Traveling Among Mountains and Streams

An Introduction to Landscapes of Northern Song

Early Spring (Song Dynasty (11th Century)) by Guo XiNational Palace Museum


Ever since the Tang dynasty, landscape painting has been one of the most important expressions of the human spirit in Chinese culture. The political chaos in the ensuing Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, combined with regional differences, helped give rise to various manners of painting as the subject of landscapes entered a phase of pluralistic development. The ancient tradition of the landscape as a realm of immortals continued to hold an important place in the landscape painting of the Northern Song. There developed in the southern Kiangnan region the ideal of reclusion among mountains and rivers, infusing the landscape further with various ideas and activities. In addition, by imbuing landscape imagery with feelings of the artists, the facets of landscape painting increased even more. Traveling within the landscape, associated ideals, and seasonal changes can also be considered as major trends in landscape painting of the Northern Song. The National Palace Museum houses important works from just about every development that took place in the Song dynasty, including the three "national treasures" of Fan Kuan's "Travelers Among Mountains and Streams" (ca. 1000), Guo Xi's "Early Spring" (1072), and Li Tang's "Wind in the Pines Among a Myriad Valleys" (1124). Together, these three works present the finest achievements of landscape painting in the Northern Song and insight into developments that took place within more than a hundred years.

Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, Fan Kuan, Song Dynasty (10th Century) - Song Dynasty (Early 11th Century), From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Early Spring, Guo Xi, Song Dynasty (11th Century), From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys, Li Tang (circa 1070-after 1150), AD 960-AD 1279, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Travelers Among Mountains and Streams (Song Dynasty (10th Century) - Song Dynasty (Early 11th Century)) by Fan KuanNational Palace Museum

Travelers Among Mountains and Streams

Fan Kuan has long been considered a founding
master of Chinese landscape painting. Unfortunately, little is known about him. However, he apparently lived in reclusion in the Chung-nan and Tai-hua Mountains, and in later years traveled between
Kai-feng and Loyang. He never became an official and was still living around
1025. He was also a keen observer of nature and known for the saying, "If you are to have someone teach you, 'tis better to take all of nature as your teacher." "Travelers Among Mountains and Streams" is universally regarded as an authentic work of his and representative of Song landscape painting, especially the Northern Song
monumental manner. The artist's purpose here apparently was not to replicate
realistic space. With the dramatic contrast between tiny figures and towering central
mountains, the artist created an interesting scene placing the viewer in the
midst of a monumental landscape.

In this painting, Fan Kuan skillfully arranges the three levels of scenery (foreground, middleground, background) into a centralized and monumental landscape. The foreground consists of large rocky outcroppings in the lower center, the middle ground reveals a line of donkeys, and in the distance stands a towering mountain.

The central mountain dominates the whole painting.

A cascade as slender as silk falls from the heights above, the sounds of the stream ringing in the valley. The slight changes of ink here seem to hint at the cliff face that cannot be easily identified in the dark.

Heavy, trembling contours depict the rigid surface of the mountain. “Rain-dot strokes that fall like thick rain describe the steepness and solidness of the mountain.

By the cluster of rocks in the right foreground is a path on which a mule train makes its way. To the right of the mule train, among the leaves, is the signature of Fan Kuan.

Trees with twisted branches and protruding nodules grow on the tough rock, portrayed in powerful strokes that seem to etch out the image.

From the viewpoint of the regional style, scholars consider this painting as an ideal representative of northern landscape painting in China. Others, from its format of arrangement, believe this masterpiece embodies a shift in the compositional viewpoint that took place in Chinese painting at the time. In other words, the layered "high distance" composition derived from the Tang dynasty has been developed into a perfected realm, making this piece a representative of the "monumental landscape" painting of the Northern Song. From a more philosophical viewpoint of the "Tao" (Way), scholars also believe that this work expresses the ideal of a harmonious relationship between humans and nature.

Traveling through Brush and Ink-Travelers Among Mountains and Streams by Fan KuanNational Palace Museum

Early Spring (Song Dynasty (11th Century)) by Guo XiNational Palace Museum

Early Spring

Done in 1072, this is not only the finest
representative work of the master Guo Xi, it is also one of the most important
surviving milestones in the history of Chinese landscape painting. Under Emperor
Shen-tsung, Guo Xi entered service at court, and during the government reforms
of Grand Councilor Wang An-shih, his landscapes were used to furnish new
government offices and halls. This painting may very well have been one of these
works. The composition here is arranged in a symmetrical manner, but the sense
of order still reveals variations full of rhythm and movement. In addition, the
effect of light and dark achieved through the use of graded washes of ink also
add considerably to the illusory effect of space in this landscape. The
inclusion of such activities as boating, gathering firewood, and traveling takes
the painting further in transforming this artistic vision into one full of life,
a mystical realm where the viewer can travel and live.

The composition combines the techniques of tall, deep, and flat distances, making this an ideal landscape for walking, viewing, living, and traveling in the imagination.

Guo Xi entitled this work "Early Spring" and
signed it "Painted by Guo Xi in the Renzi year

With “cloud-head” texture strokes for the mountain forms and “crab-claw” strokes for the trees, the landscape seems to almost pulsate and flow.

Lofty halls and pavilions along with a thatched-­roof kiosk are tucked deep in the mountains. Mighty mountains complement this landscape in the far background.

On the right side, the boatmen are digging their poles into the water. The fisherman is fishing. These figures enrich the picture, adding new vitality into the landscape.

Down the left on the shore behind the rock, a thatched‐roofed hut and bamboo fence are exposed. A woman is holding a baby, two children are carrying loads on their shoulders while a dog is running around them.

Depictions of mountains, streams, woods and buildings as well as elements of less concrete forms, such as clouds and mists, haze, and atmosphere, reveals the extraordinary skills of the artist in terms of his manipulation of solid and void. The logical relationship between the mountains, rocks, trees, and water has also been explained by some scholars as symbolic of a harmonious and orderly relationship in nature and among people in an ideal empire.

Traveling through Brush and Ink-Early Spring by Guo XiNational Palace Museum

Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys (AD 960-AD 1279) by Li Tang (circa 1070-after 1150)National Palace Museum

Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys

Li Tang, native to Ho-yang, entered the Painting Academy under Hui-tsung at
the prime of his career. About thirty years later, he re-entered the Academy
after the Song re-established in the south under Kao-tsung. The axe-cut texture
strokes in ink that he developed strongly influenced later professional
painting. "Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys" offers precious evidence for Li Tang's art and the
transition from Northern to Southern Song landscape painting. The landscape here
consciously skirts past that of Li's predecessor Guo Xi and harks back to Fan
Kuan. However, the focus is no longer the monumentality of the mountain, but
rather the deep valley with windy pines and flowing water. Scientific
photography clearly shows the pine needles were once covered with thick, dark
green pigment and the original coloring of the mountains behind as being more
ochre. As such, one can imagine the clear spatial definition and rich effect of
light once evident here. The detailed interlacing combination of the flowing
water and its spray also create a realm full of energy.

With the main peak located in the center, clouds
wrap around high and low peaks on either side.

Li Tang's signature appears on a slender peak to the left and reads, “Painted by Li Tang of Heyang in spring of the Jiachen year (1124) of the Xuanhe Reign of the Great Song.”

The cliffs and peaks are imposing and rugged, and their texturing was done using brush strokes similar to wood chopped by an axe. The puffs of white clouds in the middleground not only appear to move, but also soften the features of the painting.

Cascades on either side of the central mountain fall from the heights, are broken up by the rock forms, and end up as the rushing stream in the left foreground.

Li Tang expanded the scale of the woods in the foreground while minimizing the major peak in the rear, making the scene more intimate to the viewer, and hence more comprehensible as a natural landscape.

"Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys" differs from the presentation of the previous two works.

Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, Fan Kuan, Song Dynasty (10th Century) - Song Dynasty (Early 11th Century), From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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In both "Travelers Among Mountains and Streams" and "Early Spring", though ordinary figures are shown as miniscule in relation to the mountains, the artists painstakingly rendered their status, clothing, actions, and expressions.

Early Spring, Guo Xi, Song Dynasty (11th Century), From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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This notion of realism and narrative derives from the travel landscapes of the Tang and Five Dynasties period. In the middle Northern Song, during the latter half of the 11th century, this reached a perfection of expression.

Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys (AD 960-AD 1279) by Li Tang (circa 1070-after 1150)National Palace Museum

The 12th century marks the last major imperial period of the Northern Song under Emperor Hui-tsung (r. 1101-1125). In his reign, painting was fused with poetry, and abstract images from literary sources and symbolic techniques were injected into painting. Here, "Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys" includes no narrative figures or buildings to distract from the focus of the scenery.

Rather, it uses the deep mountains, clouds, pines, waterfall, and rapids to suggest the theme of listening to wind rustling through pines deep in a valley...

...a motif often mentioned in poetry of the period.

Traveling through Brush and Ink-Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys by Li TangNational Palace Museum

Credits: Story

National Palace Museum

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