Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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10 / The Natural World

Early Spring
Early Spring
Artist / Origin Guo Xi (Kuo Hsi) (Chinese, ca. 1000–1090)
Region: East Asia
Date 1072
Material Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 62 ¼ in. (158.3 cm.), W: 42 5/8 in. (108.1 cm.)
Location National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
Credit Courtesy of Lee & Lee Communications/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Robert E. Harrist, Jr.Professor of Chinese Art History, Columbia University

Early Spring

» Guo Xi (Kuo Hsi) (Chinese, ca. 1000–1090)

expert perspective

Robert E. Harrist, Jr. Robert E. Harrist, Jr. Professor of Chinese Art History, Columbia University

One of the things you’ll notice if you look closely at great Chinese landscape paintings, such as those from Song dynasty from the eleventh century—paintings by an artist like Guo Xi—these are always inhabited, populated landscapes. There are very few, maybe there are no, Chinese landscape paintings that are pure wilderness. Usually these are tiny figures. And the minuscule scale of the human figures, of course, makes the landscape seem all the greater, all the more spectacular and monumental. But those little figures in the paintings serve a very important role in the way you look at them. They become sort of your guides. They show you how to move through the landscape. And one of the great experiences of looking at something like the Guo Xi, a painting like Early Spring, is following these paths on which the figures travel. This is the point of entry into the landscape in imagination as well as a kind of guide visually to how you move through these immensely complex visual structures.

If you look at the top of Early Spring, you’ll notice that the mountain is sort of dissolving into mist. What’s special is the way the mist bites into and seems to dissolve the mountains. There is this great serpentine shape that organizes the structure of the mountain. It’s something that in Chinese is referred to as a ‘dragon vein.’ And the sense of the animation in the mountain, as if it’s a living thing, is maybe more powerful in Guo Xi than nearly any other of these great early landscape masters. I think that does provoke this kind of emotional response, this sense of being in the presence of something mysterious, powerful, that is very intense in Guo Xi.

I would say that if you look at Early Spring, in addition to having this very powerful sense that Guo Xi meditated on landscape—that he understood, that he perceived, that he responded to this vast energy implicit in the way mountains are structured—you would also detect in his paintings tremendous energy in the individual lines. Guo Xi’s brush work is extremely varied, animated; the orientation of the brush is constantly changing. There’s a kind of buoyancy in the outlines of rocks, in the depiction of tree trunks that is as distinctive as the voice of a singer. This is an analogy that a great modern Chinese connoisseur, C.C. Wang, used to like to use. Looking at brush work is as distinctive as listening to an opera singer you’ve gotten to recognize.

I’d say that the basic techniques he used for painting mist and clouds weren’t really that different from those used by other Song painters. He just did it better than anyone else. The transition from form to nothingness—from mountain to mist—is so infinitely subtle in his paintings.” 


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