Tuesday, 7 February 2012

"Ripples from Heavens: A Glimpse into the Life of the Honourable Wei Yuan"

On the early morning of the fifth day of the 2nd month (杏月xìnɡ yuè), the official court painter Wei Yuan (魏源) was waiting in the Cinnabar Room, to be received by the Emperor Xuan Zong (玄宗, reign 712-756). The clouds in the sky were gently moving above the Imperial Palace like idle sheep and the air honeyed with the scent of the apricots blossoming, was slightly intoxicating. While waiting for the Imperial audience, Wei Yuan started to paint the celestial vault in his mind. He was about to apply a light ink wash with the tip of his brush - in the manner of his dear friend and painter Wang Wei (王維) - when he suddenly realised that someone was shouting his name, across the Cinnabar Room. 

Before it was too late, Wei Yuan put down his brush and started to walk into the direction of the voice. “His Majesty Emperor will receive you now”, said the voice. Wei Yuan followed the voice across the Imperial Gardens, the Longevity Room, the Imperial Birdhouse, the Imperial Concubines Apartments and finally, down the Spring Corridor to the Yellow Pavilion. Although no one was allowed to venture outside the Imperial Apartments before the Emperor has awakened, Wei Yuan could hear footsteps lightly pacing the wood floor and every now and then, whispers from behind the heavy lacquer doors. Wei Yuan and the voice had almost arrived to the Blue and Green Kiosk, where the Emperor used to entertain the court artists. 

Why does the Emperor want to see me so early? Wei Yuan tried to remember the last time he went to the Imperial Palace, the last time he was commissioned by the Emperor. He knew his manner was getting unconventional – some said eccentric – especially with landscape painting. His reputation as the “Wizard-Painter of the North” made him uncomfortable, even if it helped him to gain some ladies' favours from time to time. The air was becoming so sultry and the silence so intense, Wei Yuan started to paint in his mind, a waterfall cascading down a rocky edge, its hubbub mercifully hiding the fluster of his thoughts. Mountain and water. Shan Shui.

Shan Shui (山水). In Chinese landscape painting, Shan Shui refers to a painting of a natural scenery, that involves mountains and water, using brush and ink, in a monochromatic and sparse style, called Shuimohua. The origins of Shan Shui harks back to the 5th century, when the emphasis was then on a large-scale format and on realism. The enduring success of landscape painting in China is due to a combination of different and complex factors, such as a philosophical interest in nature, the tradition to view the mountain as the home of the Immortals, as well as the natural ability to grasp the atmosphere and the rhythm of nature. Moreover, the intricate influences of Taoism, which underlines the human insignificance against the might of nature; Confucian teachings, with their emphasis on finding the immutable principles hidden in the natural world; and finally Buddhism, in its relentless quest for inner harmony among the living, all these factors provide with most of the reasons for the aesthetic appeal of landscape painting within China and abroad. 

The Emperor Xuan Zong received Wei Yuan in the Blue and Green Kiosk. He was sitting on his Jade Throne, a fixed stare on his face, listening to the court musicians playing the zither, at his feet. Behind him, the Great Chancellor, a scroll in his hands was waiting for the Son of Heaven to let him display it.Wei Yuan, eyes closed, bowed until he finally heard a rustle from the Chancellor's robe, the signal he was allowed to raise and listen to what His Majesty Xuan Zong had to say. “We are delighted to welcome you again to our Imperial Palace, Honourable Wei Yuan”. Quickly, Wei Yuan tried to assess whether there was a hint of reproach in Xuan Zong's voice. Perhaps, the Emperor disapproves of my painting now? Lately, Wei Yuan noticed that, even if he still was the court painter-in-attendance, the Emperor often turned to other painters for his landscape paintings. “Your Imperial Majesty is too good to remember me.” The Great Chancellor moved towards Wei Yuan, placed the scroll on a small, red lacquer table and slowly unrolled its first segment, from right to left. For a moment, the Emperor lost in his thoughts, forgot about Wei Yuan's presence. Silence. Far away from the Imperial Palace, Wei Yuan wanders in the piece of landscape he had just created and looks up at the towering mountains, ascending into the clouds. Lush forest dissolving into the mist. Green on blue. What lies beyond?

What is a Chinese landscape painting? The Chinese often use the term Xie hua, which means to write a picture. Already from the start, Chinese painting and calligraphy share the same materials: brush, ink, ink stone, paper or silk and the same techniques: brushwork, either meticulous, Gong-bi (工筆) or freehand, Xie-yi (寫意). The emphasis on motion and on finding the inner rhythm, made painting and calligraphy arts of a common origin. Contrary to European landscape painting, in Shan Shui, there is no systematic form-likeness, no three-dimensional pictorial space, as the landscape painting viewer does not look through the “window” of the picture frame. There is no shadow, little to none use of colour – at least, since the mid Tang Dynasty (618-907) – no detectable light source, no obvious depth, no visual narrative and no central perspective, with a single vanishing point. Chinese painters rely instead on aerial or shifting perspective. What matters most is not realistic depiction, but being able to access and render the essence of the natural world, its Qi or vital energy. 

Despite its aesthetic appeal, Chinese landscape painting is not meant for the viewer's eye, but for his mind. Since the 11th century, poetry and calligraphy are fully integrated into the painting, either during the creation process or afterwards. After completion, a seal is usually engraved into the painting, by the artist himself or by the collector. The tradition of having poetry and calligraphy inserted into a painting, is known as the Three-Perfections (Zheng Qian Sanjue) and is considered to be the highest artistic achievement. This holistic approach explains why painting has been called silent poetry (Wusheng Shi), as a way for the painter to express feelings or moods, that sometimes cannot or need not to be worded. Thus, there is a play back and forth between words and images, a space purposely designed by ink and paper. A blank space to wander in, to let the viewer's imagination unfold. Every brush stroke is an expression of the natural world, its vastness, its energy and its rhythm. Every landscape, a reflection of the painter's mind, a cultivated landscape. Therefore, the perfect landscape painting is the one the painter would realise first in his mind, having immersed himself completely into nature. Then, finding its pulse, its spirit consonance and approach it as a totality. 

A cycle. First, the natural world of which humans are a significant part. Then, through a sensory immersion into it, the image of a landscape arises from the painter's mind. Once the image appears clearly before the painter's eyes, paint it in one continuous process. Only when the image bears the imprint of the artist's soul, can reality be transformed into a greater vehicle for imagination, feelings, thoughts and dreams. To dream (梦). Wei Yuan arrived at a temple, perched on a rocky outcrop, bordered by a river. Here, he would find shelter amid the clouds. Wei Yuan could almost touch them. He tried to reach for them. But, they were receding inexplicably. Something was not right.The Emperor Xuan Zong, perfectly still, looked intensely at Wei Yuan. Quickly, Wei Yuan retraced his steps towards the edges of his inner landscape. He could feel his body, drawn forcibly from the depth of the painting.

The Great Chancellor invited Wei Yuan to look closely at the silk hand scroll (手卷). There was a poem written on it. The Emperor finally said: “Honourable Wei Yuan, we want you to illustrate the first verse of this poem, from our beloved Wang Wei “Ripples from Heavens make time one anew, for the Felicity Pavilion. Our dreams have been troubled lately. We wish to hear the sound of Heavens echoes to this side of the shore again.” Wei Yuan, head bowed, waited for the Emperor to close the audience. “You will come back to us, at the end of the rainy season.” Wei Yuan followed the voice back to the Cinnabar Room. Later in the evening, his escort reached the first coaching inn, on the road to Jilin. Wei Yuan felt tired. His mind was deeply troubled. The Emperor's wish is impossible! How can one make time one anew on a painting, how? My head will soon roll to the ground. Perhaps, my life will be spared and I will go into exile instead? I need more time. If only my brush could capture the essence of time and space. Wei Yuan thought of the great poet Lu Ji's famous verse: “Everything in the world exists within the tip of a brush.” Everything. Here and there. Now and then. The rain had started to fall. The air became softer. Soon, it would wash away Wei Yuan's fear. Plip, plop on the roof! One ripple for this life, one ripple for the other! Water and ink. Tonight, slowly faded away. Perhaps, it was just a dream after all? Wei Yuan finally fell asleep.

First dream of Guo Xi (郭熙, ca 1001-1090): “Old Trees, Level Distance”, Hand scroll, ink and colour on silk, 35,9 cm x 104,8 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

Court painter-in-attendance to Northern-Song Emperor Shenzong (宋神宗, reign 1068-1085), Guo Xi specialised in landscape painting. He also left important writings about his art, where he expanded on his visual vocabulary, his idiomatic brush strokes and also his understanding of the significance of landscape painting. In “The Lofty Power of Forests and Streams”, the painter's aesthetic treatise, Guo Xi develops his approach to the natural phenomena, especially those about light, seasons and time. Although, he mastered perfectly the art of representing the natural world, Guo Xi's foremost concern was to capture the mood of the landscape, through a careful study of its atmospheric phenomena and to recreate the cosmic order that exists between heavens and earth, according to Taoism. Looking at “Old Trees, Level Distance”, one could almost feel the painter's attempt to recreate the natural order of things of our world. Despite its barren appearance, Guo Xi's landscape is full of emotions and philosophical thoughts. But seeing beyond its deceiving simplicity requires time and a spiritual open-mindedness, to follow in the painter's footsteps and experience his vision of time and space, through nature. Cultivated landscape yes, but one that demands that we leave earthly reality behind. 

Separation (分离). Wei Yuan arrived at the vast lowland, through the Eastern gangway. In the far-off, he could see two fishermen rowing towards the opposite bank. It was late afternoon of an autumn day, the light gently declining. Further ahead, two travellers and a donkey walking towards the wooded slopes and the misty mountains beyond. His trained eyes could not fail to appreciate the delicate combination of mountains and water and the subtle brushwork evocative of a balanced natural world. Yet, the view before his eyes troubled him. Something beneath the quietness of this picture bespoke a certain sadness. Perhaps, it was the premonition that a journey was about to begin, that will also put an end to something else? Or, it was the soaring of the geese, up in the sky? Wei Yuan closed his eyes, as he had learned to do when he was still a novice painter. The landscape, swathed in a misty atmosphere, divided into three levels: foreground, middle-ground and background, seen slightly from above (Pingyuan). 

He looked again, his eyes drawn leftward to the diagonal embankment, with two elderly figures crossing a bridge, accompanied by a few servants, carrying food baskets and a zither. The painter could feel the sparse vegetation, rocks and trees, somehow echoing the diffuse melancholic atmosphere. His mind followed the pair of crab-claw like trees (Xiezhao) up to the openwork walls pavilion, nestled on a headland. Yes, whoever painted this landscape, had succeeded in conveying the power of nature, the intricate balance between heavens and earth. The blurred outlines, the skilful shading of the background in ink wash, gave this pictorial vision a dreamy tonality. With just a few lines and tones, a landscape had emerged from the mist, a moment of time - both fleeting and eternal - in someone's life, about to bid farewell to life companions. Suddenly, Wei Yuan realised that time and space did not elude him, it was as if they had always been there for him to find. Perhaps, if Wei Yuan was patient enough, he too would be able to access this eleatic time, in his painting? Time. A faint rustle throughout the silk hand scroll drew Wei Yuan's attention back to the distant mountains. Plip, plop, inside his head! Water and dream. First ripple. 


Second dream of Li Song (李嵩, active 1190-1230): “The Hangzhou Bore in Moonlight”, Album Leaf, ink and colours on silk, 22,3 x 22 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei, China

Southern-Song Imperial court painter Li Song (1170-1255), was born in Hangzhou, in the beautiful West Lake district, capital of Zhejiang Province, in Eastern China. Hangzhou also became the capital of the Southern-Song dynasty (1127-1279) in 1123, after their defeat against the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115-1234) and the loss of Kaifeng in northern China, the very same year. The Venetian Marco Polo, who visited Hangzhou in the late 13th century, described it as "the most beautiful and magnificent city in the world". Besides its amazing scenery, there is also the Qiantang river that flows into the bay and hosts the world's largest tidal bore, up to 9 meters high and moving at a speed of 40 km per hour. The Qiantang river tidal bore is celebrated each year, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, the eighteenth day of the Eighth lunar month (September). Li Song, originally a carpenter, was adopted and trained by court painter, Li Congxun and later became known for his human figure painting.

The Hangzhou Bore in Moonlight”, is a Ce-Ye, an album leaf (冊頁) landscape painting, very popular during the Southern-Song dynasty - which favoured smaller and more intimate formats, together with lyrical themes - and a fine example of the so-called ruled-lined painting (Jiehua) or architectural rendering. The Ce-Ye can have various shapes, often a fan one and were usually collected as book-like albums, with different mountings, such as: "butterfly mounting", "thatched window mounting" and “accordion mounting." During the Northern-Song dynasty, a new class of painters arouse, known as Literati or Wenren, scholar-painters. Trained as high-ranking civil servants, from the gentry class, they usually did not have the same artistic skills as academic painters and valued instead pure ink monochrome painting - complemented by poetry written in calligraphy and seal engraving, together with inscriptions on the margins, called colophons - done solely for self-cultivation and self-enjoyment.

Contemplation (沉思). Wei Yuan walked along the river bank, until he reached the Moon Pavilion, perched on a rocky overhang, looking down at the bay. He followed the trail, on its steep winding course, through woody hillsides, laced with beautiful flowers. Even from the top of the hill, he could still hear the river and the foaming waves surging forward, in a deafening roar. In the storied pavillion, people had gathered to watch the tidal waves, to read and listen to poetry, while drinking tea. It was a lovely night. High in the sky, the silvery halo of the moon and on the horizon, the inked wavy spine of the misty mountains, imbued the landscape with a sense of poetic mystery. Wei Yuan was mesmerized. He used to have this vivid dream about a secluded palace, surrounded by blue mountain vineyards and perfumed terraced gardens. The palace is always deserted, except for an old man wandering the rooms at night, carrying a lantern light. Once, Wei Yuan caught a glimpse of him gazing at the stars, from a red gazebo he had just finished painting. Just a glimpse. Perhaps, it was the only way of approaching the inexhaustible mystery of creation? Perhaps, nothing that once existed never really vanished, but faded away through time, like painting colours falling off, leaving only their imprint on a scroll?

Time. From where he stood, Wei Yuan knew he would only see but a fragment of this haunting vista. No landscape painting it seemed, would ever be defined by the rhythm of its brush strokes, its colours or its even by its Qi. Far beyond the image and the idea, something arises and vibrates, giving meaning and feelings to an inner vision, transforming it into an emotive image, until it may become a matrix for the viewer's imagination and dreams. The gentle sound of a chime attracted Wei Yuan's attention outside the pavilion. He joined the others guests on the moon-viewing terrace, hoping to experience first hand the might of nature. Ebb and flow crashing onto the shore in a hypnotic cadence, the hubbub from the river below and the contemplative silence from the onlookers above. The intimacy of the foreground and the empty space of the background. Suddenly Wei Yuan realised that his vision of nature – this poetic space – went far beyond the boundaries of landscape painting. What Wei Yuan truly wanted was to draw the viewer deep into the landscape, to give him a sense of layered depths, endlessly receding to infinity. But nowhere, except in his dreams, was Wei Yuan able to merge time with space so seamlessly. Something was still missing. He peered down at the river, the foaming water breathing mightily throughout the weft of his vision. Plip, plop, inside his head! Water and dream. Second ripple. 

Third dream of Ma Yuan (馬遠, ca 1160-1225), “On a Mountain Path in Spring”, Album Leaf, ink and colour on silk, 27,4 x 43,1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei, China

Ma Yuan was an influential painter of the Southern-Song dynasty. He came from a family of famous court painters, who all served at the Imperial Painting Academy. Although he occasionally painted flowers and water, Ma Yuan's reputation was established through his landscape painting. He developed a very personal style, in which nature is suggested by both angular forms and emptiness, seeking to reduce it to its bare essentials. Eventually, Ma Yuan created a landmark called the “One-Corner” composition, in which part of the subjects of his painting is pushed to a corner, leaving the other part empty, bathed into the mist, hence giving his viewers more space to wander into the unknown. Ma Yuan served as a painter-in-attendance under Emperors Guangzong (宋光宗, reign 1189-1194) and Ningzong (寧宗, reign 1194-1224) and benefited also from the judicious patronage of the Imperial household. As a result of the political and social turmoil that followed the loss of Northern China to the Jen invaders, the Southern-Song dynasty landscape painting developed into a lower-scale painting format, a more lyrical and refined atmosphere, with a certain tendency to introspection as well. To a certain extent, the Southern-Song landscape painting served as a natural vehicle to convey feelings of exile and isolation, sometimes bordering on escapism as well as homesickness.

With “On a Mountain Path in Spring”, Ma Yuan explored the theme of the scholar (Shi), possibly retired from the government, enjoying a moment of meditation in a country settings. Walking on a path along a stream bank, this literatus has just interrupted his walk to gaze at nature and two yellow orioles perched atop the branches of a wind-blown willow. Behind him, a young servant is carrying a zither. The scholar's wide sleeves just touched the wild flowers in passing, which may have startled the birds. As usual with Ma Yuan, the composition is organised according to the one-corner principle, with the right-hand side of the pictorial space left more or less empty. The vanishing point is set low on the horizon, giving the viewer a feeling of looking down at the landscape. Despite Ma Yuan's mastery in depicting nature, this landscape painting is a highly refined, almost philosophical view about nature. One that has both interpreted and dreamed up nature, according to the Xie yi or “writing the idea” principle, which emphasizes the intellectual as well as calligraphic approach of the painting. The poem written on the painting has been attributed to Emperor Ningzong and reads as follows: "Touched by my sleeve, more wildflowers start to dance/Avoiding people, the secluded birds do not make a sound" . Ma Yuan's painting is a perfect example of the Three Perfections art, in which poetry and calligraphy are used to enhance the appreciation of a painting, through an intricate and highly sophisticated interplay.

Introspection (内省). Wei Yuan stopped at a vast bamboo forest at dawn. He could hear the sound of a waterfall only a few yards away, from where he was resting. The plantation was still shrouded in early-morning mist and the air filled with the fragrance of bamboo. Resting. Heavens, I am in heavens, thought Wei Yuan. The soil felt sandy under his feet, as if covered with silk. As the mist cleared, Wei Yuan began to get a better view at the plantation. The downhill slopes next to him appeared surprisingly dark, with their tall, slender trunks, bound together like a sheaf of inked brushes. The forest stretched as far as Wei Yuan's eyes could see. An ocean of bamboos, now rustling gently in the wind, as a breeze began to sweep the slopes. Wei Yuan's mind started to paint the bambou sea, its jade serpentine shape undulating endlessly. This place was bewildering. It was both monumental and intimate. Wei Yuan's brush stopped halfway through the air. The tip of his brush and the bowed tip of the bamboo trees were now moving in time, rippling in waves, as the painter's awareness of his surroundings started to flicker. The landscape was moving in Wei Yuan's mind's eye! Or was Wei Yuan a painted character, in one of nature's flights of fancy? The world outside became blurred. I am the whisper of the wind, the water lapping against the rocks. I am the elusive painting, the poem yet to be uttered. I am...

“Che-lee-che-leoo”! The loud and fluid whistle of a yellow oriole, brought Wei Yuan back to the bamboo plantation. The sound of water gushing felt closer now. He decided to go to the waterfall. As he approached it from behind, Wei Yuan noticed that the mist had arisen all around him. He was groping for the waterfall, when he beheld a solitary figure through the water curtain. Shi. A scholar was standing a few steps away on a small overhang, gazing at the landscape. Closer. The view was strikingly beautiful, almost unearthly. Wei Yuan was intrigued. He went across the water curtain, in the direction of the scholar, but for some reason could not reach him. The landscape in front of Wei Yuan rippled imperceptibly. He looked again at the man gazing at a landscape, partially dissolving into the mist. Although Wei Yuan felt part of this vision, he knew he was confined to its edges. Wei Yuan thought of all the landscape paintings he created and those he contemplated, of what they had meant to him  and how he had experienced them. Would any of them withstand the test of time?

Wei Yuan looked again at the vision before his eyes, how the man who painted it was able to suggest - with only a few simple brush strokes and subdued colours - a world in miniature. Wei Yuan was fascinated by this idealized, intimate view of nature, how the chiseled foreground gradually evaporated into the background. The ink dot foliage, contrasting with the barren topography and the poetic atmosphere evoked by the mist in the distance. Perhaps, this landscape was what Wei Yuan had been trying to conjure up in his mind, ever since he started to paint? There was something bewitching about it, a sort of visual osmosis between the tangible and dreamlike space. The spirit of nature to unfold from within, a vast universe to survey and marvel at, in each dot and washes of ink. Water. First drops falling, plip, plop! Wei Yuan remembered all the time he spent observing it, trying to capture its movement and its rhythm, when he heard a voice seeping through the landscape: “Ripples from Heavens...” Plip, plop! “Bixia!”. * Wei Yuan's answer was washed away by the pouring rain and within seconds, everything disappeared behind the water curtain, leaving Wei Yuan alone again, wandering amid the bamboo trees. Water and dream. Third Ripple.

The Honourable Shen Zhou (沈周, 1427-1509) awoke with a start, in the middle of the night. Outside his secluded retreat, the scholar-painter could hear the sound of the lashing rain streaming down the bamboo leaves on the roof. It was a chilly night for the season and Shen Zhou's mind was troubled by the strange dream he just had. “Ripples from Heavens”, were the last words he clearly remembered from it. Perhaps, it was the lapping of the rain that made him dream of ripples? But there was also this man, gazing at nature, just like him. Who was he? He seemed so close to me, yet so far away! Despite his self-chosen reclusion, Shen Zhou had many literati friends, with whom he enjoyed countless pleasant artistic gatherings. They used to come to Shen Zhou's retreat, late in the afternoon, bringing hand scrolls or album leafs with them. After tea, they would remove them from their wooden boxes, unroll and read them section by section, from right to left. 

Because he was a painter and a calligrapher too, Shen Zhou viewed his art as a creation of the mind first. Yet, everytime he painted a landscape, everytime he unrolled one, he knew he was reaching from something that went far beyond his own experience or other's. It was a spiritual journey undertaken through time and space, a linked chain, each time renewed by a profond communion with the living world. Have I done anything else, but adding whatever clarity I have reached, to the movements of the brush and the flow of the ink? Drumbeats of the nightwatch and dogs barking in the distance. Moon shinning on the window ledge. Whispers of the wind, gently through the bamboo leaves. Washes of ink and blue, mingling with raindrops. Plip, plop! Ripples.

* Majesty

© Ariane Kveld Jaks, 2012.02.07.

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