A Tale of Five Painters – Part I


Detail from Xia Gui, A Pure and Remote View of Streams and Mountains


Besides at least one spoken language, we all understand visual language, communication by lines, shapes, colors and textures. When we express ourselves in a visual language we are influenced by examples seen through the course of our lives. If, for example, we would have to draw the meaning “Stop”, chances are it would resemble the responding traffic sign in our country.

Like in our spoken language, in which we with time might include vocabulary and phrasing from our favorite authors, our visual language can be influenced by the styles and visual vocabulary of our favorite artists. This is certainly true for my own work. Among my strongest influences outside of photography, it is the work of the five painters introduced in this series. Three (Ma Yuan, Xia Gui and Muqi Fachang) are Chinese painters from the Song dynasty, two (Sesshū Tōyō and Hasegawa Tōhaku) are Japanese painters from 14th and 15th century. And while they span a period of 400 years, there is a common thread connecting these painters: the discovery of emptiness as a tool of art. They explore, and teach us, to read between the lines and force us to think about what is left empty in the picture. Being suggestive rather than explicit they all open space for meditative viewing. No surprise then that two of the painters (Muqi and Sesshū) were Zen monks.

Besides this more philosophical aspect of their work, there are other, more practical, things a photographer (or anyone) can learn from these masters. The mastery of frame-in-frame composition techniques and the use of leading lines to make a picture “readable” in the work of Ma Yuan. Complete naturalness using subtle echoes in the work of Xia Gui. The use of negative space in the works of Muqi and Hasegawa and, finally, in Sesshu the first mastery of abstraction. Some of these artists also play with imbalance in composition. In Western art and design, balance in a picture is seen as a goal to strive for. Our artists here go into the opposite direction and use imbalance as a tool to create tension, atmosphere and silent drama.  Especially in landscape photography with its basically static subject, this is a topic I find quite exciting to explore.

As three of the painters lived and worked during the Southern Song dynasty, it might be worth spending a few words on this most astounding period of Chinese history. While being a time of great advances in civilization (e.g. the compass and moveable type printing were invented during the Song) it was also at times a most fragile period of danger and uncertainty. In 1126, the northern part of the empire was lost to invaders and the southern part (the Southern Song) was under constant threat from invasion. Starting from 1205 the dynasty gradually succumbed to the forces of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan until 1279, when the dynasty finally fell into the hands of the Mongols (which then founded the following Yuan dynasty). In art, the works of the Northern Song express power and optimisim, the works of the Southern Song in contrast have an air of refined melancholy.

After the fall of the Song, Chinese art took a new direction away form academic painting to paintings by non-trained, private connoiseurs and scholars. The political/military weakness of the Song was seen as an embarrassment, an embarrassment that extended to the painters from the Song, which were now denounced as weak and worthless. It was in Japan (and through artists like Sesshū and Hasegawa) that appreciation of the works of Ma Yuan, Xia Gui and Muqi (and in some cases the works itselves) survived and where they are now revered as national treasures.

In the Western world acknowledgement of these masters has significantly increased during the last 50 years. Still, they are not part of the Western pantheon of masters or the curriculum of schools. This should change, because some of the works of these masters are among the finest achievements of mankind and we are doing ourselves a disservice ignoring them. Some of these masters have felt to me like friends since I was a teenager. If this series can contribute to making them also your friends that would be a quite wonderful outcome.




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