Painting and Printmaking

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Painting and Printmaking


Tang Painting. The great international successes of the Tang empire (618-907) provided Chinese artists with an excellent working environment and exposure to other cultures, leading to a wide range of artistic innovations. The rich myth of a supernatural universe gave way to a rational view of a mundane world. Depicting a tangible reality, Tang painting is vigorous, colorful, and optimistic. Various styles, techniques, and theories of painting all thrived. Generally speaking, Chinese painting uses dark outlines, a limited color palette, flat images, and a blank background. It is also known for its shifting (but not foreshortened) perspective. That is, while the Western painter generally locates the viewer in one spot and paints everything in the picture as it would appear from that viewpoint, the traditional Chinese painter employs multiple points of view in a

single work. Figure painting reached a new height during the Tang era. The most celebrated painter of the early Tang period, Yan Liben (died 673), is known for his lucid and ponderous portraits of emperors and scholars. He and his brother Yan Lide (died 656) brought about a renaissance in figure painting. The extremely influential Wu Daozi (circa 688 - 758), called the “Saint Painter,” was renowned for his realistic style, knowledge of anatomy, painting technique, vivid imagination, and enthusiasm. He painted hundreds of magnificent Buddhist murals and is well known for his habit of painting after bouts of heavy drinking. Court painters such as Zhang Xuan (flourished 713—741) and Zhou Fang (flourished 766-804) portrayed many beautiful palace ladies engaged in work or play. Known collectively as “Court Ladies on Silk,” the works of Zhang and Zhou are usually voluptuous, opulent portraits with rounded motifs and draperies. Gu Hongzhong (circa 910 - 980) realistically depicted various palace figures in his well-known painting Night Feast. The famous figure painters Li Zhen (flourished late eighth and early ninth centuries) and Sun Wei (flourished late ninth century) influenced many later painters. The inventor of ink-wash painting, Wang Wei (701-761) is called the father of monochrome landscape painting in ink and of the Southern School of painter-poets. He was also a writer, a musician, and scholar of Chan (Zen Buddhism). His painting has been called a harmonious fusion of painting and poetry, and he became a model for landscape painters of later generations. Zhang Zhao (flourished late eighth century) employed a new technique of “splashing ink,” which gave his pictures a sense of haziness and movement. Li Sixun (651-718) and his son Li Zhaodao (flourished 700), known as “Big Li” and “Little Li,” liked to use blue and green and to outline objects in a shade of gold. They created the School of Golden and Green Landscape Painting. The rise of flower and bird painting is attributed to Xue Ji (649-713), Jiang Jiao (flourished 720), Bian Luan (flourished late eighth century), and Diao Guangyin (flourished late in the Tang era). During the early or mid eighth century Cao Ba, Han Gan, and Wei Yan were well known for their paintings of horses and human figures. Han Kuang (723-787) and Dai Song (flourished late eighth century) specialized in genre paintings depicting cows, pastoral scenes, and peasant life. The ten-volume Lidai minghuaji (Records of Famous Paintings of All the Dynasties) by Zhang Yanyuan (circa 815 - circa 875) is the first comprehensive history of Chinese painting.

Five Dynasties Landscapes. During the chaotic period of the Five Dynasties (907-960), many painters secluded themselves in the mountains and began to paint landscapes on large screens, employing a shifting focus that suggests unlimited space. In viewing a single work the spectator might imagine himself looking at the same scene from the middle distance and from a great elevation. The Chinese

artist carefully selected the details he included in a painting, concentrating on what he felt was the true essence of his subject. A landscape represented nature as a whole; a spray of bamboo was a microcosm of the universe. Chinese classical artists painted the ideal they saw in the real, focusing on their interpretation of nature and humanity’s relationship with it. Chinese landscape painters tried to connect to four principles: the divine, in which there appears no trace of human effort; the sublime, which flows spontaneously from the artist’s brush as a result of his grasp of the universe and the nature and circumstances of all things; the marvelous, which possesses truth even though it may be contrary to reality; and skill, which allows the artist to piece together fragments of beauty into a masterpiece. The tenth-century artists known as the “Four Masters of Landscape Painting” included Jing Hao and his student Guan Tong, both of whom liked to depict the mountains and rivers of North China. Their paintings are bold and uninhibited, with vigorous strokes and grand vistas. The other two painters of this group were Dong Yuan and his student Ju Ran, who loved the topography of South China. Their paintings are charming and gentle, yet elegant and splendid.

Song Landscapes. Landscape painting reached the peak of its development during the Song dynasty (960-1279). Li Cheng (flourished tenth century) had a preference for wild fields, wintry scenes, broken bridges, stony crags, and gnarled trees with leafless branches. His personal feelings permeate his paintings. Fan Kuan (circa 950 - 1031) also liked to paint winter landscapes, as well as places popular with tourists. His paintings are magnificent, weighty, elegant, and misty with refined strokes and smooth rhythms. In the early eleventh century Guo Xi painted changing seasons and a variety of natural scenes. His painting theory is fully elaborated in his Linquan gaozhi (A Father’s Instructions), compiled and edited by his son Guo Si. Another important book on painting theory is Guo Ruoxu’s twelfth- or thirteenth-century Tuhua jianewenzhi (Record of Paintings). Wang Shen (1036-?) worked in the style of Li Cheng and Guo Xi, and liked to paint tiny horizontal scenes. Around the twelfth or thirteenth century, Ma Yuan preferred to depict “a corner of nature” and emphasize one part of a scene as a microcosmic representation of all nature. Ma Yuan was one of the “Four Master Painters” of the Southern Song dynasty, a group that also included Li Tang (circa 1066-1150), Liu Songnian, and Xia Gui. They changed the painting style of the Northern Song period (960-1125) by combining landscape painting and figure painting, using empty spaces to depict substance, and replacing complexity with simplicity. Mi Fei (1057-1107) and his son Mi Youren (1086-1165) brought the romantic, intimate style of the Literati Painters to landscape painting. Their paintings were known collectively as “The Landscapes of the Mi Family.”

Yuan Landscapes. Landscape painting continued to flourish during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Combining the painting styles of Dong and Ju, Gao Kegong (1248-1310) exercised great influence. Huang Gongwang (1269-1354), Wang Meng (1301-1385), Ni Zan (1301-1374), and Wu Zhen (1280-1354) were called the “Four Masters” of the Yuan dynasty. They were Daoists or Chan Buddhists who were

aloof from the world and immersed themselves in nature. Their paintings have religious implications of transcendence and enlightenment. Another group of landscape artists— including Tang Di (1296-1364), Zhu Derun (1294-1365), and Cao Zhibai (1272-1355)—painted in a style resembling that of Li Cheng and Guo Xi.

The Painting Academy and the Literati Painters. An Imperial Painting Academy existed in some form as early as the Five Dynasties period (907-960) but did not develop as a full-scale formal entity until it became an integral part of the civil-examination system during the Song dynasty. This development was encouraged by Emperor Huizong Zhao Ji (1082-1135), who was an incompetent ruler but an excellent painter of flowers and birds. Painting Academy artists became known as the Literati Painters. The Painting Academy tightly controlled subject matter and style, emphasizing intellectual agility, elitist elegance, exquisite precision, delicate taste, colorful expression, and faultless drawing. The result was often stiff composition. Painters from western China played an important role. The eleventh-century painter Cui Bai, who was already well known when the emperor ordered him to join the academy, brought a fresh style to the school. Su Shi (1037-1101), Wen Tong (1018-1079), and Mi Fei, were intuitive, playful, witty, and romantic, creating vivid works with simple compositions and shapes but rich implications. They were gentlemen first and painters second, playing with their paintings.

Flower and Bird Painting. The rise of the Literati Painters brought changes to flower and bird painting. Xu Xi (flourished tenth century) and Huang Quan (903-968) occupied a similar rank in the history of Chinese painting but employed different painting styles. Xu emphasized the application of ink, and Huang—who, as an imperial painter, painted in a style that reflected the taste of the emperor—is known for his use of color. By the Song dynasty, flower and bird painting had become realistic and popular. Distinctive regional painting styles and distinct schools of painters developed, and the Academic School of Huang enjoyed a dominant position in the genre. During the Southern Song dynasty the school shrank to a small group who emphasized detail and careful line drawing. The monk Fa Chang (flourished thirteenth century) and Li Di (flourished early twelfth century) were masters of flower and bird painting. Fa Chang invented an ink-splash style that revealed the aesthetic perception and emotional state of the painter, emphasizing simple composition and images. Li Di’s poetic paintings had strict composition and were executed with steady, lively strokes. Yuan painters of flowers and birds continued to be influenced by Literati Painting and developed a solemn and simple style that combined heavy ink and light color. Among the best-known flower and bird painters of the period are Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), Li Gan (1245-1320), Ke Jiusi (1290-1343), and Wang Mian (died 1359)—known as the “Four Gentlemen” painters of the Yuan dynasty. By the Ming dynasty many Literati painters had developed a casual and unconstrained attitude to life. The ink-splash style, which does not require meticulous detail and neat strokes, became the tool by which they could express their hopes in a playful way. Lin Liang (late fifteenth century), Chen Chun (1483-1544), and Xu Wei (1459-1508) were influential ink-splash flower and bird painters.

Figure Painting. During the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms periods, religious influences in painting began to decline, and the themes of figure painting became increasingly secular. Realism dominated figure painting. During the early part of the Song dynasty, Wu Zongyuan (died 1050) painted religious works in the style of Tang artist Wu Daozi, and Shi Ge (flourished tenth century) and Sun Zhiwei (976-1022) revealed Daoist mysteries in paintings known for their wild and unconventional style. Yet, most Song painters concentrated on secular themes. Among them, Mu Xi and Ruo Feng worked with brevity, clarity, and simplicity, painting at a pace identical to the rapidity of their thought. Liang Kai (circa twelfth or thirteenth centuries) was unconstrained both in his

personality and his painting. His style is simple. His method of “reducing” brush strokes is in striking contrast to the style of Li Gonglin (1049-1106), who developed the traditional line-drawing technique and created a simple and clear method of delineation. Song-dynasty figure painting tended to be realistic, exquisite, and vivid, focusing on the personality of the subject. Song painters broadened their subject matter, painting portraits of working people such as peasants, fishermen, and woodcutters. As a result of Mongol suppression and conflicts between the majority and minorities during the Yuan dynasty and the despotism of the early Ming dynasty, painters lost interest in figure painting. Not until late in the Ming period, when the economy developed and the merchant class arose, did figure painting began to revive. Chen Hongshou (1598-1652), the best of the Ming figure painters, developed a style that tended to exaggerate forms and used rounded, vigorous strokes to emphasize the personalities of his subjects. Learning from Western art, Zeng Jing (1566-1650) reformed traditional Chinese painting technique and formed the Pochenpai (School of Barbarian Officials), which eventually dominated the field of figure painting.

Genre Painting. Qingming Festival on the River, painted during the twelfth century by Zhang Zeduan, is an historic painting, which—along with Wang Juzheng’s Weaving, depicting rural women—contributed a great deal to the development of genre painting. Zhang’s painting realistically depicts market life in Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song dynasty. The original work was painted on a scroll that was longer than the surviving seventeen feet, which shows in great detail a bustling main thoroughfare crowded with officials, noblewomen, peddlers, laborers, carpenters, and peas-ants at a festival along the banks of the Bian River. The composition is magnificent and multilayered, offering a grand view as well as subtle portraits. This painting is reminiscent of a mural painted at the Temple of Yanshang during the Jin dynasty (1115-1234). During the Yuan dynasty, figure painting declined among the literati but not folk painters, who depicted human figures on the walls of tombs or temples. The best collections of folk genre paintings are the murals in the Guangshengshi (Temple of Wide Victory) in Hongdong County and in the Yonglegong (Palace of Perpetual Happiness) in Yongji County, both in Shanxi Province.

Writings about Painting. During the Yuan dynasty scholarly works on painting theory—such as Tuhui baojian (Valuable Examination of Paintings) by Xia Wenyan (flourished thirteenth century) appeared along with scholarly works on painting technique—such as Xie shanshuijue (Key to Landscape Painting) by Huang Gongwang and Huazhupu (Guide to Bamboo Painting) by Li Gan. Various theories were also scattered in writings by the Yuan Literati, including Zhao Mengfu’s claim that brush technique should be the same in painting and calligraphy. During the Ming dynasty, Dong Qichang (1555-1636) accounted for the divergence of the Northern and Southern Schools of painting in his Huazhi (The Objective of Painting).

The Zhe School and the Wu School. The Ming dynasty endeavored to restore the tradition of the Han emperors (206 B.C.E. - 220 C.E.) and the Song system, which included the restoration of the Painting Academy. Ming despots sup-pressed the creativity of painters until a group of painters in the Zhejiang area, including Dai Jin (1388-1462) and Wu Wei (1459-1508), developed a new painting style known as the “Zhe School” or the “Northern School.” Influenced by the Song-era landscape paintings of Li Tang and Ma Yuan, the Zhe School paid great attention to technique but was not restrained by convention. By the middle of the Ming era the painters of the “Wu School” or “Southern School”—who lived in the area of Suzhou, which was then an economic and cultural center—gradually replaced the Zhe group as the leading school. The Wu School included the so-called Four Masters of Ming painting: Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), Tang Yin (1470-1523), and Qiu Yin (flourished sixteenth century). Tang Yin, who was also called Tang Bohu, was called “the first truly great man of the south,” and some scholars classify Qiu Yin as a member of the Painting Academy School. The Wu School focused on tradition, technique, and use of brush and ink. Their paintings are poetic, elegant, cultured, and much looser in style than those of the Zhe School. The Zhe School enjoyed a kind of revival in the late Ming era because of the paintings of Lan Ying (1585-1664) and his Martial School (wulin, the ancient name of Hangzhou).

Printmaking. Printing pictures from carved wooden blocks originated as a tool for preaching during the Sui dynasty (589-618) and rapidly developed during the Song and Yuan dynas-ties with the rise of new technology and the printing business. Wood-block printing reached new heights in quality and quantity during the Ming dynasty. Realistic, detailed prints were used in all kinds of publications, including novels, plays, classics, history books, biographies, and scientific documents. They were also used to promote plays and novels. Wood-block prints made in Beijing and Jianan are plain and rough and usually placed on the upper half of a page with printed text beneath. Diverging from the “School of Jianan,” the “Jinling School” of Nanjing enlarged its prints to a full page. Its style became quite detailed, with sharp and powerful lines, though its human figures were unsophisticated and naive. The best wood-block prints were made by the “School of Hui” in Xinan (Huizhou), Anhui Province. Hui prints include accurately depicted human figures and vivid images. The excellent carving skills of their creators are apparent in their fine lines.


Cheng Chen-to, Xu Bangda, and Zhang Anzhi, Qingmingshanghe tuyanjiuyu xinshang (Hong Kong: Scene Press, 1978).

Craig Clunas, Art in China (Oxford Sc New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

He Yanzhe, Zhongguo huihua shiyao (Tianjin, China: People’s Arts Press, 2000).

Laurence Sickman and Alexander Soper, The Art and Architecture of China (New York: Penguin, 1984).

Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China, fourth edition, expanded and revised (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Nicole Vandier-Nicolas, Chinese Painting: An Expression of a Civilization, translated by Janet Seligman (New York: Rizzoli, 1983).

Zhou Baozhu, “Qingming shanghe tu”yu Qingming shanghe xue (Kaifeng: Henan University Press, 1996).