Excerpt from Art in China

Craig Clunas


The culture of upper class travel was central to the development of painting in the scholar tradition in the Ming dynasty. Travel enabled men to see the famous paintings of the past held in private collections, and to become familiar with their subjects and styles. It enabled them too to see culturally important sites, often associated with poets and painters of the past, and appropriate these scenes for their own work.  For example,  the topography of one famous scenic region, Mount Hua in Shaanxi province, was represented in an album by Wang Lü (c.1332-95).  Wang was not solely ‘a painter’; the production of paintings did not define who he was. He wrote a theoretical treatise on art, but also ones on medicine (which he practiced successfully), and on the sciences of astronomy and geomancy.  All of these are underpinned by a common theoretical understanding of the role of ‘norms’ and ‘variants’ at work in disparate areas of human experience.

His Mount Hua album may be that genuinely rare item among Chinese painting, a work created principally for himself, outside of patronage networks or the demands of reciprocal gift-giving.  It is not simply a series of pictures, but a unity of texts and images, which provide an account of Wang’s ascent of the sacred mountain in 1381.  It is distinguished by its concern with topographical accuracy, Wang arguing that, although it was the expression of ideas, not the representation of forms which made painting art, ideas existed in the world in visual forms, and could only be represented through visual means.  He argued for the importance of the direct engagement with the seen, as against the mediation of existing paintings. His subtle and serious arguments about the nature of representation show that the scholar tradition was not one in which mimesis was rejected altogether, but that it was still possible in the fourteenth century to argue with conviction a role for the primacy of experience over art-historical study, and of ‘likeness of form’ over pure expression of the painter’s ‘untrammeled spirit’.

The form of the Mount Hua album was a relatively new one, being a suite of pictures designed as a coherent whole. The experience of viewing an album is even more restricted as to the size of the audience than is the hand scroll, and it was therefore suited particularly well to an intimate engagement by one person with the pictures it contained.  Servants were needed for one to look at a hanging scroll, but an album could be looked at by one person alone, in an experience of communion with the artist which was more akin to reading a book.  It was a form particularly associated with artists in the scholar tradition over the next few hundred years.