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Discourses of Visual Learning in Yuan Painting: The Case of Luo Zhichuan's 'Snowy River'

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 42, 2012
pp. 375-405 | 10.1353/sys.2013.0003

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A painting by the reclusive Jiangxi master Luo Zhichuan 羅稚川 (c. 1265-c. 1330s), dating to the half century following Khubilai Khan's conquest of the south in 1276-79, entitled Snowy River 《雪江圖》 and mounted as a hanging scroll in the Tokyo National Museum collection, is a stark and desolate vision of a small landscape (Fig. 1). It is a beautiful yet also disturbing painting which defies our expectations about what an early Yuan 'cold forest' 寒林 (hanlin ) painting in the Li Cheng-Guo Xi 李成郭熙 mode should be. These discordant characteristics make it all the more rewarding of study today as we look back on the painting of the Song-Jin-Yuan period with fresh eyes in the era of a global field of Chinese art.

This work comes to our attention now as it was one of the loans from Japan to the 2010 Qiannian danqing 《千年丹青》 (Masterpieces of Ancient Chinese Paintings) exhibition at the Shanghai Museum, which situated the painting among works by Luo Zhichuan's Yuan peers in China for the first time in centuries. The present study on the painting started out as a contribution to the Shanghai Museum's publication about the exhibition, a volume of essays by art historians from East Asia, North America and Europe. In the revised article which follows below, the aim has been to reconstruct—with the aid of the exhibition list and other Yuan paintings—the visual discourse of which Luo Zhichuan and his painting practice were part, particularly with regard to the idea of rival sources of visual learning.


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Fig. 1. 

Luo Zhichuan, Snowy River . Hanging scroll; ink and colours on silk, 52 × 77 cm. Tokyo National Museum.

In the earlier essay, written primarily for the museum-going audience in China, I reflected on some of the issues that hold our interest in the global discipline of art history today, including artistic innovation, the artist's self and society, and the nature of the artwork as an agent of some kind of social change or stasis. We recognise that the visual culture of a given period is something not necessarily agreed upon by the diverse participants in that culture. Nor are the formations of culture, which so often lie beyond the familiar order of language, always easy to describe and quantify. The role of the painting historian is to provide, at the outset, an informed and sympathetic interpretation of visual forms. To understand how a particular work of art realised an innovation it is also important to discover how that innovation rippled through society and politics, and to try to discover commonalities and/or differences with the artist's contemporaries. The interpretation of form in painting today thus goes far beyond the traditional connoisseur's work of deciding if an artwork is 'right' or 'wrong', genuine or fake, and can involve exploring the many shades of grey between black and white, as well as travelling down 'blind alleys' or discovering 'blind spots' in our vision.

In sum, the reader was alerted to how the role of the art historian only begins with identifying and citing relevant texts such as inscriptions, colophons, catalogue records and biographies, and then moves on, toward close attention to and informed engagement in the visual experience of pictorial form as a site of artistic transformation. If not for this emphasis on form and vision, there would be no difference between the two disciplines, history of art and history. In disciplinary terms, this represents a shift from the study of the history of art to the study of visual culture.

The present article sets out to construe the formal language of Luo Zhichuan's Snowy River in terms of the artist's visual learning, based on observations of the natural world, and in contrast with better-known antiquarian learning practices associated with contemporaries such as the pivotal figure of Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 (1253-1322). In the argument of this essay, Luo Zhichuan's painting practice was based on a distinctive, yet undervalued brand of visual learning which we need to recognise if we are to achieve a more nuanced understanding of Yuan painting.

What we understand by this term, visual learning, which is an element...



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