Hsia Kuei

Hsia Kuei (active 1190-1225) was a Chinese painter who, with Ma Yüan, was the creator of the "Ma-Hsia school" of landscape painting.

Hsia Kuei, also named Yüyü, was a native of Ch'ient'ang, the modern Hangchou in Chekiang Province. Of his life it is known only that he served in the painting academy of Emperor Ning-tsung (reigned 1195-1224), who awarded him the Golden Belt, symbolizing the highest artistic achievement. Hsia's name is commonly linked with that of Ma Yüan to characterize the most distinctive and influential landscape style of the late Sung period.

Chinese landscape painting of the 10th and 11th centuries had been a monumental vision of the great universe, the macrocosm, of towering granite cliffs, deep valleys, and broad, shadowed marshlands. By the mid-11th century a more amiable, personal style had become dominant; and in the art of Li T'ang landscape was conceived in dramatically expressive intimacy, a reflection of the emotions of man rather than his mind. Hsia Kuei and Ma Yüan developed from Li T'ang and realized the final subtleties of poetic suggestion.

No painter displays greater mastery of the subtleties of brush and ink than Hsia Kuei. In his masterpiece, Twelve Views from a Thatched Cottage, a hand scroll 7 inches high and (originally) 16 feet long, this technical virtuosity is allied with perhaps the most profoundly affecting response to the moods of nature in Chinese art. In this scroll, beginning with Wandering the Hills by the River and ending with Evening Mooring by a Misty Bank, the painter passes through the hours of the day in a succession of vignettes describing the life along a river. Each scene is subtly related to the next in a continuous sequence remarkably like modern cinematic techniques, but also with a complexity of mood, pace, tonal variation, and theme similar to musical composition. As the scroll opens, one is swept into the busy activities of the early hours, and one scene follows another in quick succession. But as the day lengthens, the pace slows gradually, mist sweeps into the picture, light begins to fade; the Clear and Lonely Sound of the Fisherman's Flute is rendered. As the scroll ends, the banks and trees are cloaked in shadow, the fishing boats are silent, and night obliterates sight.

From the breathtaking sweep of the conception as a whole to the infinite subtleties of pulsating life in the smallest detail, Hsia Kuei reveals the mind and the hand of the supreme master. With the crackling poetry of Ma Yüan and the evocative Zen mystery of the monk Much'i, Hsia Kuei stands at the end of a long era in Chinese art history. For centuries the artist had sought to capture in ink the profound powers of nature. When the infinity of space itself was brought under the control of his brush, the quest was finished. Henceforward, Chinese painters turned toward the expression of inner realities.


Further Reading on Hsia Kuei

Hsia Kuei is extensively discussed in Oswald Siren, Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles, vol. 1 (1956). The art of the Southern Sung period as a whole is treated by James Cahill, The Art of Southern Sung China (1962).