In what does a gentleman's love of landscape consist?
The cultivation of his fundamental nature in rural
retreats is his frequent occupation. The carefree abandon
of mountain streams is his frequent delight. The secluded
freedom of fishermen and woodsmen is his frequent
enjoyment. The flight of cranes and the calling of gibbons
are his frequent intimacies. . . .
It is now possible for subtle hands to reproduce
[landscapes] in all their rich splendor. Without leaving
your room you may sit to your heart's content among
streams and valleys. . . . Could this fail to quicken your
interest and thoroughly capture your heart?
—Guo Xi (ca. 1000–ca. 1090), translation after Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih
The representation of landscape is one of the bedrocks of Chinese art. As early as the fifth century A.D., the aging scholar Zong Bing wrote of the power of such paintings, which allowed him the joy of imagined travel even after his legs would no longer carry him up the mountains he had climbed in his youth. In the eleventh century, the painter Guo Xi celebrated the strides in realism made during his lifetime, claiming that the new landscape paintings were so transporting that they were like a window onto nature. Later, as the tradition became more self-conscious, painters began to think less about fooling the eye through realism and more about the history of painting itself, creating pictures dense with references to past masters. Throughout all these changes, generation after generation has returned to landscape—to trees, streams, and mountains—finding in the subject seemingly limitless intellectual and visual inspiration.
Streams and Mountains without End explores the many ways artists have used landscape from the twelfth century to today. Arranged thematically—from the poetic to the magical to the art historical—the exhibition offers an open-ended set of answers to Guo Xi's question, "In what does a gentleman's love of landscape consist?"
A master painter is used to mountain-dwelling,
He amuses himself with brush and ink.
Leisurely he takes up a piece of icy white silk,
And draws a picture of rivers and mountains for thousands of miles.
Mountains near and far entwine, emerging and disappearing,
Around their waists, forests meet and tangle. . . .
Opening the scroll, I seem to wash my dust-filled eyes,
With hands on chest, I sigh three times, in vain.
—Li Hui (active 13th century), translation after Wen Fong
Among the many tools premodern Chinese painters used to communicate the majesty of nature, one of the most ingenious was the long landscape handscroll. Around the eleventh century, painters began to use this format to create elaborate visions of rolling hills and valleys dotted with waterfalls, trees, and rocks. The most ambitious of these scrolls could unfurl to several dozens of feet in length.
Viewed on a table one section at a time, the handscroll is an immersive experience that impresses through duration rather than towering size. To read a long landscape scroll is to travel through the world depicted within, like the many small figures who ply the paths and waterways.
Some of the longest and most complex of the early landscape scrolls are known by the title "Streams and Mountains without End" (Xishan wujin, 溪山無盡), which captures the sense of nature's infinitude that their painters sought to evoke. The exhibition's title adopts this phrase to symbolize the enduring interest in landscape as a source of artistic inspiration.
There is a saying: "Poetry is formless painting; painting, poetry in form." Wise men have often talked of this idea, and it has been my guide. Thus, on idle days, I leaf through ancient and modern poetry of the Jin and Tang, finding beautiful lines that give full expression to the feelings within men's hearts and the scenes before their eyes.
—Guo Xi (ca. 1000–ca. 1090), translation after Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih
Landscape and poetry were deeply intertwined in premodern China. The rustling of wind through bamboo, the sight of mist rising from the floor of a valley—spare and evocative vignettes such as these give voice to the experience of confronting the awesomeness of creation.
To capture the perfectly suggestive image in verse was considered the highest form of art. To translate this poetic sensibility into brush and ink was, in turn, the goal of many painters who wished to ally the visual to the lyrical. In fact, a number of artists practiced both disciplines, which allowed for significant freedom in distributing their creative energy.
Even painters who were not expressly poets still engaged with the form. Many adopted famous poems as their subjects; sometimes they would identify the poem in an inscription, but other times they left the viewer to guess the source, building an interactive dimension of play into their artworks. In this way, painters tried to imbue their images with some of the suggestiveness of verse, taking the poet's posture as their own.
The majestic, soaring peaks of the sacred mountain cross the northern wilderness, marking the divine. Where strange beasts roar and dragons arise—this is where wind and rain are generated. Where rainbows encircle and cranes surmount—this is where divine immortals tread.
—Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty (r. 627–649), translation after Kiyohiko Munakata
In premodern China, nature was, to many, a place of magic inhabited by ineffable forces and mysterious, supernatural beings. Mountain spirits, Daoist immortals, and Buddhist adepts of unimaginable age and accomplishment haunted the deep caves and mist-enshrouded mountains of China's vast wilderness. Painters delighted in finding ways to suffuse their images with a fitting sense of wonder and mystery.
Paintings of magical landscapes are often rendered in vivid blues and greens, colors associated with both antiquity and the supernatural divine. The minerals used to make such colors—malachite and azurite—were themselves believed to have magical properties, and were employed by Daoists in their quests to concoct immortality potions. This unusual palette is often combined with other symbols of enchanted places, such as swirling white clouds, circling cranes, and deer, to evoke a dreamlike, miraculous quality.
Living in retirement beyond the world,
Silently enjoying isolation,
I pull the rope of my door tighter,
And grip tight the wine jug.
My spirit is tuned to the spring season;
At the fall of the year there is autumn in my heart.
Thus following the ways of heaven and earth,
My cottage becomes a universe.
—Lu Yun (262–303), translation after Arthur Waley
The dream of escape inflects much of the landscape painting tradition: escape from physical danger, political turmoil, the ups and downs of professional service. Nestled on the banks of a river, scholars meet to converse in an open-air pavilion; shielded deep in a bamboo grove, a country gentleman drinks tea against a backdrop of towering peaks. This is the landscape of reclusion, a place for self-described people of purity to throw off the binds of the everyday and seek solace in nature.
Landscapes of reclusion often depict people sitting rather than traveling. No longer on the move, these retired scholars and gentlemen have arrived at their destination, and there they close the gate to all but the most cherished friends, so that they may commune with their surroundings. Often, these paintings represent an idealized, rustic country villa with a brushwood gate, the mountains and rivers providing both a stage set and a symbol for the scholar's removal from the dusty world.
Whenever [Wang Mo] wanted to paint a picture, he would first drink wine, and when he was sufficiently drunk, he would spatter the ink onto the painting surface. Then, laughing and singing all the while, he would stamp on it with his feet and smear it with his hands, besides swashing and sweeping it with the brush. The ink would be thin in some places, rich in others; he would follow the shapes which brush and ink had produced, making these into mountains, rocks, clouds or water.
—Zhu Jingxuan (active 8th century), translation after James Cahill
From early on, Chinese painters flirted with abstraction. Though none of Wang Mo's paintings survive, the description of the eighth-century painter above suggests a comfort at the edges of representation, a prizing of expressive force over representational legibility. Such painters were called "untrammeled" (yipin, 逸品), meaning that their creativity was not bound by conventions.
In the past forty years, some painters have sought to bind together the threads of abstraction that existed in the premodern Chinese tradition and those that arose in the twentieth century in Europe and the Americas. Many of these artists either trained as landscape painters or found the tradition useful as a tool for experimentation. They have drawn inspiration not only from the way Chinese paintings look but from the ideas behind them—balance and momentum, and the primacy of the brushstroke.
The works in this gallery reflect attempts to reconcile the seemingly disparate threads of Chinese landscape painting, modern abstraction, and the traditions of abstraction inherent in premodern Chinese art.
Some say, "One should establish one's own style," but this cannot be so. . . . Even if a painter should make variations of [old styles], he cannot sever his link to the sources. How can anyone put aside the ancient methods and start anew on his own?
—Dong Qichang (1555–1636), translation after Wen Fong
Those who study the old masters but do not transform them are simply trapped. Only by turning away from [past models] may one achieve ultimate harmony with them.
—Dong Qichang (1555–1636)
The landscape painting tradition was so rich that it became its own inspiration, nearly independent of nature itself. As early as the eleventh century, artists were already making paintings that self-consciously looked back to earlier styles. By the fifteenth century, painters began to identify in their inscriptions the masters they were following. With the rise of the titanic Dong Qichang in the early seventeenth century, an entire system for studying the past was codified, and Dong and his followers produced a vast corpus of works in the styles of old masters. Though conveyed in a language of trees, rivers, and mountains, the subject of these paintings is painting itself.
The contrasting quotes from Dong Qichang above express the key conundrum of this practice: How is an artist to face forward and backward at the same time? Does a path to innovation lie in the study of tradition? Dong's belief, articulated most eloquently in his paintings themselves, is that the past can be used as a key to open the door to the future, but only if an artist can combine the insight necessary to understand history with the brio required to outrun it.
People say that I am in a city,
But I suspect that I am among thousands of mountains.
—Tianru (1286–1354), translation by Zhong Junhua
Premodern Chinese gardens were places of transformation and creativity. For their designers, they provided an opportunity to paint in three dimensions, piling up rocks to form mountains, planting trees to signify forests, and dredging ponds to stand in for oceans. A garden is itself a landscape, and the best designers sought to imbue the created environment with the principles of the natural world. Moving through such a space, the garden visitor could see the world from a god's-eye perspective, but also imagine himself transformed to the scale of the microcosm, roaming the hills and valleys of the garden like a tiny figure in a landscape painting. The Met's Astor Garden Court, through the door in this gallery, offers a chance to experience this for yourself.
For those who had the privilege to enjoy them, gardens allowed respite from the bustling conditions of the cities just beyond their walls. Many poets and painters found these spaces deeply inspiring, and memorializing one's garden in verse and image became common. By the eighth century, a tradition of garden appreciation existed, and the millennium of subsequent poems and pictures about gardens have knowingly added to this trove. The works in this gallery engage in various ways with the truths and myths of the scholar's garden as a landscape of its own.
The world has many wondrous and inaccessible places. If these are not transmitted by artists, people will grow old and die beneath their windows without ever being able to see them. But it is not necessarily a matter of these very places actually existing in the world—anything that exists in the minds of the artists also exists in the world.
—Gong Xian (1619–1689), translation by James Cahill
Strange and fantastic imagery took the art world by storm in the seventeenth century. This heightened interest in the strange manifested across genres and media: calligraphers swept away conventions of good taste with off-kilter shapes and uncontrolled flows of ink; figure painters distorted faces and bodies beyond plausibility; and makers of decorative arts channeled the complicated contortions of roots, rocks, and other natural forms in creating objects for the scholar's studio.
Landscape painters, who already enjoyed significant freedom, pushed further into the realm of the whimsical and even the bizarre. Mountain forms now billowed like clouds, flowed like water, or rose to great bulbous peaks set on impossibly slender bases. All rules of nature were subordinated to the fancy of the artist, who sought to fashion images of nature's infinite power and creativity, rather than a direct likeness.
On the Chu frontier the Three Xiang rivers meet;
At Jingmen the Nine Streams converge.
The river flows beyond heaven and earth;
The mountains' color between being and nonbeing.
The district town floats the shore ahead;
Waves and breakers stir the distant sky.
This day of fine scenery at Xiangyang
Is given to detain old Mr. Shan until he is drunk.
—Wang Wei (699–759), translation after Pauline Yu
The story of China's mighty rivers is, in a sense, the story of Chinese civilization. Their life-giving sustenance made possible the agriculture and commerce that fueled Chinese empires, just as their awesome power periodically has laid waste to the dreams and lives of millions in terrible floods. The mythical emperor Yu of distant antiquity managed to control the floods, bringing order to the empire. For those who have led China ever since, managing these powerful waterways has been considered a central challenge and responsibility.
China's rivers are not only symbols of righteous governance—they are often invoked by poets and painters as motifs of the good, simple life. The Chinese term for landscape is shanshui (山水), meaning "mountains and water," but often, and particularly in paintings by scholar-amateurs, water dominates this relationship. The humble fisherman, idly angling or even sleeping in his boat, is ubiquitous in such works, and he is often an idealized image of the painter or patron, living the dream of life afloat, untethered from the dusty world.