By Ian Scharine
Serving as an intern this semester at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, I am privileged to get a first look at the exhibitions, including behind-the-scenes efforts that go into creating them. One of the most recent exhibitions that caught my interest was Ideal Landscapes, now on view in the UMFA’s second-floor galleries.
Ideal Landscapes promises a unique and historical perspective of Imperial China’s artists and philosophies. In contrast to the panoramic and colorful landscapes painted by the artists depicting Utah’s Mount Olympus, the scrolls of the Chinese landscape artists strike a decidedly different chord in use of perspective, color, light, and mood of the various scenes imagined. Many of the scrolls use simple black and white pigment to establish a subtle and tranquil nature in the paintings, where one can almost feel the gentle breezes of the woods and hear the crash of water on rocks.
In nearly each scroll, human figures and buildings are portrayed in diminished proportions, appearing insignificant when compared to nature’s grandeur. The vertical scrolls, some of which are approximately five feet in height, tend to either draw the eye from the sky to the ground, or from the ground up. Some feature an abundance of sky as if the mountains become one with the heavens, while others depict the path of a waterfall as it carves its way down the mountainside.
To choose a few favorites:
1. Lan Ying’s Paradise Scene is perhaps the most detailed of the works. It incorporates subtle hues of green and red, deliberate detail of the Emperor’s courtesans, and intricate branches of trees, creating a scene where humans interact with one another and their environment.
2. Wei Zixi’s Early Autumn scene bears the inscription, “Tree color shows wind is cold. Waterfall sounds tell autumn has passed.” Using a dominance of darker pigments, the painter effectively establishes the element of a rushing waterfall through absence of portraying it directly; the waterfall appears in the center of the picture, established firmly in the observer’s mind.
3. Li Xiongcai paints Autumn Landscape in carefully illustrative fashion to define the figures of a man, his cart, and his small cottage as they traverse the more vaguely defined landscape. The contrast between the defined and undefined in this work seems to represent the differences between everyday simplicity and enlightenment through nature.
Observing Ideal Landscape is truly seeing the expression of the mind’s eye. Each artist used their own philosophies and experiences to determine what representation appeared on the finished scroll. Putting the busy world aside to appreciate art will yield surprising and welcome results when you find yourself immersed in idyllic nature at the UMFA this fall.