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Silent Poetry – Delicate Painting from the Southern Song Dynasty

  • #Calligraphy
  • #Painting


  Although literature and painting are two different modes of artistic expression, during the Southern Song dynasty, the surfaces of fans, albums, and small paintings were graced with no small number of paintings where “poetic sentiments merged with painted imagery.” These richly poetic, finely-painted, small-sized artworks are broadly referred to as “delicate paintings” in this exhibit. The creation of artworks where painting and poetry blend into one another can be traced back to Su Shi (1037-1101) and other Northern Song dynasty literati, who believed that paintings are “silent poetry” and that poems are “formless paintings” or “paintings made from sound.” Their stance stirred up a tsunami of artistic responses, and moreover, Northern Song dynasty emperor Huizong (1082-1135) enthusiastically supported the inscription of poetry atop paintings, further leading court painters to put the ideal of “poetry and painting merged as one” into practice.

  The works on display in this exhibition fall into five sections: “Poems in the Emperor’s Own Hand,” “Small Landscapes: Ease and Repose in the Empty Wilderness,” “The Pure Sounds of Mountains and Rivers,” “The Poetics of Palace Gardens,” and “The Joys of Floriculture.” The first section, “Poems in the Emperor’s Own Hand,” draws attention to the importance Southern Song dynasty emperors placed upon artistic refinement, their calligraphic talents, and their intimate familiarity with well-known poetic and lyric writings. Emperors were actively involved in the creation of poetry and paintings, and their calligraphic inscriptions of verse can be found on the works of court painters. The second section, “Small Landscapes: Ease and Repose in the Empty Wilderness,” aims at how many Southern Song dynasty delicate paintings used misty, sparse landscapes to create poetic ambience—a characteristic that in fact evolved from Northern Song dynasty “small landscape” painting.

  Section three, “The Pure Sounds of Mountains and Rivers,” guides visitors towards the profundities of landscape painting appreciation. During the Southern Song dynasty, depictions of the West Lake in Hangzhou and other scenery in the region south of the Yangtze River held primacy in landscape painting, but in subtle ways, the pervasive influence of the artistry of the Northern Song dynasty series of paintings “Eight Views of Xiaoxiang” can be detected in these works. The small-sized landscapes in this exhibit include scenes from the four seasons, ranging from dawn to dusk, creating the poetic sense of enjoying peace and quiet in a secluded slice of nature. This section displays two contrasting works, “Perched atop Boulders, Gazing upon Clouds” and “Dragging a Staff Beneath Pines,” in order to explore how the ethos of “silent poetry” and “paintings made from sound” from art criticism influenced Southern Song painting.

  The fourth section, “The Poetics of Palace Gardens,” highlights the overlap between the imagery found in poetry and ci lyrics and Southern Song dynasty palace garden landscapes. Members of the imperial clan employed paintings that recreated poetic imagery to express the romantic and aesthetic sentiments. The fifth and final section, “The Joys of Floriculture,” reflects the ways in which Southern Song dynasty paintings of flowers and plants are artistically interwoven with the charms of flower appreciation and poetic odes to flowers. We hope that visitors to this exhibit will enjoy themselves as they see the ways in which painting and poetry merged within the “delicate painting” of the Southern Song dynasty.

Publication: Silent Poetry – Delicate Painting from the Southern Song Dynasty