IN the collection of the Taipei National Palace Museum, there’s a small, inconspicuous hanging scroll, only 35x44cm in size, but the ink and light color on paper is widely revered as a rare masterpiece of traditional Chinese landscape painting. This is largely because it is said to have been painted by Mi Fu (1051-1107), a dominant figure in China’s art history.
Mi, a renowned calligrapher, painter, scholar and poet of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), was born in Taiyuan in northern China’s Shanxi Province. Later, he moved to Xiangyang, now Xiangfan in central China’s Hubei Province, which is why he’s now also called Mi Xiangyang.
As a boy, Mi demonstrated his precocious talent, especially in the art of calligraphy. Since his mother once served as the wet nurse of Emperor Shenzong (1048-1085), the young Mi was brought up in imperial quarters and often mingled with members of the imperial family.
That explains why Mi later served as Erudite of Painting and Calligraphy and as the second-class secretary of the Ministry of Rites in the Song imperial court though he disdained formal education and often shied away from imperial examinations — the chief channel for people to land a job in officialdom.
But his official career was checkered at best. This was largely because of his extremely eccentric personality.
Historical stories say that Mi was fastidious about cleanness, loved to wear flamboyant dresses of ancient dynasties, often behaved in bizarre manners and superstitiously worshiped rocks and stones.
It is said that Mi routinely worshiped rocks at home and called one of his favorite “my brother.”
He also spent a lot of money to collect ink stones. One day, he was summoned by the emperor to write a couplet in the imperial court, but once he was finished, he couldn’t take his eyes off the ink stone for he liked it so much.
He told the emperor that he accidentally “contaminated” the ink stone, making it unsuitable for the imperial court.
The emperor could tell that Mi simply wanted to have the stone for himself and told him that he could have it. Excited, Mi dashed to hug the ink stone and trotted out of the court with ink dripping from his robe.
The emperor sighed. “That’s why he’s nicknamed Eccentric Mi!” he said.
As a landscapist, he divorced himself from the traditional Chinese method of landscape painting which used mainly outlines, strokes and washes to depict vertical mountains and peaks.
Instead, Mi painted landscapes with numerous little ink dots placed horizontally next to each other. When different shades of ink were used, these dots proved to be very realistic in portraying mist.
This dot-painting technique was later referred to as “Mi’s dots,” by Chinese artists. They remind today’s viewer of the pointillism developed by French impressionist painters Georges Seurat and Paul Signac about 800 years after Mi’s innovation.
Mi also tended to use very moist brushwork to create a feeling of watching a landscape with mountains standing in mist, fog or clouds.
His son, Mi Youren, also a famous calligrapher and landscapist, had continued this style and later people called their landscape painting “Mi Family cloudy mountains,” which influenced many literati painters in following generations.
Mountains and Pines in Spring in the Taipei museum is supposed to be the only surviving painting of Mi, but many suspect it’s also a copy made by an anonymous Song artist. Nevertheless, most art critics and scholars agree that this painting is a paradigm of Mi’s landscape style.
The work depicts an empty thatched pavilion standing alone in front of a few peaks shrouded in mists and clouds. Several hoary pines anchor at the forefront of the left bottom corner.
Composition of the painting is uncomplicated, but the scenery is both serene and elegant. And some art critics have pointed out that the cynosure of this work is neither the mountains nor the trees, but the mist and clouds floating in the middle — the Mi clouds.
So, despite its small size, only a little larger than a piece of A3 paper, and dubious origin, this painting will continue to be treasured as a great masterpiece in traditional Chinese painting simply because of its seemingly authentic dots and clouds.
Mountains and Pines in Spring
Artist: Mi Fu
Year: Song Dynasty (960-1279)
Type: Ink and color on paper
Dimensions: 35 cm × 44 cm
Location: National Palace Museum in Taipei