Dong Qichang, in the Shade of Summer Trees, 17th Century, Ming Dynasty
This painting is from the Ming Dynasty, and very clearly depicts and captures the essence of The Southern School, or Literati painters. The first thing to note is the overall composition of the painting. First and foremost it is a landscape painting. The colors are very monochrome; the space is stretched to reveal a depth to the painting that the eye cannot capture; and there is stillness to the art that embraces nature and serenity of life. In the right-hand corner of the painting there is calligraphy.
The calligraphy lacks the precision, but is very clear in its form, much like the depiction within the painting itself. There are three men in the painting. The men are at ease and are almost lost in the painting. The men do not seem distinct from their surroundings but rather just another natural element in the bigger picture. The men are in poses that do not suggest positions that can be held for long periods of time, but rather only a moment. The men appear to be marveling at their surroundings as they look out into the vast wilderness. Above them, and hidden behind trees, there is a building.
Just like the men, the nature and trees overwhelm the structure itself, clearly defining the more important and powerful of the two. Just below the men, there is a waterfall. The water appears to be making its way downward winding its way through the clusters of rocks. Water, representing the source of life, flows in this painting with great force, capturing the vitality and life of an individual moment in nature. This painting possesses a narrative emphasizing nature and the life that exists beyond human existence. It is the influence of nature on the human and not the influence of the human on nature.
While the painting lacks the formal resemblance we recognize from photographs or our own perception, there is an overall impression that the viewer is left with: a true introduction to nature, and an intimate glimpse into a particular moment. The painting takes what the eye can see and extends it further, to a realm that cannot be captured by someone unless they have the patience and diligence to see beyond the obvious and capture more than the eye permits. Dong Qichang is revealing his discovery of nature and its importance and relevance to himself at a particular moment in time.
There is an inner truth and realization that is depicted with every stroke of the brush and as each different element is unveiled, a different realization of life and nature is put down as a record. After attempting to emulate the techniques of Dong Qichang, and create a literati painting using the California scenery, I have realized many things. One is that I would never make it as a painter. The other things revolve around the life of the painting. The painting seems to resonate with a vitality that is captured through the depiction of a moment in time.
The wind moves all the trees, and forces them to take on a life of their own and assume a position that seizes a particular moment, even though the layout and the trees themselves seem to lack the likeness to what we would expect to see in nature. The water is caught in a single moment, and we can see the life in it as it tries to get past the rocks and settle below. We know that the water is only in that particular position for a miniscule amount of time, and we can see that the painting truly captures a very distinct and precise time.
The painting shows three men, one of whom is lifting his arm to point to something in the distance, and all three men follow with their heads to the direction of his arm. This is also capturing a single moment in time, and the painting serves as the record for a past event that will never be again, and captures emotions distinct to that moment, that will probably never be felt in the same way again. We can see the instantaneous placement of the cloud creating a fog and with it an illusion of something that is unknown and mysterious.
This moment is captured so expertly before the fog can be burned away, or hidden by night, or pushed away with the wind. There is also emptiness in the painting. I did not realize this until I started to try to do a landscape drawing of my own. While the emptiness lacks any objects, it seems to have, or be, purposeful in the painting. It represents something, and is a source to the elements in the painting. It could be the wind that is moving the trees, or gravity that is causing the water to fall. The empty part of the picture seems to hold significance to the individual perspective and time of the painting.
The artist’s personal feelings and reasoning once again captured and recorded in the painting. All of this being said, the question of how much of the painting is natural and how much of the painting is artifice arises. I think that the best way to tackle this question is from the largest perspective, and narrowing thereafter. That which the painting references is natural, and that which is within the painting is natural, but the composition and interaction between the different elements is artifice. Everything within the painting draws on what is natural: trees, water, rocks, mountains, clouds, humans, etc.
It is how these elements interact with each other and with the canvas that enriches the painting with artifice. The interaction between the artist’s thoughts and emotions and nature, are so intertwined that the painting almost masks the artist’s true feelings with the natural behaviors of the elements. It is when the viewer steps back and looks at the whole painting, that one is able to appreciate the importance this painting plays as a record to an individual moment- both for the artist and its muse, nature.