I recently had the opportunity to view the exhibition Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, which is at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through this Sunday, September 18. In the coming days I’ll write some more about the exhibition as a whole. But today I’d like to focus on one of its many highlights, the painting Walking on a path in spring by Ma Yuan.
Ma Yuan (c. 1160-1225) was a court painter during the reigns of Southern Song Emperors Guangzong (r. 1190-1194) and Ningzong (r. 1195-1224). He, as well as his great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and son, served as court painters within the Imperial Painting Academy. His works, along with those of his fellow court painter Xia Gui, became the basis of the Ma-Xia school of painting, which inspired later generations of both Chinese and Japanese painters.
The Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), one of the great creative periods in Chinese history, is divided into Northern and Southern periods. An invasion by the Jin ended the Northern period in the mid 1120s, after which the Song court moved south of the Yangtze River and established a new capital at what is now Hangzhou. The Southern Song sought to restore peace and continue the traditions established in the North. Artistic styles evolved during this time, too: the Northern Song, for instance, tended to the grand and monumental in its paintings, while Southern Song works are more elegant, intimate, and quiet.
Those latter descriptors certainly apply to Ma Yuan’s Walking on a path in spring, sometimes called Walking on a mountain path in spring or simply A mountain path in spring. Painted on an album leaf, ink and color on silk, the work contains what have been called the Three Perfections of Chinese art – painting, poetry, and calligraphy.
Most of the focus of the work is at the lower left – the artist who came to be known as “One-corner Ma” specialized in this type of composition – with the right more open and suggestive. A nicely-dressed man, while walking on a path along the bank of a stream, contemplates a scene from nature. Willow branches above him and flowering branches below him frame his figure. He touches his beard as if in thought. There are also two birds in the scene, possibly orioles. One is poised on a willow branch, and the other is in flight, perhaps startled by the arrival of the man. Another figure in the lower left, possibly a young man or even a child, carries a qin, or Chinese zither. He is taking a step forward, in motion, while the scholar seems to have stopped in order to appreciate the beauty before him. While we can see some branches and rocks off to the right, much of the scene before the man is hidden. Even the mountains, curving off into the distance from the upper left of the painting, are eventually lost in the mist and fog.
The poem in the upper right hand corner of the painting is by Emperor Ningzong (1168-1224), who regarded his court painter Ma Yuan as a favorite. There are various translations, but I’ll use the one from the China Online Museum website:
“The wildflowers dance when brushed by my sleeves.
Reclusive birds make no sound as they shun the presence of people.”
A considerable number of Chinese paintings include poetry. There’s always a question in such works as to whether the poem or the painting came first. Which one inspired the other? In either case, the poem obviously focuses our attention on the relationship between man and the natural world. Both the man and the birds in Ma Yuan’s painting are looking off to the upper right – perhaps they are all focusing on the calligraphy!
Who is the man? His gauze hat and fine clothing indicate he is a man of some stature, quite possibly a scholar. In some Southern Song paintings, a white-robed figure dressed as a scholar could be the Emperor himself. In that case, the painting becomes a celebration of the Emperor’s ability to remain close to nature in the midst of his responsibilities. Whoever the man is, he seems to find pleasure in lonely, out-of-the-way spots. The other human figure at the lower left might represent the intelligence, the cultivated nature, of the robed man, who apparently has the means to travel with his own personal attendant/musician.
There’s an interesting contrast, even irony, to be found in the fact that a scholar, well-dressed and apparently of some refinement, looks at a scene from nature in quite a different way than, say, a farmer who had to toil in it every day. It is, in some respects, an artificial scene that we’re witnessing in Ma Yuan’s work.
Yet it is also a graceful and elegant painting that balances observational detail and mystery. As James Cahill puts it in his book Chinese Painting, “Ma Yuan envelops his subject in an aura of feeling with an extreme economy of means, relying upon the emotional associations of his images and the evocative power of the emptiness surrounding them.”