Chinese Landscape Painting and the Art of the Graphic Novel
Landscapes Pure and Radiant: The Art of Wang Hui at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 9, 2008–January 4, 2009
For years I have thought that Chinese landscape painting had the potential to make a powerful resurgence in Western consciousness. Unlike Japanese wood blocks (which enjoy a certain popularity thanks in large part to their influence on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters), Chinese landscape painting is not fully dependent on the graphic scene it depicts, but is rather deeply intertwined (often structurally so) with the art of Chinese calligraphy. Chinese landscape paintings thus represent the consummate marriage of image and text, and they continue to have relevance—especially today—with the emerging art form that is the contemporary American graphic novel.
This is not precisely the scope of the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, but it is certainly one of the vast implications beneath this extraordinarily rich show. For those who are not familiar with Chinese landscape painting, this exhibition is one of the best introductions to the form. Wang Hui, was a “copyist”—the greatest copyist, in fact, of late 17th-century China. His art is a tribute to and a reinterpretation of the thousand years of Chinese landscape painting that preceded him. The Met draws upon its notable collection (which is hidden in the last refuge of peace in the museum: the Asian wing) in order to show the masters from whom Wang Hui draws his inspiration. From the Met’s own pieces, and from Wang Hui’s artistic reflections on a thousand years worth of landscape art, one can get a comprehensive feel for the history of this powerful and quietly thought-provoking style.
“Copying” is not meant to be a derisive term, as in ancient (and not so ancient) Chinese culture it was not considered “plagiarism” as we think of it today in the west; rather, painters who could successfully imitate the great works of the past were esteemed by the public—they had accomplished a feat of unparalleled skill. Moreover, as Don Qichang, one of Wang Hui’s mentors, remarked, “copying [a style] is easy; spiritual communion [with the ancients] is difficult.” To copy in the authentic sense is thus to commune with tradition. This is just another one of the underlying themes that emerges from this show which touches on contemporary issues that lie at the very root of contemporary western art (graphic novel and otherwise).
And there is no question of Wang Hui’s brilliance as a painter and true copyist. His mastery of the ancient blue-green color technique, which places swaths of color thoughtfully throughout a painting, is absolutely mesmerizing. In certain scrolls, like “Clearing After Snow at Shanyin after Wang Wei” (1671), he adds flashes of verdant green, highlights of flesh tones and speckles of white to the mountains across the landscape. All of a sudden the mountains on the beige silk scroll seem to breathe. This painting is a reinterpretation of Wang Wei’s austere style, and it is precisely through his sensitive addition of color that Wang Hui makes the painting his own and gives it life.
Chinese landscape painting is all about the shape and movement of the mountains and water (indeed, the word for landscape in Chinese, shanshui, literally means mountains and water), from the sly and serpentine to the powerful backs of mountains. It is a style that relies often solely on the outlines and dabs produced by a few careful and well-laid brushstrokes. These are lessons in subtlety and suggestivity that cannot be missed by the evocative hands of contemporary graphic novelists.
But it is the storytelling potential that further links landscape painting to the emerging American art form, and this capacity is perhaps most striking in the two scrolls on show from the immense twelve-scroll series, “The Kanxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour” (1698). In this series, which Wang Hui was commissioned to paint by the emperor, he follows the emperor on his path throughout the inspection tour in southern China. Scroll seven, which depicts the route around the Grand Canal, and scroll three which depicts the route from Jinan to Mount Tai are absolutely staggering in their detail and scope. The minutiae we see in the opulent houses and city streets along the Grand Canal shows everything down to the ridges on leaves of cabbage being carried by a merchant, to the arms of figurines sold in a local shop, to the shadows on individual grains of rice. We see moments of intimacy as we peer inside people’s houses from above, and little discussions among the jittery citizens awaiting the arrival of the emperor. You’ll leave wishing you had a day to pore over every little drama, every little story, wishing you could keep one of these 45-foot long storyboards so you could come back again and again to reflect.
In other paintings, poetry lines the picture; a seal in the lower right hand corner of “Landscape in the Style of Juran” says, “I travel up and down through past and present.” Each word, like each brushstroke, is resonant and evocative—just like the best panels of a graphic novel. This show cannot be missed by anyone, but especially by those who are looking to pick up the mantle of a new art form, which is truly gaining the unity and momentum to challenge an otherwise fractured postmodern art scene.
See it before the Asian wing gets so crowded that you can no longer get close enough to pore over the details hidden on the page and between the lines of these extraordinary works.
Marika Josephson writes about art and politics, and is a graduate student in philosophy at the New School for Social Research.view all articles from this author