Arts of Asia

Untitled, 1576
Hou Mougong (China, active ca. 1569–1604)
Hanging scroll: ink wash and color on paper
50 x 12 3/4 inches
Gift of Class of 1908 1974-5-2

The tension that characterizes Hou Mougong's work distinguishes it from that of his Ming dynasty (1368–1644) contemporaries. Though rendered in precise and intricate detail, this crowded landscape is a realm of fantastical forms and spatial illusions that are reminiscent of earlier works of art. A net of branches created by leafless trees partially obscures the far bank of a waterway. One Western method of depicting distance includes blurring features that are farther away. In this work, the illusion of distance is contradicted by the prominent brushstrokes that define the trees throughout the work. The contours of two of the foreground trees bear clusters of dots meant to indicate bark. Beneath the trees in the lower left corner of the work, the presence of a traveler is accentuated by the pale red of his robe. Whether this figure can find a path permitting him to navigate the unfamiliar space of this landscape is unclear. The middle ground of the work is occupied by discrete and discontinuous architectural structures. The top half of the paper is dominated by hills and distant peaks set against a flat overcast sky that is tinted gray.

The text Hou inscribed at the top of the hanging scroll implies that he saw this very landscape. It reads: "In la, the twelfth lunar month of the year bingzi, I sat while it snowed and sketched at Pine Knoll Inn." Rather than depicting a specific place, however, the scroll is probably an imaginary version of this location. It shows the artist's knowledge of the work of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) and others in his artistic circle, which was centered in Hou's native Jiangsu Province on the east coast of China. The elongated vertical format of the scroll, the composition's strong segmentation, and the distinct parts of the scene piled one on top of each other while being tied to a central axis reveal the influence of these artists. Hou also studied paintings of the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1280–1368) dynasties. The rounded shapes of the landscape are evidence of the influence of Huang Gongwang (1269–1354), while the rock formations in the scroll's middle and upper grounds reveal Hou's familiarity with the work of Wang Meng (ca. 1308–1385).

Text by Heidi Strobel, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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