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Often, when we think of art, we think of something that hangs on a wall or stands on a pedestal—there’s an element of public display to our usual idea of art. But not every artwork was designed to be displayed in that type of way. Some artworks are geared toward a much more private, personal viewing experience, and this is the case with hand scroll paintings. Hand scroll paintings are meant to be manually unrolled, creating a uniquely tactile and one-on-one experience that you just don’t get with other types of painting. And yet, these intimate paintings can also convey monumental images, like the winding course of a river or the craggy surfaces of mountains that rise high into the air. One Chinese hand scroll painting from the mid-eleventh century is just this type of work: it’s called Summer Mountains, and it’s in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The actual painting is only around eighteen inches tall and about 46 inches long when fully unrolled, but you’d never guess it was such a manageable size from looking at it on the Met’s website. It looks enormous, not least because it depicts a mountain range with such soaring peaks and deep valleys that you’re immediately aware of how huge they would be in real life, and the landscape at the foot of the mountains is so detailed and lush you would think it couldn’t possibly be contained within a scroll only eighteen inches tall.
This monumentality, regardless of the size of the image itself, is typical of depictions of the Northern Chinese landscape, in part because that landscape really is as fantastically mountainous as you see in this painting. The Northern Song dynasty, during which Summer Mountains was painted, produced such an iconic style of landscape that it was revived two more times in the centuries following, proving that such extreme landscapes have a timelessness that makes them relevant to many different moments. Landscape in general is often seen as a particularly timeless genre, appropriate for viewing in all settings and all seasons. But this is a different sort of landscape than you might have encountered before, and a very different one from the type I explored in my episode on Albert Namatjira’s watercolor landscapes of the Northern Territory of Australia. So how is a painting that might seem so foreign—in format, in conception, in what it depicts—relevant to our world today? Especially given that it’s almost one thousand years old? And even if it doesn’t feel that foreign to you, what ideas does it evoke? What narratives does it communicate? How does a painting that literally bears the stamps of so many different owners over so many years still speak to a 21st century audience?
Here I feel the need to make a disclaimer before we dive in: this episode involves a lot of Chinese names, places, and words that I will pronounce to the best of my native-English-speaker’s ability, but will still probably pronounce incorrectly. I’ll be including the Chinese characters for these words in the transcript and, where I can, in the show notes, so those who do speak or read Chinese can see what I’m actually trying to say. I’m greatly indebted to books and essays that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has made available for free on their website and on Google Books—just check the transcript for citations so you can read them for yourself!
Now, without further ado, cinch up your backpacks and bring plenty of water, as we journey into Northern Song artist Qu Ding’s Summer Mountains.
A description of Qu Ding’s (屈鼎) painting, Summer Mountains (北宋 傳屈鼎 夏山圖 卷). Ink and color on a silk hand scroll, circa 1050. At the top right, we see several vertical lines of Chinese characters, which translate to, quote:
This elegant painting is very old;
The Xuanhe seals [of the Song emperor Huizong, r. 1101–1125] makes it even more precious.
The objects [in the painting] appear full of life,
As if the trees and rocks were drawn from nature.
The lush foliage of the summer mountains is moist;
The sunny gorges hum with increasing waves.
Perching hundreds of feet high, the pavilions appear spacious.
How would it feel to lean on a railing and enjoy this view?
Imperially inscribed in the first lunar month of the wuchen year (1748).
戊辰新正月御題。 [印]： 乾、隆
This inscription hangs in the sky above a distant range of mountains alongside a river, on which we see a number of fishing boats. On the river’s uneven banks in the right third of the painting are a number of small buildings nestled next to lush foliage. A couple of flocks of birds forming Vs and diagonal lines fly above the structures, and the occasional tiny human figure can be seen climbing the banks or working on one of the boats. In the center third of the painting the mountain range draws closer and the mountains themselves shoot up, with one peak even surpassing the upper edge of the painting. The craggy mountains, which are almost rectangular in their general form, disappear into mists at their bases, and out of this mist come smaller foothills, with denser foliage including trees with twisted trunks. In the valley just to the right of the smallest peak are a set of pavilions rendered in a now-faded red, their own bases also disappearing into the mist. Two more faded red pavilions sit amongst the foothills along the uneven riverbank, along a path that is connected by small wooden bridges to other peninsulas in the river. Two travelers, one on a donkey, are visible on the bridge to the right of these smaller pavilions. The leftmost third of the painting features yet more mountains, smaller than the central one, from which emerge waterfalls and further foothills. Another group of faded red pavilions rests in the middle ground here, while at the very bottom left, on a small wooded peninsula, we can make out a small wooden building, perhaps a hermit’s hut. From afar, the entire painting appears to be rendered in shades of black and gray on a yellowed silk background, and it is only close observation that reveals the red tones of the pavilions. Other red, however, is clearly visible in the form of stamps or seals, indicating the numerous previous owners of the painting, which include a number of emperors. These stamps are placed unevenly around the perimeter of the painting, sometimes on the mounting, sometimes in the painting’s sky, and a number around the inscription, or colophon, at the upper right. We can see on the Met’s online images of the painting that its mounting includes a green, blue, and red floral silk outer wrapping with a label indicating the work within and a matching ribbon with some sort of ivory or jade toggle to fasten it closed.
Summer Mountains was created in the midst of the Northern Song dynasty, which lasted from around 960 to 1127, before the Mongol Yuan dynasty pushed the Song into Southern China. Wen C. Fong, who co-founded the first Ph.D. program of Chinese art and archaeology in the United States in 1959 and was a consultant for the Met’s Asian art department for thirty years, provides a great overview of the development of Chinese landscape in two publications that the Met has made available for free.
In a book specifically on the topic of Summer Mountains, Fong notes that in the early 10th century, landscape painting was flourishing while other arts declined during the period of disunity that preceded the Northern Song dynasty. Fong discusses the development of landscape painting primarily in terms of lineage, a sort of genealogy of influences, so in order to understand Qu Ding’s work, it seems necessary to also look at his predecessor, Yen Wen-kuei (燕文貴). It’s made even more necessary because of the fact that for quite a while, this painting was attributed to Yen Wen-kuei. The label on the outside of the scroll even lists Yen as the creator. How are such attributions made? Besides subject matter and materials, which are fairly solid pieces of the puzzle of who created a work of art and when they created it, art historians also look at style and, particularly in the case of paintings, brushwork. In Chinese landscape painting, certain artists favored particular brushstrokes for particular purposes over others. As Fong puts it, quote, “Yen’s modeling strokes are close to [his predecessor] Li Ch’eng’s [李成]; they include loosely applied stipples, broader and less distinct rubbing strokes, and sharp diagonal hatching strokes.”
Yen’s earliest surviving work, Pavilions by Rivers and Mountains (江山樓觀圖) currently in the Osaka Municipal Museum in Japan, does seem at a cursory glance extremely similar to Summer Mountains. But as Fong points out, Summer Mountains and Pavilions are similar, quote, “only in general subject matter and composition: in both modeling and the drawing of tree and foliage patterns it has departed from Yen’s forms.” Fong continues his explanation in the following way:
“Calmer in mood, the painting is, in some ways, even more resplendent than Yen’s…The very air of this summer scenery seems to breathe a well-endowed contentment; the restless energies of the earlier paintings seem to have subsided. The mountain’s modeling consists of straight, parallel brushstrokes that blend into the ink washes; the hardwood forests show mostly gnarled white trunks against loosely applied round foliage dots, and these dots, through their varied size and tonality, effectively suggest the merging forms and movements of individual trees. The brushwork seems to show a mixture of influences of the earlier masters…but there is no hint of any knowledge of the important painters of the second half of the eleventh century. These indications suggest the dating of Summer Mountains to about 1050.
The brushwork is generally broader and looser than either Yen’s or [Fan Ku’an’s (范寬)]. Instead of the three distinct technical steps…as seen in the earlier works, the freer and broken contours and modeling strokes now merge and blend with ink washes to suggest, rather than describe tactilely, the sense of volume and texture of the forms in space.”
Fong goes on to suggest that the painting be attributed to Qu Ding primarily because Qu was described as, quote, “[excelling] in the depiction of mountain gorges and valleys, with views of twisting and winding forms.” End quote. We know little else about Qu, other than that he was active in the Northern Song capital of Bianjing, known today as Kaifeng, from around 1023 to 1056. These dates, and the dating of Summer Mountains, do help establish, to some degree, the context in which Qu would have been working. In the early eleventh century, the most notable advances in landscape painting appeared to be in monumental contexts, such as wall and screen paintings. By the mid-eleventh century, around the time Qu Ding painted Summer Mountains, monumental landscape painting became the “official idiom” of the Northern Song, according to Wen Fong. Qu would have likely been aware of the literature written on monumental landscape by fellow painters like Kuo Hsi (郭熙), who was the favorite painter of Song emperor Shen-tsung (宋神宗). Kuo codified landscape painting forms and techniques, elaborating on elements of landscape painting established during the previous Tang dynasty. For painters of this period, this was not just a matter of looking out at a landscape and painting it, but constructing a harmonious landscape that visually embodied philosophical principles.
In the late Tang and early Northern Song dynasties, scholars took another look at the philosophies of Confucius, combining them with aspects of Buddhism and Taoism to form Neo-Confucianism, an ideology that would shape the Chinese civil service system until its abolition in 1905. Neo-Confucianist principles also formed the backbone of Northern Song landscape painting: the idea that different elements of a landscape corresponded to different philosophical principles began in the late Tang dynasty, but it was after the fall of the Tang that landscape masters pushed that idea further, seeking to depict archetypal forms rather than true-to-life rocks and trees, and, to some extent, seeing landscape painting as, quote, “a magical diagram of cosmic truth.” End quote. Here are a couple of excerpts from tenth-century painter and neo-Confucian scholar Ching Hao (荆浩), quoted by Fong, that illuminate how landscape was seen as a manifestation of neo-Confucian principles:
“[A picture that attains] likeness achieves the physical form but leaves out the life breath of the subject, while in [a picture that attains] truth the life breath and inner qualities of the subject are fully present.”
“One must understand the archetype, the emblem of each thing. When a tree grows, it follows its own received nature…The pine tree, [for example,] from its beginnings, may bend as it grows, but will never appear crooked. Sometimes it is dense with foliage, sometimes sparse, neither blue nor green. As a sapling it stands upright, its budding heart already harboring noble ambitions. Once it has grown taller than all the other trees, even when its lower branches bow down to the earth, they never touch the common ground. Its layered branches spreading in the forest, it has the air of a dignified and virtuous gentleman.”
These excerpts give us a sense of the sort of background that contemporary viewers of paintings like Summer Mountains would have had. Ching encourages painters and viewers to see the landscape not as a depiction of a real life place, a “likeness,” but an idealized, archetypal version of a real landscape that gets closer to the truth of the thing than a mere imitation of it ever could. Pines are not only pines, but are representative of other, larger ideas and archetypes, like the “dignified and virtuous gentleman.” As another example of this notion, in the same chapter in which Fong elaborates on Ching’s approach to landscape, he also mentions Li Cheng, the predecessor to Qu Ding’s predecessor, Yen Wen-kuei, and how Li’s depictions of barren winter forests reflect his belief that, quote, “men of virtue are now found only in the wilderness.” End quote.
So we now have something of a sense of how Northern Song-era artists constructed landscapes and the theoretical basis of those landscapes. But in the case of Summer Mountains and other hand scrolls, the way in which one might view these landscapes was a bit different from how we often think of viewing art today. Because hand scrolls are rolled-up lengths of silk or paper, they need to be unrolled in order to view what’s on them. And usually, they aren’t unrolled fully, but a little bit at a time, and the portion that’s already been viewed is re-rolled. This doesn’t make for a great viewing experience for a lot of people at one time—art historian Dawn Delbanco notes that viewers of hand scrolls are “usually limited to one or two” people. Delbanco continues, quote: “Unlike the viewer of the western painting, who maintains a certain distance from the image, the viewer of a handscroll has direct physical contact with the object, rolling and unrolling the scroll at his/her own desired pace, lingering over some passages, moving quickly through others.” End quote. To a modern Western audience, the experience of viewing a hand scroll is somewhat like reading a book. It’s just you looking at the marks on the page, making sense of them as you choose to. Your experience isn’t mediated by wall text, docents, collectors’ commentary, or even the presence of other people. You’re even moving through the image in a manner similar to how you turn pages in a book: once you turn a page, you can’t see the previous pages, just as how once you unroll a new portion of the hand scroll, you must then roll up what you just looked at. To add to the similarities to reading a codex-style book, as Delbanco points out, and as we see in Summer Mountains itself, with the hand scroll format you’re able to view a narrative, not just a single moment in time. It’s a little hard to tell exactly what narrative is being expressed in Summer Mountains, but it seems to be less of an outright story and more of a journey. You, the viewer, are journeying up the river at the right, mooring your boat near a fishing village, and following the paths and bridges progressing leftward along the foothills of the mountains. You see misty pavilions in the distance, twisted trees of many kinds, and as you reach a second bridge you see a waterfall bringing a stream down from the mountains to meet the main course of the river. At the far left, with even more craggy mountains and waterfalls in the distance, you arrive in the woods at a small dwelling. The path continues on from there, but this seems like an appropriate conclusion to the long walk from right to left through this scroll.
As Delbanco mentions, the colophon, or written commentary that in Summer Mountains is included at the top right, only adds to the sense that in viewing this hand scroll you’re also reading a narrative. As I detailed in the visual description earlier, the commentary elaborates on the quality of the image, even asking the viewer “How would it feel to lean on a railing and enjoy this view?” The colophon is not just introducing the image, but also sparking the viewer’s imagination, encouraging them to take a more active role in viewing the scene.
The colophon also draws attention to the provenance, or history, of the painting, as well as its material value. Quote: “This elegant painting is very old; The Xuanhe seals [of the Song emperor Huizong, r. 1101–1125] makes it even more precious.” End quote. The colophon thus asks the viewer not just to consider the physical beauty of the image, but also its historical importance. The colophon itself was written in 1786, which means that the painting existed without this commentary, and without quite a few of the red-inked seals of ownership, for centuries after its completion. Its different owners left a physical mark on the image, and in the process added new layers of meaning and historical relevance to it. These seals were being added to the painting up into the twentieth century, until Summer Mountains became part of the Met’s collection in 1973. Unlike collecting traditions of other kinds of artwork, in which collectors usually mark their ownership on the back or underside of an image or object, if they do it at all, here the red stamps are placed on top of the image itself for all to see. The image’s provenance is immediately apparent, and so is its imperial pedigree, as it primarily passed through imperial collections. Its status as an image fit for an emperor is integrated into the very body of the image itself, further reinforcing the omnipresence and naturalness of imperial power. Imperial seals are placed directly alongside an image that includes what Fong calls a “host mountain,” —the largest mountain in the painting that, quote, “dominates the surrounding valley ‘like a ruler among his subjects, a master among servants’…The high-distance mountain image, while it reflects the imperial Northern Sung emphasis on centrality, symmetry, power, and domination, also epitomizes the Neo-Confucianist’s desire for moral authority and spiritual grandeur.” End quote. Thus, in both the visible history of its collection and in the structure of the landscape itself, Summer Mountains emphasizes imperial sovereignty and the Neo-Confucian philosophies that attended it from the Northern Sung period onward.
This is some dense analysis about a densely detailed painting, so far. But let’s turn now to the eternal question: so what? How is Summer Mountains relevant to us, nearly one thousand years after its creation? Well, for one thing, the scholarship that I’ve referenced here, scholarship that the Met itself highlights on the webpage for Summer Mountains, tends to emphasize how this landscape is a constructed image, a constructed viewing experience. Constructed images and narratives are a huge part of our everyday lives—we look at staged publicity photos, read carefully worded press releases and news reports, and immerse ourselves in TV and movies and other forms of storytelling that more often than not are built around a central message of some kind. Whether these messages are consciously and intentionally put there remains unclear, just as the degree to which Summer Mountains was consciously constructed around a central theme will remain unclear. But the question of intent doesn’t matter so much as the question of impact: how do these constructions (because every human creation is a construction) affect our view of the world around us? How does the captioning of Summer Mountains, with a colophon that asks what it would be like to look out at this view, affect how we view the landscape, particularly given that the colophon was inscribed seven centuries or so after the painting was created? We could ask the same thing of captions for photos in the news today, or the type of language that is used to promote films and TV. When we place words and images adjacent to one another, how does that affect what we read in each of those elements?
Imagining the very experience of looking at Summer Mountains, unrolling and re-rolling the scroll, gazing at only a portion of the image at any one time, also prompts us to consider how this very intimate, yet very limited, way of looking affects how we see the scene. To be very millennial for just a brief moment, it’s sort of like when someone quotes an article in a Tweet, but then you read the article and the quoted text is mostly unrelated to the central point of the piece. But in that Tweet, that limited perspective on the article, it’s framed as though it is. The placement of the frame—or, in the case of Summer Mountains, the position to which the scroll is unrolled—limits our viewpoint and fundamentally affects what we see. And because the scroll-viewing experience is so intimate, it’s not very easy to compare your viewpoint with another person’s like you would in a modern art gallery, where you can walk to where someone else is standing. What you see in your one-on-one moment with a hand scroll is entirely your perspective on the scene. As I’m writing this episode, the Coachella music festival has just wrapped up, and the hundreds of pictures and videos of the event are becoming fewer and farther between on social media. Depending on who you follow and who you don’t, you probably have a totally different perspective of what the experience of Coachella in 2019 was like than your friends or your coworkers, or even the people who were there and took those photos and videos. Your viewpoint is limited by what you are able to see and what you are not—what is cut out of your field of vision because you don’t follow someone, or an algorithm decides you don’t need to see it, or you simply scrolled past it. Summer Mountains and other artworks like it that lend themselves to an intimate, highly individualized viewing experience make us think harder and question more intensely the ways in which we look at things in our everyday lives. What is constructed? What is officially sponsored or endorsed? When do we see the evidence of all those who had a hand in something, and when do we not? Summer Mountains, timeless as it is, old as it is, is quite difficult to relate to specific current events. But we can find general parallels to our twenty-first century world, and in particular how the way we look at things has or has not changed in the nearly one thousand years since Qu Ding put brush to silk.
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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All! You can find a transcript of this podcast, with links to images and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. For updates about episodes and other fun artsy chatter, check us out on Twitter and Instagram @arthistory4all, with the number 4. Subscribe to us on your pod catcher of choice, and don’t forget to drop a rating and review, and tell your friends about us, too! If you really, REALLY like the podcast, please feel free to leave a tip on Ko-Fi, at ko-fi.com/arthistoryforall.
This podcast was produced and narrated by me, Allyson Healey. The theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other background and interstitial music can be found in the podcast description or at the end of the transcript. Keep a look out for new episodes on the last Monday of every month. Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely: you never know what you might see.
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Additional Music Credits:
Music from https://filmmusic.io:
“Dreams Become Real” by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)
Licence: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
“Perspectives” by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)
Licence: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
 Wen Fong, Summer Mountains: The Timeless Landscape (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975), 6.
 Fong, Summer Mountains, 15.
 Fong, Summer Mountains, 6.
 Fong, Summer Mountains, 15.
 Fong, Summer Mountains, 15.
 Fong, Summer Mountains, 17.
 “Attributed to Qu Ding | Summer Mountains | China | Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127) | The Met,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed April 17, 2019, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39915.
 Wen Fong, Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th-14th Century (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 79-82.
 Fong, Beyond Representation, 83.
 John H. Berthrong, “Neo-Confucian Philosophy | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” accessed April 18, 2019, https://www.iep.utm.edu/neo-conf/.
 Fong, Beyond Representation, 76-77.
 Fong, Beyond Representation, 77.
 Dawn Delbanco, “Attributed to Qu Ding | Summer Mountains | China | Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127) | The Met,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed March 25, 2019, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39915.
 See Ibid.
 See credit line, accession number, and list of seals: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39915
 Fong, Beyond Representation, 88-89.