Far Eastern Painting – China

The Western artist paints usually with viscous colors on a non-absorbent material, which permits retouches and corrections. The Far Eastern artist paints preferably in fluid colors upon highly absorbent materials-paper or silk–where correction or retouch means ruin. Evidently, the Far Eastern painter is bound to a scrupulously thoughtful and precise technic. This contrast of material conditions corresponds to profound discrepancies of racial temperament and aesthetic aim. European art appeals largely to memories of things, Chinese art appeals chiefly to memories of feelings; European art treasures as a chief maxim ars est celare artem, Chinese art utterly repudiates a requirement that would deprive it of conscious joy in fine and economical workmanship; European art is judged mostly by correspondence with fact and conceals its means, Far Eastern art is judged merely by its correspondence with fine emotions and avows its means. Or, pursuing the antithesis, Occidental art will tend to be realistic or, under favor-able conditions of selection and arrangement, classic, but there will always be an implied reference to a common experience that must not be offended; whereas Oriental art will tend to be exclusively romantic, setting no bounds to the emotions and permitting any exaggeration or distortion of common experience that the refined imagination may suggest.

This contrast of classic and romantic at which we are arrived very well illustrates both the usefulness and the danger of these general terms, for we must immediately attenuate the contrast by remarking that the romanticism of the Far Eastern painter is highly disciplined and limited by restrictions, sometimes hieratic, sometimes traditional in his craft. For example, a Chinese painter of the best period (roughly speaking, coincident with the Sung dynasty, from the tenth to the thirteenth century) is perfectly free to make a mountain ten times higher than it is, but he is bound to draw its edge according to one of a few standard formulas. These prescribed strokes, though based on the Chinese notion that painting is akin to calligraphy, are also admirable syntheses of the chief forms of structure in nature. Within less than a score of such strokes (for the correlation of which with facts of stratification, cleavage, erosion, etc., we must refer the reader to Mr. Taki’s interesting pages) the Chinese romanticist must find his repertory. His art no sooner attains the lyrical freedom of music than, like music, it accepts the straitest conventions.

And here, again, is a rather instructive difference between West and East. Precepts in the West are likely to apply to ways of feeling -to be, that is, a sheer drag upon the artist of talent whereas, in the East, precepts are generally confined to ways of doing and give the artist both a steadying discipline and a kind of social support. Another difference: the Chinese or Japanese artist is subject only to the authority of his peers or betters; great artists, learned priests, aesthetes, connoisseurs are his lawgivers. In fact, there existed in China a varied and flexible art reinforced by a subtile and exquisite criticism at the time when all Europe lay contentedly in a doddering Byzantinism. The European artist, on the contrary, has usually been more or less at the mercy of his aesthetic inferiors. Plain men have marked out the limits which genius at best might only evade. This fact will account for the rarefied quality of the best Chinese and Japanese landscapes. Their excellence is not accessible to untrained intelligences. Beside them the most diaphanous of Whistler’s nocturnes would seem just a shade too explicit. It is an aristocratic art, compounded of subtile understandings, of permitted audacities and syncopations, beside which Claude, Corot, and Turner at his broadest seem comparatively common, accessible, and democratic. Thus, with its tendency to sink into cheap realism, European art is, after all, far more widely representative of the civilizations that have produced it, and so more humanly significant, while Far Eastern art achieves a higher emotional intensity and a more strenuously choice and beautiful craftsmanship, after all, within far narrower limits.

For the student of painting all periods before the Sung dynasty, which ruled from the tenth through the thirteenth century, are merely legendary. Early historians and critics give us some idea of the works of the T’ang dynasty, the seventh and eighth centuries, and of the five dynasties from 907 to 960; but since no works surely of these periods have come down, our concern is chiefly with Sung painting. We have merely to note that the artists and critics of this period, perhaps erroneously, regarded themselves as decadent. Here ancestor-worship may well have caused public expressions of inferiority which by no means corresponded to intimate convictions. It is hard to imagine anything finer than the best landscape scrolls which have been transmitted to us by these self-styled epigoni. So fine was Sung painting that the Tartar conquerors of the Yuan dynasty, the fourteenth century, did but continue the established manner. In spite of patrons like Kublai Khan, there was during the Tartar sway a marked falling off in all the arts.

When the Ming emperors, ruling from the latter part of the fourteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century, restored the native dominion, the old, severe, philosophical tradition of Chinese art had pretty well worn itself out. Elegance was now the quality most de-sired. Beside the traditional landscapes and religious subjects, which have taken on a character at once more realistic and more sentimental, we find familiar pictures of courtly life. Woman now gets full standing in art. From Ming painting derives, at a considerable interval, the figure subjects on old blue porcelain. The Manchu emperors, who for more than two centuries have held the throne, have in the main thrown their influence in favor of the imitation of Ming design, though there have also been partial revivals of the Sung manner. In the eighteenth century Chinese art becomes strongly realistic, carrying genre painting into all walks of life. Very ingenious and sprightly much of this work is, but it is inferior to similar Japanese painting and rather lacking in specific racial quality. This hurried chronological survey may introduce us to our real subject, the painting of the golden age-the Sung dynasty.

In the temple treasuries, museums, and private collections of Japan, there are more than two hundred paintings of the Sung and Yuan dynasties, while a scantier remnant persists in China itself and in the public and private collections of the West. The Boston Art Museum, the Freer Collection at Detroit, and the British Museum are among the richest in this art. The Musee Guimet also contains a few fine examples. Such admirable facsimiles as we have in Kokka and the Select Relics, published at Tokio, make Sung painting fairly accessible to all students. There are a very few early paintings that possibly antedate the Sung period, and strongly suggest a primitive Chinese art free from Buddhistic influence and relatively realistic. Its existence is confirmed by those genre subjects in glazed terra cotta, of the Han dynasty (about the beginning of the Christian era), which have recently come to light. But the qualities of such underlying realistic painting must remain largely inferential. To the hieratic ideals of the Buddhist missionaries and the aristocratic formulas of the adepts of Confucius and Lao-tse, Chinese painting had yielded long before the, to us, merely traditional glory of the T’ang period (the seventh and eighth centuries). Of the severe splendor of the earliest hieratic painting, we have only Japanese echoes of later date. Still in the magnificent heroic figures of the Horiuji Temple at Yamoto and the famous portable shrine of the same establishment we have paintings not later than the early years of the seventh century of our era, and, what is more important, exquisite works of an art still profoundly religious. To suggest the high qualities of these hieratic figures of incarnations of the Buddha, one is driven to ambitious analogies. Imagine a Crivelli purged of his smaller eccentricities, a Mantegna endowed with spirituality and freed from merely perfunctory dignity, and you will have some notion of the tingling austerity of this art, of the elaborate beauty and significance of its line and color, of its tense and urbane spirituality. I fancy Giovanni Bellini, had he remained in his Mantegnesque phase and painted wall-decorations, might have done something as fine, but I can-not imagine any other artist of Europe meeting these Far Eastern mystics successfully on their own ground. Even in the superabundant scrolls of the centuries of decadence, some persistence of the solemn splendor of the parent art may be noted. At the risk of protesting overmuch, I must repeat that the value of this early hieratic art at its best is not relative, but absolute. Without pushing wide and futile comparisons, the seeker of the higher forms of beauty must acquaint himself with these rare survivals as he must familiarize himself with the pediments of Olympia, the mosaics of Ravenna, and the shattered portals of Rheims.

If the hieratic art of China and Japan finds its analogies in the great religious art of other periods, Chinese landscape-painting is a thing apart. No painting of landscape so fully realizes the profoundly psychological aphorism of Amiel that landscape is a state of mind (un etat de l’ame). Occidental landscape-painting has never fully emancipated itself from the requirement that it should be a record of facts. Hence, since large and comprehensive record is impossible, it has tended to limit itself to the picturesque bit. Our artists mostly prefer the thing that can be quite fully remembered and represented. A restricted kind of intimacy .is their ideal. Now, the Chinese landscape-painter, dealing primarily with feelings about nature, naturally chose those aspects that evoke feeling most powerfully. Great expanses of plain rimmed by looming mountains, ravines widening out to river-valleys, perilous gorges were his favorite themes. The long scrolls upon which some of the earlier landscapes are painted represent, in a single work, nature in many aspects. One may unroll gradually and with delight quiet rivers with boating-parties, gardens with the pavilions of the rich, arable fields, temples, and usually there will be a mountain screen behind these foreground subjects, gaunt and formidable against the sky. As one plies the rolls, picture succeeds to picture in modulations expressing so many phases of the love of nature. I hardly know an occupation more soothing, more evocative of reverent contemplation, than such converse with a landscape scroll of good period. Such apparently naive art prevails in virtue of fine selection and prudent elimination, withal by concentration upon the significant facts of landscape-its scale and proper magnitude, the run of rivers, and the passing of winds.

Repeatedly the Chinese artists give us the simple theme of a hermit sage shadowed by a lone tree and seated in contemplation of sub-lime scenery. These tiny philosophers often choose the brink of abysses for their meditations, or gorges cooled by the spray of cataracts. What is remarkable in these pictures is the impregnation of the whole with the mood of the small figure. The balance of the contours of the ravine, the outreaching of trees from the crags, will seem merely the projection of the thinker’s mood, or, conversely, he may be regarded merely as the incarnation of the spirit of the place. Such equilibrium between mood and fact is exquisitely maintained by the great Chinese painters and even by such gifted amateurs as the Emperor Huitsung, two of whose landscapes are included in Mr. Taki’s album. In these pictures the landscape is reduced to its minimum expressive lines, mere things have been well-nigh eliminated, and we have the kind of prospect that might exist in a world of ideas before the actual gross substances of the earth had been created.

Early Chinese art offers as well landscape of a more literal sort. There are snow scenes, views of frozen lakes, and the like, presented with the finest atmospheric equilibrium and with an infallible sense of texture. Here the rhythm is usually in the third dimension, de-pendent on the accurate placing of significant objects in aerial perspective. Snow scenes ascribed to Li Ti and Ma Lin in Mr. Taki’s book may best illustrate this comparatively objective phase of Chinese landscape. But here again the work is permeated with mood. Take the “Summer Landscape” in Viscount Okitomo Akimoto’s collection ascribed to Kao Jan-hui. Nothing could be simpler than its ingredients. A cascade bordered by dark firs slips down in a double curve and forms a quiet pool. High above, beyond intervening mists, the shaggy shoulder of a mountain takes up the double curve and loses it again in the upper vapors. There is in these hints a sense of the secular life story of the rivulet, of its eroding task through the ages, of its kinship with fog and rain; and one hardly needs the temple on the nearest ridge to remind us that these immemorial processes are sacred. To a beginner in this art I especially recommend this beautiful painting, the spiritual quality of which, together with its masterly and simple composition, must deeply affect any sensitive mind.

I can hardly dwell upon more deliberately fantastic and romantic phases of Chinese landscape-painting, though these are most interesting. Let me merely remark the sea-view ascribed to Chao Po-kiu, and illustrated in plate II of the Musee Guimet catalogue. Bare headlands rise like fangs against a rip-pled inland sound. In the interspaces are scant pine-trees. Beyond, two straits enclose an island which presents crags still more formidable to the sky. The sun touches the distant waters with broad, sullen streaks that are lustrous without brilliancy. Near by the wind crisps the water and urges tiny craft over the waste. Far away rules an ominous calm, and beyond a horizon lost in gloom there are faint but keen indications of an ultimate mountain ridge. The colors are a sombre blue and green, accented with black and gold. The whole impression is troubling and sinister in the extreme. One hardly needs the beautifully written note of a friendly critic, formerly custodian of this treasure, which informs us that

In the sea there are great islands, the home of marine demons, of crocodile-men, of pearls, and fish of every sort.

These isles are rather lofty, and rise from amid the waves. One sees emerge the crags where the spirits dwell and where the birds which fly between heaven and sea perch and brood and raise their young.

In the attempt to get at the spirit of Chinese landscape I have intentionally carried into one category of _expression works in color and works in India ink. The harm is the less because the Chinese in landscape use colors sparingly, often employing only two fundamental tones, and because they require of their draftsman in ink the illusion and richness of color itself. Dead ink is their strongest term of reproach, meaning ink carelessly and inexpressively applied. And their connoisseurs distinguish no less than five colors of ink, a refinement which, since the paper has a perceptible yellow quality and the ink a tendency to blue, is by no means imaginary. We shall do well to admit with the native critics that, although the simplest and most concentrated effects are attained in monochrome, the colored landscape has a wider range and a more accessible amenity. If a Westerner readily casts his vote with the devotees of ink, it is largely be-cause such work suffers less in reproduction. Nor can I make much of the very interesting native division of all landscape-painting into southern and northern, although this somewhat paradoxical distinction throws much light on Chinese ways of thought. The river scenery of the south abounds in sublime and sensational features, but southern painting is suave and gentle. Northern scenery is monotonous, but the northern style of painting is rugged, emphatic, overtly picturesque. The terms, then, correspond to nothing in Chinese geography, but to much in Chinese modes of feeling. The same painter under diverse inspiration will paint in the northern or in the southern manner. Sometimes critics object to the treatment of a northern subject with inappropriate southern suavity. The words, in short, present something like our own wide but ill-defined antithesis between the classic and romantic. We should not go far amiss if we said that Goetz von Berlichingen was in Goethe’s northern manner; Iphigenie in his southern.

Nearly a thousand years ago the critic, Kuo Hsi, in his work, The Noble Features of the Forest and the Stream, expressed once for all the guiding sentiment of Chinese landscape-painting. He takes it as axiomatic that all gently disposed people would prefer to lead a solitary and contemplative life in communion with nature, but he sees, too, that the public weal does not permit such an indulgence.

This is not the time for us [he writes] to abandon the busy worldly life for one of seclusion in the mountains, as was honorably done by some ancient sages in their days. Though impatient to enjoy a life amidst the luxuries of nature, most people are debarred from indulging in such pleasures. To meet this want, artists have endeavored to represent landscapes so that people may be able to behold the grandeur of nature without stepping out of their houses. In this light painting affords pleasures of a nobler sort, by removing from one the impatient desire of actually observing nature.

Such a passage yields its full meaning only upon very careful reading. One should note the background of civilization, quietism, and rural idealism implied in so casual an _expression as the “luxuries of nature.” Nor should one fail to see that what is brought into the home of the restless worldling is not the mere likeness of nature, but the choice feeling of the sage. Again, the statement that the enjoyment of a thing merely symbolized and shadowed forth by the artist is nobler than the enjoyment of the thing itself should be duly weighed. Never, I think, did the Chinese fall into the recurrent Occidental confusion of means with ends by which art was thought to be mere imitation or conveyance of nature.

Hence, while Chinese landscape-painting is frequently tenuous, and almost always adapted to somewhat esoteric modes of feeling, it is almost never vulgar or inconsequential. Demand was made not upon the observational skill of the artist; that was simply taken for granted; but upon his inner resources. For five centuries and more the Chinese artist was worthy of such a challenge, and even in decadence he retained at least the forms and ceremony of the aristocratic mysticism of greater days.