Friday, December 9, 2016

Of Mountains and Men...

Fan Kuan, Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, ink on hanging silk, c.1000
Chinese landscape painting is a very dynamic and involved tradition in Chinese art. One reason people find it so beautiful is because of how relaxing and elegant it is. A good example of these elaborate paintings is seen in Fan Kuan’s Traveling Among Mountains and Streams (c. 1000). Fan's creativity as an artist helped to add to the composition’s overall message. At first glance, it would appear to be nothing more than a beautiful painting that shows a peaceful view of the mountains and the countryside. But is there more to this paining? Fan was a leader in landscape painting; consequently, could he be trying to convey more than just a tranquil landscape scene to the viewer?

Fan was a follower of Daosim and some Neo-Confuciansim (1).  Like many Daoists, the artist had a certain respect for and veneration of nature. Alexander C. Soper emphasizes how important nature was in Chinese landscape paintings (2). Fan's painting, Traveling Among Mountains and Streams, shows his deep respect for nature and his eye for detail. The painting depicts a large mountain formation in the background of the composition. The mountain is so large that is=t dominates most of the middle and upper half of the painting.The mountain is made up of a series of upside down U-shaped arches. Fan had a knack for effortlessly incorporating tactile elements into his work. In this painting, he uses very detailed, meticulously placed tactile elements: the viewer can almost feel the rough, jagged texture of the mountain. The top and sides of the mountain are dotted with fur-like trees and shrubbery. Running down the mountain is a waterfall that seems not to flow, but to fall straight vertically. The bottom half of the painting shows a mixture of boulders and semi- flat land. The boulders are in the foreground of the painting. The many curves and elaborate placement of these boulders,and surrounding rocks, gives the illusion of movement. Unlike the trees on the mountain, the trees and shrubbery on the boulder hold more of a spiny and scraggly quality.     

Fan Kuan, Travelers Among Mountains and Streams (detail),
ink on hanging silk, c.1000  

Fan paints the natural elements in such a way that they appear fluid. They seem to add to the uncertainty of nature. One would never think that something like boulders could be wave-like and mysterious.

Daoists advocated peace and communion with nature, evident in this image through its inclusion of figures--the travelers--and animals. The travelers seem to be almost unaware of the beautiful nature around them and are dwarfed by its grandeur; yet, they are part of it.

This painting is not merely a landscape painting. Just as altarpieces were sacred to Christian Europeans in the Renaissance, this painting embodies the Doaist religion and shows veneration to what they considered sacred: nature. In Daosim, practitioners believed in a place that is sort of a resting place for their gods to live (4). This is seen in this mountain, which, Soper notes, serves different purposes. The mountain is both secular and sacred.  This mountain represents a place of spirituality and of peace. A holy place does not have to be a building with a roof. It does not need pulpits and pews and stained glass windows. To Fan Kuan, all you need is a mountain, a stream, and a clear blue sky.


(1) Alexander C. Soper, "Early Chinese Landscape Painting," The Art Bulletin 23, no. 2 (June 1941): 141-164.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.

The Lost Image: Acknowledgement and Analysis of a Hudson River School Painting

   Figure 1: Northwest View from Trophy Point at West Point Overlooking Storm King Mountain and the Hudson River 
  Figure 2: View from Trophy Point at West Point Overlooking Storm King Mountain, from The Hudson River Highlands by Francis Dunwell
            Intrigued by both the seductive beauty and the awe-inspiring qualities of American nature, the Hudson River School artists manifested Romanticism’s foundations. They found creative awakening in the sublimity discovered in nature and sought to capture this notion with every stroke of paint placed on their canvases.[1] This nineteenth-century movement was named after the members’ affinity for painting the Hudson River and areas encompassing it, such as the Adirondack and Catskill mountain ranges.[2] Painters of the school frequently placed emphasis on the harmonious coexistence of humanity and nature, but they also heavily associated the spiritual with what they observed. Hudson River School members felt strongly that the American wilderness was the actual materialization of the Holy Spirit.[3] The American landscape movement was also founded on the basis of producing a national identity for the states. The primary components of this artistic development were rooted in the need to motivate and inspire Americans and future inhabitants to travel and explore their countryside.[4]
           The painting I discuss here, Northwest View from Trophy Point at West Point Overlooking Storm King Mountain and the Hudson River (Figure 1), is an unsigned and undated work that I viewed at a conservator’s studio in Birmingham, Alabama. The painting was purchased at an antique shop in New England and is now in a local private collection. The painting gives a panoramic impression, as the width is much greater than its height. Conforming to the dimensions of the painting, the frame hosts ornate details and areas of oxidation all over its surface. The painting is oil based and appears to have no damage or wear, as the surface appears taught, bright and intact. This artwork is not signed or dated, nor is its provenance documented. Based on the subject matter and style of this painting, I suggest that the location depicted is most likely a northwest view from Trophy point at West Point overlooking Storm King Mountain and the Hudson River and place its creation during the years 1843-1847.
          My research suggests that the probable geographic location of the painting is West Point on the Hudson River, looking toward Storm King Mountain. The artist has chosen to represent a northwest view with significant historical context. From this point, the observer is strategically situated so that Storm King Mountain is just beginning to take shape on the left side of the canvas. In the foreground, the earth rises and falls, altering the perspective of the spectator by masking other components of the actual landscape. The form of Constitution Island should be visible on the right side of the work, but the artist has chosen to manipulate the perspective, so that this feature is hidden. This exclusion might have been made because of stylistic necessity, as the Island may have taken away from emphasis placed on the outward expanse of the landscape. Another island that can be identified is in the form of an extremely small, dark and distant land mass.
          Northwest View from Trophy Point features three mountain ranges in its right portion. The third and most distant mountain reveals a small darkened area just off its coast. This feature is believed to be Pollepel Island, also referred to as Bannerman’s Island. The existence of this land mass strengthens the claim of the painting’s suggested view. Furthermore, modern day photographs taken from Trophy Point reveal a similar coastline as the one seen within Northwest View from Trophy Point. The direction of the setting sun, as seen in photographs from this location, can also be aligned with the light source seen in the painting (Figure 2). Used as the subject and viewpoint of many works dating from the early nineteenth-century, Trophy Point is an elevated location with a famously scenic view of the Hudson River. Though not referred to as Trophy Point until the very late nineteenth-century, many artists traversed the coastline surrounding West Point, looking for the perfect composition.[5]
          A Hudson River School painter would be drawn to this location, not only for its unending beauty, but also for its national significance. The historical grounds of West Point began around 1802 when President Thomas Jefferson guaranteed that a United States Military Academy would be built. The West Point campus is considered to be a national landmark and plays host to many other historically relevant sites.[6] It was this belief in unity and settlement of land that strengthened the bond between this location and Hudson River painters.
            In conclusion, while the work is not signed, dated or accompanied by any written records, evidence has been provided that allows for the claims suggested to be greatly strengthened. The American landscape movement was founded on the basis of producing a national identity for the states. Hudson River School painters strove to capture the American lifestyle and mindset through the depiction of the very thing that brought them here, the land. By capturing the most inspiring elements from several different locations, artists were able to build, not only an aesthetically pleasing composition, but one that symbolically captured the connecting foundations upon which America was built. In this work, Northwest View from Trophy Point, the ideas and beliefs surrounding American landscape painting are perfectly pictured. The artist chose to provide a unique perspective for the viewer by choosing to paint this work from the coastline of West Point, an area laden with rich history. The scenic, panoramic view works to pull the observer into the work and the true spirit of America. 

   1. Diana Strazdes, "Wilderness and Its Waters: A Professional Identity for the Hudson River School," Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 7, no. 2 (2009): 358.
   2. Strazdes, "Wilderness and Its Waters: A Professional Identity for the Hudson River School," 335.
   3. Strazdes, "Wilderness and Its Waters: A Professional Identity for the Hudson River School," 358.
   4. Angela Miller, The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875 (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), 14.
   5. Frances Dunwell, The Hudson River Highlands (New York: Columbia Press University, 1991), 67.
  6. Robert McDonald, “Thomas Jefferson’s Military Academy: Founding West Point,” The Journal of Southern History 72, no. 3 (2006): 660.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


What is too much information? More importantly what is not enough information? The balance between an object driven museum and one that provides ample cultural context is an issue that is not easily resolved. The issue, I feel, lies within how we give objects the respect they deserve when being displayed in a museum that is not their natural home, and for a purpose that was not the reason for their creation.

In 1984, MoMA put on an exhibition entitled “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern where juxtapositions were made between modern art and non-western art with no context ever given. This show earned widespread critique and illustrated the point I am trying to make. Anthropologist James Clifford wrote one of the most pointed critiques of the exhibition in his essay, "Histories of the Tribal and the Modern." In his review, he pointed out that before Picasso and his predecessors in the early 20th century, no one popularly recognized these that "primitive" objects as in fact powerful "art." At MoMA, Clifford perceived the museum as showing tribal objects as art while excluding the original cultural context. He stated, “We are firmly told at the exhibition's entrance, cultural context is the business of anthropologists. Cultural background is not essential to correct aesthetic appreciation and analysis: good art is universally recognizable. The pioneer modernists themselves knew little or nothing of these objects' ethnographic meaning. What was good enough for Picasso is good enough for MoMA. Indeed an ignorance of cultural context seems almost a precondition for artistic appreciation. In this object system a tribal piece is detached from one environment in order to circulate freely in another, a world of museums, markets, and connoisseurship.” This exhibition was presented thirty years ago and it is true at that time the we did not have the resources for presentation and research that we have today. Today more efforts are being made to provide context and information that help round out a visitor's understanding of the objects on display.

“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, MoMA gallery Shot 1984
“People are talking about: The man from MoMA”
by Barbara Rose in Vogue, August, 1984. Vol. 174 (8), page 35.

An example of this is the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of art entitled Kongo: Power and Majesty, which opened in fall of 2015. This show provided an aesthetic tribute as well as a history in which, one critic said, “Curator Alisa LaGamma…has fused aesthetics, history, ethnography and spectacle into an exhibition that is at once entertaining and serious, shocking and deeply satisfying.” Despite this success, it is true that in museums most non-western objects are not given the consideration deserved and the balance of aesthetic object driven work and cultural context needs improving.

Kongo: Power and Majesty, The Met, gallery shot 2015

Kongo: Power and Majesty, The Met, gallery shot 2015

My goal in writing this is to simply bring up the point that the most responsible way to display objects needs to be taken seriously. By definition public museums are theoretically accessible to all. We like to see them as great places of education and the sharing of cultures from around the world with the general public. But in contrast, what’s the purpose of objects and art works taken from their natural homes and placed halfway across the world when we can’t even display them in the context they were created for. How do you display a dance, or a chant, or the life altering artifact? I believe it’s important to objectively inform the visitor on the objects background, because every work in some way or another may have a facets of its history we may find controversial. That’s why I think it is paramount to understand that displaying objects come with political implications; I am not saying I don’t think these works shouldn’t be viewed, I do, but they also should be presented as more than just aesthetic objects of curiosity, or that a balance needs to be created between their objecthood and their context. If these treasures aren’t shown with research and respect then I believe they might lose their value when displayed in a museum, and therefore it is all of our responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.