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Subject:This painting is for your consideration
Posted By: Jim Robertson Mon, Sep 27, 2021 IP: 2600:387:8:11::66

Interpreted title: “A Lost World Coming”

Artist and seal: Unknown; signature un-translated; might find again under matting or back of scroll

Painted: 1982

Patronage given by: Mr. Sibo Han and family

Type: An abstract Three Gorges landscape; watercolor scroll; ink on rice paper

Mounting: Hardboard with matting; behind glass; mounted and framed long prior to 2005

Size: Mounting is 32 by 22 inches; framing is 34 by 24 inches

I have viewed this painting for sixteen years and have often wondered why such a beautiful, peaceful imagery should be subjected to the visual brutality of a butcher’s cleaver; a guillotine blade looming over tranquility. I did not understand why such an obscenely disturbing and gravity defying slab of mountainside, should be included at the very top center of such beauty and peace. This has caused me to often fantasize dismounting the scroll and having that blade of rock removed, artistically.

But, it has come to me that the blade of rock is intentional, not an artistic mistake. It is now clear to me, and it makes total sense; that the obviously jagged vertical line of fracture, separating the rock blade from the rest of the mountainside, is a key and intentional feature. The artist knows the distant rock is ready to fall and that the eventual landslide, into the gorge below, will bring gravitational balance to the image along this fracture line; but in doing so, it will also bring an end to the peace and harmony of the river gorge imagery in the foreground. This realization, the scroll’s 1982 time frame, and my memories of China from the 1970s-1990s; have allowed me to see that this is a very slick imagery of protest and warning. I now see the blade of rock as a visual metaphor of the then proposed, Three Gorges Dam; tilted on its side, high in the distance, ready to fall into-place downstream. A threat from the future, that in 1982 China loomed over the heads of millions of Chinese who opposed it. The many thousands of people, who lived in these placid valleys and gorges of the Yangtze River and tributaries, knew that they would lose their rich lands, homes, and communities by being displaced and dispersed to lesser places. Students, scientist, and many government officials, were also opposed to the loss of what was then considered China’s largest, most beautiful, and best preserved wilderness (preserved for future dam construction). They were also opposed to the anticipated social, cultural, and historical losses, and the ecological damages; to come.

The painting is prophecy; an inner vision of a world to be lost by way of a potentiality resolving into an objective reality. This artist, like thousands of others, used at great risk; whatever tools or skills they had, to convince the people in the valleys that they could control their own fate; that they would have the dam or have their land and homes, but not both. I am sure this artist was one of the many students opposed to not only the dam, but also to the government’s quenching of the growing fires of democracy. The fact that the artist gifted the painting to his teacher, XiangXin Li, suggests the artist was the student of a master, mentor, or was a university student, and that this is likely one of his or her earlier efforts. During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the government escalated its oppression of those who opposed the Three Gorges Dam Project and that escalated into violent riots. The protesters where labeled the stooges of external forces opposing the Party and China’s future advancements; much the same as the protesters in modern day Hong Kong are now being labeled. They were hunted-down, rooted-out, and subjected to varying degrees of punishment ranging from social censorship, loss of careers, reeducation, property confiscation and destruction, imprisonment, and even death. The imagery and meaning of this work both accepts the reality of what will likely come while simultaneously opposing it. The artist and its patron must truly have known that they were very close to the edge of the government’s drawn line of intolerance and yet they were clever enough, at first, not to step over it. But, I have found no additional seal stamped works of this artist despite the fact the artist was mastering the skills of landscape art at an early age, and thus must have had many other works. The artist’s style and techniques approaches those of Song Wenzhi who’s many images of The Three Gorges sometimes openly supported the dam and are well known around the world today. However, I feel this artist did eventually step over that line and this painting is most likely its only work to survive.

As a young student, and having gotten away with this cleaver protest in the early ‘80s, it is probable that; as the opposition to the dam intensified, along with the government’s intensification of its opposition to that opposition, so most likely did the intensity of this artist’s work. The patron Han family, XiangXin Li, or someone else, must have gotten this one earlier painted scroll out of China. But, something happened to the artist and his or her other works. They have disappeared from history. Causing things and people to disappear is something at which the Chinese government is expert. Remember that lone man defying the tanks, and the statue of the Spirit of Liberty; the final act of creation by the students before the shooting started. That deed of defiance, the work of art, and the Massacre, are all actively being deleted from the internal, collective, Chinese memory as if they never existed. The opposition to the Three Gorges Dam was the forerunner and seeding force to the pro-democracy movement that led to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. If this artist’s works continued to protest the dam, cleverness would have come to no avail. There then is a high probability that this artist, and his or her works, were made to disappear from history along with the many thousands of other dam and pro-democracy protesters, and their works and deeds. These disappearances continued throughout the late ‘80s and during the lead-up to, during, and followed the massacre and crackdown in June of 1989, into the mid ‘90s. In 1992, the Chinese government gave its final approvals for the dam’s construction. This artist may or may not have lived to know that the blade of rock, painted a decade earlier, had begun its decent.

Today, the prophecy is fulfilled. They endeavored, but failed at defying fate and the gravity of the state. The students and protesters did not stop the dam or rekindle the fires of democracy. Now the light-keepers home, in the foreground of the painting, is on a small body of land in a large placid lake that now drowns my visions of tranquility, beneath its cold waters. I hope that this, perhaps only surviving work of this artist, never comes into the reach of any who would remove it too, from history.

Subject:Re: This painting is for your consideration
Posted By: rat Wed, Sep 29, 2021

Thank you for posting this, a refreshing focus on interpreting an artwork as opposed to the incessant requests for translations that I. Nagy fields so well.

I have no information that challenges your evaluation of the painting, but would also point out that we don't actually know what the artist's intention was at the time he painted. Sometimes artists make choices to heighten mood or generate compositional effects that are not driven solely by their political views.

There's a Song painting in the Nelson Atkins Gallery attributed to Li Cheng that does something similar but also different:

If you look from the bottom of the painting into it, you will notice that key rock faces are dramatically and unnaturally up-tilted--first upward to the right, and then upward to the left (with the little hamlet/restaurant in between). And there are also framing rock faces at the painting's sides. But note the stabilizing impact of the central Buddhist temple beyond those two diagonally opposed rock planes. If you can imagine the image without that temple's presence, it changes radically into a wild unkempt scene.

Subject:Re: This painting is for your consideration
Posted By: I.Nagy Fri, Oct 01, 2021

Upper seal,
葉 - Yè - Surname of painter
Lower seal,
柱□ - Zhù□  -  Given name (I can't decipher the second character in the given name - if you could post a sharp picture only of the inscription and colophon, I might be able to decipher the full name of the artist)

With regards,

Subject:Re: This painting is for your consideration
Posted By: manuD Tue, Oct 05, 2021

Rocks defying gravity are not uncommon in Chinese paintings. Here is one by Tang Yin (1470-1523). This of course does not invalidate your interpretation of your painting. Chinese paintings are most of the time the vision of an inner world, not a faithful image of reality. | Associations | Articles | Exhibitions | Galleries |