And quite a scene it is. Cliffs soar skyward; torrents stream down. This is a nature as a theater of big, dwarfing effects. And it’s charged with a weird, creaturely energy. Trees claw the air like dragons. The rock the pavilion rests on looks like some giant pachyderm. The world isn’t just alive here; it’s sentient, reactive. The men on the terrace appear unperturbed, but surely inwardly, like us, they’re thrilled.
Hanging scrolls deliver their basic image fast — pow! — then leave you to sort out details. A second form of landscape painting, the hand scroll, operates on a different dynamic. When viewed as intended, slowly unrolled on a tabletop, one section at a time, it’s a cinematic experience, about anticipation, suspense, what’s coming next.
There’s a classic 15th-century example in the show’s opening gallery called “The Four Seasons,” by an unidentified artist. If “Viewing a Waterfall From a Mountain Pavilion” is a dramatic ascent, “The Four Seasons” is a cross-country hike. Over its horizontal length of almost 36 feet it takes you countless miles and through a full year. At the Met, it’s displayed unrolled, so you get the idea of a panorama right away. But the real pleasures lie in walking the walk.
The journey starts from the far right. It’s spring, and sights come fast — a tiny waterfall, budding trees, a curl of smoke. Then you see summer workers hauling a boat by a whisker-fine rope. Mountains loom, contoured like muscles; they’re worth a pause. Then openness. Sky, sky, sky, until its whiteness shades into autumn mist, which shades into what may be an iced-over lake. Winter: scratchy trees; hunkered-down houses; lamps in windows. And all the way to left, at the scroll’s edge, a bridge ends mid-arch, leading where? Back to…