Chinese landscape scrolls on display at D.C. gallery

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 1, 2014 

— As Washington, D.C., enters its summer swelter, escape into Asian serenity at the Freer Gallery of Art and enjoy the many landscape scrolls that are "Style in Chinese Landscape Painting: The Song Legacy."

While the point of the "Song Legacy" exhibition was to "define the most salient characteristics of the individual styles," says Stephen Allee, associate curator for Chinese painting and calligraphy, there’s more than just the washes, stipples and thick brush strokes on paper, or the more expensive silk scrolls.

Like some Western art, Chinese landscapes have layers of meaning. While the intent of the artists may be to paint the landscape, most of the scrolls have humans in them, as well as carts, towers and palaces. Each tells a story in the scroll and out.

China’s Song Dynasty existed from 960 to 1279 AD. The original owners were likely members of the elite, or the government system, seeking an escape.

In "the Confucian system, individuals with an education are obliged to serve society in some way. They serve, best serve, by serving in government to make sure that the power is properly applied," says Allee.

"If, however, the government is not just … the honorable man is required to resign, to leave government, not to serve the corrupt machine. So, the question comes how do you have stay pure, if you were at court, where there are contending issues of fame, fortune, power?"

"Well, the answer is you can’t just go about bouncing out to the mountains to reconnect with nature because you got a job. Landscape painting is the way you go, the way you do this, is not just to observe it but to be in it — that is you."

For example, in one painting, amid the forest, there’s a man heading to a tavern, marked by its flag, with his servant carrying his musical zither. "So, we know that the fellow has been communing with nature through the day, playing some music, and now it’s time to a little bit of rest and relaxation at the local tavern," says Allee.

There are several unique scrolls on display. One is a horizontal scroll, "Wind and Snow in the Fir Pines" by Li Shan Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). "This is the only painting by Li Shan to exist anywhere," says Allee.

The exhibition is dominated by a long double-sided glass case holding two map scrolls, one on each side.

"The Song dynasty was famous for paintings that were supposedly the full length of the Yangtze River," says Allie. The silk one is 54 feet long and goes from the Min Mountains to the Yellow Sea. The other is on paper.

On both of them are temples and villages, all labeled, on the banks of the river.

The major change from the past comes in the Three River Gorges area.

When China built the modern Three River Gorges dam, it submerged many of the peaks, and towns, on the maps. Only the Baidi Cheng (White Emperor) shrine is still above water and linked to the mainland by a causeway.

For a touch of color, Allee has included a scroll of baboons painted with green ground malachite and blue azurite. In one part, a mother nit-picks an offspring’s fur while another younger sibling pulls his leg.

It’s worth looking at all the exquisite details. "If you have more time, it repays whatever time you get," says Allee.

Enjoy the air-conditioning as you do.



Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Through Oct. 26


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