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.

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