Celestial Realm: The Yellow Mountains of China

Celestial Realm: The Yellow Mountains of China

by Wang Wusheng, Damian Harper, Seigo Matsuoka
     
 

A lavishly produced volume featuring stunning duotone images of China’s fabled Yellow Mountains by the celebrated photographer Wang Wusheng.

For more than three decades, Wang Wusheng has been captivated by the beauty of Mount Huangshan, also known as the Yellow Mountains. Located in the southern part of the Anhui province in northern China, Mount

Overview

A lavishly produced volume featuring stunning duotone images of China’s fabled Yellow Mountains by the celebrated photographer Wang Wusheng.

For more than three decades, Wang Wusheng has been captivated by the beauty of Mount Huangshan, also known as the Yellow Mountains. Located in the southern part of the Anhui province in northern China, Mount Huangshan has often been described as the world’s most beautiful and enchanting mountain. Over the centuries this mountain with its seventy-two peaks has been the subject of Chinese landscape painters, whose singular works are so haunting it seems impossible that these mountains exist in nature. Inspired by the legacy of these paintings, Wang Wusheng has sought to portray this scenic wonder. As shown in the collection of ninety photographs in this extraordinary volume, here are mist-shrouded, granite peaks emerging from an ever-changing veil of clouds, sculptural craggy rocks on lofty cliffs, and weathered, oddly-shaped pine trees, depicted in all seasons and at various times of day. Wang Wusheng’s images are so exceptional that they look like paintings.

Accompanying the photographs are two fascinating essays about the art history and natural history of the Yellow Mountains. Art historian Wu Hung provides an eloquent, comprehensive survey of the region’s artistic, literary, and photographic tradition, relating how Wang Wusheng’s work is an important part of this notable legacy.

In a second essay, Damian Harper presents an authoritative account of the geology, geography, and natural history of this legendary place. In addition, there is an introduction by the Japanese critic Seigo Matsuoka, who contributes an insightful appraisal of Wang Wusheng’s work.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Celestial Realm:

“A truly sublime photo book.” — Business Week

“Wang Wusheng's breathtaking photographs unlock the secret of traditional Chinese landscape painting.” — Seattle Post-Intelligence

“Each page is a revelation.” — Parabol

“Duotone photographs are the achingly beautiful stuff that dreams are made of. These granite peaks shrouded in mist look like islands in the clouds—at once serene and strikingly dramatic. The result enthralls, with an almost painful yearning thats akin to the numinous.” — Artsforum

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780789208675
Publisher:
Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/15/2005
Pages:
239
Product dimensions:
12.00(w) x 13.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Celestial Realm

The Yellow Mountains of China


By Wang Wusheng, Wu Hung, Damian Harper, Seigo Matsuoka

Abbeville Press

Copyright © 2005 Wang Wusheng
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7892-0867-5


Excerpt from Celestial Realm

Introduction

When I first saw Wang Wusheng’s photographs of the Yellow Mountains, I observed an ancient time and a vision of the future joined in a “photographic sansui” embodying both the traditions of Chinese landscape painting and the sensibilities of contemporary art. There are many photographs of Chinese mountains but I had never encountered images such as these, in which I discovered the “inner sansui” I had long sought.

In East Asia, “landscape” is frequently expressed using a compound of the characters for “mountain” and “water,” pronounced sansui by the Japanese and shanshui by the Chinese. But sansui is not merely a landscape, and certainly not a common landscape. It is a topos of lofty peaks and flowing streams, a scene from nature onto which a higher order of spirituality and deep consciousness can be projected. Sansui is neither simply nature nor a scene soon to be forgotten. The sansui of the East is a landscape that makes you wish you could exchange your own spirituality and consciousness for those of the mountains and rivers. It is an “inner sansui” bathing the depths of the mind and light.

Dogen, one of Japan's foremost medieval Zen priests, wrote in the “Mountain and Water Sutra” (Sansui-kyo) chapter of the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shobogenzo) that “to view sansui is to meet yourself before you were born.” The self before birth is a self beyond time and space. Dogen wrote that this self is a “formless self” no one has ever seen. This yet unformed self is the essence of sansui. A depiction of something beyond time and space whose appearance is yet unformed—this is how Chinese sansui should be seen. As I said before Wang’s photographic sansui, I could feel this acutely.

Expressing sansui through landscape poetry or landscape painting has long been a respected pursuit in China. Perhaps as much as a quarter of Chinese poetry and painting has taken sansui as its subject. Landscape painting, in particular, depicts “the formless before sansui” using ideas and techniques that are unique in world art history.

Pure landscape painting first appeared in European art history with A View of the Danube Near Regensberg and other works by Albrecht Altdorfer in the 1520s. It would be three centuries more before the arrival of the Impressionists, who produced, as had Friedrich and Corot, a diverse variety of landscape paintings. John Ruskin marveled at the fine-grained movement locked away in Turner’s landscapes. These artists merit mention for establishing landscape painting in Europe, but landscape painting had already been well known in China for a millennium. With brush and ink and paper, monochromatic sansui paintings conjured up a sense of the divine concealed in the heart of the landscape.

Ink painting developed bold techniques and employed a point of view completely unlike the single perspective favored by European artists. The san’en technique, for example, featured the simultaneous combination of three perspectives within the same frame: the heien looking out horizontally, the koen gazing upward, and the shin’en peering deeply within. The painter presented three directions while the viewer absorbed the entire picture. In the use of water and ink, too, there were numerous transcendental technical innovations. In particular, the layered use of haboku (broken ink) and hatsuboku (splashed ink) washes allowed for infinite gradations and distinctive blurring. Such techniques led to the depiction of a unique sansui world in which it almost seems possible that the mind’s eye might wander forever.

Naturally, Wang has not employed such methods in creating his photographic sansui. Painting and photography are different processes and employ different techniques. Wang’s camera could hardly make use of san’en or haboku or hatsuboku. Nevertheless, his unique combination of lens, angle, and printing techniques has created a new kind of monochromatic sansui image, one using the camera as the brush, the lens as ink, and employing printing techniques that create the illusion of a new kind of paper.

Actually, the techniques and concepts underlying Chinese monochrome sansui painting differed radically between the North and the South. Painters of the North favored landscapes with precipitous mountain peaks while those of the South had a taste for landscapes with gentler lines. This is not unlike Chinese medicine where acupuncture was favored in the cold northern regions and moxibustion in the milder south. In any case, such divergent tastes remained in place for a long time.

Wang Wusheng’s photographs are not only infused with the spirit of Chinese sansui painting, they are the heirs to the techniques and concepts of both the North and the South. His images represent an extraordinary embodiment of this legacy, and this is what makes his work so astonishing. As I was drawn more and more to Wang’s photographic sansui, I soon realized something else too. Having lived in Japan for two decades, he had adopted the Japanese sansui sensibility.

Broadly speaking, there are two characteristics that define the Japanese sansui sensibility. The first can be seen in dry landscapes like the rock garden at Ryoan-ji Temple. Already well known in the West, such gardens are composed of little more than stones positioned at intervals on a ground of white sand. Called kare-sansui (withered sansui), such rock gardens first appeared between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and can be found all over Japan. These were not created by famous artists, but were the inspiration of the low-level ishidate-so craftsmen responsible for designing gardens. The gardener who created the rock garden at Ryoan-ji, therefore, remains anonymous. Nevertheless, the site presents an innovative concept, introducing an ideology of subtraction by removing water to suggest its presence.

How does one suggest the presence of water in its absence? It is achieved by representing the flow and sounds of water using only stone and sand and plants. In a bold move to foster this result, the water is completely removed. This philosophy of omission is part of the Japanese sansui sensibility, which is why those who seek it sit before rock gardens, straining their eyes and ears.

The second characteristic, which established itself between Hasegawa Tohaku in the Momoyama Period and Ikeno Taiga in the middle Edo Period, is the generous use of empty space, that is, space in which nothing has been drawn. This space is neither a tabula rasa nor a small drawing on an otherwise blank sheet. Empty space is included within the frame for evocative purposes. Say there is a butterfly in a field. To paint such a scene. Tohaku or Taiga might draw a few blades of grass at the bottom of a white frame and a small butterfly in black ink fluttering in the middle of the frame off to the left. There would be no field, sky, clouds, or color. Yet one could still feel a breeze sweeping through the field and even sense the direction the butterfly was heading.

In other words, Japanese artists found empty space even within a landscape and reproduced it in their paintings. They learned to suggest an entire sansui panorama through the depiction of just one part of it, a technique also seen in the haiku of Basho and Buson.

In his photographic sansui, Wang employs such Japanese subtraction and empty space dynamically and stoically. Indeed, he often strikes me as more Japanese than the Japanese.

Wang’s stoicism shows itself in his strategic placement of dark forms, at times centering the frame on forms whose blurring and gradation are overpowered by blackness. His printing methods have the power to transform the history of Chinese and Japanese sansui painting. Not mere shadows, the depth of his blacks represents an eastern void and the silence of time.

I call such a photographic sansui a “sansui of absence” or a “sansui of nothingness.” Here, “absence” and “nothingness” do not mean there is nothing there but that something is born from the void. Absence is presence. In ancient China, the philosophy of Lao-tse and Chuang-tse incorporated the concept of mui shizen (artless nature). There is, they said, an artlessness in nature, and the way to encounter true nature is to face it with a sense of inaction. Wang Wusheng’s work pulses with a Taoist spirit informed by this distinctively Chinese philosophy. How I wish I could share his photographs with Tenshin Okakura, who created the departments of Oriental and Japanese Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Tenshin, after all, was the first Japanese to detect the “imaginative absence” in Asian art.

Wang’s work is also alive with the subtraction and absence so characteristic of Japanese thought and culture. A dark mass of mountains is not dead space but the very soul of the living mountains. The white sky in his photographs is not an empty sky but a sky shown after the passing of a raging storm, now bathed in sunlight. Such photographs are unprecedented—the unique product of Wang Wusheng’s ability to combine the two eastern sensibilities of Chinese and Japanese tradition.

(Continues...)

Excerpted from Celestial Realm by Wang Wusheng, Wu Hung, Damian Harper, Seigo Matsuoka. Copyright © 2005 Wang Wusheng. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Wang Wusheng, born in the province of Anhui, has been photographing the Yellow Mountains since 1974. He has contributed his work to books published in China, Japan, and Austria, and his photographs have been collected in and widely exhibited by museums and galleries, including the Museum of Chinese Art in Peking. He lives in Tokyo.

Wu Hung was educated in China and earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, where he was a professor. He is now a professor of Chinese art history at the University of Chicago and the director of the Center for the Art of East Asia. His books, including Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, have received a number of important awards.

Damian Harper lives in Shanghai and is the author of numerous books, among them National Geographic Traveler’s China.

Seigo Matsuoka, who lives in Tokyo, teaches at Tezukama University. He was the editor-in-chief of YU Magazine and has written many books and articles.

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