“Asked why he decided to paint landscapes, Guo Xi answered: “A virtuous man takes delight in landscapes so that in a rustic retreat he may nourish his nature, amid the carefree play of streams and rocks, he may take delight, that he might constantly meet in the country fishermen, woodcutters, and hermits, and see the soaring of cranes and hear the crying of monkeys. The din of the dusty world and the confinement of human habitations are what human nature habitually abhors; on the contrary, haze, mist, and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what the human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find.”
“The angle of totality”
With his innovative techniques for producing multiple perspectives, Guo was aiming for something he called “the angle of totality.” Because a painting is not a window, there is no need to imitate the mechanics of human vision and view a scene from only one spot! Guo is particularly concerned with the effect that distance has on viewing a landscape, and how detachment and nearness can change the appearance of a single object multiple times. This type of visual representation is also called “Floating Perspective”, a technique that displaces the static eye of the viewer and highlights the differences between Chinese and Western modes of spatial representation.
Unlike the aspiration central to Western landscape painting – to paint a particular location from a fixed standpoint, Chinese landscape painting aimed to incorporate the essence of thousands of mountains, the accumulated sights of a lifetime into one composite landscape. Thus, to look upon a landscape painting in the Chinese tradition was to feel connected to the full scope of places and living things.
The relationship between humankind and the mountain being sought in Guo Xi’s painting is one of compatibility, participation, and interconnectedness. According to Guo Xi’s own words, cited by his son in his treatise “The Lofty Message of Forests and Streams”, “The mountain lives only in the act of wandering. The mountain’s form changes with every step. A mountain seen up close has one aspect, and it has another a few miles away, and yet another one from further away. Its shape changes with each step. The front view of a mountain has one view, another view from the side and another from behind. Its appearance changes from every angle, as many times as it does the point of view. So, it is necessary to realize that a mountain combines in itself several thousand shapes.” These comments suggest that the mountain is only conceivable from multiple standpoints, as if one were wandering through it. If we look carefully at the bottom, middle, and top sections of Guo Xi’s painting in this way, we will see an illustration of shifting perspectives, a typical feature in Chinese landscape painting. The bottom three boulders with accompanying trees seem to be viewed as if we are standing above them; the middle register looks as if we are viewing it straight on; and the top portion, the regal summit, seems to be viewed from below. We are constantly adjusting our eyes to take in a fresh point of view. Guo Xi called this exercise “viewing the form of a mountain from each of its faces”. The viewer thus becomes a traveller in the painting, which offers him the experience of moving through space and time.
We are building a modest casita in the hills of old Olmec country near a village that existed before the Spanish came. Cortez came through here apparently, landing near Veracruz, making his way up to these hills – now coffee and goat cheese country – and then further down towards Puebla and Mexico City, the high central area of Mexico. A few hills are rumored to be old pyramids underneath. Neither in the books written by historians nor in the eyes of the living descendants of these Old People is there any evidence one way or another. What did they know, these ancient Olmeca? What have we forgotten? There is much ignorance all around us, always. But also, if we care to look, perhaps more wisdom than we choose to see. Wisdom in how grass grows, how cheese is made, how to build well, fashion furniture, cook a meal… or listen to birdsong.
Note: this might be regarded as a controversial, even provocative, reading but at root this conflict IS a civil war and the perseverence of the woman IS the dominant Judgement of Hexagram 37 so attributing this to Mother Russia is hardly a stretch. This is a family quarrel on the international stage as well so let us hope that when it is over there are better relations for all involved. It seems unlikely now but we shall have to see how things play out. One thing is for sure: the way things were going with Ukraine shelling Donbass on a regular basis and about to actually invade again with US and NATO support cannot reasonably be expected to continue. Russia is putting her foot down. Leaving aside all the wartime propaganda, let us wait and see what the situation is like once the dust of the current conflict settles, hopefully sooner rather than later.
PS The nuclear trigrams were incorrectly placed; they should be Water below Fire above.
PS June 2 2022: on re-reading this it occurred to me that the Image can also be that of a tree or wood burning in a fire because of the Wood Above Fire Below trigram formation of Hexagram #37. A tree relates nicely to the notion of Family, as in family tree. So the family tree is burning in this civil war. In the broader context the family of nations is also at war with each other with some aligned with the US and NATO and others aligned with the emerging Eurasian axis led by Russia and China. And yet all nations are one extended human family and this war in Ukraine is a world wide civil war, the family of nations burning in the crucible of conflict. Hopefully it will purify obstacles and we will end up stronger from it. But war is a desperate measure in which many young lives are prematurely lost. So this is an unsettling image though it does fit the current situation, and I think it is a better Image than the one initially published. So a revision of that might read:
IMAGE: The World Family Tree burning in Cauldron of War.