Response: 'Picture Idea' and its cultural dynamics in Northern Song China.

Author:Wang, Eugene Y.

Not all pictures are created equal. There is no guarantee that a painting necessarily has a "pictorial conception." Thus spoke the Chinese theorists in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), when such a notion became a discursive preoccupation. The premise is that a painting is considered to display a "pictorial conception" only when its formal mechanism produces certain ineffable effects that evoke suggestive moods, conceptual overtones, or extralinguistic flavors comparable to those inspired by poetry. What is evoked is thus known as the "pictorial conception" or "picture idea (huayi)." (1) The concept is now often explicated through a master narrative of a general shift in taste and formal disposition away from the professional painter's deadpan verisimilitude toward extrapictorial conceptualism favored by the literati. This is a half-truth. The richness of "pictorial conception" is not necessarily proportional to the reduced verisimilitude. Moreover, the familiar narrative that spans centuries of development gives short shrift to the cultural dynamics of the initial moment, that is, the eleventh century, when the notion was first proposed. How did the notion find its consonance in pictorial practice? Insofar as the "pictorial conception" leads us into the murky domain of mental dimensions, it brings up the question of how the pictorial and conceptual universes may be brought to a level of commensurability. To the extent that the literati, the exponents of the "pictorial conception," sought to impregnate painting with poetic sensibility, it remains to be seen how poetic thinking reshaped the pictorial medium that is inherently resistant to verbalization and textual closure. This in turn raises the question of how professional painters responded to the literati's aesthetics of "pictorial conception." No other painting demonstrates these issues better than A Solitary Monastery amid Clearing Peaks (A Solitary Temple below Brightening Peaks), a Northern Song hanging scroll, now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Jonathan Hay's extensive study of the scroll has rekindled our interest in it, and sure enough, we now see in this painting more dimensions than we have all assumed.

The painting occupies a special place in the canonical history of Chinese pictorial scrolls, traditionally conceived as a master narrative of great painters to whose names are attached a cluster of masterpieces. In the cases where a key artist represents a trend or signals a school, there is almost a categorical imperative for a body of unsigned surviving works to be appended to his name. For the Northern Song dynasty, a crucial period that saw the continued ascension of landscape painting but left us with a disproportional dearth of surviving works, such a linkage has gathered particular urgency. Attribution based on received stylistic profiles is accepted in good faith in part because of the shared anxiety of scholars, past and present, to keep the pedigree continuous and in use, as well as the convenience of a biographically ordered master narrative organized around a succession of towering figures, or rather, familiar names. It is as if unanchored from this master narrative, we would be adrift in a sea of abysmal uncertainty and disorientation.

A Solitary Monastery has long fulfilled its expected role in this regard. Traditionally attributed to Li Cheng (919-967), a key figure in the development of Chinese landscape painting, the scroll became one of the placeholders to keep the name of Li Cheng art historically meaningful and sustain our narrative of Northern Song painting. In fact, not a single Li Cheng landscape has survived. Nor is the painting to be dated to the tenth century. (2)

For all its traditional association with Li Cheng, the painting has been repeatedly yanked from its pedestal and reattributed. (3) Jonathan Hay is the latest to delink it from Li Cheng. This move is as salutary and unsurprising as his reattribution to a tenth-century painter is puzzling, since his interpretation of the painting does not need to be anchored on the bedrock, or rather, shifting sands, of an artist's biography. This is not the place to quibble over the reattribution, since it is neither Hay's punch line nor the end of his argument. The interest in his study of this scroll stems not so much from upsetting the apple cart of the received stylistic pedigree as rejecting the methodology founded on the premise of the pedigree altogether. Hay joins the force that, in his words, "quietly breaks away" from the art historical practice hinged on the operative notions of styles.

All is not lost. The painting is now thrust onto center stage to take on a larger role. Instead of serving, in the traditional manner, as a signpost in a linear stylistic pedigree, the painting now anchors, in Jonathan Hay's assertive hand, a broad swath of art historical concerns. To me, the most intriguing aspect is his treatment of the landscape form as symptomatic of different attitudes toward the social world. According to Hay, the landscape in A Solitary Monastery solicits two views, one political, the other religious. Hay sees the dominant mountain in the center surrounded by a cluster of peaks as a formal analogue of imperial authority and its hierarchical state of dominance and submission. (4) Meanwhile, he interprets the centrality of the Buddhist monastery as privileging an eremitic retreat from the madding crowd. He then notes a contradiction: state ideology demands participation and allegiance; the Buddhist view prompts withdrawal from social engagement. Phrased in traditional Chinese terms, one urges "entering the world," the other, "transcending the world." To Hay, the formal configuration amounts to a symbolic way of reconciling, or "mediating," the contradictory impulses. The tension in the formal configuration, however, betrays the impossibility of "suturing" the gap.

This premise leads Hay to discover an intriguing formal drama in the painting. With admirable sensitivity, he notes that a "jagged downward-projecting rock face looms above and behind the pagoda" that makes the pagoda mast seem "slightly off the central axis of the pagoda," thereby disrupting "the building's otherwise perfect symmetry." The painter's manifest effort to sustain the strictly vertical disposition of the pagoda mast and finial thus amounts to a formal response to the downward-projecting force. Hay then sees the correct disposition of the finial as a sign of the restoration of order, which he further interprets as a "suture" that "disturbs the painting's ostensible celebration of the alignment of Buddhism and the state with an intimation of that alignment's fragility."

Few would probably accept Hay's reading of this local detail. Nevertheless, his method in general offers a refreshing and stimulating way of extrapolating ideological significance from the formal traits in landscape painting. Shifting our attention to the inconsistencies and tensions in the formal texture as clues, Hay's approach clearly opens up new horizons. His perceptive identification of the interplay between the architectonic composure of the pagoda and the disturbingly downward projecting rock face that threatens to collapse on the pagoda as the central visual interest or formal drama of the painting is nothing short of a revelation or epiphany. All of a sudden, the painting appears to make some sense, although what precisely this "sense" is still eludes us when pressed into verbal formulations. To make "sense" of it is the challenge I take up here. I am not entirely convinced by the way Hay attends to some local details, but I find his discovery of the central visual drama instrumental, as it provides us with a launchpad from which various alternative interpretative trajectories and ventures become conceivable.

As the issue here pertains to ideological overtones of landscape, there seems to be an alignment between our present-day interest in teasing extrapictorial overtones out of a formal design and the Northern Song preoccupation with the "pictorial conception." While this is not Hay's concern, I take this opportunity to revisit the issue. My reading differs from what Hay makes of the painting, but my account affirms--and demonstrates in my own way--the general efficacy of the method that begins with noting the oddities, inconsistencies, and tensions in the formal texture (5) and takes flight from there.

"Desolation-cum-Austerity": A Pictorial Conception

A Solitary Monastery is an unusual painting. Its oddity stems not from any of the landscape elements individually but from their uncommon configuration. We begin with a familiar motif in the foreground. The clusters of contorted, twisting, forlorn trees atop the rock outcrops flaunt what is called "crab-claw" branches. These are staple features of a subgenre of Chinese landscape painting known as the Cold Forest or Wintry Forest (hanlin). Li Cheng is allegedly its originator. (6) What takes us by surprise is not their appearance in the painting but the way the composition vexes the perceptual habit conventionally solicited by the Cold Forest.


The Cold Forest composition formalizes a distinct mode of spatial organization. Its conventional modus operandi is the interplay between the distinct close-up trees with an indistinct distant horizon. A cluster of contorted barren trees with "crab-claw" branches typically occupies the foreground, serving, as it were, as a measure of distance, a substantial marker of the real to accentuate the insubstantial void behind, and to offset the vast stretch of spatial recession behind/beyond, known as the "Level Distance" (pingyuan) in Northern Song painting. (7) The distinctiveness of the foreground trees also accentuates the indistinctive--hence elusive--character of the background void that prompts the beholder's imaginary projection of mist, cloud, haze into the spatial recession...

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