Artistic space beyond the scroll

The appreciation of Chinese landscape paintings always inspires viewers to think about space and life. The ongoing exhibition in Hong Kong Arts Centre, A Landscape Journey—Landscape painting from the Xubaizhai collection dating mainly the Ming and Qing dynasty, shows a series of Chinese landscape paintings related to the “woyou” concept. “Woyou” means “to travel while reclining”, and these paintings were made for the future use of appreciating the great landscape and recalling the memories of travelling with friends. They carry the hopes and ambitions of the painters and lead viewers to explore the artistic space beyond the scroll.

The philosophy of the artistic space

The Chinese’ understanding about space can be traced back to Lao Zi’s idea that “carving out a void to create a room, only where there is emptiness does the room acquire utility.”  For Chinese, the intangibles are the real, and emptiness can be the most reasonable being of realism. If we compare a Chinese painting to a poem, the intentional emptiness of space is like the intervals between verses, where the audience can stop for a minute to mediate upon the underlying philosophy of the poem. The intervals add to the charm of the poem in that they show the rhythmic beauty of the poem and involve the audience. Chinese artists suggest viewers look for implications out of the painting itself. This leads us to think: What implications do they infuse into their paintings?

Many Chinese artists were literati. They had big ambitions and expected themselves to be distinct, but they were often discouraged or disappointed by social or political circumstances. They used art as a vehicle to convey reflections about their identity and social position. The recurring objects of hut, bridge and streams suggest the common vision among the literati of living a secluded life. However, there is never one understanding of the philosophy in a painting. As is suggested by Goodman, artists are bound by their own experience and tastes to achieve realism in their works and “innocent eye” is impossible to adopt. Viewers can also gain different insights from the painting using different individual perspectives.

In Wen Zhengming’s painting “cooling off the hot summer”, the author used bridges to sketch a zigzag travelling route. The route extends to the top of the scroll and leaves the audience with blankness. The artistic space in this case can be understood as seclusion from the mundane world.

In Yang Jin’s “landscape”, however, the implication of space seems to be different. Travelling with the gentleman and his boy servant, viewers come to know the ideal lifestyle suggested by the artist—living in the mountains and writing poems while appreciating the great nature. The blankness of the water raises people’s curiosity about the unexplored beauty beyond the scroll. They might as well activate their own creativity and sketch another scene about the other bank of the river.

The techniques of the artistic space

By arranging different objects and figures in harmony and hierarchy, Chinese artists display a mobile view of landscape on the scroll and encourage the audience to explore the space beyond.

Landscape is depicted in abstract yet highly representative forms, to create harmony in the limited scope. In Gong Xian’s painting “landscape”, the texture of the rocks is shown by delicate shadowing ink colors, and trees are represented by simple scattering ink spots. What the painter wants to emphasize is not the individual objects, but the underlying harmony in the picture. The wholeness that Chinese artists try to achieve in their paintings is appreciated as creative, as Sullivan mentioned in his article. He further suggested that Chinese artists conveyed their most subtle feelings through the individual moves of the brush. Opening the scroll, we see the rising mist in the mountains asking us to discover more about the beautiful scenery. Passing the streams, we then encounter the trees on the lower mountains. Walk through the woods, and we see a hut elegantly sitting in the mountain. Now we are walking along a river through the trees. There may be a wonderland ahead, waiting for us to explore. The objects are arranged in hierarchy as well. Trees are nearer and clearer, while sky is more vague and farther. The contrast between dark and bright, small and large deepens the space and gives the viewers an impression of travelling in the picture. They then naturally imagine the space beyond: Will we arrive at a village? Will there be men farming and women looking after children in the mountains? Will scholars meet in the hut and create fine poetry?

Figures, represented by simple contours, merge perfectly into the picture and involve the audience to contemplate about the space. As Sullivan illustrates, Chinese paintings always contain anecdotal elements, such as scholars, peasants, and fishermen. In his painting “landscape in the style of Shen Zhou”, Yang Jin displayed a story about a scholar travelling in the mountains in front of the viewers by using figures as clues. The scroll starts with a gentleman in red sitting cross-legged in a hut. To the left on a bridge, the same gentleman is strolling ahead of his boy servant carrying a guqin musical instrument. We can find the same gentleman walking into the woods and chatting with his servant in latter segments. Each scene is independent. Nevertheless, they are intimately connected with each other to form the whole story. Here the space is illustrated by leaving blankness as intervals between each scene. Upon seeing the gentleman and his boy servant on the first bridge, viewers take their time to appreciate the flowing river suggested by the whiteness, and linger in the mountains. Slowly, then, they reach the next bridge and see the gentleman again. The emptiness stimulates the audience to find out more about the scenery and to continue the story themselves.

Take a journey to explore the artistic space

Chinese ink paintings are a trace of physical movement of the painter. Chinese artists leave the viewers astonished at the excellent skills and inspired by the deep underlying philosophy. Our appreciation shouldn’t stop where the scroll ends. We should place ourselves in the picture, take an interactive journey with the author through the landscape, and explore the artistic space beyond the scroll.

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