Guo Xi and the Great Emptiness – in Times of the Collapse of the West – I
by Nora Hoppe and Tariq Marzbaan on 19 Aug 2022 0 Comment

Foreword: This contribution does not intend to provide a profound analysis or exhaustive essay on the complex and rich history of Song Dynasty painting. It intends to offer a modest, cursory glimpse into classical Chinese thought… which can offer us valuable lessons for our views of the world and the cosmos as the Western world continues to collapse.


Guo Xi (c. 1020 – c. 1090) was a landscape painter and from Wenxian in the Henan Province who lived during the Northern Song dynasty. Early in his career as an artist, he painted a vast number of screens, scrolls and murals on the walls of major palaces and halls. Producing monumental landscape paintings that featured mountains, pine trees and scenery enveloped in mist and clouds, he served as a court painter under Emperor Shenzong (who reigned 1068–1085) and was tasked with painting the walls of the newly built palace in the capital. Guo was promoted to the highest position of Painter-in-Attendance in the court Hanlin Academy of Painting.


Asked why he decided to paint landscapes, Guo Xi answered: “A virtuous man takes delight in landscapes so that in a rustic retreat he may nourish his nature, amid the carefree play of streams and rocks, he may take delight, that he might constantly meet in the country fishermen, woodcutters, and hermits, and see the soaring of cranes and hear the crying of monkeys. The din of the dusty world and the confinement of human habitations are what human nature habitually abhors; on the contrary, haze, mist, and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what the human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find.”


The Song Dynasty


The Song dynasty (960–1279 AD), founded by Emperor Taizu of Song (following his usurpation of the throne of the Later Zhou Dynasty, ending the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period), was a culturally rich and sophisticated age for China. It saw great advancements in the visual arts, music, literature, philosophy, science, mathematics, technology and engineering. Officials of the ruling bureaucracy, who underwent a strict and extensive examination process, reached new heights of education in Chinese society, while Chinese culture was enhanced and promoted by widespread printing, growing literacy, and various arts.


The expansion of the population, growth of cities, and emergence of a national economy led to the gradual withdrawal of the central government from direct involvement in economic affairs. The lower gentry assumed a larger role in local administration and affairs. Social life during the Song was vibrant. Citizens gathered to view and trade precious artworks, the populace intermingled at public festivals and private clubs, and cities had lively entertainment quarters. The spread of literature and knowledge was enhanced by the rapid expansion of woodblock printing and the 11th-century invention of movable-type printing. Philosophers such as Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi reinvigorated Confucianism with new interpretations, infused with Buddhist ideals, and instituted a new organization of classic texts that established the doctrine of Neo-Confucianism.


The dynasty was divided into two periods: Northern Song and Southern Song. There was a significant difference in painting trends between the Northern Song period (960–1127) and Southern Song period (1127–1279). The paintings of Northern Song officials were influenced by their political ideals of bringing order to the world and tackling the largest issues affecting the whole of their society, hence their paintings often depicted huge, sweeping landscapes. On the other hand, Southern Song officials were more interested in reforming society from the bottom up and on a much smaller scale, a method they believed had a better chance for eventual success.


The Song court maintained diplomatic relations with Chola India, the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt, Srivijaya, the Kara-Khanid Khanate in Central Asia, the Goryeo kingdom in Korea, and other countries that were also trade partners with Japan. Chinese records even mention an embassy from the ruler of “Fu lin” (i.e. the Byzantine Empire), Michael VII Doukas, and its arrival in 1081.


During the Song dynasty art reached a new level of sophistication with the further development of landscape painting, works of which are today considered some of the greatest artistic monuments in the history of Chinese visual culture. The painting of landscapes or shan shui, (the literal translation of the Chinese term for landscape – “shan” meaning mountain, and “shui” meaning river) in the Song period was grounded in Chinese philosophy.


“Zao Chun Tu” (“Early Spring”) of Guo Xi


Guo Xi’s Early Spring, considered one of the greatest works in the history of Chinese art, is an enormous hanging scroll that portrays a large mountain and its nature within in a constant state of metamorphosis. The painting seems alive with movement as Yin turns into Yang and vice versa. The painter achieved this feeling of rhythmic motion by alternating areas of dark ink and unpainted surface, massive rock and airy valleys, and dense foliage and light mist.


One of Guo Xi’s techniques was to layer ink washes and texture strokes to build up credible, three-dimensional forms. Strokes particular to his style include those on “cloud-resembling” rocks, and the “devil’s face texture stroke,” which is seen in the somewhat pock-marked surface of the larger rock forms.


“The angle of totality”


With his innovative techniques for producing multiple perspectives, Guo was aiming for something he called “the angle of totality.” Because a painting is not a window, there is no need to imitate the mechanics of human vision and view a scene from only one spot! Guo is particularly concerned with the effect that distance has on viewing a landscape, and how detachment and nearness can change the appearance of a single object multiple times. This type of visual representation is also called “Floating Perspective”, a technique that displaces the static eye of the viewer and highlights the differences between Chinese and Western modes of spatial representation.


Unlike the aspiration central to Western landscape painting – to paint a particular location from a fixed standpoint, Chinese landscape painting aimed to incorporate the essence of thousands of mountains, the accumulated sights of a lifetime into one composite landscape. Thus, to look upon a landscape painting in the Chinese tradition was to feel connected to the full scope of places and living things.


The relationship between humankind and the mountain being sought in Guo Xi’s painting is one of compatibility, participation, and interconnectedness. According to Guo Xi’s own words, cited by his son in his treatise “The Lofty Message of Forests and Streams”, “The mountain lives only in the act of wandering. The mountain’s form changes with every step. A mountain seen up close has one aspect, and it has another a few miles away, and yet another one from further away. Its shape changes with each step. The front view of a mountain has one view, another view from the side and another from behind. Its appearance changes from every angle, as many times as it does the point of view. So, it is necessary to realize that a mountain combines in itself several thousand shapes.”


These comments suggest that the mountain is only conceivable from multiple standpoints, as if one were wandering through it. If we look carefully at the bottom, middle, and top sections of Guo Xi’s painting in this way, we will see an illustration of shifting perspectives, a typical feature in Chinese landscape painting. The bottom three boulders with accompanying trees seem to be viewed as if we are standing above them; the middle register looks as if we are viewing it straight on; and the top portion, the regal summit, seems to be viewed from below. We are constantly adjusting our eyes to take in a fresh point of view. Guo Xi called this exercise “viewing the form of a mountain from each of its faces”. The viewer thus becomes a traveller in the painting, which offers him the experience of moving through space and time.


Like many other rare early works from the imperial art collection, Early Spring resides today in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. It was among the masterpieces appropriated there in 1949 when Chiang Kai-Shek’s army fled mainland China after the victory of the Communists in the Civil War.


Linquan Gaozhi – “The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams”


A text entitled “Linquan Gaozhi” (“The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams”) is a collection of remarks and statements of Guo Xi that was compiled by his son, Guo Si with his own annotations and which became one of the greatest treatises on the theory of landscape painting in China.


In an excerpt from the “Treatise on Mountains and Waters” Guo Xi remarks: “The clouds and the vapours of real landscapes are not the same in the four seasons. In spring they are light and diffused, in summer rich and dense, in autumn scattered and thin, and in winter dark and solitary. When such effects can be seen in pictures, the clouds and vapours have an air of life. The mist around the mountains is not the same in the four seasons. The mountains in spring are light and seductive as if smiling; the mountains in summer have a blue-green colour, which seems to be spread over them; the mountains in autumn are bright and tidy as if freshly painted; the mountains in winter are melancholic and tranquil as if sleeping.


In this treatise Guo Xi’s son describes how his father received special recognition from the emperor for these magnificent works, and how the artist would spend days in silent contemplation before undertaking a mural, at which point, having prepared himself mentally, he would produce entire paintings in a single burst of creation. Indeed Guo Xi would likely have been harried by his workload day in and day out, without the leisure for such introspection. However, Guo Si describes his father’s works over and over as being imbued with spirit, insisting that they are not mere journeyman pieces but rather the “works” of an artist of the highest cultural refinement.


According to Maromitsu Tsukamoto, Associate Professor at Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, one particular passage by Guo Si captures his father’s true thoughts: “…My father, Guo Xi, told me: ‘The Tang poet Du Fu, seeing a landscape painting by the famous shan shui painter Wang Zai, declaimed ‘Ten days to paint one stream! Five days to paint one rock!’ And my response: ‘Yet it is exactly thus!’… Guo Xi’s protest that one must not be hasty, that one cannot produce good work without putting in the proper time, was surely his frank and honest intention, overwhelmingly busy as he was painting enormous murals for the imperial court. The complex affection in these words uttered between parent and child a thousand years ago, together with those works, evoke a deep sympathy even in those of us living in today’s contemporary world.”


(To be concluded …)

Courtesy The Saker 

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