Night is quiet and the mountains empty

Dark peaks and steep weathered cliffs block the sky. Clouds churn in a great cauldron of mountains and spill through a massive rift on one side. Silvery mist glides over the foreground slopes toward a cove of choppy waves enclosed by a distant headland and a nearby bluff.

Gu Wenda wrote the title of the painting on the rock face at right: Night is quiet and the mountains empty, evoking a moonlit scene and contemplative mood. He used Western-derived techniques to create the blurry, windblown effects of the swirling clouds and the background mountains. But he blended these techniques with traditional Chinese brushwork styles, such as the ropy lines that texture the bluff, the dark patches of vegetation rendered with quick strokes and dots, and the groves of damp fir trees formed with light-gray and dark-black ink. Taken together, these qualities create an entirely modern effect outside the mainstream Chinese tradition.

Providing both an artistic lineage and a philosophical underpinning for the work, Gu Wenda identified himself with the Daoist approach to nature and landscape in an inscription above the painting. His text quotes a popular dictionary, which in turn cites other sources:

  • Daoists say that if one abstains from food and swallows one’s breath, and relies on the mist and clouds to provide nourishment, one can attain immortality. When Huang Dachi* was over eighty, his faculties were undiminished and he passed away without illness, for the clouds and mist in his paintings provided his nourishment. Whenever I paint cloudy mountains, I feel intoxicated, my mind roams free and my spirit is glad. Summer of the yichou year [1985], Wenda painted and inscribed [this] at Xiling [Hangzhou].
  • *Note: Huang Dachi, or Huang Gongwang (1269–1354), was a follower of Daoism and a leading landscape painter of the Yuan dynasty. He is especially famous for his painting of the Fuchun Mountains, which lie upriver from the modern city of Hangzhou. Gu Wenda received his training in landscape painting in Hangzhou and was teaching there when he wrote the inscription.

A leading figure of the avant-garde ’85 New Wave, or ’85 Movement, Gu Wenda created this work for inclusion in his first solo exhibition, which was planned for 1986. He explained to the collector Dr. Marcus Jacobson (1930–2001) that it was “intended to assist the viewers to relate his abstract paintings to the ancient tradition of Chinese pictorial art.” Today, Gu Wenda is the most widely published and exhibited contemporary Chinese artist. Living in the United States since 1987, he has enjoyed international acclaim for more than a quarter century.

現代 谷文達 《夜靜山空圖》 軸
Night is quiet and the mountains empty
Gu Wenda (b. 1955)
China, Modern period, 1985
Hanging scroll; ink on paper
138 x 68 cm (54 3/8 x 26 7/8 in)
Gift of Ruth Kurzbauer in memory of Dr. Robert and Lisa Rates Kurzbauer and Dr. Marcus Jacobson
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S2017.13