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Gong Xian, Eight Views of Landscape

Gong Xian, Eight Views of Landscape, 1684, Qing Dynasty, handscroll, ink on paper (Shanghai Museum). A conversation between Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) - [Kristen] We're in the Shanghai Museum looking at a Gong Xian painting, "Eight Views of a Landscape" dated to 1684 and its eight album leaves that have been mounted into a handscroll format. - [Beth] Gong Xian was an important artist during this period in Nanjing, a region in the Southern part of China. In fact, Gong Xian one of the eight masters of Nanjing. - [Kristen] Nanjing and also Yangzhou where he also worked is right on the banks of the Yangtze River. So this is an area that's low waterways, low lying, rolling hills. And you see that in these paintings. - [Beth] We're looking at one in particular that seems densely painted as though there were layer upon layer of ink. But without that sense of watery ink that we see - [Kristen] Yeah. - [Beth] so often in Chinese painting. - [Kristen] Gong Xian was known for a technique that we refer to as jimo or piled ink. - [Beth] So he would apply some ink, let it dry, and then put another layer on top of that. Perhaps let that dry, apply another layer on top of that. In the album leaf that we're looking at there does seem to be a sense of atmosphere and mysteriousness as though we can't read the space. - [Kristen] This is perhaps the foot of a mountain and we see thatched huts. There's one that's perched right in between the two precipices of a hill. And there's a waterfall that drips down behind it and there's a bridge, but there's no evidence of a human. - [Beth] So often in Chinese painting, we have a figure and that figure is a stand in for us as we imagine ourselves in the landscape, but here we don't have that opportunity. - [Kristen] And you can see contour lines shaping the rocks. They define this bank where the rocks meet the water and where that then meets the bridge. And you can envision this path to the thatched huts that are just these little waterside pavilions. - [Beth] We get a sense of the hand of the artist. We can feel the way that he's pulled the brush down in some places, across in others, diagonally in some places, longer, more linear strokes to describe the trees that carry that hut in the background. But I'm also struck by the way that the river is represented by that negative space, by the paper itself. - [Kristen] And there's a wash of pink and blue on the huts. It's subdued. That gives this melancholy atmosphere. - [Beth] The artist lived at a transitional moment in history and often for artists that was difficult. These artists would be employed by the court. If there was a change in the political situation, which there was, then all of a sudden an artist could find himself unemployed or in a very difficult political position. - [Kristen] Gong Xian had hoped to have an imperial career. Those hopes were dashed at a young age when the Ming Dynasty fell to the Manchu Qing Dynasty. Like many other artists he was drawn to landscape painting. Gong Xian went into reclusion in this area of Nanjing and Yangzhou where it was a hotbed of loyalists. - [Beth] So when you say loyalists, you mean people who are loyal to the Ming court - [Kristen] Exactly. - [Beth] as opposed to the new Qing dynasty. - [Kristen] Landscape painting was a way that they were able to engage that sense of dissent. - [Beth] I'm not going to paint for the new foreign rulers of China. - [Kristen] Exactly. - [Beth] But in fact, I'm going to turn to nature as artists had done in previous moments in Chinese history. Let's look at another one that is especially intriguing because of the amount of empty space. We have in this particular album leaf, the land the marshy bank of the river on the bottom, another marsh across, and this wide area of paper that stands for the river. - [Kristen] And there's an intense amount of ink that has been lavished upon these three trees in the foreground in contrast with a completely white river right behind them. And then little fishing boats up at the top of the composition. - [Beth] So, although we have no human figures here we have a sense of human presence. - [Kristen] And a notion of exile, this desire to be away from everything and the complete desolation of that. - [Beth] Here in Nanjing, we have an important commercial center with a lot of wealthy merchants. These are the new patrons for art at the end of the Ming and during the beginning of the Qing Dynasties. - [Kristen] Gong Xian was exceptionally lucky. He was able to find a residency and was able act as a tutor to a wealthy family in Nanjing, which allowed him to see more paintings and allowed him the time to paint. We have lots of poetry from him, writings and descriptions. He's written some theories also about the teaching of landscape and of art history. - [Beth] Being an artist working for a family would be better than being an artist working on the open market. Someone who just works and sells their art for a living instead of having a more personal connection to what you make. - [Kristen] Exactly. And still feeling that connection to that notion of being a literati, somebody who is creating art for art's sake. (jazz music)