Separating East From West With a Calligrapher’s Touch
By Souren Melikian
Nothing is less universal than art, contrary to a widespread conviction rooted in French 18th-century ideas about the equality of all men and the assumed analogy of all that mankind strives to achieve.
Some of those who cling to that long cherished notion may see things otherwise after viewing the illuminating show “How to Read Chinese Paintings,” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until Aug. 1. And should they still question the existence of a fundamental difference separating the Far Eastern approach to figural art from that of the West, Maxwell Hearn’s remarks in the exhibition book will persuade many more that Chinese painting as we know it from the 8th to the 18th century aimed at effects and was governed by rules that had no equivalent in Europe from the Middle Ages to modern times.
The foundations of Chinese painting ultimately go back to the Chinese way of transcribing thoughts first devised around the early second millennium B.C. Hearn does not bring in such considerations because his book focuses on extant paintings, and specifically on those preserved in the Metropolitan Museum.
Chinese characters are based on the simplified outlines of concrete elements in the visible world. Reduced to abstract lines and combined together, these yield the thousands of characters called ideograms, i.e.: idea transcribers. Literati formed in the mold of traditional education might memorize up to 40,000 characters. Learning as many of these as possible and mastering the art of rendering them became the cornerstone of Chinese culture. The hand of any educated Chinese was first trained to jot down the strokes of ideograms, and that left an indelible stamp on what we call Chinese “painting,” as, indeed, on the Chinese mind itself.
One of the earliest scrolls in the Met show represents a horse in full gallop. This was done in the mid-8th century by the famous master Han Gan according to an inscription calligraphed by a later owner, Emperor Li Yu, who reigned from 961 to 975. It does not take a specialist’s eye to notice the flawless flow of the curving lines rendering the animal’s body and its bridle. The shading in ink placed the picture within the category of what Tang annals call “white painting,” meaning monochrome works. But even though it is characterized as “painting,” the linear quality comes first, enhanced, not modified, by the shading.
From Tang to Song times, succeeding generations of masters brought the calligraphic tension of the curves and dashes in which they drew outlines to unsurpassed perfection.
The portrait of a horse done in 1296 epitomizes the calligraphic imprint on the painter’s achievement. Its author, Zhao Mengfu, had recently retired from high office under the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan (1260-1294) and was himself a famous calligrapher. The importance he attached to calligraphy is highlighted by a long scroll in his own hand, in which he recounts “Four Anecdotes from the Life of Wang Xizhi” (A.D. 303-361), a Taoist sage and calligrapher whose work influenced Zhao’s own.
So profoundly imbued was Zhao with calligraphy that when referring to his activity as a figural artist, he used the Chinese word for “writing.” Indeed, only a calligrapher could have managed the thrust of the curves outlining the animal’s figure and the dash of the mane tufts which bear a kinship of sorts to the short strokes of ideograms.
There was also a nonlinear strain in Chinese figural art, often favored in landscape painting, that likewise bore the imprint of the painter’s original training as a calligrapher.
The artist, pressing the tip of his ink-laden brush with varying force, would play on the contrast between the firm black contours of a mountain or boulder or tiny houses, and the pale shading in nuances of color or gray contained within the contour.
In “Summer Mountains,” attributed to Qu Ding, who was active during the second quarter of the 11th century, irregular outlines define steep, unreal mountains that rhythmically surge upward. Ill- defined pale shades, halfway between gray and brownish, get gradually darker along the edges as if a world in the making were emerging from the mists of creation. The eighth Song emperor Huizong (1101-1125), who was a master calligrapher, treasured it in his collection, as did, more than six centuries later, the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795).
Huizong, who was also a towering figure in the history of Chinese painting, used the same technique as Qu Ding to create one of the most poetic images of Song art, “Finches and Bamboo.” Yet, it could not be more different from Qu’s imaginary mountains, in style or conception. The emperor painted a close-up view of a cliff overhang by pressing the brush to outline the projecting rock and drew the upper layer in a lighter shade of gray.
The tonal contrast is a typical calligrapher’s device, and it is the calligrapher’s thrust that accounts for the movement of the curving bamboo stalks. The leaves in delicate turquoise green provide the only touches of real color in a composition that primarily relies on line for effect. The accurately painted finches give the impression of living creatures suddenly intruding into a world dreamed up in faint outline rather than seen. It is no accident that Zhao, the great master of linear painting, later owned Huizong’s masterpiece and recorded his admiration in a six-column inscription on the mount.
Another fundamental aspect of the impact that the calligrapher’s technique had over the Chinese painter’s art comes out in a whole range of landscapes aiming to create evocative impressions, not at precise depiction.
Xia Gui, active between 1195 and 1230, is one of the early masters of what Hearn aptly calls “evocative abbreviation.” In “Mountain Market, Clear with Rising Mist,” short strokes and small dabs of ink are swiftly applied to the album leaf much in the way in which the Chinese calligrapher dashes off his characters.
A third essential consequence, hitherto unacknowledged, of the influence of the calligrapher’s art over Chinese landscape painting is the balance of figural details versus empty areas in the overall composition, thereby offering a parallel to the calligrapher’s way of placing his columns of characters in reserved areas. In “Mountain Market, Clear with Rising Mist,” unreal rocky peaks float above an unpainted band that stands for the mist. Their dramatic punch is enhanced by the emptiness at left which sets off their sharp black strokes.
In some of the boldest masterpieces of Chinese two-dimensional art (which “painting” does not properly describe, if only because black ink alone is used), the areas untouched by the artist take as much space as those in which he allowed his brush to run. In the first half of the 13th century, Liang Kai used to maximum effect the dramatic contrasts obtained by reserving large empty areas.
In a small composition intended for a fan, Liang’s minimalist use of black ink strokes cutting into empty areas eloquently conveys the immensity of the cosmos confronting man in his puniness. A few dabs of ink at the top signify a mountain crest, and a thin black wedge quickly trailed with the brush stands for a cliff overhang stretching at an unreal angle over a vast expanse of water. The foreground is defined in the same kind of visual shorthand. The tiny figure of a man is the only detail actually depicted.
Even when practicing figural rendition, the Chinese artist was able to use the stroke-and-dab technique, as witness the two eagles painted in 1702 by Zhu Da, a descendant of the deposed Ming dynasty who used the pen name Bada Shanren. The energy that runs through the quick, short applications of black ink is, here too, that of a calligrapher used to dashing down the curves and accents of ideograms.
Bada Shanren, like Liang Kai four centuries earlier, belonged to the Chan branch of Buddhism, better known in the West as Zen, the Japanese pronunciation of the name. The discipline of silent meditation broken by rare utterances, and the flashes of mystical illumination find their visual corollaries in those sparsely painted scrolls and pages with ink strokes that seem to compress all the power of the human mind.
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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