Legendary Masterpiece of Chinese Art
Reunited after Nearly Four Centuries
Split in two 360 years ago, the painting "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains" has come together again at Taipei's National Palace Museum. What is the best way to take in this legendary painting?
Reunited after Nearly Four CenturiesBy Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 474 )
It is one of the biggest happenings in Taipei this year. Yuan-dynasty artist Huang Gongwang's masterpiece "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains" has been reunited harmoniously after being split in two for more than 300 years. Prominent art critic Chiang Hsun said he would never have dared imagine this milestone even in his dreams.
Forty years ago, Chiang was given a chance by previous masters to come face to face with the second section of the famous painting at the National Palace Museum. Known as the "Master Wuyong Scroll," it measured 639.9 centimeters long – about seven-eighths of the work – and had been part of the National Palace Museum's collection since being brought over from China by the retreating forces of Chiang Kai-shek during the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s.
So when the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in China agreed to lend the first-eighth of the painting measuring 51.4 centimeters, called "The Remaining Mountain," to the museum in Taiwan, many artists, including Chiang Hsun, thought their dreams had come true.
The dream, made even more elusive by the hostility between Taiwan and China for nearly 60 years, will only remain a reality for two months. Once the exhibition "The Landscape Reunited: Huang Gongwang and 'Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains'" ends on July 31, the long-divided siblings will again go their separate ways.
So why exactly is this painting considered so remarkable, and how should one try to appreciate it? Chiang Hsun, who has studied the work for 40 years, has published a book on the subject and gave us a critical introduction.
Born in 1269, Huang Gongwang is considered one of the Four Yuan Masters. For much of his life as a young adult he was a government clerk, but after being convicted of a crime and imprisoned, he gave up future hope of official rank and took up painting under his contemporary Zhao Mengfu.
In his older age, he traveled to the banks of the Fuchun River, a tributary of the Qingtang in Zhejiang Province, and explored the area.
Huang completed "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains" when he was in his early 80s in 1350, a year identified on the "stem-branch cycle" calendar as gengyin, or "metal tiger." (The stem-branch cycle describes years based on a combination of one of 10 "heavenly stems" and one of 12 "earthly branches" that occur in cycles of 60 years.) Ironically, the painting was burned apart and nearly destroyed in another "metal tiger" year in 1650, and Taiwan and China agreed to reunite its two parts in 2010, also a "metal tiger" year. So having been through three momentous events in the same phase of the "stem-branch cycle," it has finally achieved a brief reunion.
After the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the painting became the benchmark every painter aspired to. When the Ming-dynasty artist, calligrapher and collector Dong Qichang (1555-1636) saw the masterpiece, he uttered admiringly, "My master! My master!"
Chiang Hsun believes that Huang Gongwang deserves a place in world art history, because his use of blank spaces and treatment of lines and points possess a distinctly modern sensibility.
After Huang died in 1354, the painting passed through many hands, some collectors holding on to it for 10 years, others 20. Collectors threw away family fortunes, or even lost their lives and caused the obliteration of their families, only adding to its legendary status.
But its most famous adventure came shortly after the Ming Dynasty was overthrown in 1644 and gave way to the Qing. At the time, the painting was in the hands of Wu Hongyu (Wu Wenqing), an avid art collector and the patriarch of the Wu family in Yixing, Jiangsu Province. The painting was his life, but when the Ming Dynasty fell, he fled into the mountains barefoot with the artwork in hand. In the winter of 1650, Wu suddenly decided to burn the painting and told his nephew to start a fire and throw the painting in. His nephew followed orders but took advantage of a moment when Wu wasn't paying attention to save the masterpiece and toss in another painting in its place – though not fast enough to prevent some damage from occurring.
If you look carefully at the painting on display in Taipei, much of it is just over 33 centimeters high, but the height of the front section, the "Remaining Mountain," is only 31 cm, the top and bottom scorched in the fire.
Despite its tortured history, the painting has amazingly survived to this day, and Chiang Hsun has a few suggestions and reminders to help people appreciate it:
Start with the End Inscription
The inscription is usually a record of when the artist composed the painting and his emotions at the time. Huang was a child prodigy, but he was imprisoned during his middle years and then turned to fortune-telling as his primary pursuit as he got older. In his inscription on "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains," Huang was telling the painting's fortune.
The start of the inscription (found to the left of where the painting ends as you face the scroll) reads, "Seventh year of the Zhizheng Emperor (1347), in the Fuchun Mountains, in the company of Master Wuyong." Zheng Wuyong, Huang's Taoist friend and apprentice, was at the painter's side watching Huang compose the masterpiece for three years and feared that once the painting was completed, it would be stolen or fought over by unscrupulous people. Wuyong therefore asked Huang to clearly stipulate in the inscription that the work was to be given to him.
Chiang says that Huang seemed to have known the trials and tribulations the painting would endure over the next 600 years, writing with a tinge of emotion near the end of the inscription, "(This is) so that others can understand how difficult this was to achieve." These were the deepest sentiments of an old painter in his early 80s as he signed the painting over to his apprentice. Chiang hopes that those who see the work will also be able to appreciate "how difficult (the painting) was to achieve."
Consider the Aesthetic Difference
Chiang also suggests that the painting may enable art lovers to appreciate the difference between Western and Eastern aesthetics.
Huang completed his first scroll when he was in his early 70s, in complete contrast to Vincent van Gogh who cut off his ear when he was 35 and committed suicide at the age of 37. Huang was already a success when he was 12, then was thrown into prison in his mid-40s, and went on to tell people their fortunes. It was only after seeing so many people suffering and in distress that he was able to calmly reflect on his life.
Take Heed of the Parts
One peculiarity of the painting is that it contains within it the changing seasons. To get the most out of it, Chiang contends, one must free oneself from the Western concept of viewing a picture from a fixed perspective.
Whether we stand close or far away, take a quick glimpse or gaze slowly, we can see in this picture the image of the river in its entirety, across a whole sequence of moments. When viewing it, you can take a step back and see spring turn into summer, or catch the colors of autumn, or even a mountain ravine or a raging current.
The painting also has eight small human figures, five of whom are relatively easy to spot and the others nearly unidentifiable. Chiang Hsun compares it to the famous work "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" by French artist Jacques-Louis David. That painting, in which the Alps are dominated by human beings, exalts the greatness and heroic nature of man while suppressing the surrounding landscape. But as the Yuan Dynasty was collapsing, humans were considered to be no better than flotsam at sea.
When Huang painted his masterpiece, the powerful Mongols who had stormed through much of Asia were on the decline, and Huang suddenly felt a sense of even calmness about the pain he had suffered from the Mongols, who had overthrown the Song Dynasty just a few years after he was born.
In Huang's painting, the people have no facial features. Indeed, they are simply passers by, just as we all come into the universe and depart. Yet the immense universe remains unchanged.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier