Wandering through Streams and Mountains: Landscape Painting in East Asia

This two-part installation highlighting Japan and China focuses on landscape painting, one of the most important art forms of East Asia. Although the word "landscape" best captures the subject matter of the works on view, no such word existed in traditional Japanese or Chinese discourse. In both languages, the genre is called "mountain and water" (Japanese: sansui, Chinese: shanshui 山水, evoking the key components of depictions of nature in East Asian painting. 
Two distinct strains of landscape painting developed in Japan by the fourteenth century. One followed the example of the mostly monochromatic landscapes of China's Song dynasty (960-1279). Built on a Chinese tradition, these images nonetheless feature numerous formal innovations, including dramatically pruned pine trees and thick, swirling mists. The other landscape tradition in Japan focused on brilliantly colored scenes quite different from contemporary Chinese works. More ornamental than topographical, these paintings often used thick layers of paint or gold leaf. The latter technique is seen in the pair of screens on display, Tigers and Bamboo, in which majestic tigers emerge from a bamboo grove in an atmospheric haze that dazzles and flickers against a gold ground. 
Japanese painters working in both landscape traditions were inspired by the distinctive seasons of their homeland. Often the passing of spring to summer or autumn to winter was depicted within a single image or across a series of screens. Beloved scenic locations, such as that depicted in The Hozu River, seen to your left, were also popular subjects for landscape painters-and remain so to the present day. 

Landscape paintings in China often were meant to invite the viewer to mentally travel through the scene. A point of entry into the landscape was provided, often by means of a path or a sliver of land in the foreground. As the scene continues upward (in a hanging scroll) or leftward (in a handscroll), both perspective and scale may change, and the viewer is taken on a journey through mountain and water, time and space. 
Landscape emerged as an independent genre in Chinese painting during the tumultuous later years of the Tang dynasty (618-906). As the dynasty crumbled, elites yearned to withdraw to the bucolic setting of their country estates. Painters responded by creating images that reflect the idealized retreats envisioned by their patrons. By the Northern Song dynasty (960- 1127), court painters were producing monumental landscapes whose imposing mountains and intricately arranged streams and trees came to be viewed as visual metaphors for the well-ordered state. The dynasty also saw the rise of painters drawn from the new class of scholar-officials. These talented amateurs further transformed the genre by producing landscapes aimed at expressing their own artistic visions. 
After the Song dynasty, painters began to adopt and reinterpret the styles and tropes of earlier artists to the extent that landscape painting in China became largely an artistic dialogue with past masters. Thus, the ultimate inspiration for the landscape painter's natural forms lay not necessarily in an artist's personal experience with rural scenery but in the history of landscape painting itself.