- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

No wonder he was called the wild man of the Yellow Mountains. Chinese artist Xuezhuang spent three decades in the high peaks of China’s Anhui province weathering storms and snows to sketch the clouds and rocks.

His keenly observant sketches form the centerpiece of a new exhibit of landscape drawings, scroll paintings and wood-block prints at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. This place-themed exhibit depicts the natural wonders of the Yellow Mountain range, about 250 miles southwest of Shanghai. Its dramatic landscape of granite peaks, low-lying clouds and gnarly pines began attracting artists in the 13th century, and after the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, it became a sanctuary for escaping religious persecution. Buddhist monks like Xuezhuang retreated to its remote mountaintops, where they recorded spectacular vistas in writings and drawings.

In many ways, “Yellow Mountain” is a smaller Asian counterpart to “In the Forest of Fontainebleau,” the exhibit that just closed at the National Gallery of Art. Like the French painters featured in that more vibrant show, the Chinese artists recorded nearly every rock and tree, but centuries earlier in topography far more treacherous.

They drew and painted sheer cliffs and craggy mountains, some rising as high as Alaska’s Mount McKinley, plus streams, springs and Buddhist monasteries. The diversity of the terrain is best represented at the beginning of the exhibit with a panorama of the region painted on a 20-foot scroll.

Behind the painting, recent photographs of the Yellow Mountains reveal that the artist of the 1704 scroll, Cheng Gong, didn’t exaggerate the peaks and valleys in his landscape. These black-and-white images, taken by Chinese photographer Wang Wusheng from 1979 to 2004, convey visual contrasts between the pointy mountains and misty clouds - some resembling swirling seas - in the same tonal variations as in the ink paintings throughout the show.

Following this overview, close-up observations of particular features within the Yellow Mountains are displayed through books, prints and paintings. Some of the same motifs crop up over and over again to become as repetitive as a chanted meditation.

One of the more eccentric, recurring subjects is called the Disturbed Dragon Pine, a twisted tree growing high atop a rocky spire. A print from a 1667 gazetteer presents it in a matter-of-fact manner, while in another gallery, a larger ink drawing celebrates the beauty of its angular trunk and spreading branches in expressive brush strokes.

The artist of this more poetic image, Hongren, became one of the most noted Chinese artists of the 1600s. Among the delights of the show are his delicate studies of four types of wonders in the Yellow Mountains: strange pines, seas of clouds, hot springs and fantastic rock formations.

Hongren’s sketches, however, are eclipsed in the exhibit by more numerous, varied works by the lesser-known monk-painter Xuezhuang, who moved to the Yellow Mountains in 1689.

A kind of Chinese Henry Thoreau, this ecology-minded “old man with disheveled hair,” as the artist described himself, contemplated nature from Cloud Boat, a compound he built. The house took its name from the way it floated above the mists filtering between the peaks, as shown earlier in Mr. Wusheng’s photographs.

The effect is only partially reflected in a painting called “Cloudy Boat in the Yellow Ocean,” created by Xuezhuang for a friend who visited him in 1718. It shows his rustic residence to be far more modest than portrayed in scenes by other artists, who may have aggrandized their depictions of the property to represent the monk-painter’s legendary reputation.

From his encampment, Xuezhuang painted views of pine forests in his back yard, mountains beyond his open-air studio and rock formations resembling lions and deer, all with attentive detail.

One of his most unusual landscapes pictures an open field surrounded by trees. Sitting in the middle of this garden is a tiger-shaped stone, described by the artist as a “kind and truly lovable” guardian of his vegetables.

The image is one of the few playful notes in this focused landscape show, which mostly pictures China’s Yellow Mountains in monochromatic shades of black and gray. The colored version is left to the viewer’s imagination.

WHEN YOU GO

WHAT: “Yellow Mountain: China’s Ever-changing Landscape”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. NW

WHEN: Through Aug. 24; daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.asia.si.edu

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