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Exemplar of Heritage: Fan Kuan and His Influence in Chinese Painting


Fan Kuan (ca. 950-ca. 1031), a master of landscape painting in the Northern Song period, had his ancestral home in Huayuan (modern Yaozhou District, Tongchuan City, Shaanxi Province). Having the style name Zhongli (also reportedly named Zhongzheng with the style name Zhongli), he was easy-going by disposition and broad-minded. As a result, people in the Guanzhong region of Shaanxi, who used the term “kuan” (meaning “broad”) to describe someone deliberate, called him Fan Kuan. In painting, Fan first studied the styles of Li Cheng (916-967) and Jing Hao (fl. first half of the 10th c.), later spending years to observe Nature and develop his own approach. Among landscape paintings with Fan Kuan’s name, “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams” in the National Palace Museum is the one most highly regarded and widely accepted as from his hand. In Fan’s division of that painting into a tripartite composition of foreground, middle, and distance, he skillfully pushed the monumental mountain range back and pulled the foreground up close. In doing so, he not only highlighted the miniscule proportion of the travelers but also created a dramatic contrast with the majestic peaks, forming an impressive sight as if before the viewer’s eyes. And hidden among the trees to the lower right side of this large scroll are two characters for Fan Kuan’s name that represent his signature.

Another painting in the Museum collection, “Sitting Alone by a Stream,” though unsigned, is generally regarded as a fine early example in the Fan Kuan style. In this hanging scroll, the mountain peaks are dotted with thick forests, the outlines of the landscape forms rendered with heavy ink, and rocks jut out prominently in the foreground by the water. These characteristics can be traced back to Fan Kuan and are seen in his “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams.” The texture strokes in “Sitting Alone by a Stream,” however, reveal more formulaic “small axe-cut” texture strokes rendered with a slanted brush, suggesting a date not far from the time of Li Tang (ca. 1070-after 1150).

This special exhibition on Fan Kuan as “Exemplar of Heritage” includes 45 paintings. Based on their features, the display is divided into three sections: “The Heritage of ‘Travelers Among Mountains and Streams,’” “Paintings in Fan Kuan’s Name,” and “The Influence of Fan Kuan’s Style.” Together, they systematically present Fan Kuan’s art over the ages via works bearing his name and featuring his techniques, such as “raindrop texture strokes” and “dense alum-head forests,” thereby presenting a comprehensive arrangement of his heritage in Chinese painting. “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams” and “Sitting Alone by a Stream” are designated as “restricted” works for display, so they are being rotated in the first and second half of the exhibit, respectively, offering a feast for viewers’ eyes.