I t has been written that ‘to obtain an authentic work by Xiao is akin to unearthing a rare treasure.’ Sotheby’s is therefore honoured to be offering Refuge Among the Green Mountains, a 17th-century masterpiece by the Chinese painter Xiao Yuncong in its autumn auctions. It is a work extraordinary in both its beauty and its historical importance; painted in 1649, at a time of dynastic transformation, shortly after the fall of the Ming dynasty.
As a young man Xiao Yuncong (1596-1673) had studied to become a scholar-official, joining the literary and philosophical movement Fushe (Revival Society), which sought to restore ancient standards in learning, morality and public life. However, with the dawn of Qing rule, and following decades of conflict, Xiao distanced himself from the new Qing bureaucracy. Mired in disappointment and having witnessed the tumult of dynastic change, his paintings offered an outlet for his sorrow.
Refuge Among the Green Mountains is a tour de force in the revered Classical Chinese format of the handscroll. Thus, it gives the viewer the intimate, revelatory experience of unfurling its eight-metre length by hand. Handscrolls also contain colophons, texts written by the artist or added by the scroll’s custodians as it passed through the generations. It is from the abundant information in the colophons that we can further understand Xiao’s state of mind and his artistic intentions. Readers can sense the desperation and sorrow of his life, which he poured into each brush stroke of the painting. It carries the Ming loyalist sentiment:
‘In troubled times, you can neither join the crowd nor play the zither in seclusion; it is best to wander and bury yourself in painting the green mountains.’
At the same time in Europe, the finest landscape painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Jacob van Ruisdael, was expressing his own poetic melancholy through works that would establish the landscape as an independent genre in the Western tradition. By contrast, his Eastern contemporary Xiao was building on a landscape tradition that had developed since the Tang dynasty (618-907) and was already recognised as among the highest forms of artistic expression. Although the format of the painting may differ, in both van Ruisdael and Xiao, these idealised vistas are as much an expression of the artists’ soul – their inner lives - as they are of the power and beauty of nature.
Refuge Among the Green Mountains depicts the diversity of the natural landscape, encompassing piles of extraordinary rocks, waterfalls tumbling from cliffs, and boundless curls of cloud and mist. It is an imaginary landscape, cultivated from the artist’s observations as a traveller and the inspiration of the ancient masters.
The mountains and stones are painted with a dry brush, after which Xiao would add pale ink washes. A painter of consummate skill, his uniquely harmonious style shows influence of Yuan-dynasty master Huang Gongwang alongside the artist’s own keen observations of nature. Scenes from daily life unfurl across the landscape; sailboats sit upon the deep canal, separated by a ridge where a sole bamboo raft drifts on the shallow water amidst caves. Against the backdrop of the mountain forests, travellers take the road by sedan chair, or float on a bamboo raft down the river. This serene landscape captures a haven for an ordinary and secluded life. From the artist’s colophon, we understand that perhaps this vision represents his ideal world.
Towards the end of the scroll there is a large body of mist and cloud, which lingers until the scene is only faintly discernible as if extending an invitation into a distant fairyland, set apart far from the chaotic world. For Ming loyalists, the end of the dynasty and the destructive upheavals of war cast a sense of desperation. Thus, this masterpiece by Xiao Yuncong serves as an invitation into an ideal world, a spiritual refuge from the chaos.