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Early period

Buddhist Painting

Tang Dynasty

Sung Dynasty

Yuan Dynasty

Ch'ing Dynasty


Early Period

Chinese Painting, which had begun in the late Chou dynasty, flourished during the Han. Tombs were still the primary focus for artists and architects, and the most popular subjects of paintings were the afterlife and legends of ancient heroes. In these paintings is evident the attempt, not found in earlier Chinese art, to depict space and distance. During the Han period the first landscape elements appear in painting; at this early stage, however, they are restricted to small trees or mountains. Historical texts from this era indicate that large portraits of the emperors adorned the palace and that murals were often painted in the royal residences. Unfortunately, all traces of this artwork have been lost.

 

Buddhist Painting

Although Buddhist art dominated much of the Six Dynasties' achievements, secular traditions were also changing. Ku K'ai-chih, considered the father of landscape painting, worked during this period. Three paintings are attributed to his hand, although probably only copies remain. They include two versions of the Fairy of the Lo River story (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and Palace Museum, Beijing) and the scroll entitled Admonitions of the Instructress to the Ladies of the Court (British Museum, London). The figures and landscape elements in his work have a formal, almost stiff quality, but they also possess a delicacy and an ethereal character that continue throughout the long landscape tradition of Chinese art.

 

Tang Dynasty

Although Buddhist painting continued to be important in the Tang period, the secular landscape tradition dominated the pictorial arts. Three painters' names survive, along with probable copies of their work. Wang Wei, a reclusive landowner, preferred snowscapes, such as a copy formerly in the Ch'ing household collection and now presumably lost. A model for later amateur painters, Wang Wei's work displays an intimacy and quiet melancholy that found favor among later artists. In contrast to the style of Wang Wei is the style of a father and son, Li Ssu-hsun and Li Chao-tao (flourished about 670-735). A Sung-period copy in their style, Ming Huang's Journey to Shu (National Palace Museum, T'aipei, Taiwan), documents the exile of a Tang monarch. It is done in bright greens and blues like many Tang landscape paintings. The monumental quality of the T'aipei painting-with its outcropped rocky ledges and heavily foliated trees-presents an impressive panorama. This style differed considerably from the simpler compositions of such painters as Wang Wei.Portrait painting, which began in the Han era, was refined in the Tang period. Emperors customarily commissioned portraits of themselves and of past rulers for the imperial collection. One example, portraying 13 rulers from the Han to Sui dynasty, was executed by Yen Li-pen, the foremost Tang portraitist (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Burial chambers were also decorated with the painted likenesses of the deceased and family members.

 

Sung Dynasty

Chinese Painting, with its many different schools and styles, is often cited as the greatest achievement of Sung art. A royal painting academy was established, and many fine artists were patronized by the court. Bird and flower themes were always popular with the royal family, as were portraits of favorite pets and children. Many Sung paintings of these subjects became the standards by which later works were judged. Copied again and again through the centuries, the courtly floral and portrait styles of Sung painting have been continued by many present-day Chinese painters.The Sung period is best known, however, for landscape painting. In the Northern Sung period (960-1126), painters often favored a monumental style, creating awesome vistas. Such artists as Li Ch'eng (flourished 10th century) and Fan K'uan (flourished early 11th century) exemplify this style, with paintings of massive rocky cliffs punctuated by an occasional waterfall or a group of small figures. The brushwork in these paintings is often complex, with strokes repeated one over the other to create the illusion of texture. Also, at this time, the first wen-jen hua, or literati painting, appeared. The literati were amateurs who often disagreed with the styles fashionable at the royal academy and who produced their own distinctive landscapes. The Northern Sung practitioners of wen-jen hua preferred less grandiose subjects than did the official painters, often selecting a single tree or a rock with bamboo. This preference for simple subjects remained a characteristic of literati painting.

The Sung royal family was forced to flee southward in the 12th century and reestablished itself at the city of Hangzhou (Hangchow). During this portion of the dynasty, called the Southern Sung (1127-1279), the emperors' painting academy produced a style of landscape known as the Ma-Hsia school. The name is derived from its two greatest artists, Ma Yuan and Hsia Kuei. Drawing on the expansiveness found in the Northern Sung tradition, they created views with less brushwork. Mists became an important device to suggest landmass and to give the painting a light, ethereal quality. Ma Yuan was often called "one-corner Ma," as he would restrict much of his painting to a single corner of the work, leaving the rest blank. This technique enhanced the sensation of open space and suggested infinity, qualities much prized in the Ma-Hsia tradition.

In sharp contrast to the serenity of the work of Ma Yuan and Hsia Kuei stands the brush painting of the Ch'an, or Zen, monks. Followers of this branch of the Buddhist faith believed in the spontaneity of artistic creation, often producing paintings in a few frenzied minutes. The style, characterized by free and often loosely defined brushwork, was dismissed by the official academy painters as the work of "crazy drunkards." The independence of the Zen painting school became an important model in later centuries when more artists became disillusioned with the purely academic styles.

 

Yuan Dynasty

The styles of wen-jen painters differ considerably, but generally they used bolder and more assertive brushwork than the Southern Sung artists. Rocks and trees, downplayed in the Ma-Hsia tradition, are powerfully presented by the Yuan painters. Mists are no longer used to suggest distance and an interest in infinity, and spaciousness yields to a more dramatic concern with form. The group known as the Four Great Masters of the Yuan-Huang Kung-wang, Ni Tsan, Wu Chen, and Wang Meng-represent the diversity that characterizes this period. Landscape painting continued as the primary subject matter; areas of color and variations of brushwork were introduced that recall the earliest landscapists of the Tang era.

 

Ch'ing Dynasty

The court continued to patronize a royal painting academy, but the majority of its output lacked any significant qualities beyond the ability to imitate Sung styles. As had been the case in previous centuries, the most important painting came from the literati. Two distinct schools of wen-jen hua emerged in the Ch'ing: One group of painters clearly based its work on the masters of the Y?n period; the other, known as the individualists, practiced a freer, less restrained form of painting. The school that drew on Y?n inspiration included many notable artists. Wang Hui produced a massive number of works in the style of such painters as Huang Kung-wang and Tung Chi'i-ch'ang, but he also developed his own style of complex brushwork. Other painters, such as Hung-jen, mastered a single Y?n artist (in this case, Ni Tsan) by copying and working exclusively in that individual's style.

The other school of Ch'ing wen-jen artists rejected the orthodoxy of the adherents to Yuan models. Instead, emphasis was placed on the cultivation of a distinctly individual brushwork. Chu Ta, a Buddhist monk, worked in an unrestrained manner recalling the Zen painters of the Southern Sung. Although many of his figures appear distorted, they never become abstract; his rapidly executed birds and rocks retain their organic form. In a similar way, Tao Chi, also called Shih T'ao, infused his style with an understanding of nature, producing a sense of movement and vitality. He often increased the dynamism of his work by adding areas of blue or pink wash.

 

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