Li Liufang (Chinese, 1575 - 1629)
Gazing at Snow along the Riverbank, Ming dynasty, 1616
Handscroll, ink on gold-ground paper
11 x 84 in. (27.9 x 213.4 cm)
Gift of Carol S. Brooks in honor of her father, George J. Schlenker, and R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1997
This sketchy, improvisational landscape by the late Ming master Li Liufang brilliantly exemplifies the creative tension between style and content that characterizes many of the best Chinese paintings from that period.
At first glance, this scroll may appear to be an ordinary, perhaps even perfunctory, Chinese landscape. However, an inscription at the end of the painting, which explains the circumstances of its creation, quickly changes that impression.1
On the fifth day before the Winter Solstice of the bingchen year (1616), I boarded a boat at Tangxi. As the cold rain turned to snow, I took a piece of gold-ground paper a friend had sent me and sketched this picture of gazing at snow along the riverbank. -Li Liufang
Viewed with this knowledge, several seemingly routine elements of the painting unexpectedly emerge as effective representational devices. For example, the simple, austere brushstrokes of the trees and hills suddenly read as signs of winter desolation; the broad grey ink washes surrounding the landscape forms become brooding skies; and the metallic glint of the paper evokes the crisp chill of icy air. Although the river scenery itself is conventional and does not portray a real place, the painting nevertheless captures the essential mood and atmosphere of a specific moment in time. Thus, far from being an ordinary image, Gazing at Snow along the Riverbank is an outstanding example of evocative representation in Chinese painting.
Yet while the painting as a whole is representational, its specific details disintegrate into abstraction under close scrutiny. The brushstrokes cease to be descriptive, and instead become kinaesthetic reminders of the artistic process. The scenery of trees and rocky banks dissolves into an energetic assemblage of lines, dots, and dashes. Moreover, because the ink has not been readily absorbed into the gold-flecked paper, the depth of the image also fluctuates, with the distant shore seeming to rise into the same plane as the foreground forms. This instability of form and depth creates a fascinating tension between part and whole, and between subject and style. The viewer is kept in perceptual limbo, as the painting constantly shifts between specific representation and abstract pattern.
Although every Chinese painting exhibits some degree of this tension between representation and abstraction, or content and style, in most works either one or the other predominates. Indeed, one common way of formulating the history of Chinese painting has been to distinguish between artists who strove for "form-likeness" and those who emphasized brushwork. Paintings like this scroll that transcend such distinctions and achieve an equal balance of these qualities are thus quite rare. Li Liufang is not usually considered among the greatest Chinese painters, but in this scroll at least he briefly ascends to the highest level of artistic achievement.
Li Liufang was born in Jiading (now part of modern Shanghai), Jiangsu province, to a wealthy family with roots in Anhui province. Although Li earned a juren degree in 1606, he subsequently failed to pass the jinshi exams that were necessary to receive a government appointment. Giving up hope of an official career, he built an estate near Jiading and devoted himself to gardening, painting, and poetry. He traveled frequently, and was a companion to many of the leading literati artists and writers of his day. As a poet, Li is known as one of the "Four Masters of Jiading," while as a painter he is classed among the "Nine Friends of Painting," a group of artists associated with Dong Qichang (1555-1636). Because of his family's ties to Anhui, Li is sometimes also considered a forerunner of the Anhui school of painting. He died in Jiading at the relatively young age of fifty-four.
Cahill, James. The Distant Mountains. New York, 1982, pp. 133-35.
Cahill, James, ed. Shadows of Mt. Huang. Exh. cat., University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley, 1981, pp. 62-64.
Yu Jianhua. Zhongguo meishujia renming cidian. Shanghai, 1981, p. 377.
Collection Wu Yun (1811-1883)
Collection Wang Zuxi (1858-1908)
With Yabumoto Sogoro
Collection Dr. George J. Schlenker, Piedmont, California
Collection Carol Brooks (his daughter), from whom purchased in 1997
Cahill, James. The Distant Mountains. New York, 1982, pl. 63.
This handscroll is painted in black ink on multiple sheets of gold-leaf decorated paper. The image and mounting are both in excellent condition, with only minor horizontal and vertical creases. The dated inscription and signature in the lower left corner are followed by one seal of the artist. Additionally, there are seven collector's seals: three at the beginning include one of Wang Zuxi (1858-1908) and two of Wu Yun (1811-1883); the four at the end include one each of Wu Yun and Wang Zuxi, one of Tian Zhimin (19th century), and one unidentified. The title label on the exterior of the scroll was written by Wang Zuxi.
1. Translated by C. Mason.