Of these literati painters, four were particularly prominent and are now known as The Four Yuan Masters. Wang Meng is one of them, with the other three being Ni Zan (the friendship between Ni Zan and Wang Meng is one of the plotlines in The Ten Thousand Things); Huang Gongwang, and Wu Zhen. It is unclear as to who exactly anointed these four as the Masters, but the term came to prominence during the Ming dynasty (which followed the Yuan), a time during which the rulers particularly revered good art.
The Yuan Masters were politically subversive - Wang Meng, in fact, was constantly conflicted between his work and his art and eventually did give up his governmental day job. What distinguishes the Masters however, is the novel touch they gave to the art of landscape painting. Up until the Four Yuan Masters, techniques performed by skilled craftsmen were focused on perfecting the literal reproduction of scenery. But these masters used the art form as an expression of their inner selves thus leading to different interpretations of the form. The Yuan Masters paid homage to earlier generations of painters through their art and in addition to using pieces to make statements about politics, also used them to express religious beliefs. For example, a cave was interpreted as the Daoist belief in hidden realities.
In terms of techniques, bold calligraphic brushstrokes and ink washes were common, as were the use of ink and paper as materials (as opposed to color on silk).
This article was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the
April 2015 paperback release.
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