The Mountain Series by Kuo Chih-Hung
Written by Chen Kuang-yi
PhD in History of Contemporary Art at University Paris X – Nanterre
Associate Professor in the Department of Fine Arts at National Taiwan University of Arts
Kuo Chih-Hung, the artist born in 1982, has spent his recent years in the spectacular The Mountain Series, where the landscapes approach us with their overwhelming presence, like surging waves or the invincible army. The size extends especially in length, and the number of the paintings in the series increases to dozens. The mountain scenes seem to repeat themselves, but they somehow dazzle the eyes with surprising and ever-changing transformations. When viewers stand still in front of the mountain scene, they will soon be absorbed by it without noticing how, like an immersive experience that words can hardly describe. Although we have no idea which mountain Kuo is painting about, the realistic feeling that we are in the real mountain emerges immediately to validate the charm of a landscape.
However, mountains are such an overexploited subject. The mountain scenery is indeed a landscape, and who needs to be reminded of that fact that landscape painting, which can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, is the oldest subject in art history? In the East, the Chinese landscape painting reached its first stage of maturity in the Tang Dynasty – a list of well-known artists began from here. In the West, even in the Seventeenth Century when history painting was the most favored genre, landscape painting still won the hearts of the majority of artists. In the Mid-nineteenth Century, one third of the walls in les salons de Paris, the capital of arts, were occupied by landscape paintings. Like a steady and lasting pier against the rapidly changing currents of modern art, landscape painting still maintains its dominance in contemporary art where multiplicity and hybridity are celebrated. No one can deny the unparalleled charm of landscape painting, but what else can Kuo’s mountains bring to landscape painting? What can we expect if it is not a cliché?
“The Study of Landscape” and “To Study Landscape”
Let us begin with the titles. Kuo names his 2017 series “Study of Landscape,” from “Study of Landscape-1” to “Study of Landscape-46.” It seems to him that all his paintings are studies of landscape, while they are also meant to study landscape.
If we define the term “study” as shown in the title as a“ drawing” or “research sketch” in preparation for a finished piece, these paintings can be well categorized as “the studies of landscape,” especially when a large number of them are pencil or charcoal drawings. To render a landscape, all painters have to take it in, to realize it, and to transform it into paintings. Therefore, the process from taking-in to realizing is a journey of continuous research. Even the most random stroke is a carefully managed choice, like how Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) quotes the painter Emile Bernard (1868-1941)’s words to describe the moment of hesitation Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) always took before his every stroke that “each stroke must ‘contain the air, the light, the object, the composition, the character, the outline, and the style.’ Expressing what exists is an endless task.” However, what Bernard means by “the air, the light, the object, the composition, the character, the outline, and the style” is not to suggest the elements existing in the landscape but those forming the landscape -- the deciding factors to revisualize the scenes, or we should say, a painter’s materials and skills, that through continuous practice painters thus establish the so-called “style.”
Therefore, the “studies,” from number 1 to 46, can be considered Kuo’s statement as a painter or the demonstration of his professional skills: for example, his perfect command of oil paint, which is sometimes heavy and thick, sometimes light and clear, sometimes stagnate, sometimes fluent, sometimes dried and hard, sometimes moist and soft, sometimes crystalized in layers, and sometimes flowing down with gravity. Another example is the rich nuance of his dark tones, ranging from the suffocating tarry black, the wind-like ethereal grey, to the water blue or pink orange which is so pale that it is almost unnoticeable. However, paint could have not created such an effect if without the media. We see how he abandons the coarse-grained canvas and replaces it with the processed smooth paper, and as a result, the colors appear to be brighter, richer, and lighter. Although these fascinating purple, reddish-brown, emerald, or drab can hardly be found elsewhere, they are never aggressive: the brushwork as soft as young grass, the traces like the touch of clouds, or the ridge-like façade bring these colors to life, making them energetic but yet moderate. The contours and strokes visualize the mountain peaks, mountain walls, valleys, clouds, lakes, reflections, old trees, dried braches, birds, stems and leaves. The intact and delicate color planes reflect the mountain rocks and stone fragments, while the wild, strong, and vigorous lines symbolize trees’ twisted roots. Flat coloring, line drawing, sketch, and the various speeds of the strokes suggest the overlapped illusion and reality in time and space, where the distant and the near, the tiny and the grand are juxtaposed, and the long horizontal scrolls challenge viewers’ perspective. Moreover, what Kuo demonstrates in his 46 paintings is not merely a methodological approach to study the landscape, but also reveals the process of his studies: his composition is either loose or condensed, rational or passionate, while the large area of liubai (the intentional empty space in traditional ink-wash painting) emphasizes a sense of incompleteness, placing the works between a sketch of transformative possibilities and the finished work which is stable, assured, and well-settled.
Perhaps we can say that Kuo’s continuous and extensive research helps his “style” to emerge, as how Henri Focillon (1881-1943) puts it that “a style is a coherent combination of united forms by a mutual convenience, submissive to an inner logic that organizes them.” The combination as an entity is organic and variable, which makes the “style” a “living being.” Its “life” either comes from a dialectical or experimental process. No matter it is the former or the later, it is always about “the point of the highest convenience of the parties.” The reason why Kuo’s paintings are so intriguing is because of the visual attraction originating from such a perfect harmony embodied by the forms. However, in The Mountain Series, Kuo not only works on the studies of landscape but also attempts to “study the landscape.”
Why do we need to study the landscape? In the West, the term “landscape” first appeared in the Sixteenth Century, when the contemporary aesthetics aroused the public’s interest in vues d’ensemble and vues particulières, be it natural or artificial. Generally speaking, the aesthetic interest was a response to the social changes taking place in the Western world. The result was a change of spatial perspective and could be related to the modernization of the whole Europe, including the modern sense of “state” or “national identity,” urban planning, transportation infrastructure projects, industrialization, and the development of entertainment activities. The empires’ large-scale exploitation in their colonies also aroused the upper class’s interest in landscape. In fact, according to W. J. T. Mitchell (1942- ), landscape is a product of modernism and a metaphor of the rise of capitalism.
Augustin Berque (1942- ) also points out that the French term “paysage” not only just means the landscape itself but also the landscape painting -- in other words, the human environment and its representation. The double meanings deserve our attention. How the painting confuses the object and the representation of the object proves that the meaning of “paysage” is decided by the image rather than its own being. The pure paysage, landscape painting, first appeared in the Seventeenth-Century Holland, if we follow Tuan Yi-Fu’s definition that “Landscape painting is an arrangement of natural and manmade features in rough perspective; it organizes natural elements so that they provide an appropriate setting for human activity.” The paysage here is to revisualize the idealized human environment. However, in Mitchell’s opinion, landscape painting is more like a consequence of culture – a way of thinking as well as the action beyond the frame of times being materialized within a specific space. The landscape indicates the power play from generation to generation throughout the history. As a medium of expressions, it is also a tool of cultural power. Meanwhile, the landscape is a representation, a calling for its occupants or observers to enter a relationship between an individual and a space. When the landscape becomes a landscape painting, it is full of cultural symbols, like a communicational channel combining various symbolic shapes, while the symbols are employed or modified to express particular values or meanings. To conclude, in spite of its simple definition, the idea of landscape/ paysage is complex and extensive. How we represent or interpret the landscape is far more important than the landscape itself.
A clever contemporary painter like Kuo definitely knows that to study landscape is a never-ending mission for painters, and it is beyond time and space. We can thus summon with every possible cultural reference to interpret his mountains: from the fantasy, the fear, the respect humans feel for the mountains, the pride to conquer them, reach the mountaintop, the tourism benefitted from them, human’s overexploitation of them, to the Internet overloaded with images of mountains. Undoubtedly, the way Kuo studies the landscape is to begin with a chosen category, mountain scene for example, and he continues to study the vocabulary of the mountains so that its significance will be simultaneously renewed following its representation. In other words, if we consider landscape a cultural metaphor, to study landscape is thus to provide the possibilities of contemporary landscape painting by observing and experiencing the “contemporary landscape.”
In fact, Kuo started to paint landscape way before 2017. He has been doing it for a long time, be it the landscape or the mountains. He painted the Alps in 2012 and Mount Jade (yushan) in 2016, but gradually, the mountains in his paintings have become unidentifiable – “the mountain” as how he puts it.
Before we continue, we have to make it clear that landscape painting is not a realistic copy of Nature as how people usually understand it. It is not necessary for them to capture the Nature surroundings the painters or what the painters witness. In fact, humans are always surrounded by things, objects, or creatures that “we have never created,” like trees, flowers, grass, waters, mountains, rocks, clouds, mist, and animals, while we also feel them with our senses and get to know them with our hearts. According to Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), for centuries, the environment has inspired our curiosity and created a sense of awe: “we have recreated them in our imaginations to reflect our moods.” Unlike our usual understanding, landscape painting seems to have nothing to do with the representation of nature, and it is often very different from the real scenery. Leonardo da Vinci's first major work is a landscape drawing of la Vallée de l’Arno, a river passing through Florence. Dated 1475, it was probably the first paysage in the history of Western art. The painter seemed to look down the valley from somewhere high, and the river in the painting is winding through the cliffs, where a fortress stands at a prominent spot. The background is the distant fields which almost extend to the end of the world. However, the historian Daniel Arasse (1944-2003) has assured us that there is no such a place around Arno. Additionally, Leonardo marks some perspective lines in the area where the background fields meet the horizon. As the most outstanding pupil from the Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488)’s studio, Leonardo’s knowledge in perspective should not be questioned, but here he just randomly sketches some grids or lines in apparent disunity, which is against the principle of one-point perspective. Meanwhile, the contrasting rushing stream and still cliff spotlights Leonardo’s interest in the dynamics of Nature. Leonardo created this drawing just for himself, and it was finalized inside his studio. It is for sure that Leonardo’s intention is to depict “the concept of landscape rather than the realistic landscape.” Similar examples can be found in Leonardo’s Val di Chiana (1504) and his later sketches, where a map-like bird view is often adopted to “realize” the landscape rather than to “render” it.
When it comes to mountains, the first connection we make is probably Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire series: in the final chapter of his life, Paul Cézanne lived in seclusion in Aix-en-Provence. From 1885 through his death in 1906, he has completed at least 80 landscape paintings as if it were his life-long dedication. His explanation to a young fellow Joachim Gasquet (1879-1821) sheds some light on us:
The great classical lands – our Provence, Greece, and Italy such as I imagine them – are those where clarity is spiritualized, where a landscape is a floating smile of a sharp intelligence… look at Mont Sainte-Victoire. It is so unrestrained, with such a strong and outrageous eagerness for the sunlight. When it gets to the night time, all the burdens are released, creating a sense of sadness…these rocks are made of fire, and there is still fire inside. Both the shadow and the sunlight seem to be afraid of them, so they step back, shivering. When the thick and heavy cloud comes, the shadow fallen on the rocks is shivering too as it were burned and vaporized by the fire… for a long while, I have not known how to my move my brush to paint Mont Sainte-Victoire.
The story helps us to understand that Mont Sainte-Victoire was more than a mountain to Cézanne. It was the spiritualized landscape. When the painter again and again returned to Mont Sainte-Victoire alone to paint from life, he finally came to a realization as mentioned in a letter to Emile Bernard (1868-1941) in 1905 that “time and thinking gradually change the way we see, and now it is the age of comprehension.” Therefore, the repetitive “study” is to free us from the limits of visuality and to “realize” it intellectually.
The biggest difference between Kuo and Paul Cézann is that there is no mountain in front of Kuo. To paint from life is not his thing. From the very beginning, he has decided to transcend the idea of presence as well as the visuality at scene, investigating how he can realize the mountains without painting from life. Indeed, he has collected a lot of images and information about mountains, and he has done extensive research, but the mission is not as simple as putting the pieces together. If so, his paintings would have soon become another cliché and been deprived of the energy to inspire, but the images in his paintings create a sense of déjà vu with an incredible evocation. What he has done is merely to combine the extracted fragments of the scenery, such as the mountains, rocks, or trees, and allowing the entwined elements to produce an unexpectedly fascinating resonance. The harmonized image thus creates a beautiful shape: “they do not merge with each other, but are rendered discernible by the extreme precision of the lines.”
What interests us more is Kuo’s frequent use of diptych, triptych, or polyptych to further explore the coupling and to make changes. In comes cases, several separate pieces of paper or canvas are connected; in other cases, the artist divide one piece of paper or canvas into sections. Why the polyptychs? Does it require a different method to deal with the polyptychs from single-piece paintings?
Gilles Louis René Deleuze (1925-1995) in his Francis Bacon : Logique de la sensation explains what he thinks of the function of the triptychs: a triptych is like a three-movement composition, while each is assigned with a particular rhythmic structure or meter. He points out that since the image is loaded with so many movements, the law of the triptychs “can only be a movement of movements, or a state of complex forces.” He continues to explain that in the simple paintings, there is a double movement “from the structure to the Figure, and from the Figure to structure: forces of isolation, deformation, and dissipation.” To follow up, there is a movement between the Figures, “forces of coupling that incorporate the phenomena of isolation, deformation, and dissipation in their own levels.” The triptychs belong to the third type of movement of force, that it can “incorporate coupling as a phenomena, but it operates with other forces and implies other movements.” The law of the triptychs, according to Deleuze, is that “the maximum unity of light and color for the maximum division of Figures.”
In Kuo’s mountain scenes, the coupling between elements create an obvious force and movement, which become discernible because of the attraction or repulsion, the combination or isolation between them. Meanwhile, the polyptychs make it possible to discern the indiscernible but it also unifies every image like movements of a musical composition with different speeds and tones, rapid or gentle, enthusiastic or passive, ascending or descending, dominant or submissive. Here, the self-expressing light, colors, and lines serving as a timeline threading the movements together can even be regarded as a means to reach beyond the images in the paintings. Such a practice shows us that it is never Kuo’s intention to visualize a particular mountain view that he has witnessed in person. Instead, by varying the fragments of the mountains, he establishes the personality and rhythm of it. Therefore, when the rhythm matches the feeling, “the mountain” reminds viewers of “that mountain” in their memory. In most of the cases, the familiarity comes from the fact that what Kuo captures in his paintings is the essence, the general concept of the mountain, not a realistic one.
What is the mountain, and what is not?
But why mountains? Is it because of Kuo’s inexplicable love for it (if that is really how he feels about it)? Is he a mountain climber, doing what he preaches? After these questions, we should also acknowledge the fact that, during the same period of his The Mountain Series, he ws also working on a series of abstract paintings of his life with friends and families. When we go back to see the abstract or figure paintings, we do not feel strange even though the two genres are so different. As a skilled, versatile, and prolific painter, Kuo has never limited himself to certain practices or techniques, but these diverse styles all share a sense of emptiness and loneliness, accentuated by a strong visuality of delicate thinness.
Artists after the 1980s are known for their symbolic landscape which embodies the memories and experiences: take François Rouan (1943- ) for example. The French Minimalist artist in the 1960s wove two paintings together to create the third one. In the 1980s, he moved to Rome, where he began to paint from life, weaving the past, the present, and the future of Rome together with personal experiences, memories, and imaginations, transforming the landscape into the layered memories entagled with lively traces. Another example is the German neo-expressionist artist Anselm Kiefer (1945- ), who adopts a violent attitude to investigate landscape painting. Covered with straws, ashes, and the lead sheets from the bombed–out roof of Cologne Cathedral, the grave, gloomy, and giant landscape painting is filled with written texts, narratives, and symbols, as if it were carrying the heavy burden of history to reach beyond the border as well as the vision of a landscape painting.
However, Gerhard Richter (1932- ), the former Eastern German artist who came to Düsseldorf when contemporary art was appreciated more than ever, claims that “experience has proved that there is no difference between a so-called realist painting – of a landscape, for example – and an abstract painting. They both have more or less the same effect on the observer. ” Richter has devoted his career to studying the categories of paintings, examining the traditions of portraits, landscape, and still-life with the help of photographic representation and reproduction, while he also paints a great amount of abstract paintings with a belief that no matter what a painter’s subject is, even without it, he follows nothing but the absolute theme, which is “reality.”
Kuo probably adopts a similar artistic attitude. After a decade of training in both Taiwan and Europe, Kuo is greatly benefited from his cross-cultural background. Many have tried to identify whether his mountain belong to the East or the West, the orthodox or the avant-garde, but it is unlikely that Kuo should be willing to stay within the borders, just like how he refuses to categorize paintings and artistic practices. What is the mountain, and what is not? His paintings lead us to the definition and essence of painting. What is the mountain, and what is not? His paintings reach the world beyond.
In the end, I would like to conclude the article with André Malraux (1901-1976)’s words:
Thus the artist is born prisoner of a style — which, however, ensures his freedom from the world of appearances. (…) No matter whether an artist represents the gods or puts on the mask of a dead nature, it is impossible for him to revisualize what he sees, but only to revisualize what deserves to be visualized. No matter what he claims, he will never submit himself to the world, but has the world submit to what he chooses as the replacement of the world. His will to change the world is inseparable from his nature as an artist.