Another page from my DIA notebook, continuing a pseudo-series from the node I started here. This page was also written under less-than-ideal lighting conditions, this time in the chilly dimness of the museum's Asian Art wing.

At the top of the page are minature sketches of the four paintings in question, with an obscene amount of circles and arrows jutting out from all sides, to remind me exactly what the hell my scribblings are actually supposed to be. Most of these notes underneath were written over a twice-erased attempt at drawing the third panel in more detail. I admit this much: The ability of the old Zen masters to take black ink and use it to paint fog is probably the purest form of magick...

Album of Landscapes After Old Masters, by Shen Shichong
Chinese, c. 1619 (From the Ming Dynasty 1368-1644)
Ink & Color on Paper

A series of four, roughly notebook-sized landscape paintings that, according to the accompanying placard, were selected from a set of twelve. All four are detailed natural scenes, emphasizing nature’s preeminence over man-made structures. The highly precise brushwork and very subtle use of color shows both the skill of the artist and the gentle, poetic composition of the scenes.

The 1st panel shows a view of a small home built next to a river, surrounded by tremendous open areas of sky and water. Trees stand prominently at the center of the scene. From this perspective, the house seems to be tucked partially behind rocks in the foreground. In the background, a line of mist blurs the distinction between water and sky.

The 2nd is a mountain scene, dominated by an imposing, craggy ridgeline, which is covered by vegetation and trees. In the left corner is a village that appears dwarfed in comparison to the massive ridge. There is another village in the background, barely visible between the jagged cliffs. Other mountains in the upper right appear to be in the distance, due to atmospheric perspective. Despite the gray sky and mountainous terrain, there is a notable lack of shading.

The 3rd panel is an extremely balanced scene of a river flowing past a hilly spine of mountains, with the entire upper-left portion of the painting obscured by mist.

The 4th panel, a picture of a seaside village, seems to bring together elements from each of the previous three. Here atmospheric perspective is less noticeable, and the overall perspective of the painting is more nonlinear, with the scene of the harbor in the lower-left seemingly tilted up toward the viewer.

The powerful overall mood of these paintings is a sense of natural balance and serenity. The first shows an expansive vista, almost completely given over to empty space, showing that an uncluttered scene can be just as impressive as one full of substantial elements. In contrast, a very solid, physical scene dominates the second, demonstrating the importance of tangible reality. There is obviously a classical Taoist-style dualism at work here, embracing and expanding on masters of previous dynasties (most notably, perhaps, Southern Song's Ma Yuan and Hsia Kuei and the Yuan's Zhao Mengfu).

The third painting fuses the ideals of the previous two by portraying a precisely balanced amount of emptiness and physical objects, and the final panel seems to unify each of these concepts into one completed scene.

(This last bit is a late addition, written in green ink and running perpendicular to the previous text...)

Note: It seems that the title of this work is very significant. Shen Shichong was the youngest member of a loosely-organized group of Chinese artists known as the "Songjiang school". These painters, and especially Shichong, sought to study the works of the Zen Buddhist painters of old, incorporating the misty, spontaneous style of the southern masters with the solid and powerful landscapes of the northern school.

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