When it comes to chinese painting, you might have experienced the same difficulties as I have.
These pictures are often intriguing, tastefully abstract, playful and mysterious. Yet after a while you begin to feel the repetition. All looks very similar, you start to talk about Chinese Painting and Chinese Art and you mark Chinese as “done” in your mental general-knowledge to do list. Of course this same problem occurs, when you look at european painting from about 400 to 1750 christian time: All those saints and religious people, some warriors, some women, mostly holy. There are some major changes of taste documented in the history of painting, like the use of perspective, reaching back to classical proportions, disproportioning everything into the opulent, changing the focus on poor people, abstraction. On the first sight, one can’t perceive such dramatic changes in chinese painting history until he learns to see some details, that really changed in enormous degrees. A real constant was only the form of painted art until the 20th century. In Europe there were mostly tableaus meant to be seen on a wall, pictures, that became over time more individual, telling first many typical stories at once (like with Hans Memling) and later more and more highly personal statements, where a preset topic was interpreted by the artist for a special occasion/buyer.
There we have already the first parallel to guide us, as the Chinese had their representational wall paintings as well, and as more private art form, they’ve chosen fans, paravents and the scroll, most notably the handscroll, which tells a story picture after picture. From this, different approaches and artists can be expected and scholars usually differ between those, who strive for the most exact representation of an object or person and others, who give an interpretation of a chosen subject. The representational approach differs from European realism. It is more a question of coloring, expression and above all: the brush stroke applied. Representing something with a minimal amount of interpretation means applying less changes, from tradition, from current styles or from the view of the current majority. Consequently the second approach, where interpretation is the real subject shown in an artistic work, has to do with deviation from some sort of normality; the strongest deviation you can feel, even if you don’t know anything about the normal chinese painting of a given period. A point of departure!
One very interesting period in Chinese Painting is the Tang, beginning in the 7th century. Around 750 an aesthetic distinction forms between she loose (she) and dense (mi) style. The art critic refers to the style in which lines are drawn. Crispy, continuously, sharp or wild, flowing, irregular? While looking through paintings of this age, you will surely recognize the green and blue paintings, founded by Li Sixun. The main characteristic is the relatively dark background and the vivid blue and glowing green, malachite coloring of the foreground. Sixun was a general of the imperial family, but in opposition to the current rule. In exile he developed his painting style, which is nurtured by official representational painting, but introduces the renegade coloring as well as the new use of landscape as part of the story-telling. Several members of the Li family were artists including Li Linfu, who was prime minister and dictator in the 730s and 40s. The popularity of this style also had political reasons, as it was used by the Li’s during the reinstitution of their political authority. Indeed, the tomb of Prince Yide, family member and killed by the then empress Wu Zetian, is the best source for it. Successful political opposition led to the new blue and green style, and it is an example of representational art, as the brushwork is especially clean and highlighting details:
Li Zhaodao – The Emperor Ming-huang’s Journey to Shu
Li Sixun (Attributed) – Sailing Boats and Riverside Mansion:
Around the same time, another sort of painting flourished: court women. These are representational paintings, that show the essence of a court lady, rather than individual women:
Zhou Fang – Court Ladies tuning the Lute
This examples gives me the possibility to add some specifics of chinese painting, that a western viewer has to take into account:
The scroll format, big or long, is quite inconveniant to represent in books or in the digital world. Mostly you will see only extracts.
What is written on paintings are usually poems added by scholars and art critics, owners and sometimes (in case of the “Literati” movement) the artist. The red seals are added by the artist, by which he also shows his personality, as the seal must not necessarily depict his name, but rather a joke or attribute. Other seals, especially when they are big and impolitely bad placed, are the names of owners.
For example an 16th century variant of the Journey to Shu by Qiu Ying, the references in scenery and color are clearly visible, but linework and also the material of the colors is completely different:
And lastly, the distinction between representing and subjective style is not to be measured by European standard, as chinese painting never aimed for the creation of the illusion of reality. Think of the renaissance up to our SciFi games and movies. Making these forms of art seem to be a window into a very plausible new reality, is specific to western art. But a represantating chinese painting will use well known aspects of a given situation, like a candle and the moon for a night scene, without distorting them, to show the essence of a real situation. Very subjective artists like Wu Daoxi, will distort; again, this is mainly a question of the brushstroke.
Another aspect of representing art is its official purpose; men of state, emperors, places will be shown with certain, historically agreed upon attributes. These essential attributes will be shown in great detail, whereas a subjective artists would render the painting as a whole to match the given attributes or situations, but with ambivalence.
To be continued…