A clear identity

Lan Ying was an artist of the late Ming (1585-1664). He was fond of painting on long narrow scrolls, which might have presented difficulties to other artists but was congenial to him. His theme here is an autumn day, and he interprets it by presenting a tall cliff which effectively fills almost the whole of the silk. The rock face, with its delightful patterns, is softened by plants which are both delicate and hardy; in spite of its narrow width the whole is stable and balanced, while the tree at the base, like an anchor, seems to fasten it to the foreshore by its strong, twisted dragon roots. The precipice seems the taller because of the narrow setting and the height of the tree reinforces this impression.

In the distance is a pale and luminous green peak. At the base of the cliff a solitary angler fishes in placid waters, tiny in comparison to the grandeur of the precipice above him, and thus according with the Taoist concept of man's small role in the grandeur of nature. In spite of the dramatic nature of the terrain the picture gives a peaceful and easy impression, providing the viewer with a message he may take to his own heart. The leaves are russet, the rock of brownish tones as becomes a soft autumnal day, while strong brush strokes of charcoal black ink provide a contrasting and stabilizing element.

Lan Ying, whose work is extolled as harmonious, sophisticated and graceful, is often said to be the last ''important'' painter of the Che school. This was a loose association of Ming artists who were usually professionals, united by the similarity of their tastes and techniques rather than by any academic ties. The Che was centered on Hangchou, a town of strong artistic traditions, dating from the time when the Southern Sung Dynasty, fleeing from the Golden Tartars, had found refuge there in 1127. The partially defeated dynasty reestablished their great painting academy in Hangchou, which they took as their new capital, and geniuses like Ma Yuan and Hsia Kwei worked under its aegis to become a source of great inspiration to the Che men who followed them long afterwards.

Hangchou is a charming town on the shores of West Lake, surrounded by low hills, and with the Ch'ien-t'ang River not far away. The district abounds in pleasant rural scenes, with Buddhist temples in the hills. The area was familiar to the newcomers because of its connection with two of the most beloved poets of China, both of whom had been governors here: the T'ang poet Po Chu-i, and Su T'ung-p'o of the Northern Sung. Each of these officials had built causeways across the lake and improved the city which remains today a favorite resort, with its mild climate and picturesque expeditions, which are easy to arrange and enjoy.

It is claimed that the Ming possessed thirteen hundred good painters and fifteen hundred good calligraphers, which may explain why Lan Ying became more or less forgotten in China in the course of time. However the Japanese, who had always greatly admired his work, remembered him, and his influence continued to be felt in their Nanga School, which, like the Che, was deeply inspired by the Southern Sung artists. This trend is recognized easily in those Japanese scrolls where the suggestive use of empty space, the angular lines, the mists, the delicacy and restraint of the Hangchou geniuses had proved so sympathetic to the islanders, and whose ideas they interpreted in a manner germane to their own talents. (The scroll shown here was, in fact, for a long time in Japan.)

Rather recently Lan Ying has been ''discovered'' again, and he is once more recognized as a man of formidable gifts: versatile, flexible in style, and of great artistic competence. His range was too wide to confine him to any one channel, like the Che. Though not one of the literati himself, he so fully understood and admired the work of the calligraphy-oriented scholar-painters that he was instrumental in the founding of the Wu School, which had a literary bent with a more independent outlook than the Che. Sometimes he himself painted along the lines they followed.

Though he lived while the Ming was in decline and for twenty years after its fall (in 1644), and while the Che was on the wane, he retained his energy and inspiration. Though a professional - a position the literati affected to despise - he continued to be both successful and influential for a long time. His scrolls, though rich in themes, are never overcrowded. His detail is meticulous and charming.

Much of his work was ''after'' the styles of great artists of the past - not actual copies, but pictures recognizable as being done in the way certain masters had painted - a tour de force always very popular in old China. Adding to these scrolls his own inspiration, elegance and taste, the effect captivated his public; beside their artistic merit they demanded great skill on the part of the artist. The picture shown here, however, is not ''after'' anyone, but simply a Lan Ying - serene, complete, harmonious, and striking.

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