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Xia Gui

    Xia Gui (active early 13th century) (pronounced ‘sha gway’) was one of the ‘four artists of the Southern Song’ (南宋四家).

    His almost minimalist, evocative paintings exemplify Southern Song painting styles

    Long after Xia and – the Song dynasty – had disappeared, his paintings and style lived on in China, Japan, Korea and beyond.

    Landscape by Xia Gui
    Landscape by Xia Gui (ca. 1200 AD), hanging scroll, ink on paper, 206.4 x 106.9 cm. Nation Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Nation Palace Museum Open Data)

    Biography

    Xia Gui (夏珪 [Xià Guī]), courtesy name Yuyu, was born at some point in the early 13th century in the Southern Song capital of Lin’an (today’s Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province).

    Not many details of his life are known. He likely trained to be an artist from a young age, which was a common route to the government-run Academy of Painting

    Most of his career appears to have taken place during the Emperor Ningzong’s reign (1194 – 1224 AD). During this time, he reached the highest rank in the Academy.

    Section from Myriad Miles of the Yangtze River by Xia Gui
    Section from Myriad Miles of the Yangtze River by Xia Gui (ca. 1200 AD) by Xia Gui, handscroll, ink on paper, 26.8 x 1115.3 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Xia Gui’s painting

    Context: The Southern Song’s Academy & landscapes

    Three main types of painters existed during the Southern Song:

    Academy painters

    Professional painters working for the court for commission.

    Many of these were trained in painting from a young age and were extremely proficient at the technical aspects of painting.

    They were also trained to be able to interpret requests for paintings. For example, artists might be given a topic (‘a tavern in a bamboo grove by a bridge’) or line from a poem.

    Literati artists

    These were scholar-gentlemen, usually officials. Their work was technically simpler than professional painters but it often had more sophisticated literary or philosophical meaning. 

    Chan Buddhist painters

    These monk painters were similar to literati painters in that they were not professionally trained to carry out commissions for royals or other government officials.

    Many of their paintings survived the collapse of the Southern Song dynasty after visiting Japanese Buddhists took them back to Japan.

    Xia Gui’s role: Academy painter

    As an academy painter, Xia Gui would have been expected to work within set conditions. 

    One of these was focusing on landscape paintings, which had been the favoured imperial genre of painting since the early Northern Song period.

    Painting linages

    section from Pure and Remote Views of Streams and Mountains by Xia Gui
    Section from Pure and Remote Views of Streams and Mountains (ca. 1200) by Xia Gui, handscroll, ink on paper. 46.5 x 889 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Early on in the Song dynasty, the landscape paintings of the Five dynasties painter Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD) had been adopted as the ‘official’ imperial style

    Court painters such as Guo Xi (ca. 1001 – 1090) continued on this tradition. Many of Guo’s paintings decorated the most important government offices.

    Li Tang (ca. 1066 – 1150 AD), was a highly important Academy painter during the early Southern Song Academy. 

    Li also worked during the late Northern Song period, and was part of the lineage of Fan Kuan (active ca. 1023 – 1031 AD). Despite some similarities, Fan’s forceful style contrasted sharply with Li’s more elegant approach.

    Influenced by Li Tang, Xia Gui worked in part within the Fan lineage. However, he also clearly took inspiration from the earlier work of Li Cheng, too. 

    However, he also innovated and develop his own distinct style of landscapes. He did this alongside – but separately from – his contemporary: Ma Yuan.

    The Ma-Xia school/style

    Section from Pure and Remote Views of Streams and Mountains by Xia Gui
    Section from Pure and Remote Views of Streams and Mountains (ca. 1200) by Xia Gui, handscroll, ink on paper. 46.5 x 889 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Ma Yuan (active before 1189 – after 1225) was a court painter working at approximately the same time as Xia.

    Ma came from a family of court painters going back five generations. He was likely younger than Xia, but appears to have worked at around the same time. 

    The Southern Song capital (today’s Hangzhou) was then likely the largest and most preposterous city in the world. There were many artists and patrons in the city (and beyond). 

    However, the Ma-Xia style has since come to epitomise the late southern style of landscape painting. 

    It carries aspects of the technical achievements of earlier Song landscapes. For example, it often has the foreground, middle, and far off distances. 

    But also pars down the sheer volume of detail earlier painting had. This creates a more minimalist and ethereal quality. Landscape features appear as ethereal islands surrounded in impenetrable mists or voids.

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