May 18

Understanding Chinese ideology, politics and idealism through its Landscape Painting – by Marieke Reichwein

Where does your fascination with Chinese landscape paintings stem from?

It actually took me a long time to even notice the Chinese landscape paintings at all. Although I already had spent years in China, I had never really looked at these paintings. At first they became a metaphor of how little I know, next, this particular genre of painting turned out to be a unlimited resource of information. It became a new entry point for my understanding of China.

You talk of the paintings as a visual story telling of ideology, politics and idealism across the centuries. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?

Being able to ‘read’ a landscape painting is the key to understanding not only the cultural aesthetics but also the power hierarchy in society among others. The language of the Chinese landscape painting includes several concepts that are less known and less applied in Western art. These concepts were for a long time blind spots but become gradually visible when reading the landscapes and put in a context.

Do you think that contemporary paintings are telling a similar story?

The above accounts for contemporary paintings just as well. Landscape painting has been the dominant genre in China over the last 1600 years and it proves to be a rather consistent measurement of the status quo of the Chinese society.

In what way can understanding the paintings help us to understand Chinese culture and history?

Visual art is not limited to telling a story, it also concerns our own ‘ways of seeing’. The Chinese landscape painting invites you to enter the cosmos of the artist, it is an active act of viewing. As said, it is an entry point where you start exploring culture and history.

And the politics?

Most interesting is the political message that is hidden in the landscape paintings. It is part of the exercise to ‘read’ a landscape and to understand the hidden ideology. It is a fascinating paradox of something that is visual but hidden. Very typical for politics 🙂

Do you have a favourite painter?

I very much like Guo Xi, early eleventh century. His paintings are known for rather complex compositions and the introduction of the concept of ‘totality’. This concept has been applied by generations of artists over the centuries in China. His paintings were commissioned by the emperor Shenzongof the Song dynasty, a reformer who worked to improve the living conditions of peasants and the unemployed. Reading the painting in detail reveals a political message and is an interesting reference point for contemporary China.

How do you go about helping people to read Chinese landscapes in light of thousands of years of culture, ideology and politics?

Reading the landscapes can be at first quite confusing or overwhelming. The vocabulary is unusual and the concepts are different. But exactly this new vocabulary and those concepts are to become your new skills to go into the culture, ideology and politics of China. I usually present about five masterpieces which we are going to experience interactively. It is not just viewing, it is exploring and challenging your own existing views.