Art Through Time: A Global View
The Natural World Art: Early Spring
Following the collapse of the Tang dynasty (618–906), many Chinese painters seem to have discovered in nature the permanence and majesty that they found lacking in the civilized world.
Under the succeeding dynasty, the Northern Song (960–1129), monumental landscape paintings flourished. It was during this period that court artist Guo Xi (ca. 1001–1090) produced Early Spring. Atypical for court paintings of the period, the large-scale scroll is both signed and dated by the artist.
According to traditional Chinese philosophy, complementary dualities in the world, such as yin and yang, must be balanced. This view of nature is evident throughout Chinese landscapes, which almost always feature some combination of mountains and water in its various forms (sea, river, mist, fog, etc.). In fact, the Chinese express the concept of landscape with the term shan shui, or, in English, “mountain-water.” Both elements are present in Early Spring. In painting Early Spring, Guo Xi employed the same kinds of brush strokes that calligraphers used to inscribe scrolls. The resultant lines suggest dormant energy swirling beneath the surface of the picture. The natural forces that these lines evoke are maintained in harmonious equilibrium by a composition that carefully balances mountain and water; one could not exist without the other.
Guo Xi has arranged his scene to draw the viewer’s eyes up the mountain, which appears simultaneously ethereal and monumental. The symbolic significance of mountains in China varies depending on the prevailing philosophies and ideologies of any given period. There is, however, one understanding of mountains that seems to cut across periods and even across cultures—the association of mountains with the celestial realm. In China, mountains have often been considered a jumping off point to the heavens. Looking closely at Guo Xi’s work, one finds that as the eye progresses up the mountain, earthly reality is left further behind. While workers and travelers populate the lower regions of the scene, a temple is situated in its heights.
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.”
Clunas, Craig. Art in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Foong, Ping. “Guo Xi’s Intimate Landscapes and the Case of Old Trees, Level Distance.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 35 (2000): 87–115.
Harrist, Robert E., Jr. Painting and Private Life in Eleventh-Century China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Hearn, Maxwell K. Cultivated Landscapes: Reflections of Nature in Chinese Painting with Selections from the Collection of Marie-Helene and Guy Weill. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.
Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China, 5th ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
Thorp, Robert L., and Richard Ellis Vinograd. Chinese Art and Culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.