S een across time and culture, landscape painting is an enduring and flexible tradition that satisfies the human need to feel a sense of place. By observing the atmosphere and elements of nature – such as the mountains, water and the sky – painters from both East and West developed ways to absorb, render and stylise their landscapes. Whether painting villages, rivers, forests or the sun, landscape painters yearned to dramatise their surroundings in order to seek the profound and spiritual undercurrents that lurk in familiar settings.
When Japanese ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) created his monumental series of landscape prints ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji’ (c.1830-1833), he was in his 70s and at the pinnacle of his career. The best known image from Hokusai’s masterful series, which depicts Japan’s tallest volcanic peak from various locations, is Under the Wave off Kanagawa (c.1831-33). It features a remarkable point of view, looking across a massive wave that crests across three fragile boats while also framing the distant snow-capped mountain. The dramatic energy of the cresting wave has influenced many other artists including Pang Jiun (b.1938) whose oil painting The triumph of Spring (2022), seems to barely contain its focal point: a tree bursting with red leaves.
Known for the use of indigo and imported Prussian blue in his landscapes, Hokusai’s art exemplifies the bold yet refined Japanese aesthetic that the French Impressionists admired and borrowed from in the decades that followed. Numerous European artists, including Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Camille Pissarro, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, were influenced by the prints of Hokusai and also by the works of his peers: Suzuki Harunobu, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Utagawa Hiroshige. “These Japanese confirm my belief in our vision,” wrote Pissarro in 1893.
In China, where landscape painting had flourished for more than millennia, Chinese literati painters developed a tradition with ink on paper that some historians have called China’s greatest cultural achievement. In Europe, landscapes emerged gradually, first appearing as settings for civic, religious and mythological narratives. Although scenes of nature – including illuminations, frescos, and oil paintings – did gradually appear during and after the Italian Renaissance, landscape painting in the West did not coalesce into a distinctive and mature genre until the 19th century. As the modern era unfolded, landscape painters in Asia and the West both benefited greatly from the remarkable sharing of styles and methods that took place.
During the first half of the 20th century, a rising generation of Chinese artists were exposed to Western oil painting techniques. Because they had grown up practicing calligraphy and learning traditional ink painting these artists were already adept in the use of brushes. They rapidly adapted to painting in oil which offered a rich palette of slow-drying pigments that could be blended to create subtle effects of form and light. One such artist was Chang Shuhong (1904-94), an instructor of fine arts at the Industrial School of Zhejiang who travelled to France in 1927 to broaden his art education. After studying painting and sculpture in Lyon and in Paris, he returned to China in 1936. His double sided Still Life/Landscape from 1959-61 shows the ease and confidence with which Chang managed oil paint and its subtle tonalities.
In the late 1940s, many important artists made their way to Paris, lured by its great museums and the opportunity to come in contact with leading modern artists. These artists found their art transformed by Paris but also re-discovered and re-affirmed their Chinese cultural roots. Exposure to Western modernism – in both Europe and the US – was central to their development.
Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), today seen as a key figure in the development of modern Chinese painting, travelled to Paris in 1947 to study at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts on a government scholarship. There, he was enthralled by the art in museums and became deeply influenced by the works of van Gogh and Cezanne. After Wu’s return to China in 1950 he taught at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, introducing key aspects of Western art to his many students. Painted 15 years apart, his Wooden-pillar houses of Sichuan (1974) and The Seine River (II) (1989) both demonstrate his interest in the expressive possibilities of local architecture.
Born in Beijing, Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013) learned calligraphy at an early age and then studied at the National School of Fine Arts (now known as China Academy of Art) in Hangzhou under Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), who had been one of the first Chinese artists to study oil painting in Europe. In 1948, Zao moved to Paris where he met and was exposed to the work of leading European modernists. A 1957 trip to the US gave him the opportunity to study American abstract and Pop art. In a 1962 interview Zao stated, “Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China [...].” Painted in 1950, Sans titre depicts a kind of inner world reminiscent of the works of the German painter Paul Klee (1879-1940). Hans Hartung (1904-89), a German-born gestural abstractionist who became a French citizen and a peer of Zao, had a deep interest in Asian calligraphy. Known for his varied techniques Hartung painted T1976-R3 (1976) by blurring his initial brushstrokes with rollers and then using spray paint and a stencil to create a central doorway.
A classmate of Zao at the Academy, Chu Teh-Chun (1920-2014) taught architecture in Nanjing after World War II then moved to Taiwan in 1949 to teach Western style painting. After moving to Paris in 1955, where he lived for the rest of his life, he developed a style of landscape painting that moved towards abstraction. Chu’s No. 144, painted in 1963, has the vertical format of a Chinese landscape scroll, but utilises the fluidity of oil paint to generate an atmosphere of painterly drama. Hsiao Chin (1935-2023), who combined Chinese brushwork with a Western conceptual framework, also found inspiration for his abstractions in nature. His Samandhi-39, painted in 2000 after the death of his daughter, depicts an eternal realm painted to assuage the artist’s grief.
After moving to Taiwan as a 17-year-old, Liu Kuo-Sung (b.1932) studied traditional Chinese ink painting for seven years before moving towards Western techniques. Over the span of his career, Liu was widely credited with reinvigorating and reinventing the ancient tradition of ink painting. The only non-Western painter elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Liu has written extensively about the meaning of tradition in art, the politics of artmaking, and the dynamics of creative freedom. His mixed-media Sun and Moon of 1973-89 depicts a lyrical inner universe that embodies both aesthetic and philosophical ideas. It also demonstrates his interest in abstraction.
Moving with his family to Shanghai at a young age, Chen Yifei (1946-2005) made his name as a leading socialist realist painter, exceeding his training under Soviet artist Konstantin Maximov and developing a style entirely his own. Among the first Chinese artists to establish themselves internationally following China’s period of opening and reform, Chen travelled to the US in 1980 where he earned an MA in Art at Hunter College in New York. Interested in Impressionistic effects, he often depicted the reflections of light, nature and architecture on flowing water. After his return to China in 1990 he painted impressionistic landscapes inspired by his travels in Tibet and of his native Zhejiang Province. In addition to being an artist Chen was also a documentary filmmaker and an entrepreneur who decorated hotels, created fashion brands and even oversaw a modeling agency.
The appreciation of landscapes as interpreted by the perceptive eyes of artists is a universal experience that crosses boundaries. Each of the artists mentioned above played an individual and pivotal role in respecting the traditions of landscape painting while also helping it absorb and adapt new mediums and styles. Like all art, landscape painting has benefited greatly from cultural exchanges based on a deep and abiding respect for the power of art.