The Chinese painter, calligrapher, and critic Mi Fei (1051-1107) created the "Mi style" of ink-wash landscape painting. He was one of the four greatest calligraphers of the Sung dynasty and among the most influential art critics in Chinese history.
Mi Fei, also called Mi Fu, was born in Hsiangyang, Hupei Province. He was known as a man of Wu, that is, the south-central region of China called Chiang-nan, "South of the (Yangtze) River." During the reign of Emperor Shentsung (1068-1086), Mi's mother served the future empress, and young Mi was therefore granted special "protégé appointment" to the civil service.
For the next 10 years Mi served in a variety of minor provincial posts, probably devoting most of his energy to the study of calligraphy and the collections of art his travels enabled him to see. During this period he began the connoisseur's notes on painting and calligraphy which would later be published as Hua shih (Painting History) and Shu Shih (Calligraphy History). While he did not begin to paint until years later, he was already a brilliant calligrapher.
In 1081 Mi Fei met Su Shih, the great poet, calligrapher, and art theorist. This was the beginning of the formation of a circle of some of the most brilliant artists in history. Other members were Li Kung-lin, painter and antiquarian; Huang T'ing-chien, poet and calligrapher; and Chao Ta-nien, painter and art collector. Su Shih's cousin, the bamboo painter Wen T'ung, who had died in 1079, was also a key figure through his art and his influence on Su Shih.
Out of this association came the theory and practice of wen-jen-hua, or literati painting, which in all its manifestations has continued until the present to be the most dynamic and creative branch of the art. In place of the long-dominant view that painting was a public art, subject to public standards, scholar-painters held to the view expressed by Li Kung-lin: "I paint, as the poet sings, to give expression to my nature and emotions, and that is all."
The T'ang poet Tu Fu, now universally regarded as "China's greatest poet," was largely ignored until discovered by these 11th-century scholars. The two greatest scholar-painters of earlier centuries, Ku K'ai-chih and Wang Wei, were rescued from obscurity and lifted to the eminence and esteem they have ever since enjoyed. It is thus scarcely possible to overestimate the esthetic and critical impact of the late Northern Sung literati on the fate of the three greatest arts of Chinese civilization. Indeed, the poetry of Su Shih, the figure painting of Li Kung-lin, and the calligraphy of Mi Fei became standards against which men would be judged for the next 500 years.
Crucial to an understanding of the flavor of life and art in this great age is an appreciation of the quality of personal relationships within this artistic and intellectual circle. Art was nothing without personality, and personality was almost an art—not, however, in the sense of deliberate eccentricity, but as a nourishing of the innate qualities of strength of character, will, honesty, creativity, mental curiosity, and integrity. When Su Shih and Mi Fei met again later in their lives, they were well aware that they were cultural heroes. They took pride in this knowledge and found the keenest creative stimulation in it.
Mi's Figure Painting
Mi said that he did not begin to paint until 7 years before his death, but it is possible that he had tried landscape painting slightly earlier. At the time, the T'ang figure painter Wu Tao-tzu was universally praised as the "standard for all time," and his followers were legion. Mi Fei rejected this image, in no small part doubtless because it was so popular, and declared that he admired only the "lofty antiquity" of the long-neglected first master of figure painting, Ku K'ai-chih. Mi Fei claimed to paint only the "loyal and virtuous men of old." Vigorous precedent for this view had come in 1060, when Su Shih had written a poem after looking at paintings by Wu Taotzu and Wang Wei. Wu Tao-tzu, he wrote, while heroic beyond compare, could finally be judged only in terms of the craft of painting, that is, by technique and formal likeness. Wang Wei, in contrast, "was basically an old poet" who "sought meaning beyond the forms."
To these men anything that smacked of mere craft, divorced from personal expression, was to be rejected. Their most obvious foils were the imperial academicians and professional painters who commanded a large popular audience. Mi Fei, a caustic and relentless critic, generally described their art as "fit only to defile the walls of a wine shop." He even accused the academy of murdering one of its members who had been too gifted and original and thus had threatened the status quo.
At an opposite extreme were the "untrammeled" masters of the 9th and 10th centuries, who had broken every rule and defied every classical model in their quest for artistic freedom, even going so far as to paint with their hair and hands, or their naked bodies. The "untrammeled" masters won the admiration of Mi Fei and his friends but were far too uncontrolled and eccentric to be emulated. Instead, it was the "primitive" and forgotten masters of the orthodox heritage to which they turned.
The only remnant of Mi Fei's figure painting, of which he was so proud, is an engraving on the "Master of the Waves" cliff at Kuei-lin, Kuang-hsi. It is said to be a 13th-century copy of Mi's self-portrait and is a strangely archaic, boldly and simply conceived image as if from centuries past, and quite possibly intended to evoke Ku K'ai-chih.
His Landscape Painting
It was Mi's landscape painting, however, for which he was so admired in later centuries. In it, too, he displayed his utter rejection of dominant tendencies and his dependence upon neglected older innovations. In the late 11th century the influence of the brilliant 10th-century landscape master Li Ch'eng was at its peak. Mi Fei criticized Li Ch'eng for achieving "more ingenuity than a sense of reality" and displayed only contempt for his followers. He advocated, instead, the "natural and unassertive" qualities of the all but forgotten 10th-century master Tung Yüan. It is highly significant that Mi Fei, who was a man of Chiang-nan, turned back to the two greatest native masters of Chiang-nan, Ku K'aichih and Tung Yüan, for inspiration. Regional pride and identity were major issues.
The landscape style that Mi Fei developed from Tung Yüan placed emphasis on the misty, amorphous aspect of nature that created "inexhaustible mystery." His technique is described as "Mi dots." Starting with very pale ink, he began painting on a slightly wet paper or silk, amassing clusters of shadowed forms, then adding darker ink gradually, building up amorphous, drifting mountain silhouettes bathed in wet, cloaking mist. The style is best seen in a large hanging scroll, the Tower of the Rising Clouds. On the painting is an inscription: "Heaven sends a timely rain; clouds issue from mountains and streams." This manner had an incalculable effect on later painters. From the 14th century on, every painter worth his salt could create a Mi Fei-style landscape at the slightest provocation.
A more difficult manner is seen in several paintings attributed to Mi, including Spring Mountains and Pine Trees. Archaism, as in Mi's figure painting, is the dominant mode. The mountains are conceived in the primeval state as three triangles side by side, just as the word "mountain" was written as triangles on the oracle bones of the 2d millennium B.C. The pines are similarly conceived, as roots growing into the earth, trunk and branches stretching into the sky. In such works, Mi Fei appears to be attempting to free himself of all cliché and mannerism and to paint as if no one had ever painted before him.
Mi Fei's eldest son, Mi Yu-jen, was also an excellent painter and continued his father's tradition.
Further Reading on Mi Fei
A good discussion of Mi Fei is in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles (7 vols., 1956-1958).