One of the most mysterious images reproduced in Michael Sullivan’s book Symbols of Eternity: The Art of Landscape Painting in China is one of the thirteenth century monk Ying Yu-chien’s eight views of Hsiao and Hsiang (subject matter discussed in this earlier posting). Sullivan calls the particular view ‘Returning Fishermen’, although as far as I can see a more common title is ‘A Mountain Village in Clearing Mist’. Yu-Chien created the effect of a landscape dissolving in the haze by ‘smearing and splashing ink onto the paper in a state of high excitement and then, like the late T’ang eccentrics, adding a few deft touches with the brush that not only transformed his gestures into a picture of countrymen coming home to their village at dusk but also created a marvellous pictorial analogy to the Zen experience in which form is manifest out of the formless, unifying Void.’
The ‘late T’ang eccentrics’ were earlier painters whose approach Sullivan likens to that of the New York Action Painters. Although none of these T’ang eccentrics’ work survives, there are accounts of them dipping their hair in ink, painting while dancing to music, or using the brush whilst facing away from their work. ‘A T’ang text tells of Ink Wang, who would get drunk and then, laughing and singing, spatter ink onto the silk and stamp it with his feet and smear it with his hands.’ Having created these abstract patterns, the T’ang painters would take a few strokes of ink to turn them into landscapes. Incidentally, similar stories are told about the finishing touches added by Turner at the Royal Academies varnishing days prior to their exhibitions.
There is some discussion of Yu-Chien’s ‘A Mountain Village in Clearing Mist’ in the context of Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism on-line in Aspen magazine.