On a recent trip to China, I was lucky enough to see some fine examples of Chinese landscape painting. Art is much revered in China and they are very proud of the masters of the ancient past. Museums and galleries take great care in preserving and displaying beautiful paintings. I was also able to see some of the scenery depicted in the paintings, mostly glimpsed from train windows.
The Chinese landscape was an inspiration to the poets of the past too, poetry being another important part of Chinese culture. In fact the actual landscape, poetry, painting, pottery and calligraphy all seem to complement each other. The rest of the world discovered Chinese landscape painting, when the trading routes were established. It was fashionable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for the aristocracy in the UK to collect Chinese landscape painting and pottery and show it off in their stately homes.
The Chinese landscape, and therefore the Chinese landscape painting are unique. There is a combination of mountains, forest and water that can't be found anywhere else. There are several movements, known as art dynasties, most of them enduring for hundreds of years. Royal court officials and members of the aristocracy in ancient times, were often gifted in calligraphy and painting. Painters worked on silk and then paper became popular after it was invented in the first century.
As from the Tang Dynasty, (618-907), the main subject of painting was the landscape. This school of art was given the name shanshui, which translates as mountain water. This Chinese landscape painting was impressionistic, rather than an attempt to depict realistic detail. The traditional method used in Chinese landscape painting was the same technique to be found in calligraphy, of a paintbrush and black, or sometimes colored ink. Oils were not introduced until much later. The paintings were then usually transferred to scrolls, but could also be displayed on beautiful lacquer work or on walls. Europeans did not paint landscapes until after the 17th century, and so most experts believe that the very first landscape painting was created in China.
Different art movements developed over the years in Chinese landscape painting, often influenced by the principles of Buddhism. A wider use of the color palette was used during the Ming Dynasty, and advances in color printing were made in the 1600's.
Unfortunately, with modern day China in the relentless march to industrialization, the landscape is taking a battering. Industry desperately needs energy, and scenic countryside is often sacrificed in the quest for more coal and timber. My train journeys also bore testimony to this, as I saw the countryside being unceremoniously carved up with no thought to the legacy left behind. For me, it makes the Chinese landscape painting all the more significant. The paintings capture a more romantic past. They are a time capsule of a unique landscape that is disappearing fast.