Old Trees, Level Distance, Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), ca. 1080
Guo Xi (Chinese, ca. 1000–ca. 1090)
Handscroll; ink and color on silk; 13 3/4 x 41 1/4 in. (34.9 x 104.8 cm)
Gift of John M. Crawford Jr., in honor of Douglas Dillon, 1981 (1981.276)
Guo Xi was the preeminent landscape painter of the late eleventh century. Although he continued the Li Cheng (919–967) idiom of "crab-claw" trees and "devil-face" rocks, Guo Xi's innovative brushwork and use of ink are rich, almost extravagant, in contrast to the earlier master's severe, spare style.
Old Trees, Level Distance compares closely in brushwork and forms to Early Spring, Guo Xi's masterpiece dated 1072 (National Palace Museum, Taipei). In both paintings, landscape forms simultaneously emerge from and recede into a dense moisture-laden atmosphere: rocks and distant mountains are suggested by outlines, texture strokes, and ink washes that run into one another to create an impression of wet blurry surfaces. Guo Xi describes his technique in his painting treatise Linquan gaozhi (Lofty Ambitions in Forests and Streams): "After the outlines are made clear by dark ink strokes, use ink wash mixed with blue to retrace these outlines repeatedly so that, even if the ink outlines are clear, they appear always as if they had just come out of the mist and dew."
This intimately scaled painting is a late work done for a fellow government official on the eve of his retirement. The opening section sets the mood. Two fishermen in their boats and travelers moving toward the distant mountains are harbingers of an imminent journey into retirement and the final stage of life that waits at the end of the road. The leafless trees and deepening mist impart a forlorn, autumnal air to the scene. The second half of the scroll narrows the focus. A diagonal embankment draws the eye leftward to a bridge, where two elderly figures make their way toward a pavilion. Their stooped forms are echoed by two craggy foreground trees that seem connected at the root. The pavilion may represent one of the kiosks built on the outskirts of the capital where colleagues might gather to bid farewell to a departing friend. Several attendants have gone ahead with food baskets and a zither to prepare a simple meal. Given the advanced age of the two gentlemen, it is likely that this meeting will be their last. The intense emotions of the moment are subtly conveyed by the landscape.