Chinese Landscape Painting: Wang Wei
PAINTING WITHIN POETRY // POETRY WITHIN PAINTING
I savor Mojie’s paintings within poems. I view Mojie’s poems within paintings. The poem says:
At Indigo Field, the white rocks protrude. On the jade river, the red leaves are sparse. No rain falls on the mountain trails, but The green grass wets one’s attire.
This is Mojie’s poem. Some say it is not his but forged by some dilettante and passed off as Mojie’s lost poem. (1)
Wang Wei (Mojie) was a poet, musician, painter, and statesman in China during the 8th century. Through his endeavors, he pioneered the maturation of landscape painting and is best known for his shuimo (monochromatic extension of calligraphy) paintings (2). Although Wang eventually withdrew from society and retreated to studies in Buddhism, he became a legend for his work in painting and poetry (3).
An Evening in the Mountains
After rain the empty mountain
Stands sutumnal in the evening,
Moonlight in it groves of pine,
Stones of crystal in its brooks.
Bamboos whisper of washer-girls bound home,
Lotus-leaves yield before a fisher-boat --
And what does it matter that springtime has gone,
While you are here, O Prince of Friends? (5)
During the Tang Dynasty, many paintings were minimally painted, focusing on the essence or "rhythm of nature" (2). The translation of sensory experiences was an important aspect in capturing this essence of the landscape, therefore, Wang worked within the parallels of poetry and painting, and the interchangeability of the two practices for the artist. "In this life I have usurped the fame of a poet;/ In a former existence I must have been a painter," he wrote. In later centuries, critics praised Wang's powerful subtlety, attributing his success in painting to his poetic practice (4).
The Daoist conception of utopia permeates though Wang Wei's simple depiction of nature - a rhythm, balanced without the intrusion of the human.
“the greatest beauty lies in no form” (“da xiang wu xing” 大象無形) (6)
From this Zen and Daoist perspective, Wang Wei is said to have founded the Southern School, a tradition of painting which emphasizes expression over realistic representation. Unfortunately, there are no surviving Wang Wei paintings, but copies and records help us piece together the legend of his innovation with respect to tradition.
Wang Wei's Guide for the Composition of Landscapes:
Clouds should obscure the middle of mountains, waterfalls should cover sections of large rocks, trees should partially hide pavilions and towers, and human and animal figures should obscure roads. Morning was to be depicted by light mists in the dawn over the mountain, and evening was to be shown by the sun setting behind the mountains (7).