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Song dynasty Li Kan (1245-1320)

Bamboo of Peace Through the Year

Bamboo of Peace Through the Year

  • Hanging scroll, ink on silk 
  • 131.4 x 51.1 cm

This painting is of four stalks of bamboo  n monochrome ink. Done as if strokes of seal script, they are tall and straight as they reach up with their rounded and powerful forms. Sprouts appear from the knots, and the leaves create a luxuriant scene. The bamboo leaves  are distinguished using light and dark ink to suggest space, as if enveloped in a light and airy mist that suggests an atmosphere drenched in moisture. The character for bamboo in Chinese is also a homonym for "blessings," which may indicate that the reference to "peace" in this painting's title has auspicious overtones.

In Chinese plant-and-flower painting, the plum blossom, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum are referred to as the "four gentlemen," often used by scholars in painting as a metaphor for peace and harmony. Paintings of plum blossoms and bamboo are especially numerous, and these subjects gradually became popular in the Southern Song dynasty and especially in the Yuan dynasty. In fact, it seems that the bamboo is involved in much of the scholar paintings of the Yuan dynasty. Although the brushwork is relatively simple and easy to learn in painting bamboo, it still required an exceptionally delicate touch that was suited to expression of scholars towards the times. Furthermore, the bamboo in China had always been considered the ultimate symbol of the gentleman's purity, uprightness, and loyalty. Thus, bamboo paintings could be used as a form of self-expression in a calligraphic manner.

Yuan dynasty bamboo painting can be divided into two schools. One still takes bamboo as a subject from nature. Mostly outlined and washed naturalistically, it follows in the Song styles of Huang Quan  and Zhao Chang  and strives towards outward beauty and finesse. The other is a more sketch-like approach, using mostly monochrome ink to render the spirit of the bamboo. Li Kan was one of the most famous bamboo painters of the Yuan dynasty, achieving much of the spirit of Wen Tong and Sushi's bamboo painting. He also once served on an official mission to Yunnan, a province rich in bamboos. There, he researched and observed the bamboos, taking note of their colors, shapes, and manners in his analysis. He also composed two manuals entitled "Painting Bamboo" and "Bamboo in Monochrome Ink." With his unique understanding of bamboos, he became a famous specialist in the sketch approach to this subject.

Li Kan, style name Zhongbin and sobriquet Xizhaishanren, was a native of Jiqiu (modern-day Beijing). In 1312, he served as Minister of Civil Affairs and Grand Academician of the Jixian Hall. For his service to state, he was enfoeffed as Duke of Ji and given the posthumous title Wenjian. In painting ink bamboo, he first studied the style of Wang Tingyun  and later followed that of Wen Tong.

Stalks of bamboo

Stalks of bamboo
Bamboo leaves

Bamboo leaves
Huang Quan

Huang Quan was a famous painter of the Five Dynasties period. In Sichuan, he learned art from Diao Guangyin and Teng Changyu, so his style of bird-and-flower painting differed from that of Hsu Hsi from the south. Huang inherited the tradition of bird-and-flower painting based mainly on outlining, whereas Hsu's works were mostly done in washes of color. Their styles became the two standards of bird-and-flower painting in the Song dynasty. Huang's style was transplanted from Sichuan to the heartland and enjoyed great popularity. It later became identified with the academic tradition of bird-and-flower painting.

Zhao Chang

Zhao Chang, a native of Sichuan, specialized in painting bird-and-flower as well as insects-and-grasses themes. At first, he followed Teng Changyu but later focused on observing motifs directly from life. He thus became known as "Zhao Chang, a sketcher of life."

Wang Tingyun

Wang Tingyun was a literary great of the Jin dynasty. He became a jinshi (Presented Scholar ) under the sinified Jurchens in 1176 and came to serve in a variety of posts, including Compiler of the Hanlin Academy. He specialized in painting landscape as well as bamboos and stones. In calligraphy, his style following that of the Song great Mi Fu was rapid and varied. He was also gifted in prose and poetry.