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The Art and Aesthetics of Form: Select Landscape Paintings of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

  • #Painting


The history of Chinese painting can be compared to a symphony. The styles and traditions in figure, landscape, and bird-and-flower painting formed themes that have continued to blend into a single piece of music. Painters, who make up this "orchestra," have composed and performed many movements and variations.

In the Song dynasty (960-1279), landscape painters such as Fan Kuan, Guo Xi, and Li Tang created new manners based on previous models. Guided by artistically-inclined emperors, painting at the Song court academy reached new heights. Moreover, Song scholars expanded the realm of visual expression beyond "formal likeness," marking the beginnings of literati painting as a new trend in art. The goal of literati painters in the following Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), including Zhao Mengfu and the Four Yuan Masters (Huang Gongwang, Wu Zhen, Ni Zan, Wang Meng), was in part to revive antiquity as a starting point for personal expression, giving revivalism a wide range of styles. These old "melodies" transformed into new individual "tunes" gradually developed into important traditions in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and this exhibition focuses on the tradition of landscape painting from these two periods.

Starting from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), painting is often distinguished into local schools, forming important clusters in the history of art. The “Wu School” in the Suzhou area, for example, followed the cultivated approach of scholar painting by the Four Yuan Masters. The "Zhe School," on the other hand, consisted mostly of artists from the Zhejiang and Fujian areas inspired by academic painting, creating a bold form of ink painting based on Southern Song models. Finally, Dong Qichang of Songjiang and later the Four Wangs (Wang Shimin, Wang Jian, Wang Hui, Wang Yuanqi) adopted the lofty literati goal of unifying ancient styles into a "grand synthesis" to render landscapes of the mind with brush and ink, yielding the vastly influential "Orthodox School."

The emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) not only supported the "Orthodox School" but also took an interest in Western painting (brought by European missionaries) involving volume and perspective, which was used for new interpretations of old models. Outside the court, the commercial city of Yangzhou became home to a group of so-called "eccentric" yet professional painters active in the flourishing art market. The styles and forms of expression among these artists were based on "non-orthodox" manners, which in turn transformed them into models for change and innovation among later generations.