A Landscape Continuously Unfolding

The Renaissance established the codes of traditional Western perspective. A specific geometry, originating from a line at the viewer’s eye level, constructs a third dimension according to one or more fixed vanishing points placed along that line. Perspective thus establishes a precise point in space to which all other points relate. Space is here defined by points, straight lines and planes. Perspectival art renders space uniform, where the subjects are framed and fixed in position. In contrast to this code, Chinese art uses black outlines to draw the subjects and a variety of tones to produce details. Motifs are repeated and the subject matter often extends past the picture plane. Chinese calligraphy, moreover, focuses strictly on line work. As Chinese art and graphic expression is, in essence, a graphic of two dimensions, it questions the visual representation of depth and space.

Hanging in the National Palace Museum in Taipei is “Countless Peaks and Vales,” an eight foot high scroll from 1693 by Qing Dynasty artist Wang Hui. A prominent and gifted painter of the 17th Century, Wang Hui first made his reputation by copying old masterworks. Drawing on past influences he writes: “I must use the brush and ink of the Yuan to move the peaks and valleys of the Song, and infuse them with the breath-resonance of the Tang. I will then have a work of the Great Synthesis.” The Song Dynasty saw the rise of the scholar literati class and marked the beginning of monumental landscape painting. During this period, painting became a mode of personal expression. The literati painters began composing the landscape to show natural orders, which they believed were missing in active society. Painting of the Yuan and Ming Dynasty moved away from literal representation. Instead, the calligraphic lines themselves carried the life of a landscape. Wang’s mentor, Dong Qichang, stressed: “If one considers the uniqueness of scenery, then a painting is not the equal of real landscape; but if one considers the wonderful excellence of brush and ink, then landscape can never equal painting.” Thus, Wang Hui’s style is a combination of detailed rendering and evocative calligraphic brushwork.

In “Countless Peaks and Vales,” the colour palette is black, grey and the natural buff of the paper itself. The subject is a river gorge – a typical landscape in the regions south of the Yangtze River. The skillful placement of water and rocks divides the picture plane into various zones. The repetition of mountain summits, shaped like spearheads, from the top of the scroll downwards, draws the eye to rest near the center of the picture. Here the cliff face lies bare, its ridges scattered with a fine stubble of shrubs. In the top half, the mountain pass is most visible from the left-hand side. It is a close view in elevation and takes up two-thirds of the scroll. Into the distance, the peaks decrease in height as they gradually disappear behind the mist. Four long lines of calligraphy at the top right of the scroll mirror seven short lines of text at the top left. Rock and water intersect at the very center while, to the far left, a stream carves through the mountain, eventually tumbling over an edge. From the far right, a river rushes in and two fishers paddle against its current. There is a sudden change of scale as though the eye sees the scene from above. Clusters of trees line the river’s edge and two villages appear in view, one village beside the river, the other tucked inside a valley. The river, following an arcuate path, divides the bottom portion into halves. On the left bank a second waterfall appears where the route of flowing water continues on as a dry path. Two travelers, one young and one old, trek up the mountain. Pines and gnarled conifers surround a monastery on the right bank and three monks stand at the shore. Several trees to the left of the monastery interrupt the river’s flow, where once again water intersects with rock so that the river becomes a quiet stream. Behind the monastery, two travelers on horseback round the corner on a second mountain trail. At the scroll’s bottom left corner, conifers and pines command the most attention and here there is a contrast between trees that stand upright and trees that bend over. Behind the trees is a raised pavilion on an island and a small footbridge which links the island to shore. None of the major motifs in “Countless Peaks and Vales” exist in fixed states. Water flows through the veins of rocks and around the base of mountains as boats skim along its surface. Plants grow in crevices and people meander along paths. Various motifs coexist seamlessly, while various permutations of rock, water, trees and people create a broad range of compositional possibilities.

Among the variety, there is a strong sense of unity in “Countless Peaks and Vales.” The exact and focused placement of each element depends upon a counterpart so that each element has its rightful place in relation to the other elements. As such, Wang’s painting resists visual fragmentation and expresses unity. Overall, the painting tells the story of mountains that stretch far into the distance and of a river that is packed with charming vignettes along its shores. And yet, if one considers only one-half or one-fifth of the overall work, another story unfolds. From the bottom-most section, a scholar and his two pupils stand at the head of a bridge. Both students carry supplies, while their teacher points his staff towards a place across the water. Directly behind them, a stream appears, its water rushing towards the quiet bay. A large rock screens the trio’s destination – the pavilion, although one assumes that there are stairs leading up to the top. A boat heads away from the shore, as reeds and trees sway towards the right. The bending plants thus show that the oarsman is rowing against a headwind. Two people rest in the pavilion, perhaps waiting for their friend. One man gazes at the peaks in the distance, while the other admires the rocks before him. The story continues its progression, moving from right to left. The bridge suggests both a path and a destination and while the upward gaze of the scholar extends the scene beyond his immediate context, the wind resists the fishers’ efforts of moving upstream. These motifs do not follow the usual conventions of scale and distance. Objects vary in size and level of detail, even if positioned in the same zone on the scroll. The trees in front of and behind the small pavilion are significantly larger. In this way, Wang Hui seamlessly relates one condition to another. Although the lower section is but a fragment of the overall painting, there is nonetheless a complete story.

The representation of variety and unity has great significance in Chinese art. Chinese aesthetics is rooted in Daoism and nature is a popular subject in Chinese painting. Not only does nature, or ziran, represent all elements of the natural world, it also means “of itself.” As such, the natural world is self-generating: it is a matrix of elements that interact to cause change. This matrix also has its rhythm, a constant flux which passes between active and passive states. The Daoist believed that every object, animate or inanimate, possesses qualities “of itself.” True wisdom is that which recognizes and follows the flows of nature’s rhythms and then leaves things as they are. There is no distinction between natural and artificial or between large and small. In the same way, landscape painting and garden design use this rhythm in their organization of space. The Chinese garden, for example, is a world of artifice, but all elements, nonetheless, follow natural processes. It is also a tightly organized journey, where a small space expands by mere suggestion and the sense of place is framed as an accumulation of experience. The garden expresses a narrative, as its serpentine path reveals each scene in continuous progression. Well-designed gardens control both pace and view. Professor Chen Congzhou of Tongji University divides Chinese garden design in two categories: those intended for “in-position viewing,” and those intended for “in-motion viewing.” “In-position viewing” situates the viewer at a platform or pavilion in order to admire a scene in elevation. “In-motion viewing,” on the other hand, anticipates the viewer’s promenade along narrow paths that thread their way between rockery and buildings. Curving paths can disorient the viewer and hide important settings and destinations from view. Furthermore, all the elements used in the garden act as suggestive forms. Rock sculptures remind the visitor of majestic mountains, while ponds and streams represent lakes and rivers. One element becomes suggestive of the other because both belong under the same cosmology. The end of the journey marks a point of reminiscence for the visitor, a point where the accumulation of scenery suggests the natural landscape “of itself.” For the artist, visual or spatial accuracy is not important, whereas the expression of natural rhythms and the spirit of the subject are essential. According to this representation of the natural world, brush art captures vitality in the painted form by using technique and strategic composition.

Shi (势) is an ambiguous term that means both “position” and “potential.” It thus represents the rules and the effect caused by these same rules. The two definitions are intertwined, since things arranged in a specific position generate a potentiality. In The Propensity of Thing, Francois Jullien uses the dual meaning of shi to argue that Chinese logic is never formed a priori. A sinologist and philosophy professor at the Université Paris VII Denis-Diderot, Jullien writes:

When compared with the elaboration of Western thought, the originality of the Chinese lies in their indifference to any notion of a telos, a final end for things, for they sought to interpret reality solely on the basis of itself, from the perspective of a single logic inherent in the actual processes in motion.

The originality, according to Jullien, stems from the fact that no configuration of forms is perfectly static; rather, all actions require form to take effect. In other words, Chinese artists and poets “produced a particular configuration of the dynamism inherent in reality.” Following this notion of dynamism, calligraphy, painting and poetry all tell stories in parallel, simultaneously describing the present as the events unfold.

Chinese paintings and calligraphy are not on permanent display, as they use delicate materials such as silk or paper. Instead, they are kept in storage and brought out for viewing. The paper comes from a bamboo pulp that can be cut into separate sheets or made into a roll. Once the painting is finished, the artist mounts it over a linking paper and coats it with a paste that waterproofs the surface. The scroll exists in two formats: the handscroll and the hanging scroll. Handscrolls are horizontal compositions, typically nine to fourteen inches high with variable widths. To view a handscroll, one begins from the right-hand side and unrolls the painting, one shoulder-width section at a time, a rhythmic action which requires re-rolling one section before moving on to the next. Hanging scrolls, in contrast, are vertical compositions that range between two to six feet high with variable widths. A hanging scroll is suspended from a cord at the top and viewed after the painting is hung. Jullien describes the logic behind this format as follows:

In contrast to Western logic, which is panoramic, Chinese logic is like that of a possible journey in stages that are lined together. The field of thought is not defined and contained a priori; it just unfolds progressively, from one stage to the next, becoming more fertile along the way. Furthermore, the path along which it unfolds does not exclude other possibilities—which may run alongside temporarily or intersect with it. By the end of the journey, an experience has been lived through, a landscape has been sketched in.

The scroll format encourages continuous narratives and even the process of creating the scrolls follows this logic. The artist completes the work in stages. With long scrolls, the painter composes each section separately and then assembles them to create the completed work. There is little interest in boundaries here, as motifs in one scene might extend beyond their context and move towards and into neighbouring sections. There are also no visual breaks. Instead, scenes combine so as to never disrupt the pace or tempo of the overall work. Because of this, great paintings can sustain multiple viewings, for the scenes always reveal new surprises. Viewing itself follows the logic of lived experience to which Jullien refers. While the first viewing establishes the overall narrative, subsequent viewings reveal finer subplots. As a result, the main characters, motifs, paths and journeys come into contact with minor characters and alternative routes. Likewise, through the process of viewing, the viewer comes into contact with a physical sense of time that is marked out by the act of rolling and unrolling. The scroll format invites this kind of kinetic interaction.

Change is a fundamental part of Chinese landscape painting, since it uses the precise assemblage of forms to express movement. There are rarely straight lines in a Chinese landscape painting. Even architecture cannot escape the influence of curves and dynamic composition. Straight columns support sweeping roofs that, in return, mirror the motion of currents and streams that are never far from the scene. Curved lines best illustrate organic forms—the lines are serpentine, rarely limited to a single arc. Chinese painters impart life to their subjects using a strategy that Jullien calls “functional bipolarity.” From opposition comes desired effect. In this way, the curve is the opposite of the straight edge, but the combination of contrasting qualities creates a tension that is visually dynamic. For example, undulating lines represent a cascade, but on every line an arc springs from a common point, in alternating directions, facing left and right. The resultant effect describes both the motion of the water and the structure that causes the movement. In other words, the rock gives shape and direction to the flow of the water and the water animates the rock. It is this combination of angular and smooth edges, and alternating orientation, that creates the sense of movement. The straight elements are structural, while the curved elements are suggestive of life. Another way artists create visual dynamism is by combining and repeating similar motifs. Guo Hsi, a painter from the Song Dynasty, writes:

The change of appearance caused by the varying degree of distance from the object is figuratively known as ‘the change of shape with every step one takes.’ . . . Thus a single mountain combines in itself several thousand appearances.

The repetition of elements in a painting is significant here, since the scattering of trees, rocks, bodies of water, boats, villages and people carries with it a unified logic of dynamism. Like “a single mountain” that unites “several thousand appearances,” views of the same object, at various distances and on different levels of detail, collapse together on one picture plane. Moreover, suggests Jullien, a painter may group “pines, cedars, old acacias, and old juniper trees in clumps of three or five, in such a way as to emphasize their shi.” Every tree possesses a shi that expresses its propensity for developing a unique form. Indeed, closer inspection and direct comparison reveal obvious differences in shape, height and posture. Differences create harmony, not dissonance. Ultimately, shi is a unifying force, “for in China, a painting is only really worthy of its name when it represents the totality of things.” Shi is a term that represents the vital energy, a natural logic that shapes form and propels change in all objects, whether animate or inanimate. “Functional bipolarity” and variation are artistic devices that enable the viewer to perceive the vital energy—a life force in the painted form. To that end, the artist stays true to the essence of his subject and furthers a unifying quality, without simply replicating elements in the painting.

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