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Wang Shimin, Cloud Capped Mountains and Misty Riverside

Wang Shimin, Cloud Capped Mountains and Misty Riverside, 1658 (Qing dynasty), hanging scroll, China (Shanghai Museum, China). A conversation between Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Kristen] Here we are in the Shanghai Museum looking at a landscape painting by Wang Shimin. - [Beth] And this is a hanging scroll. - [Kristen] And the hanging scroll is a very public art form. It's something that hangs on the wall. The painting itself is mounted onto silk. So we have this opportunity to look at this entire landscape in one view. - [Beth] Unlike a hand scroll, which would've unrolled a arms length at a time. - [Kristen] These would've been taken out, discussed and at times they could be used for decoration. They could hang for a little while longer, but the idea here is a lot of people could look at this at one time, as opposed to a hand scroll or even in an album leaf, which only three or four people could see at any given time. You couldn't fit that many people around the painting. Here we've got a larger, grander view and that was something that gave way to these large landscape compositions. Landscape paintings as a genre developed in the Five Dynasties period. So we see the emergence of landscape painting as its own genre, not just as a setting for narrative or a background for events, but something that is taken as a subject in its own right. - [Beth] This is 600 years later, and in some way this is late in that moment of landscape painting. It's a time of reflecting back on landscape painting and its importance in Chinese art history. - [Kristen] That's what Wang Shimin is doing here. He's interested in the theories, the principles, the brushwork, the composition, the elements that make for landscape painting - [Beth] Instead of the earlier landscape painters who are immersing themselves in nature and responding emotionally to nature, he's studying art and making his painting about that art. - [Kristen] Here, he's looking at the brushwork of Huang Gongwang, this Yuan Dynasty painter who's famous for his "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains." - [Beth] The Yuen Dynasty had the Mongols, foreigners, taking over and ruling China. Here during the Qing Dynasty which is just emerging, we have the Manchus coming in and ruling China, and so the response by artists is similar. Historically many artists serve the court, and if you are feeling politically ambivalent about the new rulers who have come in, you might wanna distance yourself from that court. - [Kristen] Wang Shimin was one of several artists who was active in the south, in this area called Jiangnan, or south of the Yangtze River. And that is a place that was a little farther from the court in Beijing that had a scholarly literati culture established through several of the major cities, Nanjing, Suzhou included. Wang Shimin painted among other artists, wrote poetry among his friends. They shared these works amongst each other and they were interested in studying that brushwork of the past. And you can see here that the work is monochromatic, meaning there's no color. The brushwork here is like a signature. He's looking back at the forms, specific boulders, the way that Huong Gongwang used the dry brush technique, this idea of scraping the contour lines of each ridge of the mountain. - [Beth] So to suggest the rock, the granite and the face of the mountain and then distinguishing that between different kinds of trees that we see on the right foreground, some with short leaves with dark short brush strokes, another tree where the leaves are more washy, and then the tree just to the left where there's a sense of the ink dripping down. So you have a sense of the movement of the hand of the artist. - [Kristen] And you can see that telegraphic link. And we've also got a scholar sitting in a pavilion where he's gazing out over this pond and over the bridge. But you can also look up and trace a little path up to another group of huts and imagine that that's another little retreat nestled into the mountains, this idea of reclusion, something that was a Yuen Dynasty theme, here done again in the Qing Dynasty. The difference here though, is that in the Qing Dynasty we see a lot more figures. - [Beth] This relies on a formula drawing our eye from the foreground with this diagonal that moves from lower left to upper right. We encounter a stream that then wanders its way down into the body of water we see below. The mist that separates the peaks of the mountains, and then the sky above. It is clearly drawing on this tradition. - [Kristen] Those foreground trees anchor the entire composition and one large peak at the top. The flavor of this work is subdued. And when you see even just the atmospheric details of it, that's something that you would expect in any landscape painting. Misty ravines separating out the peaks, but here you can see that there's absolutely nothing painted. It's just this empty void. - [Beth] It's amazing to me that that empty paper is what suggests the mist around the mountains. - [Kristen] It starts to blur your view of the trees in the distance as your eye travels up towards that central peak. - [Beth] So we can see areas where the mountains are painted with wash, ink that's been dissolved in water. - [Kristen] Yes. - [Beth] And then other places where the ink is very dry on the brush and has been used to create contours of the mountains. - [Kristen] And then on top of it all, of these rich details, these textures that unite the entire composition. - [Beth] So you have these artists who are reclusive. They're in the mountains, they're in the landscapes. And that history that distinguishes those artists from artists who are working at the court, who are doing more work that is for the emperor. And there is a hierarchy that has developed where that scholar artist is seen as a truer artist. - [Kristen] What we call the literality bias. The irony of that all is that these artists, Wang Shimin and several of his cohort, also did paint works at the court. But here you can see that this is a very intellectual approach to art. - [Beth] It's an art that's made for educated like-minded artists. (jazzy piano music)