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10 / The Natural World

Early Spring
Early Spring
Artist / Origin Guo Xi (Kuo Hsi) (Chinese, ca. 1000–1090)
Region: East Asia
Date 1072
Material Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 62 ¼ in. (158.3 cm.), W: 42 5/8 in. (108.1 cm.)
Location National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
Credit Courtesy of Lee & Lee Communications/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Robert E. Harrist, Jr.Professor of Chinese Art History, Columbia University

Additional Resources

Clunas, Craig. Art in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Foong, Ping. “Guo Xi’s Intimate Landscapes and the Case of Old Trees, Level Distance.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 35 (2000): 87–115.

Harrist, Robert E., Jr. Painting and Private Life in Eleventh-Century China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Hearn, Maxwell K. Cultivated Landscapes: Reflections of Nature in Chinese Painting with Selections from the Collection of Marie-Helene and Guy Weill. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.

Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China, 5th ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.

Thorp, Robert L., and Richard Ellis Vinograd. Chinese Art and Culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Early Spring

» Guo Xi (Kuo Hsi) (Chinese, ca. 1000–1090)

Following the collapse of the Tang dynasty (618–906), many Chinese painters seem to have discovered in nature the permanence and majesty that they found lacking in the civilized world.

Under the succeeding dynasty, the Northern Song (960–1129), monumental landscape paintings flourished. It was during this period that court artist Guo Xi (ca. 1001–1090) produced Early Spring. Atypical for court paintings of the period, the large-scale scroll is both signed and dated by the artist.

According to traditional Chinese philosophy, complementary dualities in the world, such as yin and yang, must be balanced. This view of nature is evident throughout Chinese landscapes, which almost always feature some combination of mountains and water in its various forms (sea, river, mist, fog, etc.). In fact, the Chinese express the concept of landscape with the term shan shui, or, in English, “mountain-water.” Both elements are present in Early Spring. In painting Early Spring, Guo Xi employed the same kinds of brush strokes that calligraphers used to inscribe scrolls. The resultant lines suggest dormant energy swirling beneath the surface of the picture. The natural forces that these lines evoke are maintained in harmonious equilibrium by a composition that carefully balances mountain and water; one could not exist without the other.

Guo Xi has arranged his scene to draw the viewer’s eyes up the mountain, which appears simultaneously ethereal and monumental. The symbolic significance of mountains in China varies depending on the prevailing philosophies and ideologies of any given period. There is, however, one understanding of mountains that seems to cut across periods and even across cultures—the association of mountains with the celestial realm. In China, mountains have often been considered a jumping off point to the heavens. Looking closely at Guo Xi’s work, one finds that as the eye progresses up the mountain, earthly reality is left further behind. While workers and travelers populate the lower regions of the scene, a temple is situated in its heights.

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