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Painting in Northern Song Dynasty (960 AD - 1279 AD)

History of Early Northern Song

With the fall of the Tang Dynasty, the golden age of China was in decline. Once again, China was divided into five states. The Five Dynasties (906-960) produced undistinguished artists. However, the period of unrest laid foundation for the The Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), which reunited China in 906 A.D.

The new Song empire was smaller that its predecessor, the Tang. China's north eastern was still controlled by the Liao, which would succumbed to the Jin conquerers in 1126, the event forced the Song to vacate its northern capital to the more hospitable south. Thus began the era of the Southern Song rule.

In contrast to the Tang, the Song rulers were introspective; they seek inspiration from traditional values and shied away from anything foreign. As a result, there was a renewed interest in Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism.

Art History of Daoist influences on the Art

According to Daoist thoughts, to understand the "Way", one must experience it; to understand nature, one must study it. Daoist beliefs transformed how artists viewed and painted nature: paintings were abstract, held implied meanings rather than direct expressions as compared to the earlier dynasties. Colors were used sparingly or used in a subdued manner. Landscape paintings of past dynasties were tapestry-like and fragmented.

Paintings of the Song, on the other hand, gave emphasis on the brush strokes and had a blended consistency. More importantly, methods were developed to create a spatial continuum within the painting as characterized by the use of mist to create the illusion of depth and distant objects. Landscape paintings were no longer an assemblage of images, but were composed in a dream-like atmosphere.

Song's Greatest Artists - Li Cheng, Fan Kuan, Guo Xi

Li Cheng (10th century artist) was considered China's greatest landscape artist. He depicted winter scenes of northern China using only black and white washes. Li Cheng's influence on later landscape artists was profound; the grandeur of Chinese landscape painting owed more to him than any other figure in history. Many of the finest surviving landscapes, notably Fan Kuan, Xu Dao Ning and Guo Xi, attributed Li Cheng as their master.

Fan Kuan (990 - 1030 A.D.), a master landscape painter of the early Northern Song, was best known for his austere paintings of northern China. Fan Kuan's paintings were meant to mirror nature itself, to capture its essence and spirit, rather than to portray its superficial appearance.

The mid Song period signified a point of maturity in Chinese landscape paintings. The suggestive landscape paintings of the Song implied movement beyond the picture and created an illusion of distance. Song painters did not attempt to reproduce nature by using fine details, but rather by using a few simple brush strokes and delicate washes. In their eyes, the natural world could be experienced through landscape paintings.

Guo Xi, next to Li Cheng, was a distinguished painter and author on the Chinese treatise on landscape. Earlier landscape painters regarded nature as constant and immutable; Guo Xi's paintings, however saw nature as turbulent and in constant turmoil. Guo Xi's aim was to emulate nature in his paintings, permitting viewers to be one with nature. His use of fading washes created the illusion of depth and distance. Guo Xi, had recognized:

"A distant mountain has no wrinkles, distant water no waves; a man at a distance has no eyes"

Emergence of Song Literarti Artists

Song emperor, Hui Zong was also a skilled artist and an avid art collector. Hui Zong established the Song Imperial Painting Academy. Hui Zong favoured details in his work as seen by "Five-Coloured Parkeet on a Branch of a Blooming Apricot Tree". Subsequent Academy artists would follow the emperor's style -- use of meticulous details, fine lines and multiple brush strokes, known as gongbi hua.

Opposed to the "Academy" style was a group of scholar painters, who were also court officials known as the literari artists, or wen ren. The style was a departure from the fine style painting of the gongbi hua tradition. Instead, artists would execute a brush stroke in one movement, the style was known as xieyi hua, roughly translated as "to write an idea". The literari painters believed in painting for pleasure rather than for profit, and regarded the professional painters or Academic painters with disdain.

The literari artists used monochrome ink on paper rather than colour on silk, and regarded the bamboo, a symbol of purity and endurance in the face of adversity, as their ideal subject. Literari painters believed in expression of unique thoughts and feelings through their paintings. Little did they know that the foundation of the literati style had been laid and, in turn, the style would dominate the world of Chinese brush painting.

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