Ink landscape painting was distinctive to the Song dynasty, and the Northern Song period was a special time for the medium. By the tenth century, this kind of painting emerged as a "scholars' category" whose "values were especially worthy of support" in critical scholarly discourse, according to Ping Foong
's fascinating new book. Bringing together paintings, poems, colophons, texts about painting, and other sources, Efficacious Landscape: On the Authorities of Painting at the Northern Song Court
(Harvard University Asia Center, 2015) looks carefully at the imperial establishment's efforts "to cultivate the genre of ink landscape painting and its iconography as a dynastic project." In a story that focuses on Shenzong's favorite painter: Guo Xi (after 1000-ca. 1090), Part I of The Efficacious Landscape
brings readers into the spaces of the Song imperial city and their political connotations, from a careful exploration of the political import of the paintings decorating the walls of the Hanlin Institute, to a reading of unusually-juxtaposed works by Guo Xi and Li Gonglin as political commentaries on contemporary ritual and reform, to an argument about the court's imbrication in creating a particular lineage of ink landscape painters. Part II looks at the significance and outcome of a century of the court investing in ink landscape as a cultural medium as it gained new social status and dimensions, due in part to the appearance of intimate landscape painting scenes inspired by the work of Guo Xi. This part of the book features a wonderful and surprising reading of the Metropolitan Museum of Art handscroll by Guo Xi, Old Trees, Level Distance
that places a careful analysis of the scroll into conversation with the poetry of Su Shi and his colleagues. This part of the book also shows how intimate landscape paintings became socially acceptable outlets of expression, as they were used as private communications between scholars and forms of social currency exchanged on particular social occasions. The book concludes by reconsidering Guo Xi's legacy under Huizong.