Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring – Ma Yuan

ma yuan

© National Palace Museum

For the beginning of the weekend, I thought something relaxing would be great. And what is more relaxing than the Chinese’s paintings? I especially like Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring from Ma Yuan (worked between 1190 and 1225).

First, let me tell you a tiny bit about the painter. He lived under the Southern Song Dynasty (1125-1279). His family was composed of painters and was the most famous at that time. They painted for the emperors, at the Imperial Painting Academy, for 5 generations. During a century and a half, there was at least one painter from that family working for the emperor. This fact can probably tell you how good they were. Ma Yuan was an innovative painter, so was his son Ma Lin. Both of them painted in a new way. They thought about the composition of the artwork. Their composition is asymmetric, with an important part left blank. This part is there to let the spectator imagines the sky and clouds.

This painting is made of ink and colors on silk. It is preserved in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. You can see a man of letter lost in his thoughts. He is walking on a path followed by his servitor who carries the man’s zither. The man of letter works for the emperor which is indicated by his delicate clothing and his hat made of gauze. The man is looking at two birds, one on the branch and one that has flown away. The large part of blank left allows the spectator to imagine the river and the sky, while the mountain is far away. The man of letter tries to empty his mind and his state of mind can be seen on the painting. This artwork has a “one-corner” composition (specific of Ma Yuan), every element of the painting is on the left bottom. However, the upper right corner is not completely empty. A calligraphy can be read: “The wild flowers dance when brushed by my sleeves. Reclusive birds make no sound as they shun the presence of people.” The album leaf is therefore important because it is a synthesis between the painting and the poetry.

In this painting, we can observe Ma Yuan’s use of the paint brush. He uses a thick, clear line to delimitate the figures. The clothing in this painting possess his “axe cut strokes”. He also uses it for the mountains. By holding the brush in a crooked angle, he creates those frayed, broad ink lines. Those kind of lines and the various shades he uses make the rocks look lighter than reality. Those characteristics are innovative in landscape paintings and will be used by later painters.

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