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Gazing into Nature: Early Chinese Painting

June 5, 2013 - October 20, 2013

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Ma Yuan: Plum Tree and Ducks by a Stream, c. 1190–1230; ink and colors on silk; 31 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; purchase made possible through a gift from an anonymous donor.

We are delighted to present, for the first time in ten years, a selection of BAM/PFA’s earliest Chinese paintings. These rare and amazingly well-preserved works by early landscape and bird-and-flower painters of the late Song and early Yuan periods, rendered on silk or paper with ink and light color, demonstrate the sophistication and accomplishment of the early Chinese painting tradition.

Early Chinese painters often depicted the natural world through a lens of gentle mists created by delicate brushwork. Whether capturing a refined corner of the universe, as in Ma Yuan’s thirteenth-century Plum Tree and Ducks by a Stream, or a single twisted branch of a grapevine, as in Wen Riguan’s thirteenth-century Grapes, it is the artist’s control of ink, wash, and line that brings the subject to life. Equally compelling is the anonymous Fish and Water Plants from the fifteenth century, which depicts a powerful carp rising through a bed of delicately rendered vegetation; the very light touches of color in this work add a pleasing naturalism to the scene.

Landscape painters, too, conveyed the beauty and grandeur of the natural world. Their interpretations were not intended to be of specific places rendered in realistic terms, but rather idealized landscapes of retreat and reclusion. The tall trees of Guo Min’s Fir and Pines in the Snow (thirteenth century) form a protective circle around a figure pictured in a hut at the base of a fantastic and turbulent mountain. The artist concedes that man is but a small part of a much grander universe. Similarly, River Landscape, attributed to Ma Wan (1325-1365), suggests the glory of the natural world with a remote view that allows the viewer to survey the landscape of mountains, trees, and streams.

This fall at BAM/PFA, you have a wonderful opportunity to see how the rich painting tradition established by these early artists, especially the careful observation of the natural world, continues to inform and inspire with the exhibition Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise.


Gazing into Nature is organized by Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia M. White.