Chinese Landscapes at the Met: If Those Mountains Could Talk

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.

Photo

Daoist robe from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

Credit
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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…

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