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Hong Kong
Qing Dynasty Landscape Painting

1644 - 1911


Gong Xian Bada Shanren 8  masters of Jinling
The Four Wangs Hong Ren Kun Can
Late Qing Shi Tao Related Info

In 1644 a non-Chinese ethnic group called the Manchu took over Beijing, the capital city of the Ming Dynasty. The Manchu consolidated their power as the new ruling power for the next 273 years. Many native Chinese refused to come to terms with the occupation of their mother land by foreign people and stayed loyal to the Ming rulers. Some chose to fight and form underground societies while others preferred to abandon the sphere of human affairs and lead a life of solitude in nature far from the bustling urban centers. Most of these recluses turned into monks out of convenience and not necessarily as an outcome of genuine religious sentiments. Others didn’t even go as far as leaving physically and found consolation in a psychological escape, these people immersed themselves in art and creation while staying indifferent to the reality they found hard to face. They found their recluse in their art.            

The painting scene in the early Qing Dynasty was dominated by two groups of painters that were very different in temperament and style. The first group, the 'Four Wangs', the second were The Four Great Monk Painters. The Four Wangs were Wang Shimin, Wang Jian, Wang Hui and Wang Yuanqi, sometimes Wu Li and Yun Shouping are added to this group to form the “Six Masters of the Early Qing”, Yun Shouping was the only one that wasn’t a landscapist and focused on flower painting. This group represented the orthodox side of the early Qing, they religiously followed the great Ming Dynasty landscapist, calligrapher and theorist Dong Qichang who advocated the meticulous copying of old masters, mainly those of the literati tradition such as the Four Great Masters of the Yuan Dynasty and famous Song painters. The other dominant group The Four Great Monk Painters, namely, Hongren, Kuncan, Ba Da Shanren and Shitao were progressive artists that broke the old conventional rules and brought Chinese landscape painting to yet another climax. Another notable group in the early Qing were The Eight Masters of Jinling, this group was centered in jinling, today’s Nanjing, then, the cultural center of the southern China and more importantly the early capital of the early Ming Dynasty. This location was of symbolic importance since most of these painters were opposed to the rule of the new foreign Qing Dynasty, they manifested this resentment by staying in the old capital. Like the Four Monks they also disregarded conventions believing that the expression of ones inner feelings was the primary goal of art as opposed to reference to old masters.

Early Qing art must be examined in relation to the historical and psychological circumstances of the time. As an outcome of the brutal takeover of the Manchus, many native Chinese harbored strong national sentiments, or in the Chinese case, a strong cultural consciousness that saw the new invaders as foreign elements that disgraced the Han ethnic group which stood for over 90% of the Chinese population. This strong resentment was the atmosphere in which these artists worked and was very often reflected in their art. Pessimistic dark images, subtle references to the fallen Ming Dynasty, depiction of trees growing up-side down and dense claustrophobic compositions were some of the ways in which these artists chose to express their dissatisfaction and feeling of discomfort. Although the Qing rulers saw their ethnic group, the Manchus, as superior they did not try to brush away Chinese culture, on the contrary, they proved to be enthusiastic promoters of the traditional Han culture and great patrons of the arts. The court continued to support the royal painting academy, but the majority of its output lacked any significant qualities beyond the ability to imitate old, outdated styles. As had been the case in previous centuries, the most important painting came from the literati tradition.

It is important to understand that by the time of the Qing Dynasty the old "rivalry" between professional and Literati painting styles was a thing of the past and the Literati school became the mainstream of painting. However, as time passed, the Literati tradition slowly lost its old vitality. Orthodox trends started emerging within this once unorthodox school. During the Yuan Dynasty the Literati school symbolized a new form of creativity that challenged the realistic and refined professional trends that dominated the Chinese painting scene during the Tang and the Song Dynasties. The orthodox school represented by the Four Wangs, specialized in copying past masterpieces with fine, steady and clear-cut strokes. Although their technique was highly developed, their art lacked content and originality, representing a decline in the art of the old Literati tradition. Fortunately, The Four Monks emerged to offer a new injection of adrenaline to the otherwise fading Literati style. The Four Monks completely turned their backs on the idea of copying the old masters in stylized forms. Instead, they painted impulsively without following accepted dogmas. Hongren, Kuncan, Ba Da Shanren and Shitao painted with a free spirit and revived the true conviction old Literati masters had towards spontaneous expression and art that is not restricted by conventions.

In this chapter of Art Realization you will find important information on the painting scene and the artistic atmosphere that dominated the Qing period.



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