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Korean J Art Hist > Volume 305; 2020 > Article
Korean Journal of Art History 2020;305:149-170.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.31065/ahak.305.305.202003.005    Published online March 31, 2020.
Debating Wang Meng’s (1308-1385) Undated Handscroll: The Continuous Dialogue between Images and Texts in China
Mina Kim
Assistant Professor, Department of Art & Art History, The University of Alabama
Correspondence:  Mina Kim,
Received: 2 November 2020   • Revised: 17 December 2020   • Accepted: 1 February 2020
Wang Meng (1308-1385) is an artist of great renown, admired as one of the Four Yuan Masters—along with Wu Zhen (1280-1354), Huang Gongwang (1269-1354), and Ni Zan (1301-1374)—and also well known as a grandson of Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) the prominent cultural leader of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). As if proving his reputation, a considerable number of paintings executed with his unique style have stood the test of time wielding strong influence on artists of contemporary and subsequent generations. Since most of Wang’s surviving scrolls are dated to after the 1360s, Retreat at the Foot of Mount Hui, now in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has been widely assumed to be one of his late works. Close examination of the Indianapolis scroll, however, raises a question as to when exactly Wang produced it. First of all, the Retreat scroll, which Wang Meng made as a gift to his friend, displays light and simple brushworks, a style closer to that of Ni Zan than of Wang’s late works that feature a compact composition teeming with writhing strokes, dynamic brushworks, and spontaneous self-expression. The noticeable brushworks in the scroll add to a possibility that it came from the early stage of Wang’s artistic career. Second, a careful analysis of colophons by various Chinese scholars supports a reassessment that Wang Meng created the Retreat in the 1340s. Third, the arrangement of motifs and the brushworks used for drawing trees in the painting combine to show an influence from the Li-Guo tradition of the time, a hoard of artistic idioms inspired from styles of Li Cheng (919-967) and Guo Xi (1020-1090) that has enjoyed its popularity in southeastern China since Zhao Mengfu’s introduction. The Li-Guo tradition prevailed in the 1340s and 50s until giving way to the Dong-Ju tradition (named after Dong Yuan (934-962) and Juran (10th century)) in the late Yuan period; and Wang also produced many paintings in the style of the Dong-Ju in his late years. Last but not the least, Wang Meng’s Retreat, a gift-painting to his friend rather than a self-expressive one, should be considered a medium through which the recipient Meng Shujing (14th century) shared thoughts and impressions with Ni Zan and other scholars of the period. In other words, Wang’s painting illustrates that literati painters of the Yuan dynasty in the 1340s have sought a distinctive style of one’s own to convey his inner-self and also that paintings have facilitated continuous social and cultural communication among the cultured intellectuals. Above all, if my argument—that the Indianapolis handscroll was produced in the early 1340s—gains wide academic approval, the Retreat will be recognized as the oldest Wang Meng’s extant work, dated even earlier than the purported earliest painting from the year 1354. Then Retreat at the Foot of Mount Hui by Wang Meng will hold profound significance as the painting demonstrates his early style, the prevalence of the Li-Guo tradition in the Yuan society, and the socio-cultural dialogues among literati via the visual material.
Key Words: Wang Meng, Retreat at the Foot of Mount Hui, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Yuan dynasty, The Li-Guo Tradition, Empathy, Social Communication, Chinese Landscape Painting
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