Mountains and Streams
Chinese Paintings from the Asian Collection
Kim Hoa TRAM
Pine with cranes dancing in the snow, dance in motion 2000
ink and pigments on paper
137.1 x 69.2 cm (image and sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through the NGV Foundation with the assistance of The Marjory and Alexander Lynch Endowment, Governors, 2001
2001.586
© Kim Hoa Tram

The wise find pleasure in water
The virtuous find pleasure in mountains.'

The Analects of Confucious (c. 6th-5th century B.C.)

This exhibition draws upon material from the National Gallery of Victoria’s important collection of Asian art, in particular Chinese paintings. It includes objects from the 14th to the 21st century such as landscapes or `mountains and streams’ depicted in paintings on scrolls and on porcelains, Daoist (Taoist) mountain in jade carving, cosmic mountain in archaic bronze as well as black-and-white photographs of sacred mountains in China. It also includes so-called `dream stones’ (marble plaques evocative of misty mountains).

Landscape (shanshui, literally `Mountain and Water’) was first depicted for its own sake in the 4th and 5th centuries, stimulated by Daoist attitudes and ideas. The practice of seeking out places of scenic beauty, of `communing with nature’, first became popular among Daoist poets and painters. One of these painters, Zong Bing (375-443) relates how he re-experiences his former travels as he painted from memory:

    `And so by living in leisure
    By nourishing the spirit
    By cleansing the wine-glass
    By playing the lute
    And by contemplating in silence
    Before taking up the brush to paint
    Although remaining seated
    I travel to the four corners of the world…’


From the 11th century onwards, landscape became the most important aspect of Chinese painting.  The function of landscape painting was to serve as a substitute for nature, allowing the viewer to wander in imagination within the landscape. The court academy painter Guo Xi of the 11th century wrote, `Contemplation of such pictures arouses corresponding feelings in the breast; it is as if one had really come to these places…without leaving the room, at once, he finds himself among the streams and ravines.’

Nature was regarded as a spiritual refuge from the mundane everyday life:

    '…To tranquilize one’s mind is to nourish one’s spirit;
    To nourish the spirit is to return to Nature.'

    (a Taoist poem)

In the exhibition, there are examples of landscapes depicting scholars wandering within the landscape, followed by his servant carrying a lute, scholars listening to a waterfall in autumn or playing a flute in solitude. We also show examples of black-and-white photographs of Mount Hua in Shaanxi province, one of the five sacred mountains in China. These spiritual images were taken by the Hedda Morrison, an Australian, in the 1930s in China.

In the 11th century, the tradition of scholar-amateur painting began to dominate Chinese art until the early twentieth century. Scholar-officials who were versed in philosophy, poetry, music and calligraphy took on painting as a pastime. They were not trained in the techniques of representation. But they had mastered the techniques of the brush and ink in the art of calligraphy, tools that are also used in Chinese painting. Like calligraphy, poetry and music, painting became for the scholar a vehicle of self-expression and creativity.

Landscape painting (shanshui, mountain and water) was regarded as creation of the mind with cosmic significance. The scholar Mi Fu (1051-1107) once said `…Landscape painting is a creation of the mind and is intrinsically superior art’.

By becoming one with nature, one creates as nature does. In the words of Daoji (1642–1708) who is represented in the exhibition, `Mountains and streams emerge from me. And I, from mountains and streams.’ The inner landscapes by scholar-amateur artists represented in the exhibition are devoid of human figures and human presence is only suggested. The spiritual refuge of mountains and streams are found within, where the scholars find solace.


13 Apr 200610 Sep 2006 NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road
Asian Art Domestic Ware, Level 1, NGVI
Asian Art Domestic Ware, Level 1, NGVI