Inside the Chinese Landscape


To some, the groundbreaking impact of China's contemporary artists has left its traditional art to incense-filled nostalgia. One aspect of traditional art, the natural landscape, is finding a renewed significance in the 21st century.

Chen No.02尘No.02, Mixed Media On Paper, 2015.

Chen No.02尘No.02, Mixed Media On Paper, 2015.

Landscape art in China has become more significant as the nation modernises at its expense.

As the landscape contrasts touristically with its cityscapes, the ‘natural' will continue to engage through its universality even as urbanisation looms large. Moreover, as concretisation now eats it away, traditional depictions are turning into environmental records.

Moxiang No.21 墨象No.21, Ink On Xuan Paper, 2013.

Moxiang No.21 墨象No.21, Ink On Xuan Paper, 2013.

Natural Order

One can better understand the historical role of landscape in Chinese art by looking back at China's Tang dynasty (618-907 c) with its aesthetics and lofty ideals. The painted trees, rivers, and mountains were a paragon of virtue, with a natural order that worked in ways the human world could only aspire towards—spiritual harmony. Society, however, did not come close to it.  Artists strove to bring it closer to their inner selves and further from external depictions. During the Song Dynasty (960- 1279 c), epitomised by artists such as Guo Xi (1020-1090 c), the images were used as aspiring symbols of the human spirit instead of depictions of an external habitat, as if to draw the personality closer to an image of nature.

The Chinese landscape became an "inward" place during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368c) when the nation's artistic scholars no longer had a role in politics. It was perhaps at this time that it became more of a "mindscape." As paintings reflect inner as well as outer worlds, an impressionistic period for the Chinese landscape painter began. Artists and philosophers upheld the natural order set against the fragile chaos of human life. Landscape painting embodied the human need for certainty. By the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese landscape had a renewed importance. It was almost a national symbol.

Changge No.3长歌No.3, Ink On Paper, 2013

Changge No.3长歌No.3, Ink On Paper, 2013

New Horizons

The landscape has been opened to the world in recent decades and is in need of greater understanding. The landscape could have been parodied by American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's painting, "Chinese Landscape in a Scroll" (1996), which humorously reinterprets a foreign landscape but also alters perceptions of it. Lichtenstein's trademarked "Ben-Day" dots, a visual diatribe of American consumerism, when directed at the Chinese landscape, bring out American perceptions of it while emphasizing the importance of the landscape's origins. Here and there, a Chinese fisherman can be seen in the painting, depicting a familiar historical scene while reflecting American stereotypes of China.

Chinese artist Wong Chung Yu has also recreated the Chinese landscape with classic paintings such as "Riverside Scene at Ching Ming Festival" rendered and animated in digital with his "Spiritual Water" (2010) series. Rather than be perceived as avant-garde reinterpretations, contemporary reflections are adding to a new Chinese "mindscape" that could one day make up for a lost landscape, urging us to reflect on and preserve it.

Perspective and Preservation

In a landscape now cut with industrial cranes and skyscrapers, Chinese artists are rethinking how we understand this new landscape. Contemporary art in its galleries urges reflection on the traditional. It is no longer about a clean break with the past but a revitalisation of tradition with fresh perspectives based on the experiences of a new generation of artists.

Li Hao, born in Beidaihe, Hebei Province, China in 1982, is part of a generation of young artists who produce contemporary art with traditional methods. Although he started as a traditional ink artist, his work became more abstract as he travelled to showcase it abroad, and this journey inspired him to understand it beyond a Chinese context. "Chinese ink art is based on a core of traditional Chinese philosophy," Hao is reported as saying, "with ink as its medium. Although my works are not traditional at first glance, I don't really consider them to be contemporary, the reason being that I use traditional concepts when creating my work."

As traditional Chinese art remains a separate market to contemporary, the landscape, now in greater need of preservation, has become more difficult to define as a spiritual and artistic entity. A new generation of artists could give it a renewed moral and spiritual significance. 

Words Remo Notarianni