Ways of Seeing – Poetry and Painting

View this object on our collections website.
Object Types: Painting
Time Needed: 90 minutes
Contributed by: Lesley Younge, Middle School Teacher, Whittle School and Studios, Washington, DC

Objective

Students will analyze and interpret works of art according to events, places, cultures, and historical periods. They will evaluate how social, cultural, and historical context contribute meaning in works of art and examine narratives in artwork and poetry.

Essential Questions

  • How does one read a traditional Chinese scroll? What elements does a scroll contain?
  • What are important features of Chinese landscape paintings?
  • How are historical narratives recorded and passed on to future generations?
  • How might poetry and art help us “see” the world in a new way?

Background

For centuries Chinese painting had three major formats: hand scrolls, hanging scrolls, and album leaves. A hand scroll is a continuous roll of paper or silk bearing passages of calligraphy and painting. It is opened, or unrolled, only when someone wants to view it. One would unroll it from right to left on a table and pause to appreciate it, one section at a time. Important hand scrolls are stored in special boxes and are carefully unrolled one portion at a time for viewing by only a few people. Looking at the poetry, painting, and calligraphy on a scroll is like reading chapters in a book. A Chinese hand scroll is “read” from right to left, the same way classical Chinese writing is read. One multitalented artist could work on a hand scroll alone, or several artists could collaborate, with one person painting the landscape scene, another composing the poetry, and a third writing in beautiful calligraphy.

Journey to Shu is one of several paintings that depict scenes from the famous love story of the emperor Ming Huang (685–762) and his concubine Yang Guifei. It is traditionally attributed to the artist Qiu Ying (ca. 1494–1552). The painting depicts four groups of travelers negotiating a mountainous track. Starting from the right, several women riders, each wearing a piece of red clothing, emerge from the mountains, accompanied by several men in front and at the rear. Proceeding left from the bridge, traveling merchants rest among trees. One of their horses rolls happily in the grass. The third group of travelers appear exhausted from the journey. Feeling concerned, the man riding in front looks back at his companions. At left, the fourth group is making their way up the mountain path, which leads to hanging roadways off dangerous cliffs. All figures, horses, and camels are vividly depicted. Trees and flowers are blooming, suggesting it is springtime. Tall, steep green and blue mountains dominate the scene with white clouds floating near the peak.

The composition of this painting is carefully designed so that whenever viewers open a section of the scroll, they encounter a group of travelers amongst high peaks of mountains. A postscript appears in the colophon at the end of the scroll and cites a poem on the hardship of the road to Shu. This serves as a commentary on the image. The painting also has seals from a few collectors and viewers that convey pride of ownership. These common elements of a hand scroll work together to make this painting, or any ancient Chinese painting, a documentary history that connects past and present.

Painted in lavish colors of blue, green, and brownish-yellow, this painting is a typical “blue-and-green” landscape, a style originated during the Tang dynasty (618–907) when trade between China and regions further west flourished. Mineral blue and green pigments were among the western goods that entered China along trade routes. Blue-and-green landscape painting thus became possible and popular during that time. This style was often employed in later periods—the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) in this case—to evoke an era of peace and prosperity.

The current painting is modeled on a well-known landscape Emperor Ming Huang’s Journey to Shu from the collection of National Palace Museum in Taipei. It was traditionally believed to represent the flight of Emperor Ming Huang to Shu (Sichuan) in summer 756 during the rebellion led by An Lushan. However, its composition differs from its model in many ways, including the addition of an entire section of landscape and the conflict of season. It may be best if we simply appreciate the painting as a depiction of springtime travelers.

Vocabulary

An Lushan (703–757): Chinese general and leader of a rebellion that began in 755, unsuccessfully attempting to overthrow Tang dynasty ruler Xuanzong and declare himself an emperor.

Chang'an: capital of the Tang empire, modern-day Xi’an (Shaanxi province).

colophon: in Chinese, tiba; an inscription written on an additional piece of silk or paper that is attached to the scroll after the image. Colophons can include a poem, an essay, or words of appreciation for the artist or painting.

frontispiece: in Chinese, yinshou; a piece of silk or paper that is attached to the beginning of the hand scroll and consists of characters with the name of the painting or poetic phrase.

Ming Huang: Emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712–756).

Shu: a region in southwest China, modern-day Sichuan province.

Yang Guifei (719–756): literally, “Imperial Consort Yang”; beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty.

Procedure

  1. Allow students to view the artwork closely. Use the Discussion Questions to guide them through a close and slow looking exercise.
  2. Have students read the story “Emperor Ming Huang’s Flight from Xi’an.”
  3. Have students revisit the painting. Now that they know the story that inspired this painting, what more do they notice? What new thoughts are inspired? What new questions are raised?
  4. Tell students that the story of Ming Huang was recorded in poetry as well. A portion of one famous poem appears at the end of the story. Often poems appear on scroll paintings. They give context and add to the scholarly nature of the artwork.
  5. Assign students the task of writing a poem that could accompany Journey to Shu, and offer more context about why Ming Huang was fleeing.
  6. Have students use the Poetry Brainstorming sheet to capture ideas from the story and the painting that they will incorporate into their own poem.
  7. Once they have brainstormed enough ideas, they can draft, revise, and edit their final poem.

Discussion Questions

Describe

Begin at the right side of the painting. Form and composition are very important in Chinese painting. Color is used carefully and intentionally.

  • What shapes and forms do you see?
  • How are they arranged? What stands out? What is hard to see? What is small? What is large?
  • How would you describe the colors that are used?

Brush strokes are very important in Chinese landscape painting.

  • Where do you see evidence of brush strokes?
  • How would you describe them?
  • What do you imagine the brushes looked like?
 Analyze
  • How do the artist’s choices about lines, forms, composition, and color communicate tone? What mood or feelings do you perceive?
  • Are there any figures? What do they look like? What are they doing?
  • What do you imagine they are saying? What conversations might we hear if we could step into this painting?
  • What seems to be happening?
Interpret
  • It was important for the artist to infuse the painting with movement and life. Where do you see evidence of movement and life? How was it achieved?
  • What do you think was the artist’s motivation for creating this painting?
  • What do you think was the artist’s process for creating this painting?
Inquire
  • Why do you think scrolls were a popular format for these types of paintings?
  • What do you think would have been the most challenging part of making this painting?
  • The journey to Shu was described as difficult. What looks difficult about the journey to you?
  • Have you ever taken a difficult journey? What was it like?

Extensions

Visual Arts
  • Create a painting depicting a journey using a limited selection of colors in a horizontal format, similar to a Chinese scroll painting.
  • Research the landscape painting tradition in China and compare it to European landscape painting traditions. For example, while some Chinese landscape painters used blue and green, atmospheric perspective in European Renaissance painting was a technique in which changes in color (largely blue, green, and brown) were used to show distance.
English Language Arts
  • Read out loud or perform the poem you wrote about the painting Journey to Shu. Choose to act out part of the poem or add music to help convey the meaning.
Social Studies
  • The painting Journey to Shu was created during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) but depicts events that supposedly took place during the Tang dynasty (618–907). Compare China during these two dynasties in terms of their rulers, technology, and territorial borders.
  • Research how Chinese artists have depicted stories from the distant past. Why do you think it was important to artists and rulers during the Ming dynasty to depict stories and events from centuries earlier? What role did history play at the Chinese court?

Resources

“How to Read Chinese Scrolls,” Educator Resource on Chinese Scrolls from the Freer and Sackler Galleries. https://asia.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/chinese-scroll-lesson.pdf

Tang dynasty painting Emperor Ming Huang’s Journey to Shu, National Palace Museum (Taipei). http://painting.npm.gov.tw/getCollectionImage.aspx?ImageId=474005&r=55593749214

Video about Emperor Ming Huang’s Journey to Shu, National Palace Museum (Taipei). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1gzW0B7ROY

“What is Atmospheric Perspective?” Smarthistory. Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/approaches-to-art-history/the-language-of-art-history/v/what-is-atmospheric-perspective

Giles, Herbert Allen. A History of Chinese Literature. London: W. Heinemann, 1901. Pp. 169–175. https://archive.org/details/historyofchinese00gileiala/page/168

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700–1900. Edited by Zhang Hongxing. London: V & A Publishing, 2013. Pp. 19–22, 53–63.