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Lichtenstein's China

Consider the inspiration of a 900-year-old scroll on a Pop Art master
Clarissa von Spee, Chair of Asian Art and Curator of Chinese Art
June 14, 2017
Landscape with Boats, 1996. Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923–1997). 2000.101

The role of Asian art in the evolution of modern American art is often ignored and seldom fully acknowledged. The new Chinese gallery display that goes on view in August features superb monumental Chinese paintings juxtaposed with works by Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997), Abstract Expressionist Norman Lewis (1909–1979), and photographer Lois Conner (b. 1951), all of whom were inspired by Chinese landscapes and art.

Lichtenstein created his Chinese landscape prints late in his career, but he had been exposed to Chinese art as early as the 1940s while a student at Ohio State University. He was living in Cleveland when curator Sherman Lee presented the international exhibition Chinese Landscape Painting at the museum in 1954. Cleveland’s handscroll Cloudy Mountains by Mi Youren, dated ad 1130, was then on display and is now being rolled out again. Hanging above will be Lichtenstein’s Landscape with Boats from 1996. In this horizontally oriented print, he brilliantly summarized all the stereotypes associated with Chinese landscape painting in the West, transforming them into his own signature style of printed dots and motifs, some of which resemble paper cutouts. When Lichtenstein began working on his series of Landscapes in the Chinese Style, he said: “I am thinking about something like Chinese landscapes with mountains a million miles high, and a tiny fishing boat—something scroll like, and horizontal with graduated dots making these mountains, and dissolving into mist and haze. It will look like Chinese scroll paintings, but all mechanical.”

What may have looked to Lichtenstein like the generic depiction of a Song-dynasty landscape, Cloudy Mountains pictures in fact a lush and misty riverscape from the Lower Yangzi Delta in Southeast China. Mi Youren painted the scene after fleeing south across the Yangzi River to escape the Jin military forces that had overthrown the Song dynasty in the north. On the painting is the artist’s inscription: “In the year of gengxu [1130] I painted this, while seeking refuge in Xinchang.” The scroll is one of the museum’s great treasures. After nearly a millennium, its power to inspire and awe has not waned. 

Cloudy Mountains, 1130. Mi Youren (Chinese, 1072–1151). Handscroll, ink and color on silk; overall: 45.5 x 646.8 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1933.220

On view August 17, 2017–February 4, 2018, Chinese painting gallery (240a)