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Ma Yuan & Xia Gui

 Ma Yuan and Xia Gui, the founders of the Ma-Xia school of landscape painting were both highly influenced by Li Tang, although it is highly unlikely that they studied directly under this great master like many suggest. The Ma-Xia school became the most popular and representative school of Chinese art in the Western world as well as Korea and Japan. In China, however, although highly popular as well, the Northern Song, and Yuan landscapes were preferred.   

Ma Yuan (1190–1225)

Ma Yuan is probably the most famous and popular Chinese traditional painter known to the Western world, he was also one of the most important landscape painters of the 12th and 13th centuries and a leader painter of the imperial academy. Coming from a celebrated family of famous painters that developed a unique style, Ma Yuan and his son, Ma Lin represent the artistic climax of their ancestor's tradition. 

Also known as 'One Corner Ma' thanks to the unique composition of his landscapes, Ma Yuan put great focus on the bottom corner of the painting. This created a composition that was asymmetric in nature, representing a new trend in traditional painting which became very influential. The Southern Song paintings which are known to be more intimate and subtle than the ones of the monumental and vigorous Northern Song paintings came to a harmonious symbiosis with the art of Ma Yuan that still shows signs of the splendor and power of the north but at the same time brings the focus of attention closer to the viewer, creating a warm intimacy and romantic atmosphere which the painters of the Southern Song were so well known for. This intimate but boldly defined 'cornered foreground gradually evaporates into the background using lighter tones of ink, driving the viewers' eyes into a great mysterious and spiritual void that is sometimes alarming in its remoteness. The distant space stands in stark contrast to the relative safety of the foreground where the viewer can find comfort.  (see Ta Ge Tu, left, and  scholar by a waterfall, image below)

Ma Yuan uses forceful and dramatic brushstrokes, he eliminates all but the most essential and unavoidable details of the landscape, giving it a simple and  poetic aura. His landscapes can be captured with one look, as a whole, and represent a break from the more intricate works of the northern landscapists. In Ma Yuan’s art we see an extreme idealization of nature and its myriad components. His unique style is considered by many as the climax in the tradition of Chinese landscape painting. Future painters of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties had to explore alternative channels in order to take this tradition to new places.

 Xia Gui

Xia Gui’s art uses an extreme economy of means only slightly suggesting what is hidden behind heavy mists and boundless distances. Although there is a rigorous elimination of details, the content and full picture clearly reveal themselves to the viewer. Xia Gui is a good example of an artist with impressive ink wash techniques which traditional Chinese artists, especially those of the misty southern Song Dynasty were so well known for. The brave use of bear silk and ink washes devoid of any tangible structure are landmarks in the stress Chinese art lays on the function of space and emptiness. Like Ma Yuan the content of the picture is revealed in one glance through an amazing mastery of suggestive techniques. If Ma Yuan was noted for his 'One Corner' composition, Xia Gui, also known as 'Half composition Xia' was well known for his strong emphasis  of the bottom half of the painting. Xia Gui leaves the upper half of his landscapes empty. The viewer is free to wonder with his imagination to remote places where only little tones of Ink Wash suggest life. The stark contrast between the two half's of the painting suggest the boundless distances the mind can travel as it departs from the concrete safety of the mountains in the foreground. It should be noted that although the southern school of the Song dynasty was well known for its extensive use of “Hemp fiber” technique (Pi Ma Cun), Both Ma Yuan and Xia Gui are skilled in applying the technique used in the north, also known as “Ax Chop” technique (Fu Pi Cun) which is more suitable for the rendering of the grotesque and rough texture of northern Chinese landscapes.

It can be said that the dialogue that took place among landscape artists through the ages was brought to a conclusion by the Ma-Xia School and a new dialogue inevitably had to begin. Ma Yuan and Xia Gui represent the first major climax and the golden age of Chinese Landscape painting. However, as opposed to what many tend to believe, this does not represent the descent of the tradition. On the contrary, Landscape painting continued to develop, evolve and reinvent itself long after the glorious days of the Song. It is only during the Yuan and Ming that a new school known as the Literati (sometimes referred to as amateur painters), established itself as a revolutionary and later the most dominant trend in the Landscape tradition.  


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