Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 2016
Foong Ping The Efficacious Landscape: On the Authorities of Painting at the Northern Song Court Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 318 pp.; 63 color ills. Cloth $79.95 (9780674417151)

The cover of Foong Ping’s The Efficacious Landscape: On the Authorities of Painting at the Northern Song Court features a detail from a painting titled Early Spring, dated 1072 and signed by Guo Xi. By virtue of its imposing size and matchless virtuosity of brushwork as well as the relative abundance of historical records concerning Guo Xi, a famed court painter of the Northern Song period (960–1127), this magnificent work in ink and light colors on silk occupies a central position in our understanding of the history of Chinese painting; it also epitomizes the achievements of one of the great moments in the history of world art. Although not a monograph on Guo Xi, Foong’s book is the most extensive account in a Western language of his career, brimming with new findings about his life and family background, along with original interpretations of the role ink landscape painting played at the Northern Song imperial court, where Guo Xi served for over thirty years.

Building on studies by Richard Barnhart, Ogawa Hiromitsu, Alfreda Murck, and others, Foong sets for herself the goal of explaining how a type of ink landscape painting invented by more or less obscure artists—hermits, mountain men, and eccentric scholars—became what might be called the house style of the Song imperial institution. Although earlier landscape paintings may have been understood to embody ideas about rulership, it was Guo Xi who first articulated a symbolic relationship between towering mountains flanked by lower peaks in pictorial compositions and the position of the emperor at the political and ritual center of the world. As Guo Xi put it in remarks on landscape recorded by his son, “a great mountain is dominating as master over the assembled hills.” It was this capacity of paintings to convey meanings charged with political and ideological efficacy that seems to have inspired Foong’s choice of the title for her book (though the title could have been improved by dropping the awkward locution “the authorities of painting”).

Chapter 1 focuses on a momentous step toward appropriating landscape imagery for the glorification of the emperor when the monk painter Juran was commanded in 992 to paint an ink landscape in the Jade Hall of the Hanlin Academy, an institution that Foong characterizes as an “imperial space” staffed by scholars who were advisors to the emperor. Juran’s painting and others in the Jade Hall were destroyed when the academy was relocated during the reign of Emperor Shenzong (r. 1067–1085), and a massive screen by Guo Xi titled View at Dawn on Spring River was installed in the new building. This work and others by Guo Xi served as pictorial expressions of Shenzong’s wide-ranging reforms of government.

Among the most important contributions of Foong’s book are her painstaking accounts, accompanied by plans and maps, of where landscape paintings were displayed in the imperial palace, government offices, and ritual buildings in the capital city of Bianliang (present day Kaifeng, Henan Province). As she shows in chapter 2, under Shenzong changes in the forms of state rituals were accompanied by new architectural projects and the production of landscape paintings that decorated reconfigured ritual halls. The vernal, life-asserting imagery of Early Spring, she argues, celebrated and implicitly endorsed a controversial reorganization of sacrifices to the Life Giving God (Ganshengdi) that elevated an imperial ancestor to the role of supporting deity. Further, she proposes that in contrast with Guo Xi’s implicit pictorial endorsement, a critique of Shenzong’s ritual changes can be discerned in a painting by Li Gonglin, a scholar-painter rather than a professional master, who served in the Song bureaucracy. Foong contends that in his handscroll The Classic of Filial Piety (ca. 1085), Li Gonglin depicts an emperor and empress in front of a group of ancestral spirit tablets and an emperor atop an outdoor ritual mound to express tacit disapproval of Shenzong’s departures from classical precedents—disapproval voiced openly by anti-reformists with whom he was allied. Painting for a small audience of close friends, Li Gonglin enjoyed an artistic freedom unavailable to Guo Xi, who as a court painter could not be expected to express political views opposed to those of the emperor.

One of the thorny points debated during the Northern Song period concerned the proper role of empresses in imperial rituals. Chapter 3 documents the interventions of two empresses in promoting the ink landscapes of Li Cheng, Guo Xi’s model. Empress Dowager Liu presided over the acquisition of ninety scrolls for the imperial collection from a disgraced official. Several decades later, another formidable lady, Empress Dowager Cao, had paintings by Li Cheng installed in a ritual tent to be viewed by the young emperor Shenzong. She also called in the great-granddaughter of Li Cheng to assess paintings attributed to Li; the four works that Li’s female descendant judged to be authentic were presented to Shenzong. Although Foong stresses the scholarly background of Li Cheng’s family as one of the justifications for the imperial favor showered on his landscapes, surely it was the visual impact of Li’s famously venerable, gnarled trees and brooding, mysterious vistas painted with diffuse ink washes that made the greatest impression on viewers at the court, not the family pedigree of the artist.

In part 2 of The Efficacious Landscape Foong turns to paintings in smaller formats intended for private viewing by small groups of people. The sudden change of direction in Foong’s arguments creates a structural problem in the overall organization of the book, as the paintings she addresses, unlike those discussed in part 1, were not intended for a wide viewership, and their potency as bearers of politically charged messages was limited. Most of these works, which she terms “intimate landscapes,” were handscrolls. One such painting by Guo Xi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the subject of chapter 4 and is the object of the most extensive analysis in the entire book. Titled Old Trees, Level Distance (ca. 1080), the painting depicts a misty view across a river or lake and distant mountains, numerous paired motifs (birds, trees, and boatmen), and a pavilion approached by two elderly gentlemen and their servants. It bears a seal from the reign of Emperor Huizong and is accompanied by colophons that attribute it to Guo Xi. Foong’s visual comparisons of the drawing of rocks and figures and the subtle ink washes in the handscroll with similar elements in Early Spring leave little doubt that the two paintings are from the same hand.

Foong attempts much more, however, than establishing the authorship of Old Trees, Level Distance: she argues, or rather, comes close to arguing, that the painting was painted for the statesman Wen Yanbo and originally was accompanied by poems, known today only through printed sources, written by Su Shi and Huang Tingjian, eminent poets and calligraphers of the late eleventh century. Foong speculates that one of the gentlemen depicted in the painting, who turns back to look at his companion, represents Wen Yanbo himself, who, late in life, longed to retire to his home in the city of Luoyang. The poems by Su and Huang expressed admiration for the painting and its owner and voiced the poets’ own longing for escape from the world of affairs. Their poems are tinged also with allusions to political banishment that both men and others close to them suffered as a result of their resistance to Shenzong’s reforms. Ultimately, Foong confesses, “making an explicit connection between this handscroll and the generic poetic imagery . . . is not possible” (172). What she does establish is a historical context for understanding how Guo Xi painted private commissions that surely were very similar to the handscroll now in the Metropolitan Museum.

The emergence of painting by Northern Song scholar-amateurs summarized in chapter 5 is a familiar story; this tradition of art, usually called literati painting, is the subject of several books and many scholarly articles in Western languages. What is new in Foong’s treatment of the early history of literati painting is her focus on “intimate scenes” (xiaojing), landscapes of lakes and rivers dotted by small villages, willow trees, and waterfowl. Though more limited in their pictorial scope than the grand visions of nature depicted in works like Early Spring, intimate landscapes were thought to intensify and concentrate the expression of feelings, just as a short but well-crafted poem gives voice to a poet’s lyrical experience. Several of the artists credited with painting intimate landscapes were members of the Song imperial family—Zhao Lingrang, Zhao Silei, Zhao Xiaoyi, and the imperial son-in-law Wang Shen, the most accomplished painter of this group. Although Foong makes a distinction between these artists and those she identifies as “scholars,” there are no evident thematic or stylistic differences between works associated with the two groups, and personal and artistic bonds between them were common. Wang Shen in particular was close to Su Shi, and his small landscape paintings were seen to reflect his own experience of exile after a fall from grace at court.

An issue that vexes some of Foong’s arguments is the correlation between what she calls “class origins” (22) and the production and appreciation of ink landscape painting. Although she admits that class “cannot serve as a predictive guide to aesthetic preference” (5), many of her assertions seem to depend on just the opposite assumption. For example, in reviewing the early history of landscape painting, she stresses the importance of the eighth-century poet-painter Wang Wei and the theme of Confucian eremitism in landscape painting. She notes that the wood gatherers and fishermen depicted in landscape paintings became metaphors for lofty scholars enduring hardships and concludes that the “technical roots and class origins” of ink landscape make it surprising that this form of art was adopted by Song “aristocrats” (22). But it is unclear how any art associated with the universally admired Wang Wei might be shunned by elite social classes, or how the appearance of common folk in paintings by someone like Wang Wei might taint the landscape genre with lowly class origins. Nor does Foong make clear who among the citizens of Song China, aside from members of the imperial family, should be considered “aristocrats.” What her study does show is the power of painting to appeal to all classes: everybody, from the emperor on down, loved Guo Xi.

One hesitates to end an otherwise appreciative review with complaints about an author’s prose, but lapses of sense and style in The Efficacious Landscape, surprising in a volume published by so notable a press, are too frequent to pass without comment. A couple of examples will suffice: “That is, the dynamics of cultural prerogative were complicated by how political advantage was achieved” (6). “Fundamentally, any assessment of ink landscape as a defining feature of Song imperial culture may interpret who claimed landscape motifs and values, such that it had to be for courtly purposes” (10). Repeated readings fail to untangle what these sentences mean, and there are many like them in the book. It is regrettable that editorial interventions failed to break up these verbal logjams in what is otherwise a valuable contribution to our understanding of Chinese painting.

Robert E. Harrist, Jr.
Jane and Leopold Swergold Professor of Chinese Art History, Department of Art History and Architecture, Columbia University