Museums are full of small-scale changes of exhibition that are worth seeing but easily missed because they don’t get any publicity. Sometimes it’s as simple as replacing one of our usual displays with a rarely-seen object because the better-known piece is being loaned to another institution. Other times it’s a matter of repainting a wall so the objects displayed there look completely different. I think many of us are guilty of believing that we don’t need to visit the permanent collection galleries of our local museums because we’ve already seen them, but in truth most of those galleries are in constant flux. It’s worth revisiting even the most familiar collection because you never know what new discoveries you might make.
A great example of a big change that takes place in Brooklyn’s permanent collection galleries without even a whisper of P.R. is the Museum’s annual rotation of Asian paintings. Every January we change out all the paintings in the Asian galleries, usually selecting the new group to represent a single theme that runs through several different cultures. It amounts to a mini-exhibition, but one that appears interspersed with the rest of the Asian objects on permanent view.
This year the theme of the rotation is landscape. We put up 19 paintings in January and they look absolutely gorgeous.
Great tomes can and have been written about the significance of landscape in East Asian art and culture. I’m not going to try to cover it all here. Suffice it to say that the landscape painting tradition has its roots in the belief that time spent in a natural setting is therapeutic and enlightening, offering benefits and lessons that no amount of culture or scholarship could. This is an idea that lots of Westerners share, but the Western world came to it much later. (Think about how “new” Thoreau’s Walden seemed in its time.) Chinese, Japanese, and Korean landscape paintings are mostly not the antique equivalent of Sierra Club calendar photos, however, because most of their artists weren’t recording the actual appearance of mountains and shorelines. Most of the paintings were created indoors, and first-hand knowledge of the wilderness was not always a prerequisite for a successful painting.
Like much great art, East Asian landscape painting is a means of communicating many levels of meaning in a reasonably compact way. The viewer of a landscape painting can approach it from several directions at once:
- First, one must make sense of the scene. This isn’t always easy, since often much is obscured by bands of clouds or general haziness. Twisting rock forms that “should” read as far-away peaks often seem to be impossibly top heavy, leaning in from above with no discernable base. In figuring out the spatial progression of the scene (or lack thereof), one starts realizing that this isn’t a real place. This isn’t a window onto a landscape but rather a landscape used as a window onto other concerns.
- After one is oriented, one can try to place oneself in the scene, to imagine what it would be like to be there. Artists often provide winding footpaths and little pavilions so the viewer can wander around and settle into parts of the landscape. Having entered it, one can discern the moisture in the air, the loose rubble under foot, the vast distance that lies between shores or mountain peaks. For all the abstraction of a landscape, it should still offer the viewer a familiar feel or experience.
- A knowledgeable viewer might recognize certain features that identify the scene with a specific site (although most paintings represent a fantastic landscape, imagined by the artist) and then remember that that site was mentioned in a celebrated poem. The landscape then brings to mind the emotional content or “lesson” of the poem. The viewer can assess the artist’s presentation of the scene with reference both to the poem and to other paintings that allude to the same verse: does this painting capture the same emotions as the words? Does it add anything to our interpretation of those words? Does it do so differently than other paintings of the same subject?
- Similarly, one might recognize certain features in the landscape that are highly symbolic, for instance gnarled pines (representing longevity) or blossoming plum trees (hope for new beginnings) or bamboo (resilience). This symbolism adds flavor to the overall effect of the painting. Again, some of these elements, singly or in combination, might bring to mind famous passages of literature.
- One might recognize segments of the painting that look like the work of other, well-known artists. If you spend some time looking at Asian painting, you discover that there are literally thousands of ways of applying ink to paper (or silk), and that each way offers different coloristic and textural effects. Certain types of brushwork came to be associated with individual masters and their schools, as did certain compositions and other features. A painting that quotes any of these features becomes a riff on Art History; by referencing earlier paintings it recalls moments in time and well-known artistic personalities. The viewer can weigh the contributions of the painting at hand against those of its predecessors, and the comparison might reveal something new.
So a well-made landscape painting speaks to the knowledgeable viewer on many levels: it offers an imaginary journey as well as a wealth of literary and artistic allusions to bigger issues. What’s interesting to many Western viewers, who were raised to expect landscapes to be picturesque, is that most of these paintings were not designed to elicit an “ooh, pretty” response (although many of these paintings are indeed quite pretty). Instead, an awful lot of East Asian landscape painting inspires emotions that even the most avid tree-hugger would tend to avoid in everyday life: feelings of isolation and discomfort, a sense of one’s own mortality and insignificance. So why go there? Because looking at pretty things usually doesn’t teach us as much about ourselves as looking at disturbing things does. And some of the most complex and fascinating experiences can be found in a combination of disturbing and pretty.
In any case, I invite you to come by the Museum any time before January 2010 to admire a fine selection of Asian landscape paintings in the second floor galleries. I have illustrated a few of them here, but they’re much better (and bigger!) in person.