Brief Identification Edit

This ink and color painting by Guo Xi was made during the Northern Song Dynasty around 1080 CE. "Old Trees, Level Distance" is believed to have been painted for a government official nearing retirement. The hand scroll itself survived hundreds of years of Chinese dynasties and the Mongol invasion, finally making its way into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 1900s.

Technical Evaluation Edit

"Old Trees, Level Distance" is made of ink on silk. Ink wash landscape paintings such as these began around the 4th century, but were refined and developed maturely during the Northern Song Dynasty. The materials used on the painting date back to in between the Baoyuan (1038-39) and the Yuanyou (1086-93) eras. The painter, Guo Xi, probably would have used a crab-claw brush with jet-black and blue ink to achieve his variety of brush strokes. 

The painting is done at "level-distance" style, a very popular composition formula in the late 11th century. Level-distance landscapes refer to form that shifts the focus from a mountainous area to a low-lying riverscape or plain [See Murck 2000, 123-124]. Further, in respect to the unique use of space in the painting, Guo Xi's use of light and dark inks and strokes alters the viewer’s perception of distance when it comes to the objects in the painting, creating the illusion that it is all one image connected by several different sections [See Foong 2000, 90]. 

Guo Xi’s hand scroll was first displayed in the Northern Song imperial collection in the early 12th century but then disappeared into private hands for a century or so. In the 13th century, it resurfaced and was seen by Mongol court men. The painting stayed in North China until the 14th century as it traveled south and remained in the southern collections until it entered the Qing dynasty imperial collection between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Eventually, the hand scroll ended up in the hands of John M. Crawford Jr, who donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1981 [See Foong 2000, 100-101].

Local Historical Context Edit

During the Song Dynasty, the economy grew quickly, therefore, so did urbanization. The cities of commerce, namely: Hangzhou and Kaifeng, had over one million residents. Because population skyrocketed during this dynasty, many more people were employed in the fields producing millet and rice to feed the growing population. As farmers and merchants in the cities became more specialized, a larger variety of products entered the market. These included ceramics, silks, and various art forms. Elite citizens became connoisseurs of these art forms, leading to significant development and refinement of these.

The Confucian education of scholar-elite citizens common in the Song Dynasty cultivated a desire for service in government for many elite citizens. Although much of the scholar elite focused on success in the civil service examinations, art took its place in the lives of the elite as well. Men collected antiques and practicing the arts, including the three perfections (writing, calligraphy, and painting.)

Guo Xi focused on painting and attended an Imperial Painting Academy in his youth. As he developed his own style deviating from the popular landscape artist, Li Cheng, Guo Xi became known as Emperor Shenzong’s favorite painter [See Barnhart 1997, 118]. In fact, most of Guo Xi’s work consisted of imperial commissions, although he intended his level-distance paintings (including "Old Trees, Level Distance") for his personal patrons, especially late in his career [See Foong 2000, 102].

An important aspect of "Old Trees, Level Distance" is the two old men on the left. Poets like Su Shi have responded to "Old Trees" declaring that it reminded them of a scene in which they had said farewell to a friend [See Foong 2000, 103]. After reading several poems about Guo Xi’s work, it is agreed upon among many historians that the painting was a gift to Wen Yanbo, a long-time friend of Guo Xi, while he was waiting for permission to retire from officialdom. One of the old men in the painting is said to represent Wen while the other represents Guo [See Foong 2000, 103].

Because so many poets of the time who were also officials write and relate to the painting, it is logical to draw that this hand scroll voices the collective desire for men to retire from officialdom—especially as the political climate began to worsen [See Foong 2000, 103-109].

In the late 1060s, political fragmentation and polarized rhetoric within the Northern Song government began to divide the "sociopolitical elite," [See Levine 2008, 1] including bureaucrats like Wen Yanbo. During this time period of factional conflict, "the rise, the decline, and fall of polities hinged upon the monarch's ability to distinguish true factions from false ones" [See Levine 2008, 163]. At this time, one of these factions revolving around the Conservative point of view consisted of bureaucrats such as Su Shi, Su Che, etc. Su Che, a bureaucrat during this time, requested a "dream landscape into which he could retreat," from Guo Xi, expressing "his desire for freedom from his responsibilities" [See Foong, 2000, 109]. From then on, Guo Xi's paintings have represented, at least in Northern Song Dynasty politics, the Conservative point of view that advocates less bureaucratic responsibility because of their personal nature and themes of exile and retirement [See Foong 2000, 109].

World-Historical Context Edit

The collective connection to Guo Xi's intimate landscapes also falls in line with many Taoist and Buddhist religious and cultural values. Though the Northern Song Dynasty was dominated by Confucian thought, Taoism and Buddhism were practiced by many. Taoist thought "involves...unlearning, a divestiture or society's erroneous values, a return to ignorance...a subtractive rather than an additive process" [See Shaw 1988, 185]. The focus on removing oneself from society relates to the bureaucratic poems of Su Shi. The emphasis on personal satisfaction described in Su Shi's poems has similarities to Mauryan Buddhist philosophies as well [See Shaw 1983, 192]. The removal of oneself from society (at this time bureaucratic and commercial life) was something strongly desired as political fragmentation began to change the Northern Song Dynasty.

The quest for naturalness and solitary in Taoism and Buddhism also gave rise to the importance of physical nature in spirituality. Guo Xi's landscapes have also been reviewed with a similar respect to nature. Guo Si, Guo Xi's son, explained in Linquan Gaozhi that his father revered nature, believing that the best way to learn about landscape painting is to sit and look at a landscape. Guo Xi is said to have also subscribed to the idea that "nature alone permits man to return to oneness, to primal spontaneity" [See Vandier-Nicolas 1983, 106].

The desire to abandon political and commercial life among the scholar-elite class was widely felt among officials in the Northern Song Dynasty. Appealing to these desires, Guo Xi's landscape hand scroll, "Old Trees, Level Distance," reveals themes of retirement and freedom from politics. These desires among scholar-elites gave rise to Taoist and Buddhist beliefs in addition to the more structured Confucianism. [Shaw 1983, 184]. Finally, Guo Xi's intimate landscapes give historians insight into the political climate and social philosophies during the Northern Song Period in the late 1000s.

Bibliography Edit

Barnhart, Richard M., Xin Yang, Chongzheng Nie, James Cahill, Shaojun Lang, and Hung Wu. Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Foong, Ping. "Guo Xi's Intimate Landscapes and the Case of "Old Trees, Level Distance"" Metropolitan Museum Journal 35 (2000): 87-115.

Levine, Ari Daniel. Divided by a Common Language: Factional Conflict in Late Northern Song China. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2008.

Murck, Alfreda. Poetry and Painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center for the Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2000.

Shaw, Miranda. "Buddhist and Taoist Influences on Chinese Landscape Painting." Journal of the History of Ideas 49, no. 2 (1988): 183-201.

Vandier-Nicolas, Nicole. Chinese Painting: An Expression of a Civilization. New York: Rizzoli, 1983.

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