To Lawren Harris, from Wang Hui

Nerke, Greenland, by Lawren Harris
Nerke, Greenland, by Lawren Harris (1930)

It sold for nearly $2.1 million dollars, that little oil painting shown above. Only 12 by 15 inches, the work came to the art world’s attention a few months ago, when a Vancouver woman decided to have her collection appraised. The painting by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris had been given to the woman’s father, commercial artist Gordon Davies, by Harris himself in the 1930s, and it had remained in the family for more than seventy years. Interestingly, the piece itself is merely a sketch for the painting “Greenland Mountains”, which was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1936, mislabeled, and subsequently turned into a 1967 stamp celebrating the Canadian landscape. The Danes must have been very proud.

One of the things I like about Harris’s landscape work — and indeed about the landscapes of a number of the Group of Seven, as well as Emily Carr’s — are the sinuous and rounded forms he used to define the shapes of mountains and glaciers, a look that he applied equally to the silhouetted evergreens and softly curving clouds that appear so often in his works. But while the Group of Seven’s visual style and subject matter marked a definitive, and deliberately nationalistic, break with the Europeanism of previous Canadian art, what struck me recently about their style is how reminiscent it is of the monumental landscape art of China’s early Qing Dynasty.

Clearing after Snow at Shanyin, by Wang Hui (1671)
Clearing after Snow at Shanyin, by Wang Hui (1671)

Note the pines on the right side of Wang Hui’s “Clearing after Snow at Shanyin” (above), which in their languid looks might have been transplanted from a landscape by Harris, while the rocky and barren hills surrounding the trees on either side show the same kind of roundedness, conveyed in a ripple-like effect by strong dark lines and shaded contours, as do the mountains in works by both Harris and fellow Group of Seven painter Franklin Carmichael. In fact, if it wasn’t for the little bridge depicted at the bottom of the painting and the huts nestled in the hill on the right — human elements which give a sense both of immense scale and of a harmonious natural order — one could be forgiven for thinking of this as an experimental piece of Canadiana.

Quite the opposite of a radical break from the past, Wang Hui’s art — now being shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in a special exhibition entitled “Landscapes Clear and Radiant: The Art of Wang Hui (1632-1717)” — was in effect the crescendo in a symphony of Chinese traditionalist landscape painting that adorned the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the painter’s stated aim being to synthesize the differing styles of previous dynasties: “I must use the brush and ink of the Yuan to move the peaks and valleys of the Song, and infuse them with the breath-resonance of the Tang. I will then have a work of the Great Synthesis.”

Ah yes, those peaks and valleys again.

In the natural world, rounded mountains are merely signs of an ancient geology. The lozenge-shaped mountains of the Huangshan, for example, were formed 100 million years ago in the Mesozoic, while the Alps (which include the iconic and sharp-edged Matterhorn) are no more than half that age. So in this sense, you paint rounded mountains if you happen to be looking at rounded mountains.

Solitary Temple, by Li Cheng
Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks, by Li Cheng (c. 950)

But the roundedness of the mountains is not as important as the way that roundedness is conveyed. Wang Hui’s mountains are rendered partly by colour and light, and partly — even dominantly — by line. And they’re rendered simply, with a focus on the essential structure of each mountain. There’s a history to this. The scholar-officials who became the landscape artists of the Song Dynasty, and whom Wang Hui set out to emulate and improve upon, were deeply inspired by the discipline of calligraphy, and thus eschewed colour to focus on the power of black brush strokes to convey both the spirit and the look of trees, rocks, and mountains. Tenth-century painter Li Cheng, whose work “Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks” appears to the left, was particularly representative of this style, and was considered the greatest landscape painter of his age. Extending and improving upon this tradition, Dong Qichang, who taught Wang Hui’s teacher Wang Shimin, saw landscape painting as a form of calligraphic abstraction: “If one considers the uniqueness of scenery, then a painting is not the equal of real landscape; but if one considers the wonderful excellence of brush and ink, then landscape can never equal painting.”

All of this raises the interesting question of whether there’s a path of influence that leads, however tentatively, from Wang Hui (or even, just as plausibly, from Li Cheng) to Lawren Harris and Franklin Carmichael.

Let’s start with Japan. Chinese art was long a major influence on Japanese art, and despite the fact that during most of the Edo period (1615-1868) the country attempted to isolate itself from foreign contact, enough trade was allowed with China through the port of Nagasaki to enable Chinese “literati” culture to have an impact.

The Japanese response to what they saw from China was a style of painting known as bunjin-ga (“literati painting”, appropriately enough). Though derived from the elite tradition of Chinese scholar-officials working in self-imposed exile to create artworks reflective of a more perfect natural order, bunjin-ga was adopted by Japanese artists from all walks of life, and rapidly became a popular category of painting. Stylistic innovation flourished for nearly two hundred years until the mid-nineteenth century, when the emergence of a conservative counter-movement returned the genre to its Chinese roots.

Untitled, by Nakabayashi Chikuto (1830)
Untitled, by Nakabayashi Chikuto (1830)

The paintings of Nakabayashi Chikuto (1776-1853) are an excellent example of this return to basics. Chikuto, an art theorist as well as an artist, believed that Japanese bunjin-ga had lost its way, and that for artists the close study of the Chinese masters was essential to the eventual development of an authentic and individual style. In the painting on the right, we can see a landscape that is highly reminiscent of Wang Hui or Li Cheng, although Chikuto’s brushwork is more sensitive to gentle contours and shading than is Hui’s.

Of the same generation of artists was Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who was Japan’s leading expert on Chinese painting. His career began as a carver of the wood-cut images of courtesans and Kabuki actors traditional to the style of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”, i.e. urban Japan), but upon the death of his teacher he began to study French and Dutch art, as well as older Japanese and Chinese styles, and to paint landscapes rather than portraits. His greatest works included the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, among which “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” is the most famous (see below).

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai (ca.1830-32)

Ando Hiroshige, a contemporary, studied both ukiyo-e and bunjin-ga, and deeply influenced by Hokusai, he began to create woodblock prints of landscapes — although in contrast to the Chinese tradition of monumentalism, Hiroshige’s landscapes were more human-scale, focused on travellers’ stops along famous routes. His works were known for their striking colours and use of gradients, and the combination of these attributes led to pictures like “The Lake at Hakone” (below), which used the smoothest of gradients, from light to dark blue, to depict the surface of the lake, and sharply contrasting colours separated by clean black lines to evoke the rocks and shadows of the mountains.

The Lake at Hakone, Ando Hiroshige (1834)
The Lake at Hakone, Ando Hiroshige (1834)

Both Hokusai and Hiroshige were immensely influential as the dominant painters in the ukiyo-e style that would prove so popular, so swiftly, in late nineteenth-century Europe. Hiroshige’s works were copied by Vincent Van Gogh, who loved his rich colours and flat design, and both French Impressionism (in particular through Edouard Manet and Paul Gauguin) and Russian neo-Romanticism imbibed his aesthetics. Hokusai, meanwhile, was collected by Claude Monet (the Japanese painter’s work was prominent among the 231 woodblocks that Monet owned), and his influence was felt by both Impressionist Edgar Degas and post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

This wave of influence — which was in fact an art collecting frenzy in its earliest incarnation — was termed Japonisme, and it would touch not just individual artists but entire movements: Art Nouveau’s organic forms, strong colours, and flat perspective had parents in both William Morris and ukiyo-e. And as it happens, it was this same zestful and eclectic mix of movements that most influenced the Group of Seven. Many of the group’s members, in fact, experimented with Impressionistic styles in their early years, but as A.Y. Jackson observed, Impressionism “was too involved a technique to express the movement and complex character of our northern wild”, so on they moved to the bolder colours and simplified forms of post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau.

Even further, perhaps. “The distinctiveness of Canadian landscape painting in this century comes in part from the assimilation of Fauvism-cum-Impressionism to Anglo-Saxon temperaments and northern subjects,” wrote Clement Greenberg in a 1963 issue of Canadian Art, being perhaps deliberately provocative in his equating of the Group’s striking but still accurately-tinted landscapes with the garish, no-holds-barred colour displays of Henri Matisse.

A final and perhaps most immediate influence was the Scandinavian landscape painting of artists like Gustav Fjestad and Hârâld Sohlberg. Such artists had left behind the theatrically-lit and overwhelming visual power of the mountains and glaciers depicted by mid-nineteenth-century artists of the sublime, as well as the gentle-themed but precisely accurate realism of the plein air artists that followed, in favour of strong colours and an emphasis on structure (those mountains again) — a shift that, while taking on a distinct Scandanavian theme, was not unconnected to the broader trends in European art at the time.

I do not know whether there is a more direct link between East Asian art and the Group of Seven, or whether the similarities that both bodies of work bear to each other are reflective more of a highly indirect process of inheritance. Certainly the members of the Group believed that they were breaking new ground, and that, as Lawren Harris put it, “[they] influenced each other far more than they were influenced by other sources.” Nonetheless, the similarities between a Hiroshige or a Wang Hui landscape and one of Franklin Carmichael’s are too striking to ignore. The odds that this is simply a case of convergent evolution — of strictly independent processes stumbling onto a similar combination of solutions to a common technical challenge — are tiny. Though it crosses rivers and valleys and connects with a myriad of tracks and roads along the way, there does really seem to be a path that leads from the Qing Dynasty to the Group of Seven. And it’s a beautiful journey, too.

Bay of Islands, by Franklin Carmichael (1931)
Bay of Islands, by Franklin Carmichael (1931)

7 thoughts on “To Lawren Harris, from Wang Hui

  1. I am a student of Chinese Brush Painting who found this message very interesting. I am not familiar with the Group of Seven but am anxious to learn more. I found this post by way of Robert Genn’s The Painter’s Keys. Thank you.

  2. This is some really valuable information. It’s really great to see that you are still writing great articles after all this time. {Where did you learn so much about this stuff? Got sucked into your article for almost the last hour.

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