I am best known as an oil painter. But before I took the path down oil painting, I spent considerable time practicing Chinese ink painting. My experience with the East and West art systems over the years have yielded some interesting observations, one of them being similarities in principles between Chinese landscape paintings and Cubism pioneered by Picasso.


作爲一名畫家,可能大家最熟知的是我的油畫。但在我走上油畫的道路之前, 我花了相當多的時間在中國水墨畫上。多年來, 我在東西方藝術體系方面的經驗使我有一些有趣的觀察, 其中之一是中國山水畫和畢卡索立體主義原理上的相似之處。


The East and West are two distinct art systems. How then are Song-Yuan Dynasty landscapes related to Picasso and Cubism? Though they seem completely different at first, unusual associations emerge when we subject both to careful study and appreciation.




The principle of Western Cubism is to take the external features of the subject as perceived from different angles then piece or assemble them together to create an artwork different from the actual subject. Picasso believed that artistic works can only be considered “creative” if they are different to what appears in nature. Almost all modern schools of art embrace this principle. An extension of this principle has produced a wide variety of new styles and artworks.




In China, great masters such as Li Sixun (李思訓) of the Early Tang Dynasty, Jing Hao (荊浩) and Guan Tong (關仝) of the Five Dynasties, Dong Yuan (董源) and Juran (巨然) of the Southern Tang Dynasty, Li Cheng (李成), Fan Kuan (范寬), Ma Yuan (馬遠) and Xia Gui (夏圭) of the Northern/Southern Song Dynasties as well as Huang Gongwan (黃公望) and Wang Meng continued to explore the boundaries of landscaping over time. The path of “learning from nature, exploration and creation” they found eventually grew into the Chinese landscape painting system. The brushes of the masters not only captured the majestic mountain ranges, high mountains and rushing rivers, unusual peaks and deep valleys of the north but also the winding rivers, green forests and misty sights of the south (Jiangnan). They may all differ in their outlines, shading techniques and brushwork but the same principles in composition and layout are followed throughout the entire Chinese landscape painting system. In other words, each scene is not limited to just one perspective. The landscape is a combination of observations made from the level distance, high distance and deep distance. It is not merely a copy of the scenery as seen through the camera lens either. Instead, the painting consists of real-world scenery that has been recreated within the mind of the painter. Such an approach has many similarities with the techniques of Cubism used by Picasso. Generations of artists have embraced this principle of not being bound by the actual scenery. Master Shi Tao (石濤) perfectly summarized this approach when he said “the painting of all unusual peaks serves as a rough draft.”




Whenever I visit the National Palace Museum in Taipei and stand in front of the painting Travelers Among Mountains and Streams by Fan Kuan, I am always moved by how the majestic mountains that rise from the ground, the waterfall plummets from up high, as well as the ancient woods and buildings. I could almost hear the mountain spring and the travelers’ chatter! The landscape painters of China created landscape paintings inspired by nature that becomes something more. The result is a unique sense of interest and aesthetic value in Chinese landscape paintings.


Fan Kuan, Travelers among Mountains and Streams




Something interesting emerges when we compare Song-Yuan Dynasty landscapes and the works of Picasso side by side. We see that neither present the actual subject of direct observation. Instead, a creative treatment has been applied. Their impact on the audience is completely different though: Most people don’t understand Picasso’s paintings. They may understand the principles of Cubism but may find it challenging to relate to it. Chinese landscapes produce a different response – we continue to believe what we see is real and can imagine ourselves “living, traveling and playing” within the painting. There is nothing jarring or discomfiting about the collage. Maybe this goes back to the philosophical difference between the West and the East – individuality and harmony. This difference between Eastern and Western arts is quite thought-provoking.