On the first day of the Beijing Olympics, I thought I might visit some of the Olympian heights reached, and painted, by a great Chinese artist from the past.
Wang Meng was a Chinese painter who is considered one of the four great masters of the Late Yuan Dynasty (mid-14th Century in European terms).
The grandson of renowned painter Chao Meng-fu, Wang was trained in painting and calligraphy from an early age. He put his training to use in the portrayal of beautifully dramatic landscapes, often of deeply furrowed mountainsides feathered with delicate traceries of treetops; and craggy valleys cradling winding rivers.
His work embodies much of the visual poetry I often associate with Chinese ink painting, an art that, much like literary poetry, demands more than casual attention before relinquishing its ethereal treasures.
Wang’s landscapes depict poetic ideals of the essence of the land, rather than a particular place; though as has been pointed out to me in the past, many of these seemingly fantastical landscapes are less fanciful, and more reflective of actual geological formations in China, than Western viewers might assume.
Wang’s paintings are alive with vibrant calligraphic brushstrokes. Varied gray tones, often referred to as “colors” in Chinese ink painting, are highlighted with areas of colored pigment from mineral sources.
Human beings have a place, and are often a focus of the work, but they are presented in scale to the landscape, tiny figures that both define, and are defined by, their relative size
The painting at left, Simple Retreat is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (which has a very nice collection of Chinese ink paintings and painted scrolls). It shows scholars in their retreats, enjoying a quiet simplicity for which artists like Wang may have longed in their day.
Wang and his fellow painter/scholars refused to take part in the governmental offices of the time that would have been normal for individuals of their station, partly out of protest of a government run by Mongol conquerors.
Many of their paintings are said to include subtle protests and political statements, visible to other, like-minded individuals, but hidden from the oppressive government.
Perhaps some contemporary Chinese paintings would reveal similar secrets to those who can read them.