Meandering Thoughts under the Moon

By Han Mengyun


As a devout worshipper of the Moon, I have written profusely on her formidable beauty. Last year I chanced upon the exhibition “Mondsüchtig” (Moonstruck) at the Albertinum in Dresden, Germany after expounding to my friend while strolling at the Zwinger on my fervent passion for painting eternal motifs such as the moon.

Selected from the Museum’s permanent collection, 15 oil paintings exquisitely render the most enchanting and mysterious moonlight landscapes, encircling the gallery space with a tribute to eternity enacted by the symbolic power of the moon. 

Caspar David Friedrich, Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes, 1819/20

Öl auf Leinwand, 35 x 44,5 cm, Albertinum | Galerie Neue Meister

Photo taken by Han Mengyun

Christian Friedrich Gille, Mondscheinstudie, 1831


Photo taken by Han Mengyun

Georg Heinrich Crola, Gitarrespieler bei Mondschein, 1828


Photo taken by Han Mengyun

Without much knowledge about the moon as one of the central motifs for romantic landscape painting, I can only think in regard to my own experience with classical Chinese poetry, in which the moon is the symbol of longing, amorously and universally and can be best encapsulated by Su Shi’s poem Water Melody: “Just as people experience sorrow, joy, separation and reunion, The moon may be dim or bright, round or crescent shaped”. As an indicator of time, the moon with its various shapes reminds us of the undying axiom of impermanence that marks our own finite existence and the inevitability of separation. Whenever we behold the moon, we contemplate upon the vicissitudes of life. The beauty of the moon is the beauty of sorrow, of unfulfillment, of forever departing, of forever longing. 

In the Tang poet Li Bai’s “Wine in Hand Asking the Moon”, the moon is shared by men of the past and the present: 

Men in our time do not see the ancient moon, 

But this moon did shine on men of yore. 

Men pass away like water, now as before, 

And all see the moon that remains for evermore. 

Ma Yuan, Viewing plum blossoms by moonlight, early 13th century © The Metropolitan of Art

The Persian poet Rumi praises the moon as the convergence of the lovers’ gazes:


Not the time to let anyone in.

The lovers’ qibla became the moon. 

O moon worshippers, how the moon smiles!

O night walkers, arise!

Time to walk the path.

In the case of this exhibition, I saw a moon that also shone in Germany, seen by painters during the Romantic period. The differentiation of time, space and identity dissolves in the acknowledgement of our common, universal and primal urge to watch and depict the moon. Gazing at the moon in the exhibition, I thought of all the moons in poetry and painting, in film and photography, all the people who might have seen it at the same time or different times, for different or the same reasons. All gazes overlapped. That was a blissful moment of being in eternal union with the moon and the cosmos. 

This might explain why I felt so dejected while watching the documentary on Apollo 11, in which the ugliness, spottiness, lifelessness of the actual moon nullified the efficacy of all literature and poetry that were immersed in fantasy and imagination. The moon has lost her mystery in our technological age as it has become the symbol of national power and domination instead of a moment of becoming one.

Yet in painting, her charm and melancholy survive and continue to resonate. What characterizes the Chinese poetic elements in Matthew Wong’s paintings is exactly the lonesome moon painted between trees, outside the window, above the sea and mountains, in the water’s reflections. The encounter with the moon and her depictions in words or images render the emotions of the beholder, the poet and the painter. 

Li Yu’s “Xiang Jian Huan” aptly speaks to Wong’s painting “Look, the moon”(2019), one of the paintings completed before Wong's departure:

Wordlessly, I climb the west tower,

Lit by a hook-shaped moon at a late hour.

In late autumn phoenix trees are locked

Deeply in the lonely courtyard blocked.

Borges echoes as follows: 

What can I hold you with?

I offer you lean streets, desperate sunsets, 

the moon of the jagged suburbs.

I offer you the bitterness of a man who has looked

long and long at the lonely moon.

When we look at the moon, the moon looks back at us. What we as humans tirelessly seek in the moon is the return of her gaze that makes us aware of our existential condition, be it alone or accompanied, broken or complete.

I cannot help but think about Chinese Tang poet Li Bai and the musician SOPHIE, both of whom risked their lives because of their infatuation with the moon. The fullness of the aura gives birth to the fullness of our consciousness uniting all times and all beings. How can one not go mad under the light of oneness dominating the darkness of night and life?