Stone, Landscape, Screen: The Making of Stone Paintings during the Song Dynasty

Julia Orell, Academia Sinica


Marble slabs with natural pigmentation that evokes misty mountain peaks, framed as table and standing screens or inserted into furniture, are ubiquitous in museum collections, in historical palaces and gardens, on antique markets, in auctions, hotel lobbies, and as “pictures-within-pictures” especially in Qing dynasty court painting. Such stone landscapes in screen format were often treated similarly to landscape painting by applying (carved) seals and poetic inscriptions. The majority of extant, historical landscape stone screens date to the Ming and Qing dynasties, when also a critical literature emerged such as Ruan Yuan’s 阮元 (1764-1849) Shihua ji  石畫記 (Record of Stone Paintings).

The appreciation of landscape stone screens does, however, go back to at least the Song dynasty, and this early history will be examined in my paper with a focus on questions pertaining to authorship and agency in the making of these stone paintings:  Was “nature” conceived to be the creator of these images? Or the beholder, who “discovers” a landscape on the stone surface? Or the artisan, who finds the picture on the stone, selects it, cuts, polishes and frames it? I will foreground how the making and the value of stone screens were discussed in poetic exchanges between Northern Song literati and will further address how the process of “seeing into” (Rudolf Arnheim), i.e. seeing a landscape into the patterns stone surface, potentially relates to Song dynasty painting practices.