A Tale of Five Painters – Part III

Xia Gui

Xia Gui-Left -1.jpgThe second painter in this series, Xia Gui 1195-1224 was a younger contemporary of Ma Yuan and like him a master at the imperial academy of the Song court. Like Ma, Xia Gui was known for his unusual compositional style with all the weight of the painting at the bottom edge. Few (confirmed) paintings by Xia Gui have survived, but fortunately his “Pure and Remote View of Mountains and Streams” has and is now at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. This painting has cemented Xia’s fame and is one of my all-time favorites. But in presenting it here, I am facing quite a few obstacles.

The first such obstacle is the work’s sheer size. It is a scroll of 9m length, so reproducing it on a computer screen is challenging. But I do want to encourage you to have a look at the whole of it. In this post however, I will only be able to show some detail view extracts.

The second obstacle is the depth of the work. It seems to me a bit like Goethe’s “Faust”: it means different things to different people during different phases of their lives. With every new inspection, one finds new aspects to it; or if so inclined, can find in it the meaning of life and everything, which as we know is 42. So I have to limit my comments on a single aspect.

Xia Gui-Right-1.jpgThis aspect is the work’s surprising “musicality”. Like in the above detail, rocks, but also generally darker and lighter parts of the picture form a certain rhythm. Also the pine trees in the front, the middle and the back seem to echo each other, like different melodies in lower and higher registers. One can see the same effect in the detail view at the top of this post. The pine in the front turns towards the right, while one in the back echoes it in the other direction.

Look also at the similarity in shape of the rocks in the details above and below.Xia-Gui-Mid-1.jpg

It is as if themes, bass lines and melodies are arranged, repeatet, variated. Together they create a pulse throughout the picture from the right to the left (the direction in which it traditionally would have been viewed). The whole actually forms a veritable visual symphony.

Now isn’t that a fascinating idea, to compose “visual music”? For me this is a source of boundless inspiration, the (theoretical) possibility to capture an inner music of a landscape. But is it also practical in photography? At least:  it ain’t easy, as they say. Xia fills an empty canvas (or actually, paper). A photograph must select from a given reality. So I find myself failing more often than not, like in the picture below.

dtpHelsinki-0002.jpg
A not so successful rendering of Xia-Music. There is some “echo” in the tree groups in the front, center and background, but no melody or rhythm.

On the other hand, maybe one must not take Xia Gui quite so literally and it is enough to listen to and capture the longing melody of a misty morning.  Xia Gui is also a master of atmospheric perspective (fading of ink tones for distant objects) – and that is a technique, photography can use to good effect. Therefore, using such variations in tones, a certain flow to the composition and some repetition of elements might not produce a symphony, but maybe at least gives us a simple little melody:

dtpHelsinki-0001.jpg
A morning walk with Mr. Xia on the coast

So much for Xia Gui. Next week I will approach the first of the Zen masters in this series, Muqi. See you then!

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