Notes on the Art of Looking in Chinese Painting
Xia Yong (mid-14th C.), Palace of the Prince Teng, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Xia Yong’s Place of the Prince Teng, painted with the finest brushstrokes of the fourteenth century, is perhaps the most iconic representations of the legendary seventh-century pavilion, Tengwang ge 滕王閣. Yet besides its breathtaking details, which are crafted with the precisions of a Swiss watch, a viewer may find himself intrigued by the approaching boat on the left side of the composition. The perspective simply does not add up: the pavilion is executed with such spatial accuracy that it dupes our eyes see a vantage point recessing into the far right, but all efforts are immediately defied by the boat, which with its diagonal position, suggests a totally opposite perspective, thus throwing the spatial arrangement of the painting into dissonance. What is going on with this visual confusion? Are we to assume that Xia Yong, despite his virtuosic skills, did not understand the concept of a unified viewpoint?
Xia Yong’s challenge to the viewer’s eyes, however, reveals one of the most interesting characteristics of the Chinese painting tradition: the artful manipulation of viewpoints. A great example of this beloved visual trick is found in Qiao Zhongchang's (c.1100-1150) Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff. In visually narrating Su Shi's (1037-1101) famous prose about a scholarly outing, Qiao’s painting took a dramatic shift of perspective when Su climbs up to a hill and gazes into a valley. By lifting the viewer’s gaze and placing it vertically against the torrents inside the valley, Qiao fused our viewpoint with that of Su Shi so that we could re-experience his gaze down into the abstruse valley from the top of the hill. In doing so, Qiao’s painting demonstrates the fluidity of viewpoints in the Chinese painting tradition: they need not be fixed to one, but can be added or changed freely to navigate the viewer’s gaze inside the painted space.
Detail of scholarly gathering in Qiao Zhongchang’s Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. The viewer is positioned to look at the scene horizontally.
Detail of Qiao’s Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff. Note how the viewer’s eyes are lifted up to look into the valley vertically.
The boat in Xia Yong’s Place of the Prince Teng plays on the same idea, although perhaps with yet another layer of sophistication. In Xia’s painting, we are in fact looking at the boat through the eyes of the courtiers looking out from the pavilion’s terrace. This is why we are actually able to see the top of the diagonally positioned boat, because we are seeing it from above the boat.
Detail of the boat and the looker in Xia Yong’s Palace of the Prince Teng.
Looking out from the terrace of the Palace of the Prince Teng to the boats on the river. Photo taken in July, 2016 by the author.
Perhaps Xia was really up in the pavilion and painted the boat as he saw it, but this is something that we will never know. What we know, though, is that Xia painted the Palace with two distinct viewpoints, one looking at the pavilion from a distance, and one at the boat from above inside the terrace, so that in his painting we may appreciate the view of the pavilion as well as the view from inside the pavilion. And this is part of the fun in looking at Chinese paintings from this period.
Overlooking the Charles River, Cambridge, MA.
October 22nd, 2016