Scroll stroll is worth the trip Review: From mountains to rivers, early Chinese art captures the serenity and elegance of the landscape.

August 27, 1996|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Walters Art Gallery has had a great collection of Chinese porcelain going back to when William Walters omnivorously bought in this field 100 years ago. What it hasn't had is a great Chinese handscroll to complement all that porcelain. Now it does.

A recently acquired Ch'ing dynasty handscroll by Wang Yuan-ch'i, "Free Spirits Among Streams and Mountains," has been -unrolled as the centerpiece for a focus exhibit. Besides this celebrated 1684 handscroll, the exhibit features works by others, including the artist's great-grandson, Wang Ch'en.

What is immediately striking about the handscroll is its extreme length. Indeed, looking at it amounts to taking a trip through an idealized Chinese landscape.

The original courtly owners would have unrolled around 2 1/2 feet of it at a time across a tabletop, surveyed that section of landscape, and then unrolled the next section. They would have unrolled 12 such sections by the time they got to the end of this particular scroll.

For the museum audience of today, the scroll is fully unrolled in a display case running the length of a gallery wall. So put on your walking shoes and don't worry about needing a passport. Starting with the red seals of ownership at the scroll's far right, you realize that a number of others have treasured this object before you ever set eyes on it.

The landscape ahead of you is an ink-on-paper painting that relies on subtle brushwork. Proceed slowly in order to appreciate the subdued gradations of this monochromatic painting.

Carrying on the classical tradition of Chinese landscape painting, the artist is both deliberate and vigorous in depicting a quietly dramatic landscape of mountains rising above lowlands and a large body of water. The length of the painting fosters his conceptual strategy of alternating densely drawn stretches of land with stretches of pictorial near-emptiness representing a vast and still waterway. You go from mountains, forests and villages to mind-clearing whiteness for the water and then back to more dry land.

Among the early sights to be enjoyed on your journey are mountains that seem to float above the flatter lands below, trees boldly drawn as no more than straight poles supporting leaf-evocative horizontal slashes, and sparely rendered houses that are dwarfed by the soaring mountains, waterfalls and other natural wonders around them. Some of the mountains are cropped by the top of the scroll, as if they extend who knows how much higher up.

You've been walking for a while before there's much of a human presence in this scroll. But people do live here. Three sailing vessels are outlined in the far distance, and a waterside village is home to at least the two tiny human figures crossing a low bridge. Farther along is another village, this one inhabited by a single figure inside a house, seated before what appears to be a manuscript. Perhaps this person is looking at a landscape painting much as you are.

The schematic treatment of houses and people echoes the overall approach to the landscape. A series of elegantly upward curving lines is all that's needed to take your eyes to the top of a mountain, a thicket of lines suggests a bamboo grove, and some assertive smudges let you know where the rock-clinging vegetation is thick.

In the final section of the handscroll, you'll encounter the artist's signature and an inscription in which he comments on its creation. The landscape is very gentle here, indicating a calm conclusion to your trip.

'Free Spirits'

Where: Walters Art Gallery

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays; through Oct. 6

Admission: $4; $3 for senior citizens; free for members, students with valid ID, and persons 18 and under. Free Saturdays from 11 a.m.-noon

Call: (410) 547-9000

Pub Date: 8/27/96

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