Chinese art and the rise of modern geology: East versus west

November 07, 2001

In Chinese art, the acme of mastery may be demonstrated in a monochrome line painting of a single rock. Or many rocks in a landscape painting of mountains. But you'll never find a shadow in these master works, or any indication of the three dimensions or colors of our physical realm.

While what's represented in traditional Chinese landscape paintings is more philosophical, even spiritual (the same concepts which provide the basis for Chinese calligraphy), the perspective and worldview demonstrated in these works actually served as a deterrent to the Chinese development of modern geology.

How is this so? Ask Gary Rosenberg, a geologist at Indiana University at Indianapolis.

"Many years ago, I realized that the Renaissance rediscovery of geometric perspective created a revolution in the depiction, hence study of, nature. I was the first to propose that Leonardo da Vinci, long accepted as a founder of geology, based his earliest-known drawing, 'A View of the Hills of Tuscany,' on geometric perspective," Rosenberg said. "In it, he says everything visually that Steno would write some 200 years later in his Prodromus; in other words, his three principles of superposition, original horizontality, lateral continuity. There was no precedent in Western European art. I proposed that this also helped explain how Leonardo the artistic genius could have been a scientific genius at the same time. Renaissance artists made possible the achievements in anatomy, optics, astronomy, and geology that led to the Scientific Revolution because geometric perspective is the foundation for understanding the behavior of light."

Then Rosenberg studied hundreds of Chinese landscape paintings and began to wonder how an advanced civilization such as China did not initiate the foundational principles of geology.

"It seemed to me to be tied together with the Chinese disinterest in developing geometric perspective as a method to understanding space, particularly the spatial organization of landscapes, the structure of the earth, and the evolutionary implications of that organization," he said.

But his seminal experience in understanding why Chinese landscapes lacked the sense of spatial and temporal continuity essential to modern geologic thought came when Rosenberg heard a lecture by Dr. Stanley Murashige at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago:

"Murashige described a landscape that 'harmonizes immutable structure with unpredictable change'...a landscape based on a kind of perspective that is not common in Western art," Rosenberg said. "The horizon actually shifts as one scans the painting, unlike the fixed horizon in Western art that creates a crystalline landscape that conforms to the same natural laws throughout. The Chinese landscape is timeless, and is literally an expression of the existence of the artist and his journey to experience the Taoist void beyond time and space, the source of primal energy. Western European artists were obsessed with geometric perspective because it manifested the existence of God in Nature. But, Western geometric space also visually facilitated an understanding of the continuity of spatial relationships that was vital to geology and which the Chinese perspective of resonance obscured."
Rosenberg will present his new theory at the Geological Society of America's annual meeting in Boston on Wednesday, November 7, at 9. 45 a.m., in room 308 of the Hynes Convention Center.

Written by Kara LeBeau, GSA Staff Writer


During the GSA Annual Meeting, November 4-8, contact Ann Cairns or Christa Stratton at the GSA Newsroom in the Hynes Convention Center, Boston, Massachusetts, for assistance and to arrange for interviews: (617) 954-3214.

The abstract for this presentation is available at:

Post-meeting contact information:

Gary D. Rosenberg
Indiana University - Indianapolis
723 W Michigan St
Indianapolis IN 46202-5132
Phone: (317) 274-7484
Fax: (317) 545-3718

Ann Cairns
Director of Communications
Geological Society of America
Phone: 303-357-1056
Fax: 303-357-1074

For more information about GSA visit our Web site at:

Geological Society of America

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