Fog and structure

This marvellous scroll, a classic example of what landscape painting in China could be, is attributed to Li Ch'eng of the Northern Sung in the tenth century. That dynasty embraced the preeminent period of landscape painting in China - seldom rivaled and never surpassed by artists in any other country or time.

The scroll shown here contains the chief elements associated with this art: a lofty master peak with its lesser companions, great rocks, rivers, waterfalls, trees, and a temple, all placed in a grand perspective. The vastness of the space is emphasized by the mist rising from the base of the peaks in tenuous veils, and by the evidence of human endeavour - the temple - so minute in this setting, so perfect in its execution.

Li Ch'eng (916-967), the artist, was well born, tracing his lineage from the old imperial house of T'ang. His branch of the family had moved away from the former capital, Ch'ang-an, to the eastern province of Shantung, a region of many great mountains. Here he received a scholar's education, studying the Confucian classics and excelling in music, chess, and painting. He never took up an official career, being too independent to be a success in a bureaucracy. His work was popular from the start, and he became the prey of forgers, so much so that in the eleventh century Mi Fu, a superlative painter himself, a connoisseur and a critic, wrote that although there were supposed to be hundreds of Li Ch'eng's paintings extant, he himself had seen only two that were genuine.

An essay attributed to Li Ch'eng, called ''The Secret of Landscapes,'' while not very profound or poetical, is technically useful, containing many rules for the earnest student.

''In painting landscapes,'' it says, ''one should decide first upon the position of the host and guest mountains, and then upon the relative distance of the objects.'' ''A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks'' shows his own attention to this maxim, setting before the viewer, at a glance, the basic theme of the work. The temple is quite a large enclave in itself, and no doubt once held a busy community, yet it is dwarfed by the peak looming above it, shrouded in mist. The mountain stream and the waterfalls contribute to this foggy environment.

In the essay Li Ch'eng is firm and precise concerning a myriad of details: the lie of the branches of trees, the stance of mountains, the fissures of rocks. ''In order to give proper form to stones, make them appear heavier on the top and lighter at the bottom. By grouping and distributing them well, let their forces play on each other. . . . A path may appear and disappear. It may or may not be spanned by a bridge.'' Happily, here it is spanned by a delightful bridge , rustic, perfectly proportioned. ''Mists should be light and fresh, suggesting a clearing, while heavy fog is dense and curling, suggesting the approach of rain.''

Finally the author, recognizing that the pedantry of his instructions may well daunt the apprentice, adds, ''If one can go through such a maze of rules and understand them without being lost, one will automatically enter into the secrets of painting.''

The long scroll here demonstrates how these points were worked out. The temple and its compound are drawn with architectural perfection. Those temples of the past, high in the hills, were a familiar but always enchanting part of old China. Travellers stayed in them, hearing in the night the soft booming of the temple gongs, and, in the fall, the chirping of crickets in the courtyards under the rustling bamboos. The scent of the incense, which smouldered slowly into white ash before the altars, would drift out into the courts and pavilions.

The famous Ming painting manual, The Mustard Seed Garden, speaks of Li Ch'eng's ''rendering of water among rocks'' as expressing ''the solitude of lonely, secret places. The critics say that he, of all painters, since antiquity , understood and rendered the form and substance of mountains,'' and says further that ''In calligraphy one speaks of leanness, vigour, universality, and spirit,'' all of which Li Ch'eng imparted in his painting.

All this is by the way. The scroll speaks for itself. We feel that we are ourselves travelling to the temple, crossing the bridge over the stream and seeing the peaks with our own eyes. He gives us this through the spiritual resonance of his inspiration, his great love of beauty.

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