Ni Zan (1301-1374), Riverside Pavilion by Mountains, Yuan dynasty
Ni Zan (1301-1374), Riverside Pavilion by Mountains, Yuan dynasty. Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 94.7 x 43.7 cm. © National Palace Museum, Taipei.
Ni Zan went by the style name Yuanzhen and the sobriquet Yunlin. A native of Wuxi, Jiangsu, he came from a wealthy family and spent his youth in carefree leisure as he did not seek office, the goal of most scholars. He had the Qingbi Pavilion built and collected ancient works of painting and calligraphy as well as bronzes and zithers, making acquaintances with famous scholars all over. With increasing chaos at the end of the Yuan dynasty and heavy taxation imposed by the government, he moved elsewhere to avoid the disturbances. In his middle and later years, he became increasingly destitute as he led a life drifting around the Lake Tai area. Lofty and solitary by nature, he often used painting and poetry to express his feelings, claiming that he picked up the brush not to copy forms but for his own amusement. He specialized in landscapes and bamboo in monochrome ink, for which later generations came to venerate him as one of the Four Masters of the Yuan. His landscape paintings often featured the compositional formula of "two banks divided by an expanse of water." The foreground with sparse trees would be separated from the distance hills and mountains by a large expanse of water. Except for a solitary pavilion , he rarely painted any hint of the human world in his works, creating an atmosphere of utter desolation and tranquility. This painting, in general, follows this formula. Compared with his early paintings in which the wide expanse of water appears in the middle, the motifs in this work are more varied and complex. He used a crisscrossing system of banks and horizontal branches to skillfully lead the viewer's line of vision from side to side and from top to bottom. The result is a contrast of proximity and distance, creating a sense of deep and remote space. Ni Zan employed dry ink using mostly slanted strokes to produce texture.
Although the rocks appear angular and volumetric, they also have a feeling of lightness similar to that of crystals, seeming reflecting what others claimed about him as being fastidious about cleanliness.
According to the inscription, this painting was done in 1372 for his scholar-friend Huanbo. Ni's best works almost always were done to commemorate friendships with lines of poetry to express his emotions. This heart-felt expressiond for someone of like mind using a combination of poetry, calligraphy, and painting precisely exemplify the ideals of literati (scholar) painting. (Text from National Palace Museum, Taipei)