Zhao Mengfu promoted a “return to the spirit of antiquity” (guyi), and here he evoked an early mode of landscape painting, the blue-green style. The flatness of forms, blue and green colours, evenly spaced trees, and wiry thin brush lines are among the many archaic allusions. The scroll’s subject is the scholar-official Xie Youyu (280–322), who once said that although he was uncomfortable in the confines of the court, when surrounded by hills and streams, he had no equal. In this composition, he is aptly portrayed seated in a landscape of his own imagination. The underlying theme of reclusion at court was particularly poignant for Zhao, a descendant of the Song royal family who transferred his loyalty to serve under the Mongol conquerors of the Yuan dynasty.
Landscape Painting in Chinese Art
By the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. Such images might also convey specific social, philosophical, or political convictions. As the Tang dynasty disintegrated, the concept of withdrawal into the natural world became a major thematic focus of poets and painters. Faced with the failure of the human order, learned men sought permanence within the natural world, retreating into the mountains to find a sanctuary from the chaos of dynastic collapse.
Images of nature have remained a potent source of inspiration for artists down to the present day. While the Chinese landscape has been transformed by millennia of human occupation, Chinese artistic expression has also been deeply imprinted with images of the natural world. Viewing Chinese landscape paintings, it is clear that Chinese depictions of nature are seldom mere representations of the external world. Rather, they are expressions of the mind and heart of the individual artists—cultivated landscapes that embody the culture and cultivation of their masters.
Department of Asian Art. “Landscape Painting in Chinese Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/clpg/hd_clpg.htm (October 2004)