance depends upon the benevolence of that immense cosmic order that will continue no matter who claims sovereignty over it.

A very different, but no less great, artist was Xu Daoning.  Guo Xi was a brilliant scholar and resident of the Imperial Court.  Xu Daoning was a free spirited eccentric living on the social margins.  He supposedly painted while drinking and worked impetuously in moments of inspiration. 
His most famous surviving painting is a handscroll, Fishermen' Evening Song from about 1050.

 Xu Daoning, Fishermen's Evening Song

It is the same towering monumental cosmic landscape as those painted by Li Cheng and Guo Xi, but from the perspective of the scholarly hermit rather than of the Emperor.  The towering hills and meandering streams, also seen in a proliferation of multiple perspectives as the handscroll unrolls, express a powerful and mysterious cosmic order larger and more durable than the tiny fishermen who make their living on its waterways.  This is as original and dramatic a painting as Guo Xi’s Early Spring.  Xu Daoning makes brilliant use of virtuoso lines, marks, and washes to create a strikingly convincing vista of deep space into a far distance, and of solid peaks soaring up abruptly right in front of us.

I spent many happy afternoons in the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City contemplating this magnificent handscroll by Xu Daoning, along with Li Cheng’s painting and others.  I made some truly awful paintings trying to understand what those paintings were about.  I haven’t been back to Kansas City since, but seeing this painting online brings back a lot of happy memories and raises a host of thoughts.
I do not believe in any kind of morality embedded in the fabric of the universe as these great painters did so fervently.  In my experience, nature can be frighteningly amoral and indifferent to the beings that dwell within it.  As my dad once said after watching a bird pluck a flying insect out of the air, the realization that one’s whole life adds up to nothing more than a satisfying poop for another animal is a deeply depressing thought. 
I don’t believe that nature and its order or disorder demonstrates God’s existence.  The order of nature demonstrates that our minds are wired to prefer order over chaos, not that God exists.  St. Augustine and Kirkegaard are right.  God is either there or He’s not, and we either believe in Him or not. 
And yet, what remains so deeply moving about these pictures is that powerful sense of imaginative connection with the larger world, that there is some deep, if unknown and unknowable sense of being part of the cosmos.  We millennial moderns are profoundly estranged from nature.  We live in a world where the very idea of primal nature unconditioned by human interference is coming to an end.  Within 150 years, we’ve gone from a world where human settlements were but islands in an ocean of wilderness to a world where wilderness itself can only survive in small remote sanctuaries in a sea of human artifice.  Nature for us is natural resources to be exploited for production and profit, not for moral edification.  And yet, the idea that nature might not be morally edifying after all is a deeply depressing thought.
The Song Dynasty Confucian scholars were very prosaic and pragmatic men.  We should not read too much transcendence or spirituality into their paintings.  They didn’t so much believe in the ancestors, gods, and spirits as take their existence for granted.  The spirits, they believed, could take care of themselves. Heaven was not our business because it is not where we live.  This world that we grasp with our senses is where we live, and we are responsible for it.  They might understand and sympathize with Hannah Arendt’s idea that the pleasure we derive from experiencing nature is the pleasure of being alive.  The old scholars might further find consolation in the insights of physicists who demonstrate to us that we are indeed truly linked to all other things in the universe.  The same material that makes up the stars and planets forms our bodies.
Perhaps these paintings still move us because they tell us to take heart, that our alienation can be healed by a little more courage and insight as well as imagination.

I will end the Northern Song with the most high-born and luckless of all its major painters, the Emperor Huizong.  Prince Zhao Ji was the eleventh son of the Emperor Shenzong.  He inherited his father’s passion for art becoming himself an accomplished painter and calligrapher.  Being the eleventh son, he had no expectation of ever ascending the imperial throne, so he devoted his time and energy to the cultivation of art, his own and many others.  Time and chance happen to us all, and they happened to the eleventh prince of the line.  Intrigue, disease, and accident carried off all ten of his older brothers and a very unprepared and reluctant Prince Zhao Ji became the last Emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty, the Emperor Huizong.  He was completely reliant on his corrupt and self-serving ministers whose predations and diplomatic bungling brought disaster upon the Emperor and his realm.  His ministers encouraged the Emperor to continue his artistic interests assuring him that they would take care of matters of state.
Huizong’s ministers, sensing an opportunity to knock out a major threat to their northern frontier, encouraged the Jurchen nomads to attack the Liao Dynasty of the Qidan nomads.  The Jurchen saw an opportunity and seized it, invading Song territory and capturing Bianjing and the Emperor, along with half the territory of China.  The Emperor Huizong spent the last eight years of his life in the Central Asian steppes as a prisoner of the Jurchen, dying at age 44.

A lapidary calm and finality pervades the Emperor’s paintings, even when things are in motion as in this painting of auspicious cranes flying above the palace made about 1112 on the occasion of his coronation.

 Emperor Huizong,  Cranes Above the Palace

Each crane is placed so exactly and so beautifully in this painting, forming an expanding echo of the swept up eaves of the palace audience hall.  It is as architectonic a composition as Zhao Yan’s at the top of this post, though not quite as ambitious.

The Emperor specialized in Bird and Flower painting, bringing to it a very exact sense of composition as can be seen in this splendid painting of two finches perched on a sprig of bamboo.

 Emperor Huizong, Two Finches On Bamboo

This is very different in spirit from the drama of Cui Bai or the teeming water world of Liu Cai.

The Emperor was an accomplished calligrapher creating an elegant style he called “Slender Gold.”

And so the defining era of Chinese painting comes to a sad end with this artist and reluctant emperor.

A branch of the Imperial family escaped the Jurchen and after much wandering about, settled in the southern coastal city of Hangzhou where they established a new capital.

Song Dynasty painting would continue, though now taking on very controversial forms that would influence other artists far beyond the Chinese frontier.  And so in another post we will consider an unending argument among Chinese and non-Chinese alike over the efflorescence or decadence of the Southern Song Dynasty.

A note on sources for this post:

As mentioned in the text, I used China, A New History by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman (The Belknapp Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 2006).  This was Fairbank's last book and is a beautifully written history of this immense country.

I also used extensively Richard M. Barnhart's chapter on Five Dynasties and Song Period painting from the book Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting (Yale University Press, New Haven, and Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1997)

I made use of a splendid general text that I highly recommend, Chinese Art and Culture by Robert L. Thorpe and Richard Ellis Vinograd (Prentice Hall and Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2001).  Full disclosure, I was acquainted with Dr. Thorpe when he taught at Washington University in St. Louis.  I used to sit in on his lectures.


Unknown said...

deeply thankful

Counterlight said...

My pleasure.

JCF said...

Chinese landscape painting is almost never topographic, in other words, it’s almost never a rendering of a specific place. A landscape painting is supposed to be a vicarious experience of walking around, exploring, and contemplating nature.

Not unlike the purpose of Byzantine iconography? Perhaps that's why I like it so much.

Thanks, Doug.

Counterlight said...

Though I can't imagine any Byzantine painter taking seriously Fan Kuan's statement that nature is the first and best teacher, and that a great painter must experience and observe nature directly.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Thanks for including the Chinese gallery from the Nelson, Doug. There are some figurines of riders on horses in that collection I just adore. The horses are a little, well, zaftig, and they have such round contours and look so fluid. I could look at several items in that gallery for hours (in fact, I have!)

Unknown said...

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