When looking at Chinese paintings, one might sooner or later stumble over inscriptions such as “Painted in the style of…”. This may be confusing for people who have not yet been exposed to Chinese art. In Western art traditions, it is not desirable to copy another painter’s style. In Asian art, however, copying the style of a former master is not only a way to train oneself in various painting techniques and compositions, but also a sign of respect towards the achievements of earlier artists.
Liang Kai (c. 1140 – c. 1210), also known as “Madman Liang”, was born in Dongping, Shandong province, and is one of the most famous painters of the Song Dynasty. There is not many information about his life, but it is known that he studied painting with fellow painter Jai Shigu and was ranked Painter-in-Attendance at the Imperial Painting Academy in Hangzhou, where he was awarded the Golden Girdle, an honorable distinction. For reasons unknown, he quit the Academy to study Chan Buddhism. His works are simple, yet powerful paintings, which are thoroughly connected to the principles of Chan Buddhism – spontaneity, individuality and immediacy.
A Brief Biography of Mu Xi (牧溪/Mu Hsi/Muqi/Fachang)
Not many information about Mu Xi exists, although it is commonly accepted that he was born in the Sichuan province around 1200 and later lived near the capital Hangzhou. We don’t know anything about his family, childhood or education, except that he was probably tutored by Liang Kai and the abbot Wuzhun Shifan. Mu Xi was a Chan Buddhist monk and lived in the Liutong Temple at the West Lake beginning from 1215. The monastery was without any doubt a place for Japanese pilgrims who came to China to study Chan Buddhism and came into contact with Mu Xi’s works.
When Ma Yuan was born in Qiantang (today’s Hangzhou in the Zhejiang province) around the middle of the 12th century, he could look back on a long family history. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father all had served as painters in attendance to the Song emperors, and he himself, as well as his own son Ma Lin, would pursue this tradition.
Just as his contemporary Ma Yuan, Xia Gui had an honorable reputation during his lifetime. There is basically no information about his life; neither where he was born, nor how he was educated, but one can assume that he lived in the capital Hangzhou and served as an official under Emperor Ninzong (宁宗; 1168–1224) in the Imperial Painting Academy. In the middle of the 12th century, landscape painters went away from big-scaled, highly complex pictures and produced smaller, more intimate works. Xia Gui belonged to those Southern Song Dynasty painters who were responsible for a new method of depicting landscapes. Nature was not an accumulation of analyzable structures anymore, but a visual experience which should evoke emotions inside the viewer. Xia Gui’s works show a strong influence from painter Li Tang, a painter from the 11th century, who was famous among the Southern Song painters and often copied. Just as Li Tang before, Xia’s strength laid in the depiction of nature scenes. Most of his surviving works are album leaves, in which he freed the composition of unnecessary elements and simplified the difficult structures.