My ongoing look into Japanese and Chinese painting has turned up a few new/old ideas, and blown me away with some new discoveries. It’s becoming quite clear why I felt attracted to it; these are themes I’ve written on before in the context of my own photography (e.g. here and here).
The first idea is about the level of abstraction frequently present. Many of those mountains and rivers seem as much about shapes and textures as about landscape, more evocative than representational. Sometimes there’s an interesting mix of broad abstraction and realistic detail, as in the thousand-year-old Travelers amid Mountains and Streams by Fan Kuan, shown at left.
A second realization is that, like similar works at different times, this one by Fan Kuan smacks of the sublime. This is evident in the language used to describe it by historian Patricia Ebrey (Cambridge Illustrated History of China, or Wikipedia):
Jutting boulders, tough scrub trees, a mule train on the road, and a temple in the forest on the cliff are all vividly depicted. There is a suitable break between the foreground and the towering central peak behind, which is treated as if it were a backdrop, suspended and fitted into a slot behind the foreground. There are human figures in this scene, but it is easy to imagine them overpowered by the magnitude and mystery of their surroundings.
In an interesting side note, Buddhist concepts led some painters to experiment with random (or “automatic”) techniques. For example, Wang Mo (died c. 805) even prefigured Pollock: he
painted only when drunk. He would spatter ink on a piece of silk, laughing and singing all the while. “He would kick at it, smear it with his hands, sweep his brush about or scrub with it, here with pale ink, there with dark. Then he would follow the configurations thus achieved, to make mountains or rocks, or clouds or water.”
Early Spring, Liu Guosong, 1966
But the most exciting discovery for me was the more recent work of a group of Taiwanese artists that called themselves Fifth Moon (or, less poetically, May). Mainly active in the early 1960s, they married modernist abstraction with classic Chinese influences. One of the Fifth Moon painters, Liu Guosong (old-style: Liu Kuo-sung) had studied and worked in a modern Western style, until he saw in 1960 an exhibition of major Song dynasty paintings: “…when I stood in front of Fan Kuang’s ‘Travel in the Mountains’ for the first time I felt that the mountain bore down on me and I experienced a wave of power rushing towards me.” (There’s that sublime again…)
Running Spring, Liu Guosong
Wintry Mountains Covered with Snow, Liu Guosong, 1964
Much of the earlier Fifth Moon painting, like traditional ink painting, was monochrome. It also often had a strong sense of calligraphy, an important (and abstracting) influence throughout Asian art. Color, though usually muted, became more common later on.
Another favorite Fifth Moon artist is Che Chuang, whose father was, in fact, a famous calligrapher. I don’t have decent images of his earlier paintings, but some of his later ones are shown below.
Bottom of the Valley, Che Chuang
Abstract I, Che Chuang, 1985
In comparison, this 21st century American photographer still has far to go. He’s considering taking a brush with him on his next trip to the mountains.