Le Confident

Ideas tête-à-tête

Chinese Painting II – Wu Daozi – The whirling brushstroke

Yesterday we talked about Tang dynasty painting, that tries to give an exact account of the essence of real situations. The Tang dynasty under Li Longji or emperor Tang Xuazong was the time of cultural blossom. Whereas the royal court had to dispose of a dead body about every 20 years or so, the life in the cultural centers developed unseen esthetic heights.

Wu Daozi was one of them and introduced such an amaount of new astonishing things to his craft, that he became what for Europe might be Zeuxis or Timanthes. You might know the story, by which Zeuxis was asked to paint grapes, that were so realistic, to even let the birds of the air pick after them. Pliny tells us in the same account, that his greatest rival Parrhasios then painted veils, which Zeuxis tried to move asside to see the supposedly underlying painting more clearly. And Timanthes, who at least inspired the Sacrifice of Iphigenia in Pompeij is remembered for his strikingly vivid face expressions. I pull this parallel, because all these painters are remembered by name and literary testimonies, but none of their works has survived.
There is only one engraving, that is today seen as an authentic Wu, the 87 celestial beings:


Everything else is more or less convincingly attributed to him, might be copies, which isn’t all too bad, as chinese painters took a revered tradition very seriously. Wu Daozi didn’t found a school, but his style is unforgettable and thereby found many disciples. Unlike his greek colleagues, Wu is to be considered a highly subjective artist, altering the essence of reality not only by his furious brushstrokes, but also by his choice of painting mythological figures, monsters and gods. Some of them were invented by his imagination as he went along. Let me give you some examples, that I picked up from various internet sources, again, these are attributions:

The flying demon: Coal copy of a temple engraving:


Confuzius (Attributed)







Most of his works were engravings in various temples, that were destroyed in the course of time. Religious paintings up to this time, also taoist works, also followed a strict canon, you know the game. But Wu Daozi introduced psychological truth to his renderings, even though he didn’t follow any laid out traditional path, a truth transmitted only by the power of his forms on the mind of the viewer. As his works vanished and due to a painting style, that fits well his rebellious lining, many legends grew around his name, some of them inspirational stories, that bestow the same effect as his paintings: the notion of metaphysical happenings, inspired by a unique personality and it’s visible traces.

One painting of five dragons for example, was so lifelike, “that mist swirled around them whenever it was about to rain”  (Wu Hung 1997)

On a mural for emperor Xuanzong, he painted a buzzing forest scene and then he painted a cave, inviting the emperor to follow, but before his majesty could enter, the cave closed behind Wu and the whole painting vanished.

When butchers and fishmongers around Xiangji Monastery saw the Wu’s hell paintings, they were so terrified of the consequences of their sins, that they immediately changed their trade.


Around 750, the Tang dynasty fell apart, in a bloody period that is known as the An Lushan Rebellion, which led to a long series of inquietude and disorder, the loss of the western parts of territory (which is today Xinjiang, the uygur region of china, then connecting point between chinese, indian and arabian culture), the fall of Xi’an as capital city and no political stability for 200 years. The last part of this period is named after “Five Dynasties”. Traditional representation of political events and XL format wall painting fell out of taste, smaller forms of art, individualistic approaches began to grow in various places around China.


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This entry was posted on October 11, 2012 by in Art and tagged , , , , , .
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