Look at the tables inside the tavern in the right forefront: are they painted with linear or parallel projection technique? There isn't really a vanishing point and the lines never converge. There's no horizon line as well.
And tell me: do you see shadows or any indication of a consistent light source like in the Architectural Veduta above? No, of course.
In this scene, as in all of the others, the buildings are painted as seen from above (you perfectly see their roofs), but look at the porters and all the characters in the left foreground: you can see their faces, not the top of their heads, and you can clearly see the horse's ass as well, so there's a viewpoint shift here You can see the underside of the rainbow bridge and, at the same time, the small shops on top of it: another viewpoint shift. You see both the face of the worried boatmen and the expressions of the curious passersby on top of the bridge: another shift. And so on... To explore this cityscape, you're not given a fixed vantage point: your eyes are given many, and if at first, everything seems a bit confusing, at a second glance, you find the right key to open many of the painted stories. At least, all those you want to open. Moreover, you can see over walls, under arches, or into private spaces, you can observe the scene as if you were a bird and the rich, bum friend of a passerby at the same time. It's magic, in a sense.
Shen Kuo (沈括, 1031-1095), a Chinese polymath, scientist, and minister who lived under the Song Dynasty, wrote: «Landscapes should be seen from the angle of totality to grasp the whole.»
«The Chinese concept of perspective, unlike the scientific view of the West, is an idealistic or suprarealistic approach, so that one can depict more than can be seen with the naked eye. The composition is in a ladder of planes, or two-dimensional or flat perspective.» (Kwo Da-Wei, Chinese brushwork in calligraphy and painting, Dover Publications, New York,1990, p.70)
A final reflection before moving forward. The way we construct and organize the pictorial space is a relevant aspect of our culture: it says the way we see ourselves, our mutual relationships, and our being in the world.
The Renaissance linear perspective of Flippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) is a rational representation of space and simultaneously the affirmation of the centrality of the man, whose intellect has the power to order, measure, know and dominate the surrounding world. Linear perspective is an expressive code born from the same Tuscan womb that a century later would give birth to Galileo Galilei and modern science, and would see the triumph of the human capacity not just to read but also to fully decipher «this grand book that continually stands open before our eyes (I say the universe) ... written in mathematical language.» (My translation from a famous quote of G. Galilei, Il Saggiatore, 1623).
The Chinese parallel, oblique, cavalier projection emerged in a culture imbued with Daoism, whose perspective is just the opposite of an anthropocentric vision. Man is not the measure of all things. Man is a crucial but minuscule component of the natural world and is advised to follow the flow of nature’s rhythms and live in harmony with them. The idea of nature as an object to be dominated is alien to Chinese traditional philosophies. That between man and nature in shan shui (mountain and water) painting is a poetic relationship and sometimes a transient experience of spiritual fusion. Zong Baihua (1897-1986), poet, writer, and philosophy professor at Beijing University, wrote that Chinese spatial awareness is creative and poetic, based on the abstract expression of calligraphy instead of geometric and scientific perspective.
THE ART OF THE PERFECT MOVEMENT
Chinese landscape painting on long handscrolls was a form of narrative art: it was the visual art of time and movement. There's another form of art sharing the same nature and intrinsic features: dance, or better to say, Chinese classical dance, and dance drama.
Chinese classical dance is a unique, independent dance system, different from Western ballet, and based on Chinese traditional culture inheritance and development. This system, whose roots date back to the 2nd millennium BC, is still vital today and mixes traditional aesthetics, expressivity, and forms (unique movements and postures) with contemporary innovations.
The Chinese dance drama is an independent art form that emerged in the early 1930s, whose elements can be traced back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1066-771 BC). It's a stage art based on dance and the fusion of drama, poetry, and music.
For our first synesthetic journey, I've chosen another celebrated masterpiece of the Northern Song Dynasty era: A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains (千里江山圖), a handscroll by Wang Ximeng (王希孟), painted with ink and color on a handscroll with impressive dimensions: 51.5 x 1191.5 cm (20.27 in x 39.09 ft). It's a shan shui (mountain and water) work, painted in 1113 by a very young artist at the court of the Song Emperor Huizong: Wang Ximeng was only 18 years old at the time. Unfortunately, he died five years later, and this masterpiece is his only surviving artwork.
The young painter entered the Academy of Painting when still a child and soon became a protégé of the Emperor, who was a talented artist but an incompetent ruler. The handscroll was likely commissioned by the Emperor (or painted according to his wish) as a celebration of the majestic scenery of the Emperor's territory and a tribute to his Empire's prosperity.
The scenes are full of bridges, buildings (entire villages, altars, huts, pavilions, temples and monasteries nestled among the peaks, scattered courtyards, and even a watermill), vessels (from a small pedal boat to large fishing trawlers), and figures. The painting is so rich in tiny details to look slightly bewildering at first sight. But it's not. The landscape has a precise three-level structure (deploying pingyuan, level distance, gaoyuan, high distance, and shenyuan, deep distance), it can be divided into six sections from right to left, and shows a sort of plan to guide the viewer along a path, rich in steep ascents and level tracts. Some scholars read the painting as a ritual journey or a story of Daoist self-cultivation. According to Yurong Ma, professor at the Faculty of Innovation and Design at the City University of Macau (China), the painting «is like a complete symphony, which can be divided into six parts: section, prelude, rise, development, climax, fall, and end.» (See Bibliography). For others, it is a poetic journey that conveys the three essential aspects of painting according to Emperor Huizong: the careful study of nature to capture its hidden rhythm and spirit, the systematical study of the painting of the past, and the attainment of a "poetic idea" or shiyi.
This landscape, therefore, though inspired by real places, like the Poyang Lake area (Jiangxi province) with its swamps and wetlands and the Lu Mountains with their waterfalls, is an ideal, imaginary, poetic one.
The link with the classical painting tradition is provided by the blue-and-green landscape (qinglu shan shui) technique, developed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). In the painting, the artist used ink and intense colors: bright blues and greens on a dark ochre background, with white spots here and there. The malachite green and the azurite blue were precious pigments at the time and those used by Wang Ximeng had to be of extraordinary quality if, after more than 900 years, they are still bright and vivid (while the silk has darkened as expected).
«A variety of dry brush techniques — particularly the so-called ax-cut texture stroke and the hemp fiber texture stroke — are used to depict the rough surfaces of rocks and mountains and build up credible, three-dimensional forms». (Peter Zhang, A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, Shanghai Daily, 2017). Some details are rapidly sketched (the flying birds, for example), while others are so accurately rendered to impressively stand out: look at the water waves, drawn line by line with a different pattern if at the fore or in the middle ground.
To start your journey, go to this Wikimedia Commons page, click on the painting, enlarge it, and modify it till it fits your screen. Then go to the right end, and start 'unrolling' the scroll at your pace, enlarging the areas where you'd like to roam like a Chinese wayfarer of other times or a space-time traveler searching for a 'paradise lost.