Students will learn how to use Chinese painting to teach about the history, social structure and artistic traditions of China.
Reading the Brush: Waterfall on a Lofty Cliff
State Content Standards
History and Social Science Standards
6.6 Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the early civilizations of China.
7.3 Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the civilizations of China in the Middle Ages.Describe the development of the imperial state and the scholar-official class.
Access to crockerartmuseum.org to view Zhang Daqian's in the Striking Gold gallery. Access to other Literati paintings. May use artwork suggested in lesson or others.
Venn Diagram for each student/group
Scroll paper (ie., receipt tape) for each student
Related images from the Nelson-Atkins Museum (www.nelson-atkins.org) and the National Palace Museum, Taiwan (www.npm.gov.tw).
1. Tell students that they are going to learn what a Chinese painting can tell about Chinese history and culture. Many of these painting traditions have lasted for hundreds of years.
2. Project a map and provide context for the Song Dynasty. Point out that during the preceding Tang Dynasty there were technological advances, spread of Buddhism and influences of cultures that came into China through the Silk Road. Art of the Song Dynasty integrated the 3 major philosophies: Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. The integration of these philosophies was called Neo-Confucianism.
3. Project Fan Kuan, Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, Northern Song, early 11th c. Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.
4. Ask students: What do you see? Brainstorm characteristics.
5. Give each group a description on Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. Have them decide what characteristics of each philosophy are represented in the literati tradition.
6. Share with group or jigsaw.
i. Process of self-cultivation shown through close study and realistic details- to achieve a pure self (like Buddhahood).
ii. Spiritual relationship with nature.
iii. Looking through landscape is like following a path.
i. Scholar-artist held took civil service exams and held government positions. One could advance, but always had a distinct role in the social order.
ii. Landscape painting as expression and cultivation of moral self was more important than imperial ancestry.
iii. Scholars held high paying positions in the government, came from wealth, or were guests so they could afford to paint without having to accept money, reinforcing their social position.
i. Mysticism of landscape – domination of nature over people.
ii. Focus on the path.
iii. Landscape as an imaginary ideal.
7. Project map of Southern Song. Explain that a Manchu invasion from the north claimed part of Northern China so the capital moved to the south and this period is known as the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279 CE). During this time, landscape painting became less realistic and more emotional.
8. Project: Xia Gui. Detail of Twelve Views from a Thatched Hut. Southern Song, early 13th century CE. Handscroll, ink on silk. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
9. Ask: What do you see? What makes you say that? What else do you see? Extrapolate that it is more expressive and less realistic. Fewer brushstrokes convey mountains and trees, monochromatic, incorporation of calligraphy. Simplified, not one focal point. Have group share what is “Neo-Confucian” about the landscape. State that during the 12th century, people became more interested in Zen/Chan Buddhism. This philosophy said that one could attain immediate enlightenment through meditation and self-cultivation, like one could meditate on this landscape. The incorporation of calligraphy demonstrates the intellect, expression and individuality of the artist. These qualities of landscape painting were formalized during the Song Dynasty and continued to appear in Chinese landscapes for hundreds of years.
10. Shen Zhou. Poet on a Mountain Top. Leaf from an album of landscapes; painting mounted as part of a hand scroll. Ming dynasty, c. 1500. Ink and color on paper, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Yin Hong, Hundreds of Birds Admiring the Peacocks, Ming, late 15th/early 16th c. hanging scroll, ink and color on silk.
11. Give each student/group a Venn Diagram. Have them individually or in a group compare and contrast what they see.
12. Share observations. Record on a group chart or overhead. State that the characteristics observed exemplify the literati and professional painting traditions.
a. Subjects are nature and metaphorical. Birds to peacocks parallels court officials to emperor.
b. Scroll format - Scroll Format (hanging scroll and hand scroll) – Easy to roll up and travel – People had to travel far because China was so expansive (geography link), thus, the scroll was an ideal way to transport artwork. Also, scrolls were unrolled so a viewer could gradually travel through the painting.
a. – Characteristics of Literati Tradition
i. Calligraphy emerged as important an art form in 1st century China. It was considered the highest art. Literacy was a sign of intellect and elite status. Shen Zhou’s calligraphy is relaxed and informal, supposedly reflecting his personality. The inscription says:
A stone ledge flying in space and the far thin road.
I lean alone on my bramble staff and gazing contented into space
Wish the sounding torrent would answer to your flute.
From Richard Edwards, cited in Eight Dynasties of Chinese Paintings, p. 185
ii. Black ink – monochromatic. Color was not as important as the formation of the script. Art was intellectual rather than for aesthetic purposes.
iii. Paper – Absorbed water quickly so there was spontaneity and expression rather than attention to realistic detail.
iv. Movement of stroke - Lettering and brushwork was imbued with artists moral worth and personal characteristics. Expressive strokes were compared to strokes of calligraphy.
v. Expressive – The process and movement of brushwork was contemplative and intellectual. Many subjects were invented rather than true places. Realistic artwork was considered copying what one sees rather than generating an individualistic creation.
vi. Multiple points of perspective – The viewer travels through the artwork as an intellectual exercise.
vii. Never worked for money – gave paintings as a gift. Scholar-officials were elite status and were wealthy so they never would sell their work. Part of the tradition was the exchange.
viii. Seal - Artists seal, collector’s seal. Gave an object a biography. Can trace from owner to owner. Literati as individual. Professional artisan not as esteemed to sign an artwork.
ix. Individual as significant in nature. Mind’s control over physical world.
b. Yin Hong- characteristics of artisan/court painters
i. Realistic and colorful – The taste of the court during the Song and Yuan Dynasty was realistic representations, often of birds and flowers. The Yuan government was a government of foreign occupation by the Mongols. During the Ming, Chinese scholar-officials held to literati traditions as a way of showing their identity rather than following the court tastes.
ii. No writing – Artisans were often illiterate.
iii. Clear lines – objective was to represent something rather than an idea. Emphasis on technical skill.
iv. Silk –Existed before paper. Doesn’t absorb as quickly so lends itself to more realistic painting. Early literati work on silk until more reproduction of paper. Professional painters used silk.
v. Worked for Money – Artisans were often hired by the court. These were professional painters that had to work for money.
c. During Song see a division between Scholar-official and artisan that reflected the Confucian social structure and other sources of philosophical thought.
15. Have students look closely at Poet on a Mountain Top and have them write four lines of a poem that they think fits the painting. Then, have them compare the true inscription with their own poem.
a. Tell students that printing and manuals such as Mustard Seed Manual on Painting taught literati painting techniques
i. Chinese Characteristics developed during Song period and continued for hundreds of years as the canon for painting.
ii. 9th c. quote” From antiquity on, those who have excelled at painting have all been nobles with official positions, or rare scholars and lofty-minded men. They awakened the wonder of their times and left behind reputations for a thousand years, which is not something that village rustics could accomplish.”
16. The literati tradition continued, but became popularized. Now anyone could apply techniques that were formerly the cultural capital of the elite.
17. Project Zhang Daqian, Waterfall on a Lofty Cliff from Striking Gold, the Crocker Art Museum’s online teacher resources (crockerartmuseum.org).
a. In groups, have students find comparisons with literati tradition and other influences.
i. Calligraphy, Expressive, On paper, Monochromatic, Horizontal emphasis like a scroll.
ii. Abstract expressionism
b. Ask why they think Zhang Daqian still incorporated painting traditions that were over 800 years old.
18. Have each group brainstorm contemporary examples that are rooted in past traditions. Examples are: yoga, Greco-Roman architecture, remakes of old films.
Extension: Have students choose to be a Literati or Court Painter. Give them a scroll or paper on a clipboard and have them wander and explore the school grounds for 20 minutes. If they choose to be a literati artist, remind them to sketch what is in their imagination and have them reflect. If they choose to be a professional court artist have them draw what they see in a realistic manner. When students return, have those that chose to work as a Literati artist write a short poem about their work. Have those that chose to work as a Professional write a description of their artwork and assign a price (one way to present the material: literati – what you feel; professional – what you see). Each student may make a seal out of a gum eraser and red ink.
Waterfall on a Lofty Cliff
A master of traditional Chinese brush painting and calligraphy, Zhang Daqian was an extremely versatile artist. Renowned for blending his own creativity with Chinese historic styles, he also incorporated Western painting techniques into his later work. Zhang Daqian's unique synthesis of Chinese artistic traditions with aspects of the contemporary European-American impressionistic and abstract-expressionist styles created a style all his own.