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.
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. And now as concretisation eats it away, traditional depictions are turning into environmental records.
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 political roles. It was perhaps during this time that it became more of a “mindscape”. As paintings reflect inner as well as outer worlds, and 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, almost a national symbol.
That landscape has opened to the world in recent decades and is in need of greater understanding. This 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, brings out American perceptions of it, while emphasising the importance of the landscape’s origins. Here and there, a Chinese fisherman can be seen in the paintings depicting a common 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 grade reinterpretations, contemporary reflections are adding to a new Chinese ‘mindscape’ that could one day make up for a lost landscape, urging us to reflect in it and preserve it.
Perspective and Preservation
Now cut with industrial cranes and skyscrapers, Chinese artists are rethinking how we understand its new landscape. Contemporary art in its galleries urge 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. Starting 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 Chinese traditional 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 because 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