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Liang Kai, Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank

Met curator Shi-yee Liu on illusory nature in Liang Kai’s Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank, first half of the 13th century.

Liang Kai served as a painter-in-attendance at the Song Imperial Painting Academy in Hangzhou from about 1201 to 1204; he relinquished that prestigious position to live and paint at a Chan (Zen in Japanese) Buddhist temple. Like his best-known paintings, preserved mostly in Japanese collections, this small landscape conveys a spiritual intensity. Under the great cliff, in the stillness of the landscape, a solitary figure meditates on the illusory world before him.

View this work on metmuseum.org.

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Video transcript

This is a small fan painting by the painter Liang Kai done in the first half of the thirteenth century. Now it’s mounted as an album leaf and depicts a poet strolling on the marshy land, across the river is a little embankment, and a few sketched lines of a distant peak. It’s a very light, very airy composition. The subject matter is quite conventional, but the way it is treated here is very unusual. Many paintings of this time used lots of empty space, but if you look at it closely, there’s a diagonal across the middle of the composition. The unpainted part is actually solid; it’s not just mist, it’s actually a massive boulder behind it. I think that there’s a metaphorical dimension to it, that reflects the psychological weight of the stroller beneath it. This kind of composition is very often associated with the poet Qu Yuan, a major court minister very devoted to the nation and to the ruler, but because of some slander he was exiled and he drowned himself in the river to show his loyalty. And Liang Kai used this overhanging, massive rock above him to show his emotional state. Liang Kai may feel some affinity with the ancient poet. He was briefly a court painter, and then something happened. He left his prestigious position at court and went to live in a Buddhist monastery and he painted there very much in the Buddhist idea of an illusory nature of a phenomenon. He’s playing on the idea about the deceptive nature of what can be seen on the surface, and the reality may be behind the clouds, behind the mist.