Great paintings

Here are some striking paintings by old and new masters of the art of ink painting. My aim is to show and comment a few paintings at a time, and change them once or twice a month.

Old Trees by a Waterfall

This landscape was painted by Wen Zhengming in 1549 when he was around 80 years old. It is kept in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. It is impossible to convey how amazing and impressive it is. The size alone is dramatic  –   it is a hanging scroll which is some three meters high and about a meter wide. When I saw it exhibited there was a raised platform so one could view it at eye level. It was a mighty sight.

The waterfall comes tumbling into the picture from high up, falls straight down and then thunders out of the image amidst rocks and cliffs. One can imagine the noise and the foam rising among the trees. Wen Zhengming presents a few different kinds of trees and bushes, but the pines are the most striking. Look at the contorted trunks and wildly twisting branches!

The colour scale brings more harmony and peace to the image than the subject itself does. The main colours are indigo, mineral green, yellow and red ochre – they are soft and smooth and unite the different elements of the wild landscape. (Click on the image to get a high quality view)


Steep Cliffs by a Peaceful Bay

Some 150 years later Bada Shanren also painted an image of trees by water – here it is two pine trees that stand on a rocky promontory by a wide and peaceful bay. It is a very different picture, a small album leaf some 30 by 30 cm, compared to the immense hanging scroll above! It is monochrome, just different shades of grey where the previous painting has bright and brilliant colours.

There are also interesting similarities. The pines are equally wild on both pictures. Contorted, wrestling with the universe and with themselves, they are deeply expressive. The way their trunks and branches twist and turn they express the force of life, qi, which is so important in painting nature.


Seated at Night

dsc_4654This wonderfully peaceful landscape by Shen Zhou (1427 – 1509) shows a set of buildings tucked away in a mountain valley. It is a pleasant setting amid lush vegetation and a small stream. If you happen to walk by, there’s a small stone bridge to cross to reach the buildings and pay a visit.

The painting is done in a spontaneous, fresh and lively style. The ink washes and a tiny little bit of colour are sufficient to evoke all the lush trees, bushes and flowers growing around the houses. Blue and orange/brown – that’s all. Notice how few brushstrokes the artist needs to create a forest.

Half of the area of the picture describes the experience that inspired the painting. Shen Zhou woke up one evening and could not fall asleep again. Rather than worrying about insomnia or counting sheep, he got up, lit a lamp and sat contemplating the night. So it is a salf portrait, and the artist had reached the age of 66 when he did the painting, and in the 450 characters above the scenery describes the insights gained through contemplation.

The detail below shows the elegant brushwork that shapes the small trees and bushes around the huts, and the simple and homely interior of the study.


The painting, entitled ‘Seated at Night‘ is in the collections of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.