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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Naturally Engaged": Chinese Landscape Paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago

One of the lovely attributes of working at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. in downtown Chicago is its fortuitous proximity to the Art Institute of Chicago; the Art Institute is a mere three blocks from our office—a brief jaunt to the Institute yields fruitful research and inspiration. Taking advantage of our lucky geography, I recently attended a delightful exhibit currently held in gallery 108 in the Art Institute. The exhibit is Naturally Engaged, and will be on display until January 10, 2010. The concentrated grouping represents poignant examples of some of the major motifs in nearly 600 years of Chinese landscape painting.

As the curator notes in the exhibit, Chinese landscape painting reveals a consciousness which is “fully absorbed” in its natural surroundings. The title of the exhibit—“Naturally Engaged”—speaks to both the idea of the human being as indelibly tied to his environment, and also to the intellectual rapture found in contemplating organic forms. Verging on the idealized, the Chinese landscape painters’ studies of nature convey a sense of purity and stillness. In Symbols of Eternity: The Art of Landscape Painting in China, Michael Sullivan comments upon the fundamental relationship between philosophy and craft: “To the Chinese the theme of painting is inseparable from its form, and both are expressions of an all-embracing philosophical attitude toward the visible world” (Sullivan Symbols 1-2). The literati came to see painting “as a vehicle for intellectual and emotional self-expression;” within the confines of the strict rubric of form, one might witness the flowering of individual expression and technique. For example, the curator beautifully describes the effects of Wang Meng’s brushstrokes in Quiet Life in a Wooded Glen, which are delivered with “dry, charcoal-like treatment of fibrous and dotted boulders.” We can witness a painting which is “strikingly panoramic yet intimately personal”; we can observe paintings which celebrate the fecund spring and yet are governed by a strict, literally architectural, organizing principle.

Yuan Jiang used carpentry tools along with brushes to achieve jiehua, or “ruled-line painting,” in Early Spring Landscape.

Western painting conventions aimed at creating three-dimensional effects are strikingly absent from traditional Chinese landscape paintings. The curator notes the absence of the single vanishing point, and Sullivan remarks upon the lack of cast shadows. In fact, in all of the Chinese landscape paintings scholar Michael Sullivan has witnessed, only one showcased the use of cast shadows; the handscroll, entitled The Poet and His Friends on the Riverbank under the Full Moon, is attributed to Ch’iao Chung-Ch’ang. In a sense, shadows emphasize the individual’s relationship to the temporal; in Chinese landscape painting, we are offered the perfected, the eternal. We are encouraged to “personally [my italics] explore the vast and often dramatic scenery.” Through not fixing the scene to one particular vantage point, the Chinese landscape painter “saw the natural environment through multiple lenses.” Peculiar, lovely attention is given to detailing the fantastical—for example, the rock formations in The Xuehong Pavilion in a Scholar’s Garden, although rather mythical, are rendered with a stunning sort of realism.

The title’s reference to the poet Su Shi and the subject matter concerning the library and art collection also brings forth the sense of the idealized, the intellectual. Tang Yin’s painting The Bamboo Stove pays homage to the poet Wu Kuan, who is featured with the teapot and scroll.

We might read this sort of painting as a vehicle to address philosophical and poetic ideals. Sullivan speaks to this notion of the Chinese landscape painting as capturing the essential “figure” of nature—nature itself as a living symbol. As he writes, the artist is “making a general statement about nature” and the painting is “a distillation of years of wondering amid ‘mountains and water’…a presentation not so much of a unique experience as of an accumulation of experiences recollected in tranquility” (Sullivan Symbols 8).

Shan shui—“mountains and water”—is the Chinese term for landscape, and rocks and water certainly are featured as prevalent “characters” in the drama of Chinese landscape painting (Sullivan 8). A rubbing of the epitaph of Yuan Meng-Hui from 520 A.D. revealed the maxim “In mountains/ One sees/ Human-Heartedness/ In water, wisdom” (Lee Preface). In Watching the Waterfall, we witness the motifs of artistic and intellectual contemplation within the natural realm—a bundle of hanging scrolls, books, and various art works—in the field of the painting itself. Xia Kui, a member of the Zhe School, paints with the characteristic grand scale and “sharply cut” brushstrokes.

The thoughtful, introspective qualities of Chinese landscape painting find expression in such works as Hua Yan’s Man with Staff by a Stream and Wang Meng’s Quiet Life in a Wooded Glen. Executed nearly 500 years apart, the paintings nevertheless embody similar poetic strains of solitude and refuge in a natural setting. Hua Yan’s verse on the painting notes: “Cold and chilly, half the autumn has already passed,/ In the west of Jian, I hear about the/ Turmoil in the north…”

We discover in the curator’s notes that Wang Meng may have created a similar portrait of an artist who seeks peaceful refuge from a conflict ridden-city—Wang Meng spent his last few years in the wilderness, away from the conflict induced by Mongol rule.

I encourage you to attend the Naturally Engaged exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Please look for my blog next week, in which I will address an altogether different genre of Chinese painting—works created primarily for western audiences in the 19th century. MIR's online gallery, a division of MIR Appraisal Services, is proud to showcase fine examples of such works. To speak with a certified appraiser concerning your own collection, or to schedule an appointment to view works from the gallery, please call (312) 814-8510 or email

Written and researched by Jessica Savitz

MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.

Principal Appraiser & Director: Farhad Radfar, ISA, AM

307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308

Chicago, IL 60601

Phone: (312) 814-8510

Works Cited:

Lee, Sherman. Chinese Landscape Painting. Cleveland: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1962.

Sullivan, Michael. Symbols of Eternity: The Art of Landscape Painting in China.

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979.

*Unless otherwise noted, the quotes contained within this paper are taken from the curator’s notes within the Naturally Engaged exhibition at the AIC.

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    Welcome to our blog site! MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. is a fine art and personal property appraisal company dedicated to serving clients throughout the United States and abroad since our incorporation in Chicago in 1994. We specialize in the multi-faceted field of appraising fine art, jewelry, antiques, and decorative items. We also provide professional fine art restoration and conservation treatment for various media, including but not limited to, artworks on canvas, board, masonite, and paper. We offer professional and precise appraisal services carried out by our team of accredited appraisers for the purposes of insurance coverage and claims, charitable donations, estate planning and probate, equitable distribution and fair-market value. We started our art commentary blog site as a venue for colleagues and fellow art enthusiasts to share their experiences within the art community.