ROY LICHTENSTEIN - Landscape with Silver River
“The thing that interested me was the mountains in front of mountains in front of mountains, and huge nature with little people… We all have a vague idea of what Chinese landscape look like—that sense of grandeur the Chinese felt about nature.”
Monumental and serene, Landscape with Silver River elegantly embodies the extraordinary marriage of cross-cultural influences, exacting painterly skill, and, above all, the superlative Pop sensibility that defines the very best of Roy Lichtenstein’s celebrated oeuvre. Executed in 1996, the present work belongs to a powerful series of works inspired by Song dynasty painting, Landscapes in the Chinese Style; painted in the year preceding the artist’s death, this group of paintings represent Lichtenstein’s final series. Simultaneously grand and subtle, bold and sublime, Lichtenstein here uses his signature Pop technique and irreverent sense of humor, both to pay homage to a cultural tradition, and to shed light upon the frequent generalization of Eastern motifs by Western painters for centuries. Describing the unique effect of these works, the artist revealed: “It’s not really what I do—all that subtlety and atmosphere,” the artist said of his series. “In my mind, it’s sort of a pseudo-contemplative or mechanical subtlety.” (the artist quoted in: Exh. Cat., Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, 2013, p. 92) Testifying to the importance of the series, examples from the group are held in such prestigious museum collections as the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Hirshhorn Museum and Scupture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. Acquired directly from the artist’s studio and held in the prestigious private collection of Douglas S. Cramer for over two decades, Landscape with Silver River is an enduring testament to Lichtenstein’s wholly unique ability to engage and form aesthetic conversations with the work of other artists and cultures – rearticulating their significance, their power, and their beauty within his own lexicon of crisp dots, sleek contours, and stunning Pop finesse.
Lichtenstein’s interest in Chinese art began decades earlier when, at the age of just 21 and stationed in London for WWII, the artist wrote home to his parents: “I bought a book on Chinese painting, which I could have gotten in New York half the price. I’ll probably send it home with my collection of African masks, as my duffle bag now weighs more than I do, with all the art supplies.” (the artist cited in: Exh. Cat. ,Hong Kong, Gagosian Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein: Landscapes in the Chinese Style, 2011, p. 7) Later, when Lichtenstein returned to Ohio State University to complete his undergraduate and graduate degrees, he enrolled in classes on East Asian art history.; Lichtenstein describes, “The thing that interested me was the mountains in front of mountains in front of mountains, and huge nature with little people… We all have a vague idea of what Chinese landscape look like—that sense of grandeur the Chinese felt about nature.” (Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, “The Good China,” The New Yorker, September 30, 1996) In the last two years of his life, Lichtenstein twice visited the storerooms of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in order to view their Southern Song album leaves. He was profoundly influenced by such thirteenth century Song artists as Ma Yuan, Liang Kai, and Muqi, all of whom investigated: “the effects of atmosphere with brush and ink in sophisticated and subtle manner, pushing the real and the visible to the edges of abstraction in a way that resonated deeply with Lichtenstein’s own artistic goals.” (Stephen Little, “Landscapes in the Chinese Style,” in: Exh. Cat., Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, 2013, p. 89)
LICHTENSTEIN’S CHINESE LANDSCAPES IN MUSEUM COLLECTIONS
The series can be divided into three categories, each based upon a major format of traditional Chinese painting: the handscroll, hanging scroll, and the album leaf. Album leaves were considerably smaller than most hanging scrolls or handscrolls, and were usually mounted in an album for more intimate viewing. Ironically, album leaf works from the series—such as Landscape with Silver River—are nearly seven feet tall, the floating painted oval acting as a portal to a serene world. The viewer may be a giant beside the miniscule figure in the bottom, placed like an afterthought in that grand space, but the mountains will tower over nearly everyone who stands before them. Lichtenstein plays with the spatial ambiguity that characterized Song painting, using many different sizes of Benday dots to create a beguiling illusion of atmosphere similar to the ancient originals he studied. Smaller, more concentrated dots, which usually indicate distance, float at the base of the mountains, while larger ones form the peaks, to disorienting effect. The artist reveals: “That’s what I’m getting into… It will look like Chinese scroll paintings, but all mechanical.” (the artist cited in: Exh. Cat. ,Hong Kong, Gagosian Galery, Roy Lichtenstein: Landscapes in the Chinese Style, 2011, p. 8) Beneath this range snakes the metallic silver river, which writhes through negative space only to end right at the base of the dotted mountains. Below it, in the very bottom of the oval, are the only hints of Lichtenstein’s signature bold colors: blue, green, a strip of red. Bright blue Benday dots form a surreal sky beneath the silver river. Two Western stereotypes of Chinese art—the crooked bonsai tree and the conical hat on the red-clothed figure—are the only signs of life in this mystical, mechanical landscape. As art historian Stephen Little explained, “despite the artist’s insistence on achieving a purely mechanical version of traditional Chinese landscape and not trying to present a ‘Zen-like salute to the beauty of nature,’ [the series presents] a cosmic vision true to the Song dynasty masters Lichtenstein so admired.” (Ibid., p. 93) Landscape with Silver River is a timeless masterpiece by one of the greatest Pop artists in history, whose understanding of the past helped him create one of the most technically ambitious works of his oeuvre.