Gazing into Nature: Early Chinese Painting

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Plum Tree and Ducks by a Stream, c. 1190-1230 Ink And Colors On Silk 31 1/2 X 18 1/2 In © University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; purchase made possible through a gift from an anonymous donor.
Gazing into Nature: Early Chinese Painting
Curated by: Julia M. White

2155 Center Street
Berkeley, CA 94720
June 5th, 2013 - October 20th, 2013

East Bay
Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday 11am-7pm; Friday, Saturday 11am-9pm
Free: BAM/PFA Members, UC Berkeley Students, faculty, staff and reitrees, children (12 &under); $10: Adults (18-64); $7: Non-UC Berkeley Students, senior citizens (65 &over), disabled persons, young adults (13-17)


We are delighted to present, for the first time in ten years, a selection of BAM/PFA’s earliest Chinese paintings. These rare and amazingly well-preserved works by early landscape and bird-and-flower painters of the late Song and early Yuan periods (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), rendered on silk or paper with ink and light color, demonstrate the sophistication and accomplishment of the early Chinese painting tradition.

Early Chinese painters often depicted the natural world through a lens of gentle mists created by delicate brushwork. Whether capturing a refined corner of the universe, as in Ma Yuan’s thirteenth-century Plum Tree and Ducks by a Stream, or a single twisted branch of a grapevine, as in Wen Riguan’s thirteenth-century Grapes, it is the artist’s control of ink, wash, and line that brings the subject to life. Equally compelling is the anonymous Fish and Water Plants from the fifteenth century, which depicts a powerful carp rising through a bed of delicately rendered vegetation; the very light touches of color in this work add a pleasing naturalism to the scene.

Landscape painters, too, conveyed the beauty and grandeur of the natural world. Their interpretations were not intended to be of specific places rendered in realistic terms, but rather idealized landscapes of retreat and reclusion. The tall trees of Guo Min’s Fir and Pines in the Snow (thirteenth century) form a protective circle around a figure pictured in a hut at the base of a fantastic and turbulent mountain. The artist concedes that man is but a small part of a much grander universe. Similarly, River Landscape, attributed to Ma Wan (1325-1365), suggests the glory of the natural world with a remote view that allows the viewer to survey the landscape of mountains, trees, and streams.