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Wang Lü among the peaks, Ming paintings of Mt. Hua

Wang Lü, Landscapes of Mount Hua (Huashan), album leaves, 1384 (Ming Dynasty, China), ink on paper (Shanghai Museum) Speakers: Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Steven] I see this tiny figure, walking through this enormous lush, beautiful landscape, and I feel as if I am him, and I'm going to be rounding this bend and wondering where the path leads. - [Kristen] You can see at the very distance up on top of the next mountain peak, a little tiny roof of a pavilion creeping out from on top of the trees. - [Steven] We're looking at one leaf from a series of 40 by an early Ming artist, whose name is Wang Lu. He's referred to as a physician, although we don't really know much about him, but he made these magnificent ink-and-brush images on paper of a very famous mountain in Chinese history. - [Kristen] Mount Hua Is in Shaanxi province, and Shaanxi province is a little bit to the north, and the mountain itself is known for being this treacherous, vertical form, very otherworldly. - [Steven] Look at the way in which he's used the brushstrokes to define the verticality of that mountain, those huge faces of rock that just seem to jut skyward, to create this otherworldly space that has a deeply spiritual dimension. - [Kristen] You can see the contour lines: first, his very rich, fluid lines, demarcating the boulders, and then you've got these texture strips that give a sense of the roughness of each peak, and then little bits of moss dripping over the sides. - [Steven] And then you've also got softer washes of ink, especially in the peaks in the distance. - [Kristen] On top of all of it, you've got these very dense strokes. There's layers upon layers of little tiny brushstrokes, the very fluid, rich black ink of the pine trees. - [Steven] Those pine trees are amazing. They seem so alive with their boughs that seem to, almost like lightning strokes, move in every direction. - [Kristen] And you can imagine that this is a mountain peak that gets winter storms through it, lots of wind, and you can see how the pines have grown into these contorted shapes. - [Steven] This is an amazingly complex space, and all of this is done just with black ink, but there is such a spectrum of qualities of that ink that we don't feel limited in the least. - [Kristen] Yeah, we don't even need color. In fact, landscape originally was not thought to need color. There was so much potential of the brush, this very calligraphic use of the brush, as if you're writing. - [Steven] But many of the other leaves do use color. They use this kind of subtle blue-green that has a specific reference to the history of Chinese painting. - [Kristen] In the Tang Dynasty, the blue-green landscape style benefited from all of these new pigments, these new minerals that were coming through the Silk Road. Here, we see this reference to that, that use of this very subtle ink wash to refer to this paradisiacal realm, this otherworldly place. - [Steven] This is a Taoist idea, that the mountain was inhabited by the immortals, perfected beings, and so, although that's not explicitly referenced here, it does exist subtly in the background. - [Kristen] And as we look more deeply into each of these different leaves... all of them of course are done on paper... they're album leaves, meaning unlike a hand scroll, they don't unroll, unfurl... there's specific scenes, each of them pictures of a particular place in the mountain, a particular moment in time that the artist then inscribed, explaining exactly when he visited this place and what those conditions might have been. - [Steven] So these are really personal memories. These are explorations of moments that he remembers from his encounter with this landscape. - [Kristen] He's got moments of sole traveling, perhaps a reference to himself, this idea of journeying on one's own through the mountain, other times, maybe greeting other travelers and taking moments to rest along mountain paths. - [Steven] And one of my favorite images seems to be later in his journey, as he's reached the peaks of at least one of these mountains, where we see a single figure, seated just at a peak, looking over a sea of mist. - [Kristen] You can imagine the trek that he had to take, this very winding little path behind him, and he's sitting there just taking in the vista as he's reached the summit. - [Steven] The artist has created the sense of real depth, of real space, even with all the ambiguity of the negative space that is somehow also those clouds. - [Kristen] It seems so damp and so misty. You can feel the atmosphere, but then when you look at the mountain, you see the dry brushstrokes, and you get the sense of the contrast between the very soft, wet clouds, and then at the same time, the very hard, rough boulders. Wang Lu painted this in 1384, and we know that he spent quite a bit of time in these mountains. He didn't just go here, climb the peak, and come home. He spent time living here, taking in every corner of the landscape and getting to know people and painted these album leaves to record, to document, each of those spaces for his own personal use. - [Steven] I feel so lucky that I have access to this artist's understanding of this landscape from 700 years ago. (gentle music)