Landscape painting by Huang Binhong. Musée de l’Art Moderne, Paris. Even after the end of imperial China, landscape painting continued to develop as artists expressed the new and engaged the old. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Landscape painting—depicting mountains, trees, waterfalls, and rivers—developed as a genre during the Tang dynasty. After the end of imperial China, landscape painting continued to develop as artists expressed the new and engaged the old.
Although painting emerged in China prior to the Han dynasty (206 BCE –220 CE), landscape as a formal category developed much later, sometime in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), and was fully established as a dominant category in the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126). Prior to the Song dynasty (960–1279) landscapes appeared in various formats, such as on scrolls, on murals, on musical instruments, screens, and the walls of tomb chambers, as well as on the walls of other architectural settings, including those serving decorative and religious purposes.
The theme of landscape painting (or shan shui, mountains and water) literally and pictorially refers to mountains, trees, waterfalls, and rivers. The simple display of outdoor scenery emerged much earlier than the Northern Song era. Some spare trees along with a stylized form of hills were represented in three-dimensional objects and are in evidence on the painted coffins from the Mawangdui tomb (Changsha, Hunan Provincial Museum), dated circa 165 BCE of the early Han era. This suggestion of outdoor scenery is considered the incipient and earliest surviving landscape subject in China. The Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove (Nanjing, Jiangsu Province) suggests a slightly more mature and sophisticated observation of trees in terms of types. A more complexly realized landscape representation is observed in the engraving of a stone sarcophagus dated to the early sixth century (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri). This piece is also one of the earliest examples in which the artist incorporated natural elements with figures and animals into the suggestion of a narration.
Artists who either specialized in landscapes or painted subjects in landscapes were first recognized and documented in the Tang dynasty by Zhang Yanyuan in Lidai Minghua ji (Record of Famous Painting of the Previous Dynasties, finished 847 CE) and by Zhu Jingxuan in Tangchao minghua lu (Record of Famous Painting of Tang Dynasty, compiled c. ninth century). The earliest surviving scroll landscape painting is dated to the sixth century. It has the title Spring Outing (handscroll, ink and colors on silk) and is attributed to Zhan Ziqian (Palace Museum, Beijing). It is particularly noted for employing the “level-distance” view.
The descriptions of three-distance perspectives were fully theorized by Guo Xi (c. 1001–c. 1090), one of the three masters of landscape, in his Lofty Ambition of Forests and Streams (Lin Quan Gao Zhi, c. 1080, with Guo Si, son of Guo Xi). Li Sixun (651–716 CE) and Li Zhaodao (dates unknown, flourished c. 730s, son of Li Sixun) were credited and known for their distinct “gold-and-green” or “blue-and-green” landscapes. One of the most famous and exemplary pieces of this style is Emperor Minghuang’s Journey into Shu (hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, National Palace Museum, Taipei), which is attributed to Li Zhaodao. Although it is considered a Song copy of a Tang work, this painting has many characteristics of Tang painting, which are echoed in the mural paintings at the Mogao caves of Dunhuang, Gansu Province. Another notable Tang landscape painter was Wang Wei (698–759 CE). Although Wang Wei’s paintings no longer survive, his reputation as the painter of such treasures as Wangchuan Villa is well documented, assuring his place in history.
Scholars have traditionally considered the Northern Song dynasty as the golden age of Chinese painting. This consideration extended to the painting of landscape, which became a formal category, although the term might have been applied in the Five Dynasties period (907–960 CE) by Jing Hao (flourished 907–923 CE) in his Bifa ji (A Note on the Brush). During the late Northern Song era Emperor Huizong (reigned 1101–1125) not only founded the Imperial Painting Academy but also sponsored compilations that documented the imperial art collections, which formulated into two influential records: Xuanhe shupu (Record of Calligraphy of the Xuanhe Era) and Xuanhe huapu (Record of Painting of the Xuanhe Era, preface dated 1120). The Xuanhe huapu is particularly significant for the history of landscape painting. In this compilation landscape painting not only was treated as an independent subject among thirteen categories but also significantly occupied four chapters (juan) out of twenty in total. Forty-one painters and 1,108 paintings were included and collected by the imperial treasure house. The Three Schools/Masters of Landscape—Li Cheng (919–967), Fan Kuan (flourished c. 1023–1031), and Guo Xi (mostly known for his Early Spring, dated in 1072)—and their paintings were listed with other important painters in this catalogue.
Because of the differences of geographical spheres, landscapes in the Northern and Southern (1127–1279) Song dynasties changed significantly in composition, arrangement of figures and space, additive inscriptions, and overall atmosphere of painting. The monumental scale of Northern Song landscapes, reflecting the grandeur scenery north of the Huang (Yellow) River, was gradually diminished and replaced by a misty and flat level of water and lake views of the Yangzi (Chang) River delta scenery in south China, and paintings by Ma Yuan (flourished 1189–1224) and Xia Kui (flourished 1195–1224) are exemplary of this era.
The Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) brought a revolutionary era for landscapes, theories, and other subjects. The notion of the Three Schools/Masters of Landscape was established during the Yuan dynasty by Tang Hou, an art collector and connoisseur of the late thirteenth century in Hangzhou. Tang Hou’s confirmation of Li Cheng, especially, set the foundation of the landscape tradition and theory later put forth by Dong Qichang, (1555–1636) whose canon divided northern and southern schools and the gave preference to literati painting. Although the “Returning to the Past” movement in both art and literature, focusing on the Tang and Five Dynasties periods, was advocated and executed by various Yuan painters, new ideas and approaches to landscape painting co-existed among the same painters. Zhao Mengfu’s (1254–1322) Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains not only synthesized the archaic elements and ideas of the past, and the movement to return to its style, but also deliberated from the tradition into a new era of Chinese painting—naturalistic-pictorial representation of actual geographic sites—a concept that was inspired by the Mongol court’s interests in science.
Four Masters of the Yuan
After the mid-fourteenth century the notion of Four Masters of the Yuan—Huang Gongwong (1269–1354), Wu Zhen (1280–1354), Ni Zan (1306–1374), and Wang Meng (1308–1385)—was formulated and adopted by the landscape painters and theorists of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Dong Qichang and his Songjiang School painters (a regional circle) played an influen
tial role in canonizing landscape tradition, followed by the Four Wangs—Wang Shimin (1592–1680), Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715), Wang Jian (1598–1677), and Wang Hui (1632–1717)—and formed the orthodoxy with their political advantages that remains today.
Landscape painting tradition did not end with imperial China but rather continued to develop as artists devised various methods to express the new and engage with the old. Particularly notable are divergent and complex themes that have emerged as artists have explored new media, techniques, and ideas after the twentieth century in both China and overseas. Zhang Daqian (1899–1983), Wu Guanzhong (b. 1919), and Zao Wuo-ki (or Zhao Wuji, b. 1921) are a few of many contributors in the new era. Zhang Daqian developed “ink-splash” with a bright “blue-and-green” manner into a semiabstract pictorial representation of landscape with traditional media. Wu Guanzhong maintained stylized but identifiable landscapes with linear and calligraphic lines and Western media. Zao Wuo-ki transformed the emptiness in space of a cosmological (relating to a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of the universe) view of Chinese landscape into abstract and expressive oil painting. Contemporary Chinese landscape is still developing.
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Painting—Landscape (Sh?n shu? huà ???)|Sh?n shu? huà ??? (Painting—Landscape)