From Picturesque to Provocative, Images of China's Majestic Mountains

Details from two photographs in the China Institute's exhibition, "Art of the Mountain: Through the Chinese Photographer's Lens." Left: Minyak Gangkar in the Last Light of the Sun, 2003, by Zhang Anlu. Right: One Mountain, 2010, by Lu Yanpeng.

Apr. 01, 2018

Much of China’s terrain is rough and mountainous, and for more than a millennium artists have been inspired by its majestic and spiritually revered beauty. Not surprisingly, that rugged, soaring landscape is no less an allure for contemporary Chinese photographers. “Art of the Mountain: Through the Chinese Photographer's Lens,” on exhibit through Dec. 2 at the China Institute, is a skillful presentation of imagery that spans a broad aesthetic spectrum.

Exhibited in three parts, the show moves from conventional yet exquisite scenic views to the stylized work of Wang Wusheng, who over many years photographed Mount Huang in a high-contrast style of his own. Clouds and mist swirl like cotton amid rocky and tree-topped terrain, often backlit and rendered void of detail. It is meant to recall, Wang Wusheng writes in the show’s catalogue, the Chinese “spirit of ink painting,” for which he imbues much meaning.

“More than forty years ago, when I first saw the sea of clouds at Mount Huang, I was so impressed that my soul was deeply shaken. This initial impact was strong enough to affect the rest of my life, because it had poured into me a mountain, for which I was ready to sacrifice all I had in my life to express this ‘sacred mountain’ using photography as a medium.”

The show’s third and most powerful section includes the works of a dozen artists whose landscapes are meant as statements about the incursion of humankind on the environment. This work is seen as following the ancient tradition of Chinese literati painting, a kind of interpretation of nature rather than a visual replication of it. Indeed, many of the photographers in this section make their statements through the manipulation of images in Photoshop or the darkroom.

One of those photos, Travelers Among Streams and Mountains, by Yang Yongliang, is a composite image that depicts a multitude of high-rise buildings on the side of a cliff, which from a distance appear not to be structures at all but part of the rock. Co-curator Willow Weilan Hai writes that the photo, a recreation of a famous thousand-year-old scroll painting, is meant for the viewer to look more closely and ask, “Is this what we have really come to? Is this what we will be left with, a tradition of sacred mountain imagery but no real mountains."

Below are some examples of work in the show, with commentary.

Huangshan: Flower Blooming on a Magic Brush Tip, 2001, by Zhang Jiaxuan

The artist notes in the catalogue that on the right side of the picture a small pine tree stands on the pinacle of a peak. Just once, after many visits, he recalls, the rain had stopped and clouds curled around the mountains. "Call it a brush or a flower," he said, referring to the pine, "the Magic Brush seemed truly something from a dream at that moment."


Huangshan A104, 1984, by Wang Wusheng

Wang Wusheng writes that the the greatness of the Dao, or natural order in Chinese tradition, lies in its simplicity. He views the blackened, detail-less tonality of his photographs of Mount Huang as an attempt "to reduce the multifariousness of things in nature into something simpler…because multifariousness makes us feel lost. If one can see through the multitudes and vicissitudes of things to reach the essence of truth of the matter, everything will be simple and clear. This is my art; this is my life."  

View of Autumn Mountains in the Distance, 2008, by Yao Lu

The artist makes a contemporary environmental statement in what he calls "the traditional format of Chinese painting," and notes that "China is contantly developing, and in the course of development, many things are created but a lot has been lost."


Return to Mountains No. 2, 2010, by Yan Changjiang and Xiao Xuan'an

In this series, the photographers placed taxidermied specimens in sparcely vegetated landscapes. In his lecture on the work, the critic and co-curator Jiang Rong said the artists are "trying to create work which at first you will think about the beauty of these images and then when you have a closer look at it, it will force you to think about what is going on both in China and elsewhere, what we as human beings have done to Mother Nature." He added: "One day, maybe, we will be like this animal and we will not be able to return to our home."


Peach Blossom Colony, 2011, by Yang Yongliang

In this composite photograph, the artist references the ancient legend of a fisherman who lives among peach blossoms in a beautiful and remote place. The story was emblematic of what Yongliang calls an "embittered attitude [by scholars] toward society and their longing for a life of seclusion." In his photo a character returns to a scene that, like Changjiang and Xuan'an's above and Yongliang's Travelers Among Streams and Mountains, seems at a distance to be a harmonious one. Yet up close, notes the artist, "every detail is filled with metaphoric machinery and elements of civilization."