March 10, 2007 at 7:51 am #21598
Surrounded on all four sides by enemies, and rising from the prior upheaval of the Five Dynasties period, landscape artists of the Song were disenchanted with humanity and sought in nature the harmony they could not find in people. Thus, Taoist principles played a major role in these depictions of nature- along with the role of humans in its midst. In the work of the Northern Song painter Kuo Hsi this harmonious Taoist balance receives a new style of expression. In subject matter, style, and theory, Kuo Hsi created a new style that reflects and augments the Tao in landscape painting, the techniques and philosophy of painting, and personal emotional expression in art.
Landscape painting during China’s Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126) arose from a disturbed peace, the quiet before a storm. Surrounded by enemies, the dynasty “[was] never secure” (Swann, 135). To the North, the Mongols and the Chin Dynasty presented an obstacle, while to the West and South barbarian tribes blocked trade routes and artistic influences (Swann 135). Isolated and under pressure, the Northern Song would produce landscape paintings that represented the beginning of a new golden age in Chinese artistry- “Shut in on themselves,
the Sung developed a truly Chinese culture…arts experienced a mature flowering of incomparable splendour” (Swann 135).
Kuo Hsi’s landscape painting, in principle, followed the theories of many of his contemporaries. Those theories revolved around Taoism, the balance of yin and yang, and the conservation and flow of chi. Yin and Yang represent two parts of a whole; inseparable opposites. For instance, the sun and the moon, life and death, light and dark, all represent elements that cannot be thought of separately. In the midst of this dance of opposites resides chi, the life force. Keeping the balance of yin and yang and channeling chi represents a fundamental part of all Chinese artistry, especially painting.
Chinese painting and Taoism are like yin and yang, for one cannot exist without the other – “Indeed one might almost say that Chinese painting, particularly landscape painting, is a projection in visual terms of Chinese philosophy…It is a demonstration of the endless process of harmonizing opposites which goes on, producing ever new combinations” (Briessen 30). Every part of the process of painting retains a Taoist essence that governs the process and physical act of creation. This Taoist concept of balance of opposites is found,
Even on the purely material level. The brush stands for the masculine principle, the ink for the feminine. The brush is masculine, too, in relation to the feminine paper. The straight line is masculine; the hooked line is feminine. Then we have the brush held perpendicularly and the brush held at an angle, the linear and the nonlinear. These are only a few of the pairs of opposites which stem from the same principle. (Briessen 30-31)
The Taoist principle of balance in opposites clearly permeates Chinese painting from the first stroke to the last, seeking to create a harmonious relationship of all the subjects and objects.
However, the relationship of the Tao to the process of painting does not explain why it would lead to the development of landscape painting. For an explanation, Taoism’s intrinsic connection with the natural environment must be sought. One of the major features of Taoism is its “profound naturalism” (Smith 138). As the Tao Te Ching, the primary text of Taoism, notes: “Those who would take over the Earth/And shape it to their will/Never, I notice, succeed./The Earth is like a vessel so sacred/That at the mere approach of the profane it is marred./They reach out their fingers and it is gone” (Smith 138).
Thus, in practice, Taoist temples “do not stand out from the landscape. They are nestled against the hills, back under the trees, blending in with the environment. They teach that human beings too, are at their best when they are in harmony with their surroundings” (Smith 138). Chi runs through the environment, chi that Taoism attempts to augment, conserve, or spread, and so it is intrinsic to Taoist belief that nature not be forced, shoved, or fought against – ” Why struggle and compete? The Tao doesn’t need to do so” (Smith 138). Oneness with the environment lends ease to the flow of chi, the primary goal of Taoist thought.
The Way (tao) is replete with connections to the natural environment and its harmonious balance, and there are direct correlations between landscape painting and Tao as a means of attaining that harmony. Even the word for landscape painting is “composed of the radicals for mountain and water, one of which suggests vastness and solitude, the other pliability, endurance, and continuous movement” (Smith 138). These metaphors connect landscape painting directly to Taoism and natural influences. Water is important to Tao because it symbolizes the ever-flowing resilience of both the Way itself and chi. Mountains represent the majesty of nature, the incomparable vitality the Tao can bring, and a reference point for humanity’s place in this order- a small niche in a gigantic universe.
Taoism serves art, in particular landscape painting, in a way that informs the creative process and artistic philosophy. The Tao’s connections with inseparable dualisms may classify the physical materials of painting, but the connections with naturalism and the flow of chi delineates a creative process that completes the other conceptual half of landscape painting. A description of the creative half of this process makes it possible to see that “It is no accident that the greatest periods of Chinese art have coincided with upsurges of Taoist influence. Before reaching for their brushes, painters would go to nature and lose themselves in it, to become, say, the bamboo that they would paint” (Smith 138).
“Becoming the bamboo” is not a farcical or metaphorical idea (as Western popular culture has made it), but rather an important meditation on the ‘bamboo-ness’ of bamboo. In other words, an artist would seek to meditate upon the bamboo so that its chi (life force or essence) will become clearer (Smith 138). This mental photograph then becomes a formal arrangement upon canvas designed to capture the chi of the subject. The entire process, as described, resounds throughout with Tao, from the materials to the creative process itself.
By the time Kuo Hsi (1000-1090) had arrived upon the scene, monumental landscape painting had already “become the official idiom of a rich and abundant culture” (Fong 83). Hsi joined the Imperial Academy, a body of court artists. His stature as an artist meant that he was considered by contemporary texts as “the supreme figure of the landscape artists of the time” (Loehr 147). Most of Hsi’s work has been lost, but the painting that remains extant indicates a masterful skill with the brush that creates a wistful and romantic poetry – a world replete with harmony, but heavy with mystic darkness.
While keeping in mind the connections between various Taoist concepts, painting, and nature, Kuo Hsi’s instructions on harmonious balance bear mentioning. He wrote a book called Lofty Ambitions in Forests and Streams that describes a series of techniques for painters wishing to attain harmony and seemingly effortless grace in their own painting. The fact that he was able to write a book of this kind indicates a lofty stature in the artistic world, and he was in fact “the favorite court painter of the emperor Sheng-Tsung” (Fong 83). The title of his work is telling, especially the mention of ‘streams,’ since Taoists, as noted earlier, have always been interested in water as a metaphor for the Way.
Kuo determined hierarchies for the sizes of figures in landscape paintings- conventions that would be passed down for generations. For generating landscapes and the human figures therein, he devised an important codification of sizes, a hierarchy of chi:
In landscape painting there are three degrees of magnitude: a mountain, which is larger than a tree, which is larger than a human figure. If the mountains are not piled up by the score, and if they are no larger than the trees, they will not look imposing. And if the trees are not stacked up by the score, and if they are no larger than the human figures, they will not look large. (Fong 86)
In other words, the chi of a mountainous area must fit harmoniously on the canvas with those of the trees and the humans in the paintings. The human beings in comparison to all of the other elements are ant-like, as befits their place in the Way. Trees are larger than humans of course, but the mountain, like a “great king, seated and facing the sun” is the most monumental- a crowning and central point of the composition of the monumental landscape (Fong 86).
These instructions work for depicting the real world, but the point is to capture the essence of the mountain, not its literal image. For this, Kuo grants the artist a subtle means to express the “vastness of nature and its infinite capacity for expansion” (Fong 86).
If one wishes to make a mountain appear high, one must not paint every part of it or it will seem diminished. It will look tall when encircled at mid height by mist and clouds. If one wishes to describe a stream that stretches afar, one must not paint its entire course; only when its course is shaded and interrupted will it appear long. (Fong 86)
This description expresses two important ideas. First, there is an implication as to the limitation of the painting medium to describe fully the essential impact of a natural object. Second, given this implication, Kuo offers compositional techniques as a means of guiding the viewer into the essence of a given mountain or stream in order to serve the harmony of the composition and the representation of the given landscape dually.
All of this technique and structure serves to reach what Kuo calls “the heart of the forests and streams” (Fong 83). That heart is the Tao, mixed with Neo Confucian ethics, ethics that place man “in a vast and complex, but ultimately orderly universe” (Fong 84). This idea complements the Taoist view, which places man down in a small piece of a world filled with flowing chi, who seeks to be a part of that flow. In searching for the ‘heart’ of landscape painting Kuo Hsi expressed his joy by noting:
How delightful to enjoy a landscape painting rendered by a skillful hand! Without leaving one’s home, to be transported to streams and ravines in faraway places, the cries of monkeys and birds faintly reaching one’s ears, light dappling the hills, glittering reflections on the water dazzling the eye. (Fong 83)
To experience a good landscape painting is to experience nature in all its subtle nuance and color, beauty and majesty. The essence of the natural becomes clear, and the viewer’s place in that environment becomes more transparent- thus increasing the flow of chi.
Moving away from Kuo Hsi as a theoretician, more connections to the above concepts can be drawn through the words he wrote upon his actual practice and style, combined with known historical knowledge. Fong notes, “In attempting to re-create through landscape mental, or ‘idea’ images (i-ching) and emotional states (ch’ing-ching) rather than merely try to describe landscape realistically, Kuo moves beyond ‘principles’ of nature” (93). Thus not only did Kuo attempt to codify the methods of his work and become a master of landscape painting as it had been for many past generations, but he also added emotional tints to the fabric of his art form. Stylistically it represents a shift from a “more objective, naturalistic landscape…to one that was imbued with human feeling” (Fong 92). This conscious movement of emotional expression to the foreground represents a new element to contend with in terms of Taoist harmony. Instead of the ‘mental image’ of a landscape meditated upon and transferred, an emotional content joins it at the point of creation- emotion becomes the complementary opposite of the landscape’s chi.
More complications arise when examining Kuo’s other practices. Kuo was a “follower of occult Taoism,” and he would “meditate for several days” before painting, and then “suddenly feeling inspired, ‘would toss off the work with a single sweep of his arm'” (Fong 95). During these moments of inspiration Kuo would splatter ink and spread it wildly (Fong 95). These practices indicate unconventional working habits that were tuned to the creation of a new stylistic form. In addition to this, his work has a mystical quality attached to it that goes along with his occult spiritualism. For example, one story describes his affinity for images that “seem to materialize of their own accord,”
[Kuo] told the wall plasterer not to use the trowel, but instead to throw the plaster on the wall…After the plaster was dried, applying ink to modify the forms, he created mountain peaks, forests, and valleys…making them look as if they had been realized in heaven. (Fong 95)
These apocryphal stories (this one was from a contemporary source) and the other written data available indicate that Kuo was a creative maverick. As such an artist, he succeeded in painting works that could capture the majestic environment in the Taoist manner, and at the same time incorporated the emotion of a moment- a snapshot of his own chi.
In Kuo’s Early Spring (fig.1)(ca 1000), expresses a mature style. This monochromatic silk and ink painting impresses upon the viewer a massive and infinite presence that is increased by the host peak in the background, a compositional feature that Kuo advocated for in his book. However, this landscape does not fit the norm of objective naturalism. Instead, the viewer sees a fantastical and misty realm richly detailed with barren trees. The painting reads like a frieze sculpture in which the forms are “simultaneously emerging from and receding behind dense, wafting mists” (Fong 93). In fact, one of the most important elements in this painting is the space that envelops the solid forms, making them ethereal. Kuo explains how he creates these not-quite-solid forms in his essay: “After the outlines are made in dark inkstrokes, I trace the outlines repeatedly with ink wash mixed with blue, so that even when the outlines remain visible, the forms appear as if emerging from the mist and dew” (Fong 94). These washes give the viewer a sense of infinitude and a sense of material impermanence.
Despite the romantic and emotional nature of this painting, the whole is harmoniously balanced in true Taoist style and, true to his written techniques, humans represent the tiniest detail of the painting. The viewer must be observant to catch the tiny water bearer in the lower left-hand corner. The houses in the upper right also are tiny, and much as Smith describes, the buildings are ensconced deeply in the valley- unobtrusive, a part of the environment.
In each corner of the painting, space interjects in the form of water or air, to create the writhing compositional form of the landscape. The trees, barren of life, still seem to have natural motion, and the viewer can hear the creaking of limbs in the mist as they strain up towards the host peak. Each of these trees curves in a serpentine pattern, complementing and augmenting each other’s shape along a broader serpentine path to the summit of the host peak. All in all the painting represents a new mode of landscape whose motion and emotion seeks for an action title that defies the stillness of ‘Early Spring.’ Instead Loehr suggests “nature’s awakening from a winter sleep” in order to capture the shifting and “dynamic interpretation” of nature the painting represents (147).
In Clearing Autumn Skies (fig 2) the viewer sees a budding example of the mature style expressed in Early Spring. In this earlier work, a monochromatic handscroll, a more naturalistic effect is achieved, but the basic elements noted in Kuo Hsi’s writings all are represented. Though the subtlety and spontaneous emotionality of the piece lack development. Loehr writes, “Clearing Autumn Skies agrees closely with Early Spring as regards technique and type forms, while lacking its forceful dynamic” (149). However the creative groundwork of the later piece is laid down here through Kuo’s use of space, atmospheric effect, and emotional dialogue.
In terms of space, the vista of the landscape gets progressively closer to the viewer, much like the frieze sculpture alluded to before, except that this time the composition mirrors that of frieze sculpture in length and width. Space on the left half of the painting balances the mass on the right in a progression that works its way gradually from left to right. As air and mass balance each other; water and mass do so as well. The composition turns out to be more complicated spatially than it seems at a glance, for the mass of water on the lower-left contrasts with the massive string of rock outcroppings in the upper-right. The trees in the lower-right counteract the infinite space of the atmosphere in the upper-left. The compositional space not only progresses left to right, but also diagonally in a complicated set of dualities that make up the harmonious whole.
The atmospheric effect lends a great deal to the unity of this composition, and the artist has liberally added it, even more so than in the first painting. Here he also follows more of his own advice by cloaking finite space and form in order to give a sense of the infinite. As the forms grow closer, they become more concrete. This adds weight to the mass, and allows the artist to show virtuoso skill in the detailing of foliage and trees. The atmospheric mist gets carefully balanced with mass, as that mist gives light fluidity to the painting that simple mass would not. The atmosphere and space create a “rhythmic flow…of design” that permeates the piece and reads from left to right, just like Western script.
In terms of emotional value, this piece represents a stage of Kuo Hsi’s development. Certainly, it can be said of the piece that peace resounds within it. Unlike the fantastical and darkened land awaking in Early Spring, this land already has awaked. Like a bird, the viewer’s vantage point can see vistas far away, and the viewer becomes endowed with a meditative sense of calm coupled with a sense of the towering and infinite living beauty of nature. With these two primary emotional qualities in the foreground, the painting invites reflection on the chi flowing through this particular natural landscape, and so become more conscious of the chi that flows through themselves.
In Kuo Hsi’s exalted position and his codification of techniques and rules, this style of emotional and monumental landscape painting would go on for several more centuries. Kuo’s work expresses the most profound flowering of the Northern Song- proof that their isolation brought the benefit of being able to fully develop art forms without undue influence. Fong states that, “with the art of Kuo Hsi, we encounter a new landscape style. Defined by the poetry of mist, it celebrates change and transitoriness. But above all, it is an art in which human emotion (ch’ing) is newly incorporated as a compelling reality” (95). Throughout this emotional art the concept of the Tao flows through, bearing with it harmony, dualism, and the vital flow of chi. Thus, through Kuo’s new style and the mystic power of Tao, coupled with his marriage of theory and form, Chinese art reached a zenith only too soon to be dashed by barbarian hordes. However, that zenith would inspire Chinese artists for generations after, so preserving Kuo Hsi’s insights into the unity of emotion, art, nature, and chi.
Briessen, Van. The Way of the Brush. Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle & Co., 1962.
Fong, Wen C. Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th-14th Century. New
York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.
Loehr, Max. The Great Painters of China. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1980.
Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.
Swann, Peter. Art of China, Korea, and Japan. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Inc. Publisher,
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