The Making of a National Treasure II

Select Masterpieces of Painting and Calligraphy from the Song Dynasty

By National Palace Museum

Literary Gathering (AD 960-AD 1279) by HuizongNational Palace Museum

Introduction

This exhibit presents a selection of National Treasures from the National Palace Museum's collection. The second part of this series features select masterpieces from the Song dynasty, including representative examples by Zhao Ji (Emperor Huizong, 1082-1135), 

Zhao Gou (Emperor Gaozong, 1107-1187), and Su Hanchen (12th c.). Many of these works, by some of the greatest artists over the ages, are renowned in the annals of Chinese art history.

Calligraphy of the Four Song Masters (AD 960-AD 1279) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Calligraphy of the Four Song Masters

Verified and declared by the Ministry of Culture in January 2015 as a National Treasure.      

Calligraphy of the Four Song Masters (AD 960-AD 1279) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The first section of this handscroll is the “Haiyu” modelbook, a letter written by Cai Xiang in his thirties to his friend Han Qi and an excellent example of Northern Song calligraphy in the style of Yan Zhenqing (709-785). 

The second section is “Poetry in Rhyme for the Master of the Three Colleges” done by Su Shi at the age of 52. Steady and firm, the calligraphy is not confined to conventional methods and serves as a classic example of Su’s free-spirited style.

The third is “Letter to Mingshu” by Huang Tingjian, in which the movement includes the methods of Huaisu’s (737-799) brush turns. Strong and thorough, the character forms slant mostly to the right, creating for a high-spirited feeling. 

The fourth section is the “Daowei” modelbook done by Mi Fu at the age of 49. It ranges greatly from light to heavy and fast to slow, being a masterful work in terms of technique and spirit.

In the early Qing dynasty, the collector Li Zongkong (1620-1689) had these four treasures of Northern Song calligraphy mounted together, the handscroll becoming a standard bearer for the study of Chinese calligraphy.

Strange Peaks and Myriad Trees (AD 960-AD 1279) by Yan Wengui (967-1044)National Palace Museum

Strange Peaks and Myriad Trees

Verified and declared by the Ministry of Culture in April 2011 as a National Treasure.      

Strange Peaks and Myriad Trees (AD 960-AD 1279) by Yan Wengui (967-1044)National Palace Museum

This painting depicts the scenery of high mountains with distant peaks appearing above clouds and a rising foreground enveloped in mist. The three groups of mountain forms skillfully echo each other, the blank areas of clouds and mist highlighting them further. Despite the small size of the painting, it nonetheless gives the effect of a broad vista. 

The rock faceting in particular has been created with many texture strokes and washes that form the surface quality, the brushwork similar to that of Li Tang (ca. 1070-after 1150). It would thus stylistically make this work a transitional piece between Li’s “Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys” and “Intimate Scenery of River and Mountains”.

 This album leaf bears neither seal nor signature of the artist, the traditional title label giving the present title and the attribution to Yan Wengui. 

However, stylistic comparison shows it to be unrelated to Yan, a court painter active in the Northern Song period. Rather, it is a masterful work of the early Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) influenced by Li Tang.

Bamboo in Monochrome Ink (AD 960-AD 1279) by Wen Tong (1018-1079), Song dynastyNational Palace Museum

Bamboo in Monochrome Ink

Verified and declared by the Ministry of Culture in March 2012 as a National Treasure Restricted Display Work.      

Bamboo in Monochrome Ink (AD 960-AD 1279) by Wen Tong (1018-1079), Song dynastyNational Palace Museum

Wen Tong (style name Yuke) was gifted at poetry and prose as well as calligraphy, being also credited with inventing the genre of ink bamboo painting. He was praised by later generations as founder of the “Huzhou School” in this subject matter.
       

This painting depicts bamboo extending into the composition from the upper left, probably growing from a cliff left unseen. The stalk is twisting and strong like a dragon with the knots left blank, the strokes suggesting a connection between the forms. 

Rendered with centered brushwork, the tip of the brush turns and flies. Complemented by the light and dark tones of ink, the painting appears to have been done at one go, completely and dynamically expressing the turning leaves and branches. 

The motifs, lively and realistic, testify to the period trend in Northern Song painting of grasping the underlying principles of objects. Although unsigned, this work is rare for its exceptional quality, and the two seals of Wen Tong impressed on it undoubtedly point to him as the artist, making this a representative example of Northern Song literati ink painting.
 

Literary Gathering (AD 960-AD 1279) by HuizongNational Palace Museum

Literary Gathering

Verified and declared by the Ministry of Culture in March 2012 as a National Treasure.      

Literary Gathering (AD 960-AD 1279) by HuizongNational Palace Museum

This painting depicts a group of scholars in a garden by a pond enjoying a banquet. A large lacquered table has been placed under a tree with all kinds of tableware and food on it. 

In the foreground is a group of young attendants around a small table preparing tea. The figures are all spirited and elegant with clear expressions, while the objects and garden motifs are painstakingly rendered, indicating most likely a fine work of Huizong’s Painting Academy.

Judging from the inscriptions by Huizong and his minister Cai Jing at the top of the painting, it may be surmised that the contents are related to the historical event of the Eighteen Scholars depicted in “Ascending to the Isles of Immortality” in the Tang dynasty (618-907). 

Although the painting is beautiful and exacting, it still has a scholarly air that fully represents the requirements of and results sought by Huizong for his Painting Academy. Both in terms of quality and research value, it is a rare and important work.

Children at Play in an Autumnal Garden (AD 960-AD 1279) by Su Han-chen (fl. mid-12th c.)National Palace Museum

Children at Play in an Autumn Garden

Provisionally classified by the National Palace Museum as a National Treasure Restricted Display Work.      

Children at Play in an Autumnal Garden (AD 960-AD 1279) by Su Han-chen (fl. mid-12th c.)National Palace Museum

Su Hanchen was a Painter-in-Attendance during the Xuanhe reign (1119-1125) of the late Northern Song. After the Song house was reestablished in the south, he joined the Painting Academy again in the Shaoxing reign (1131-1162) of Emperor Gaozong. Early in the following Longxing reign, and because of his attainment in Buddhist painting, Su was awarded the prestige title of Gentleman of Trust. He excelled at depicting religious, figural and especially children subjects.

This painting depicts a tall garden rock with hibiscus and chrysanthemum competing in bloom, creating a scene overflowing with a sense of autumn. A girl and her younger brother stand next to a round stool as they focus on a game of “spinning dates.” 
 

On the stool and ground to the right are other objects of play, such as a turning wheel, toy pagoda, and cymbals.   
 

The rendition of the children and their toys is meticulous and naturalistic, the animated color washes making this truly a masterpiece.

Another work in the National Palace Museum collection, “Children at Play on a Winter Day,” is similar in size and painting method, suggesting they might have originally been part of a set of four on children playing during the seasons, of which only these two have survived.

 

The Ladies' Book of Filial Piety (Scroll 1) (AD 960-AD 1279) by GaozongNational Palace Museum

The Ladies’ Book of Filial Piety (Scroll 1)

Provisionally classified by the National Palace Museum as a National Treasure Restricted Display Work.      

The Ladies’ Book of Filial Piety was written by Madame Zheng, the wife of Houmo-Chen Miao, during the Tang dynasty (618-907). It deals with propriety and piety as well as rules of behavior on the part of women. Originally composed of eighteen sections, this handscroll only has half of them remaining. 

Mounted in an arrangement of alternating texts and images, the traditional label gives the Southern Song emperor Gaozong as the calligrapher and Ma Hezhi as the painter. Ma, a native of Qiantang, was a Presented Scholar during Gaozong’s Shaoxing reign (1131-1162) and a favored painter of him and his successor, Xiaozong. Ma’s brush method is noted for its untrammeled manner in a style of his own.
       

The outlines of the figures here are delicate and the facial features pure and beautifully refined. Though the brush and ink are exceptional, they do not correspond to those of Ma Hezhi but instead to the style of another thirteenth-century painter, Ma Lin. 
        

Furthermore, the inscription at the beginning attributed to Gaozong is closer to that of a later Southern Song ruler, Lizong (r. 1225-1264), suggesting this is a late Song court production of The Ladies’ Book of Filial Piety.
        

Plants and Insects in Autumn (AD 960-AD 1279) by Li Di (12th c.)National Palace Museum

Plants and Insects in Autumn

Verified and declared by the Ministry of Culture in April 2011 as an Important Historic Artifact.        

Plants and Insects in Autumn (AD 960-AD 1279) by Li Di (12th c.)National Palace Museum

 
Li Di was active from the Northern to Southern Song period as a court artist in the Painting Academy. He specialized in bird-and-flower, insect-and-grass, and dog-and-cat subjects, being an outstanding painter at the early Southern Song court in bird-and-flower and rock-and-bamboo themes.
      

This small work shows the leafy tips of some plants, on which a praying mantis raises its forelimbs in an apparent attempt to catch a beetle that has just flown away before becoming its next meal. The praying mantis, “empty-handed,” appears to look back at the beetle almost with a sense of dejection. 

This life-and-death moment in the insect world, shown in the contrast between pursuit and flight, is vividly captured by the painter to create tension in a serene setting. The delicate variations of hues in the painting, as well as the sensory appeal of plants and insects in this intimate scene, fully express the painter’s stylistic tradition in terms of the coloring and qualities sought in the Northern Song painting academy of Emperor Huizong (reigned 1101-1125).

The Buddha Preaching the Law (AD 960-AD 1279) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The Buddha Preaching the Law

Provisionally classified by the National Palace Museum as a National Treasure Restricted Display Work.      

The Buddha Preaching the Law (AD 960-AD 1279) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The Buddha, seated with legs crossed on a lotus pedestal, on either side a heavenly king as protectors of the Buddhist law, the great disciples Ananda and Mahakashyapa, and a bodhsattva making offerings. 

The Buddha has long eyebrows and delicate eyes for a refined yet majestic appearance, while the two heavenly kings wear armor and brandish a sword and lance to convey their fierce martial spirit. The figures in the painting all vary in terms of expression, each of them true to life.

The swelling forms of the bodhisattva figures and the ink shading to the drapery lines are vestiges of the late Tang dynasty (618-907) style. 

The indistinct “ushnisha” (head protuberance) of the Buddha and the small mark on the forehead are features of Song Buddha figures, suggesting this scroll was painted in the early part of the dynasty.

Kuan-yin of a Thousand Arms and Eyes (AD 960-AD 1279) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Guanyin of One Thousand Arms and Eyes

Verified and declared by the Ministry of Culture in April 2011 as a National Treasure Restricted Display Work.      

Kuan-yin of a Thousand Arms and Eyes (AD 960-AD 1279) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

A wide expanse of waves and surging clouds fill the composition of this painting as the Four Heavenly Kings support a lotus pedestal, on which stands Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion also known as Avalokitesvara. 

The Buddhist savior deity here has a thousand hands with eyes and 32 heads. The figure also has facial hair, indicative of being a male. However, the slender eyebrows and delicate eyes have a gentle and graceful appearance suggesting a more feminine quality. 
       

Above are Buddha figures and below the Eight Deva Kings. 

Attendant bodhisattvas are either in a reverential pose or hold religious implements to create a solemn and majestic setting.
       

The painting features fine and nimble strokes using a centered brush to depict Guanyin’s thousand arms and eyes, various hand gestures, religious implements, jewelry and heavenly robes, and bejeweled lotus pedestal. 

The coloring is beautiful but not vulgar, making for a dazzling sight to behold. Although bearing neither seal nor signature of the artist, the scroll is a masterpiece of Buddhist painting probably from the late twelfth century.
 

Credits: Story

"The Making of a National Treasure: Select Masterpieces of Painting and Calligraphy in the Museum Collection" (October 4 to December 25, 2017) is curated by Chief Curator Fang-Ju Liu and Assistant Curator Ling-Kuang Fang of the Department of Calligraphy and Painting at the National Palace Museum. © 2020 National Palace Museum  

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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