In the Manner of a Picture — Michael Mallett

The landscapes of Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) mesmerise and excite yet have an oddly soothing effect upon the mind. It is perhaps unsurprising that some have defined them as “a synthesis of East and West,”1 and note that much like Fu Baoshi he has “created hybrid styles that reflect a cosmopolitan attitude towards art and a willingness to modify inherited idioms through the
incorporation of foreign idioms and techniques.”2 Zhang’s remarkable life perhaps offers clues to the diverse sources of his work: after spending his youth as a Buddhist novice he studied traditional approaches to painting and calligraphy under Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing in Shanghai in the early part of the 20th century.

The commencement of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 saw him escape Beijing, seemingly disguised as a monk. His later life was lived in Hong Kong, India, Brazil, California, and Taiwan. It is a matter of conjecture whether the intense mineral colours and broad washes of layered ink which characterise his later works should be interpreted as being directly influenced by the works of Abstract Expressionists of the West or whether they should instead be interpreted as an extension of the Tang Dynasty broken-ink technique which informed his earlier work. Regardless, it is evident that these later works suggest a greater spontaneity to their composition—a greater liberation.

It is now close to forty years since Zhang’s death, and his work continues to excite the art world. It is perhaps of little surprise that Riverside View of Splendour (1947) fetched 132 million yuan at auction in Beijing in late 2017: it is a painting which offers the pleasures the human eye yearns for in a landscape: open grassland, water on the horizon, and a tall yet bushy tree.

Indeed, in this regard Zhang Daqian’s oeuvre has much in common with that of John Constable (1775-1837). Constable, of course, was a man who discreetly rebelled against the art establishment. “When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture,” he is reported to have told his friend and biographer John Leslie.3 Constable’s “blood-and-soil” approach was scorned by the Royal Academy for much of his life,4 and to this day his work is derided in some art circles for its sentimentality.

Perhaps it is the eyes of people on the outside of such art circles which are better able to enjoy the power of Constable’s work. To understand this power, it is useful to focus upon two works: Dedham Vale (1802) and The Vale of Dedham (1828). Both these pictures depict the very same view, and it is perhaps telling that Constable at the age of 53 felt a primitive urge to return to a landscape he had enjoyed as a much younger man. It was as a result of this latter work that Constable was finally accepted by the Royal Academy.

The academicians and critics commended The Vale of Dedham as “a work of great power both of colour and light and shade, and is executed with considerable freedom and dexterity of execution….”5 To other spectators, perhaps the real pleasure of the work is that, just like the 1802 painting, it depicts a patch of open grassland, sided by tall yet bushy trees, with a river nearby.

The true visual pleasure of a landscape painting is sometimes lost upon us. Should we take as an example, say The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Bruegel the Elder, some will be tempted to focus on the painting’s symbolism: the grapes in the foliage behind Adam and Eve represent the death of Christ on the cross; the monkey behind Adam representing unchaste temptation; the choleric cat at Eve’s heel representing cunning. Others would be tempted to focus on the collaborative process, comparing and contrasting the brushstrokes of Rubens in his depiction of the figures with those of Bruegel in his depiction of flora and fauna. The visual pleasure of The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man is, however, that it depicts a patch of grassland, with tall yet bushy trees, and a nearby source of water.

Beyond all other landscape painters, William Gilpin (1724-1804) should be celebrated as one to recognise that a landscape should be pleasing to the human eye, and that in order to be pleasing to the human eye, it requires the depiction of a grassy plane with bushy trees and a source of water nearby. A careful analysis of Gilpin’s work over a thirty-year period would lead one to note that Landscape with Hills and a Lake (1772) depicts a grassy plane with tall yet bushy trees and a source of water nearby, that Landscape with Hill, Lake and Figures (1772) depicts a grassy plane with tall yet bushy trees and a source of water nearby, that Untitled Landscape (1792) depicts a grassy plane with tall yet bushy trees and a source of water nearby, that Landscape 1 (1794) depicts a grassy plane with tall yet bushy trees and a source of water nearby, that View of a Ruined Castle over a Gorge (1798) depicts a grassy plane with tall yet bushy trees and a source of water nearby, that Landscape with Figures (1802) depicts a grassy plane with tall yet bushy trees and a source of water nearby, that The Lone Explorer (undated) depicts a grassy plane with tall yet bushy trees and a source of water nearby, and that Mountainous Landscape with Ruin (undated) depicts a grassy plane with tall yet bushy trees and a source of water nearby. Some critics detect a pattern in Gilpin’s choice of subject.

Some critics detect a pattern in Gilpin’s choice of subject.

William Gilpin was not merely a painter; also a cleric, a schoolmaster, and an author, he is celebrated for introducing the notion of the picturesque. For Gilpin the picturesque was a rugged and delineated form of beauty: “the kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture.”6 His assertion that “that the picturesque eye abhors art; and delights solely in nature,”7 is of key significance. As an amateur watercolour painter, his focus was on the delight of the eye in nature rather than cultivated notions of taste and aesthetics. This focus upon the pleasure of the eye when confronted with certain scenes of nature suggests that at the turn of the 19th century the Anglican clergyman was aware of an evolutionary truth that contemporary scientists are only now starting to come to terms with.

We are only now beginning to understand the complexity of human visual perception and the extent to which our vision is dependent at least as much upon sub-ensembles of neurons throughout the brain as it is upon the activity of the retina, and that what is perceived is affected by cognitive expectations and memories.8 We are also aware of the amygdala, the cluster of nuclei located withing the temporal lobes, from where our ‘instinctive’ fight-or-flight responses are processed.

We now have a greater understanding that for much of our history, humans as slow-moving primates have been the prey of faster, stronger predators. Lynn Isbell’s research suggests that the vision of humans and other primates has become more dominant as an evolutionary response to predation.9 Other evolutionary scientists have attempted to list things which are universal to all human cultures throughout history, responses that have evolved over the many millions of years when humans were the prey of other animals. Rob Dunn notes that upon such lists is the observation that “most humans appear to prefer scenes with a bushy tree out on an open plain with a little water in the distance.”10 The implications are clear: our amygdala tell us it is a safe place, and we can relax. The open plain allows us to see our predators coming and gives us an opportunity to escape; the bushy tree provides a hiding place; the nearby water tends to our bodily needs and offers an alternative place to escape.

The human yearning to see open grassland with bushy trees and a source of water close by has manifest itself not only in pictorial representation but also in the cultivation of the landscape. The need to soothe the ancient terrors which lurk within the amygdala can be seen in Hirst Landscape Architects’ design for the central square of Strathclyde Business Park, just as it can be seen in the layout of the Heian shinden-zukuri style gardens at the Imperial Palace at Kyoto. When a Microsoft-certificated Solutions engineer in the employ of Technology Service Group Ltd relaxes with her sandwich beside the artificial lake of the Business Park, the pleasure she is feeling is in a deep-rooted understanding that she might jump into the water should a lion emerge from behind Critoquom management consultants. Likewise, when Emperor Komei first surveyed the newly laid gardens in 1855, the sense of ease he enjoyed was in his understanding that he might shin up a mandarin orange tree should he be confronted by an angry bear.

William Gilpin appears to have been aware that the sight of a grassy plane with water and trees nearby provided a pleasing respite from our deepest terrors. Recent analysis of Gilpin’s undated graphite drawing A Pollard on which a Single Stem is left to Grow a Tree suggests that an image in the foreground had been etched out by the artist prior to its completion. Whilst the findings are not conclusive, it appears that at foot of the focal tree, Gilpin had originally placed the bitten-off leg of a hirsute youth. If such findings are confirmed there will be inevitable comparisons to the discovery made by restorers in 2003 working on John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park (1816): that Constable initially painted the severed hand of a pregnant hominin grasping a fistful of salty clay on the bank of the River Colne, before he himself painted over it. Similarities are, of course a matter for discussion. In the case of Gilpin, however, it does appear that this Anglican cleric had reached the understanding that it was the sight of the village green, with its oak tree, and the river on the horizon, that provided his congregation with the possibility of solace from the corporeal dread which defined them.

Michael Mallett’s writing for theatre attracted some interest in the late 1990s before he found himself bogged down by a teaching career. He has recently started to explore the subversive possibilities of essay writing: using the trite phrases of journalese or the clunky objectivity of low-grade academia to try to splinter discourse and create uneasy fictions—poundshop Borges sort of stuff. His sensible essay on the early nonfiction writing of T. F. Powys is included in this year’s The Powys Journal.


1 The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Winter 2001), p. 38.

2 Ibid.

3 Thornes, John E. (1999), John Constable’s Skies, Birmingham: University of Birmingham Press, p. 51.

4 Prodger, Michael (2012), “Constable, Turner, Gainsborough and the Making of Landscape,” The Guardian.

5 The Morning Post, March 10, 1834.

6 Gilpin, William (1792), An Essay on Prints (4th Edition), printed by R. Blamire, London. p. XII.

7 Gilpin, William (1792), Three Essays, printed by R. Blamire, London. p. 26.

8 See, for example, Varela, Franciso J., et al. (1991), The Embodied Mind, MIT Press, Massachusetts, p. 157-165.

9 Isbell, Lynne A. (1994), “Predation on Primates: Ecological Patterns and Evolutionary Consequences.” Evolutionary Anthropology 3: p.61-71.

10 Rob Dunn (2011), The Wildlife of Our Bodies, Harper Perennial, New York, p. 189.