A Landscape of the Mind

“The wild flowers dance when brushed by my sleeves. 

Reclusive birds make no sound as they shun the presence of people.”

– Emperor Ningzong, Song Dynasty

Ma Yuan, Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring, ca. 1160-1225




A man, dressed in scholarly robes, walks on a narrow path, gazing upward at the sky. He advances into undefined space, into open emptiness. Behind him sprouts a gnarly tree whose branches surround and dwarf the curious adventurer. As he moves forward, a delicate bird flees even farther into the unknown, pulling the man further down the path.

In the distance, heavy mountains are hidden by an invisible fog, their weightless outlines traced by the graceful, wispy branches of the willow tree. There is movement in stillness, richness in emptiness, lightness in weight.

All elements of the painting seem to focus on the beautiful characters of Song Dynasty Emperor Ningzong’s poem, featured in the upper right corner, describing the man’s sudden disruption of a peaceful, reclusive wilderness. At the same time, the man’s upturned face and forward movement suggests that he is completely engrossed in nature,

Ma Yuan makes extensive use of negative space, leaving whole areas of paper blank for us to fill in. Yet he also leaves many subtle hints that help us create a solid image in our minds. Light wrinkles of ink suggest a large sea lapping the edges of the path, while shadows and uncertain outlines create a misty atmosphere like the break of dawn. Even the color of the paper plays a major role in this painting, as the yellow background makes the ink stand out and offers a playground for shadows to dance, while referencing the sun’s yellow rays in the airy openness of the dawn. Most importantly, this openness allows our imagination to fill in the blanks, so that we too can share in the scholar’s peaceful, enchanting exploration of nature.

Section of Xu Daoning’s Fishing in a Mountain Stream

Painted in ink on a horizontal scroll, this landscape could be unrolled slowly to reveal the scene piece by piece, heightening its sense of movement and progression. This was an important feature of most Chinese scroll paintings, like Xu Daoning’s Fishing in a Mountain Stream and Xu Daoning’s Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, which could be viewed by ceremoniously opening the scroll, allowing us to meditate on the progressive discovery of a landscape.

We can thus experience the painting just like the scholar lives in the landscape, moving forward into a world that only we can see, discovering and learning from everything around us. At the same time, our very presence disrupts the balance of each vision we encounter, just as the man’s movement startles the birds around him and makes the flowers dance in the wind.

Fan Kuan, Travelers Among Mountains and Streams

We will inevitably disrupt nature to some extent, but we can also learn a great deal from it and find inspiration in the wild, just as  the scholar was inspired to wander among nature, the painter was inspired to capture this moment, the Emperor was inspired to write a poem, and I was inspired to write this blog post. How does this painting inspire you?


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