Updated: Jun 3, 2020
My art history bias tends towards Europe. We all have our areas of interest and that’s mine. But obviously there is a much wider world of creativity to appreciate, so we’re venturing over to 11th century China for a really outstanding ink landscape by Fan Kuan. It’s called Travelers by Streams and Mountains.
If you want a painting to provoke a sense of peaceful escape, it would be hard to find a better example than this one. That’s the feeling I get, anyway. It may not be a real place but I can still imagine myself somewhere like it. Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation fame didn’t care much for landscape art, he said it was “pointless for a human to paint scenes of nature when they can just go outside and stand in it.” Of course I laughed. But I give Fan Kuan credit for making me feel like I’m standing in it when all I’m really doing is looking at a silk scroll.
The scene is panoramic and the painting’s scale contributes to that, it’s almost 7 feet tall. Try looking at it with the rocky foreground at eye level. You look up from those boulders to the lower pool and glance over to the men driving a line of donkeys carrying firewood. Then your eyes go up again, to the outcropping of gnarled trees. Look closely there and you’ll see a temple almost hidden in the forest. You keep going up beyond the mist to the waterfall and then to those imposing mountains. I don’t know if he intended a message by having the human elements completely dwarfed by the natural grandeur. It’s possible; Fan Kuan was so disgruntled with humanity that he lived as a mountain hermit. He enjoyed wine, though, so there’s one human effort he appreciated. Anyway, a full retreat from society is too pessimistic for my taste. But I’ll admit that when so many things in our world seem calculated to make people feel miserable, escape to something more peaceful has its appeal. For now, just get away to art like this. It’s an easy reminder that incredible beauty exists in much greater abundance than the ugly we see.
Or you could always follow Ron Swanson’s advice and go out and stand in the beauty, too. We are just travelers according to the painting’s title, it would be our loss to go so fast that we never see the streams or mountains.