Author: Robert R Clewis (Gwynedd Mercy University)
Guo Xi (Kuo Hsi) (ca. 1000–1090) was a leading Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) landscape artist and theorist of painting. His ideas connect with western ideas about painting and figuration, as well as aesthetic theories regarding awe and the sublime. In one of his most famous paintings, “Early Spring,” two figures appear to be undergoing an experience of awe, wonder, or the sublime. The painting portrays the natural sublime — the two figures appear struck by a waterfall and a monastery above it. “Early Spring” also depicts what can be called the “transcendent” sublime — the ineffable or unknowable, which has been emphasized in western traditions of negative theology and in theories such as the one Hegel presented in “Symbolism of the Sublime.”
To represent the transcendent (what Jean-François Lyotard, following Kant, calls the “unrepresentable”), Guo Xi painted mists. The painting displays the “empty space” or gap in many Chinese landscape paintings, such as those of Juran and other Chinese painters from the Northern Song dynasty. The blank or gap we find in some Chinese paintings fits in as something to be left untouched rather than removed or overcome.
Guo Xi was also a writer. His paintings provide insights into his treatise on depicting landscapes, “The Interest of Lofty Forests and Springs.” Both his paintings and writings were influential within classical Chinese aesthetics. In the monumental style of Northern Song, depicting mists became an artistic device to solve the problem of how to handle the relationship of near, middle, and far ground. In the “Three Distances” section of “The Interest of Lofty Forests and Springs,” Guo Xi develops the notions of high, deep, and level perspectives or distances. Imagine being at a mountain base and looking up. Guo Xi’s “upward” view makes the viewer (or painter) feel respect, awe, and deference; it is labeled as “lofty” or “high” since what strikes the viewer is the towering overwhelming stature of the high peaks. Now imagine standing somewhere in the middle of a mountain. According to the second (deep) perspective, the viewer (or painter) looking at the mountains may only glimpse the range of mountain backs retreating from view into the distance. The mountainous overlapping forms occlude one another. This view is perhaps called “deep” in order to call attention to the “profound” expansiveness of the mountains. According to the third perspective, the painter/viewer is looking at other mountains from atop a mountain. It is called “level” because the viewer/painter is at the same height as other mountaintops.
English translation by Jonathan Johnson, based on the 1936 text, 美術叢書: 二集, 第七輯. 石印本. ed. 出版地缺: 神州國光社刊.
In The Sublime Reader, edited Robert R. Clewis (Bloomsbury Press, 2018).
Lin, Yutang. The Chinese Theory of Art: Translations from the Masters of Chinese Art. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1967: 72-80.
Hu, Yunhua. Chinese Penjing: Miniature Trees and Landscapes. Hong Kong: Wan Li Book Co., Ltd., 1987.
Mair, Victor H. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Yang, Xiaoshan. Metamorphosis of the Private Sphere: Gardens and Objects in Tang-Song Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
- Theories of figurative painting (aesthetics)
- The Sublime (aesthetics)
- Experiences of transcendence (philosophy of religion)
- Jean-François Lyotard, Barnett Newman (aesthetics)