Landscapes and Minimalism: The Influence of Chinese Shanshui in Photography
Updated: 4 days ago
Shanshui (山水), which literally means "mountain-water" in Chinese, is an artistic and philosophical concept of landscape representation that has its roots in ancient China. Deeply rooted in Taoism and Confucianism, it illustrates the relationship between humans and nature, seeking to capture both the visual beauty and the spiritual essence of the landscape.
In this article, I want to revisit this artistic and conceptual vision of the landscape that has inspired my photographic work since the beginning. After many years of interest in traditional Chinese and Japanese painting, I have gradually immersed myself in an intimate approach to the simplified, or minimalist landscape, as it is apt to say today.
This constant quest for timelessness has progressively confirmed my interest in pursuing simplicity in everything photographed. It has often inadvertently led me to blur the lines between film and the black ink of the traditional Chinese brush.
The interaction between Shanshui and black-and-white photography illustrates for me a form of natural evolution of artistic expression. While Shanshui is an intellectual legacy of ancestral China, imbued with tradition and spirituality, black-and-white photography represents modernity, a new way of seeing and capturing the world.
However, despite their distinct origins, these two forms of art meet in a common quest to capture the transcendence and beauty inherent in simplicity.
Origins and Philosophy of Shanshui
The concept of Shanshui emerged during the Tang dynasty (618–907), a period of great cultural and artistic ferment in China. However, it reached its zenith during the Song dynasty (960–1279), when landscape painting became a major art form.
During this time, art academies were established, and artists began to systematize the rules and techniques of Shanshui, such as the use of black ink to create various textures and depths.
Shanshui goes beyond mere aesthetic representation to delve into metaphysics. In Taoist texts like Lao Tzu's "Dao De Jing," the importance of harmony with nature is emphasized. Therefore, the landscape in Shanshui art is not just a backdrop, but a living element that breathes and fluctuates, a mirror of human interiority. The notion of "qi" (气), or vital breath, is also central. The artist seeks to infuse their work with this "qi" to create an immediate and emotional experience for the viewer.
Although painting is the art form most associated with Shanshui, this concept has also been applied to poetry, calligraphy, and more recently to photography and digital art. The choice of rice paper, fluid brush strokes, and minimalist use of black ink are distinctive features of this art form. In terms of composition, a subtle balance between the elements of "mountain" and "water" is often sought, reflecting the cosmic balance of yin and yang.
Artists and Reference Works of Shanshui
The principle of Shanshui was practiced and perfected by several Chinese painters over different dynasties. Here are some great masters who have marked the history of Shanshui art:
Tang Dynasty (618–907)
- Wu Daozi: Known as the "father of Chinese painting," he was one of the first to popularize landscape painting, although few of his original works have survived.
- Zhang Zao: Another landscape painter of this period, whose work "Cloud and Water" is often cited.
Song Dynasty (960–1279)
- Fan Kuan: His work "Travelers among Mountains and Streams" is considered a masterpiece of Shanshui.
- Guo Xi: Known for his work "Early Snow on the River," he also wrote a treatise on landscape painting, "Linquan Gaozhi" (The Supreme Laws of Forest and Stream Painting).
- Xia Gui: Known for his free and expressive style, notably in works like "The Twelve Views of Landscape".
- Ma Yuan: Another artist of the Song period, his style is often described as the "one-corner style," as he often placed the main elements in one corner of the canvas.
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Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368)
- Huang Gongwang: His piece "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains" is one of the most famous works in Chinese painting.
Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)
- Dong Qichang: Not only a talented painter but also a theorist who wrote about the principles of Shanshui.
Qing Dynasty (1644–1912)
- Gong Xian: Known for his atmospheric mountains and subtle representations of water.
- Wang Wusheng: The photographer who succeeded in capturing the essence of Shanshui in the medium of landscape photography, notably with his photos of the Huangshan mountains. See my articles on Huangshan.
These artists each brought their own interpretation and sensitivity to Shanshui, contributing to the rich illustrated documentation of this art formed through the centuries in China.
Principles of Shanshui Applied to Minimalist Photography
Shanshui is a traditional style of painting that emphasizes natural landscapes. This style is deeply rooted in Taoist and Confucian philosophy, valuing harmony between man and nature.
Although Shanshui and minimalist landscape photography are separated by centuries and differences in mediums, they share a common philosophy of simplicity, harmony, and an artistic approach that values essence and emotion over the literal representation of the landscape.
The connections between Shanshui and minimalist landscape photography can thus be explored through several aspects: philosophical, technical, and aesthetic.
Taoism and Minimalism
Shanshui, influenced by Taoism, focuses on essence and simplicity, seeking to capture the spirit rather than the literal form of nature. Similarly, minimalist landscape photography tends to reduce elements to the bare essentials, emphasizing the tranquility and purity of natural scenes.
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Balance and Harmony
In Shanshui, the balance between yin (water, emptiness, softness) and yang (mountain, fullness, hardness) is crucial. This search for balance is found in minimalist photography, where composition and the contrast between light and shadow are essential to create a harmonious image.
Use of Empty Space
Shanshui often uses large empty spaces, called "liubai," to create a sense of depth and breathing. In minimalist photography, large open spaces or vast skies can be used similarly to accentuate a subject or to create an impression of solitude and calm. Let's take a closer look at this point.
Emptiness in Shanshui and Minimalist Photography
The emptiness in Chinese compositions and in minimalist photography is a crucial element that goes far beyond the absence of content. It is a space rich in meanings, balance, and potentialities, playing a fundamental role in the creation of a harmonious, thoughtful, and emotionally powerful work.
The power of emptiness in Chinese compositions, or its importance in minimalist photography, can be observed through several aspects:
In the tradition of Chinese Shanshui, emptiness is not simply an unfilled space, but a vital element that carries deep meanings. Inspired by Taoism, this emptiness symbolizes potential, the unmaterialized essence, and immateriality. It is the yin that contrasts and completes the yang of the physical elements of the painting.
In minimalist photography, emptiness plays a similar role. It is not just a space without elements, but a field that accentuates the importance of what is present. It allows the viewer to focus on the essence of the scene, often inducing a feeling of calm, serenity, or contemplation.
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Balance and Contrast
In Shanshui works, emptiness creates a balance with the filled elements, offering a visual contrast that enhances the impact of mountains, rivers, or other natural elements. This balance is essential for creating visual and emotional harmony in the work.
In photography, the use of large empty spaces highlights the subjects, creating a strong contrast between the focal element and its environment. This draws attention to the textures, shapes, and lines present in the filled part of the image.
Meditation and Reflection
Emptiness in Chinese art is often seen as an invitation to meditation and inner reflection. It offers a space for the imagination and personal interpretation of the viewer, allowing them to project themselves into the work.
Similarly, in minimalist photography, emptiness can serve to provoke reflection, inviting the viewer to immerse themselves in the scene and interact with it in a more personal and introspective manner.
Simplicity and Purity
Shanshui celebrates simplicity and purity. Emptiness is a means to purify the work of anything superfluous, focusing on the essential.
In minimalist photography, this simplicity is also sought after. Empty space is a tool to eliminate visual clutter and focus attention on the purity of lines, shapes, and light.
The Final Word
The philosophy of Shanshui and minimalist photography, although distinct in their form and history, share a common quest: to capture the essence and harmony of nature. In these two arts, emptiness is not a lack, but a space of potentiality, a place where imagination and introspection can flourish.
Both celebrate balance, not only visual but also emotional and spiritual, between the represented elements and the unoccupied space. This approach, rooted in Taoist and Confucian wisdom, invites contemplation, reflection on our place in the world, and our relationship with nature.
Shanshui and minimalist photography, although expressed through different mediums, are windows onto a worldview where simplicity, balance, and harmony are not just aesthetic ideals but fundamental principles of life itself.
These mediums offer artists of each generation a platform to explore fundamental questions about nature, reality, and human existence. Thus, Shanshui remains not only a fundamental element of Chinese cultural heritage but also a subject of study and artistic exploration in constant evolution. It finds its resonance in everything minimalist, particularly in landscape photography.