CLP 95: 1963 (Follow-up to “The Contemporary Relevance of Chinese Painting,” CLP 132.)



(Follow-up to “The Contemporary Relevance of Chinese Painting”) 1963

Last year I gave at Asia House here in NY, also in different forms at Institute Of Contemporary Arts in Washington & elsewhere, a lecture titled “The Contemporary Arts in Washington & elsewhere, a lecture titled “The Contemporary Relevance of Chinese Painting.” Now, on occasion of exhibition of Crawford Collection Of Chinese Paintings, I’ve been given the opportunity to do a second lecture on a related theme, as kind of sequel.

I can properly begin, then, w. A few words on what previous lecture was about, both for those who didn’t hear it & those who did, since I can’t flatter myself that anything said so long ago could have been so memorable as to remain in anyone’s mind now.

I made the statement that no other body of painting  in world art offers such close parallels s to recent developments in Occidental art as Chinese painting of the past 6th century or so; that one may, in fact, question whether there are any other valid parallels, since basic assumption, that underly modern Western painting, concerning the expressive power of forms, the possibility of a painting’s meaning being independent of its subject, if any, the notion that the resemblance of a painting to its subject doesn’t necessarily enhance its value as a work of art—all these basic assumptions, with others that derive from them, can’t be said to have existed, as integrated concept of art, anywhere else at any time.  I said that remarkably “modern” look of some Chinese painting, with its conscious distortion or denial of space and solid form, and rational order, its degree of independence from visual reality, was not the result of any naiveté or decorative intent or technical limitations, as is the case with most “modern-looking” artefacts from other cultures; nor is it stylization aimed at increasing the religious power of the image, as in so much religious art, a process which leaves the painting still very tightly bound to the image, to its subject; but is the outcome of fully conscious use of non-representational means for purposes of individual expression; and that therefore there was no such disparity in aims and approach separating the Chinese painter from  ours, as there is between the makers of these other “modern-looking” objects and our artists. I tried to back up this claim with some discussion of the theories behind the so-called Literati School of painting in China, the painting done  by the scholar-amateurs, which was the progressive force in painting from the 14th century onward; and also showed some of the works of these literati painters.

I also went at some length into the possibility that this genuine affinity between such Chinese Painting and recent Western painting could be used to test some theories about the latter – why our art is what it is, how it got that way. For instance , notion that the rejection of Renaissance and post-Renaissance achievements in representational painting reflects the same general current intellectual history as anti-humanist modes of thought prevalent today, notably existentialism.  I suggest that the occurrence of very similar developments in painting in China, in the completely humanist context of Confucianism, casts very strong doubt on that notion. Instead of expanding on that theme, however (a very controversial one) I’d like to go deeper into the nature of the expressive means, and the use of subject matter, in Chinese painting, and especially those features in which its strongest affinities with Modern Occidental art lie. Fortunately, some paintings that illustrate these features very well are in the Crawford exhibition, and I’ll use them for some of my examples, although not all. Talking more of painting than paintings ; so slides really meant to provide visual  images somehow suitable to themes I’ll touch on.

What unites Chinese and modern Western painting: if one had to sum it up in a word, the word might be abstraction; but this is a word with various meanings. Simplest, popular interpretation, the less picture looks like the object, the more “abstract” it is.  I mean it is somewhat deeper level: question of relationship of painting to exterior world, what use subject matter put to, precise nature of images and forms appearing in pinting.

S.S. Kuo Hsi detail; Hui-tsung History of Chinese paddinting after 11th-18th century could be written in terms of movement into abstraction—away from representationalism, or the painting conceived primarily as a picture. This is an art that rises to greatest heights of realism – on its own terms, that is, which means always with some idealization, formalization, interpretation – by 10th and 11th century, and recedes from realism for rest of its history. This recession from realism was once regarded as a steady decline; post-Sung painting scarcely treated in old books; now, while we may still recognize Sung as greatest period and admire early works in e.g. Crawford collection more than most of later ones, we have more respect, and we hope more understanding for painting of later centuries, which we see as reflect a shift in aims and values. Here to illustrate early period, Kun Hsi of 11th century – very much concerned with creating impression of space and atmosphere with capturing real feeling of scene – in other words, with quality of LS itself.  After him, new conventions succeed one another; but little if any true advance in technical problems of representation LS (use “advance” in orthodox but somewhat discredited sense of movement toward more accurate and convincing depiction.) Other; Hui-tsung, emphasize who believed in painting things the way they really looked – ornithologically accurate portraits of birds.

S.S.  Kao K’o-ming detail; Ma Lin detail. 11th cent. And 13th centruy Examples of pine trees – Kao K-m Crawford collection, Ma Lin in recent Palace Museum exhibition. Generally, earlier painting strikes us as more objective, less imbued with emotional aura. Ma Lin so idealized as to be remote from nature in a sense.  Note that rendering of sealy bark of pine has become more calligraphic in Ma Lin; swift invt. of brush commands some attention for itself.  But both belong to basically representation moves of painting elegance, mannered beauty, of Ma Lin’s pine still felt as relevant to subject; his brushwork a show of skill;  more impressive than expressive, in contrast to those we’ll look at next.  All this belongs to Sung dynasty, when separate mode of painting. reaches its apex.

S.S. Alb. leaves pine trees, by Li Shan (early 18th cent.), Chu Ta (slightly earlier) same tendency carried much further.  In Li Shan, rotary movements of  brush, ostensibly delineating the scales of pine-bark, really established the formal theme of the ptg; all but independent of appearance of pine bark. A pictoral convention that threatens to divest itself of its orig. Significance and exist independently, as pure form.  In Chu Ta, has virtually done so; recognizable as pine chiefly by reference to convention as used in thousands of other pine paintings. – the mut., the gesture is what matters.

Question of expressive means, with regard to such ptgs. as these, has no simple answer; no. of factors must be brought in to account for power of these ptgs.  I’ll treat under four main headings. First, and often most important, or at least most conspicuous in ptgs such as these brushwork; fabric of picture, brushstrokes that compose it, considered as records of mvts. of brush in artist’s hand. Wm. James, in an essay, draws analogies bet. human mvt. and feelings; viewer translates one into other, w/o stopping to think just what the connection is based on; as person watching dance; violent, ragged mvts. trans. into unrestrained, strong emotions; slower flowing mvts. into calmer feelings; and so on, into more complex states of mind. Hardly provable assoc, but felt by anyone—dance mvts. felt as analogous to mvts. made by persons exper. Those feelings – actors know certain motions betray certain emotional states. Not simple matter; emotion of course needn’t actually be felt by person making it (ordinarily isn’t)- powerful emotions held in can be analogous to restrained mvts; but w. sense of tension. Much of Ch. ptg. has this qual., in fact. Brushstrokes unconsciously read, by viewer, as permanent records of mvts.  (Striking demon. Of mvt. trans. into line in film several years ago in which Picasso, seen thru transparent screen, drew large, linear designs--)

Impor. of this element in Ch. ptg. accounts for what has been to many Western scholars, an exasperating overemp. on brushwork in Chinese critical and theoretical writings abt. Ptg; and also, in a way, for great interest Chinese show in nature of ptr. himself. Calligraphic element in ptg. is “read” by sense of understanding organism that orign. These lines and strokes: mentality, physical and emotional composition – totality of man. Leads, inevitably, to interest in man, which Chinese satisfy w. endless commentaries on ptrs., insc. on ptgs., etc.

S.S. Kung Hsien; K’un-ts’an. two LS in Crawford exhib., approx. Contemp. (2nd half 17th cent.) individualists: had distinctive, generally consistant manners of painting, so that one familiar w. their works could ident. them from small area of ptg. interesting comp.; but they are not what concern us now; will turn to details that show the qual. of brushwork—

.S. Kung Hsien has worked w. fairly wet brush, fluid manners; dynamic mvts. implicit in strokes; nervous, jerky motion in trees; also a certain sketchy carelessness, impatience (no always so in his work—bit unusual here). K’un-ts’an the opposite: dry-brush tech., i.e. ptgs. w. brush lightly loaded w. dense ink; or long lines; no suggestion of impulsiveness, as in Kung Hsien; slow, deliberate building up of soft, crumbly forms. Manner not entirely w/o representational function; enables him to capture earthy textures, rather disorderly look of Nature; but once more, hand of artist reveals mind of artist-in fact, whole mental and physical being of artist. Don’t want to fall into trap – as Chinese critics seldom did—of speaking of this as direct expression of emotion – artist of experiencing strong feelings, setting it down in ptg., thru brushwork, other expres. means we’ll consider later. To suppose he made this or that kind of stroke because he was feeling, at moment he did it, this or that emotion, makes nonsense of whole concept of style—which would vary enormously as his moods shifted. (There is, of course, some variance, but consistency usually more striking). Formation of personal style related rather to settled habit of mind, temperament, character-less ephemeral qual. of artist. And of course much of it becomes as much attribute of hand as mind; as one’s handwriting is. And read, or perceived, as such by sensitive viewer; translated into human terms, as “records of felt life” (to use Susanne Langer’s phrase). And Vivid records, communicated w. Utmost directness.  It is, of course, just this directness of statement that is exploited by so many ptrs. Today in “calligraphic” styles; but w. results which in many cases, however, the Chinese would probably not admire partly because Occidental ptg. lacks a strong tradition emphasizing indiv. modulations of brushwork (this in spite of brilliant single fig.—Rubens, El Greco, Renoir--) and so there are no accepted canons to discipline the indiv.  Effort; partly because of the very great limitations of the oil medium, which makes it singularly unsuited to the uses it’s sometimes been put to lately – because of the sluggishness of the oil pigment itself, and the resulting stiffness and unresponsiveness of the brushes with which the poor ptr. is forced to push it around. And dripping it from tubes is a solution Chinese would find diverting, but hardly satisfying.

S.S. Lest anyone think I exaggerate, and the dry-brush drawing of K’un-ts’an was meant as purely representational device, I show a use of it by a contemp. and probably acquaintance of the artist, Ch’eng Sui-two leaves from an album of LS. (Very bad slides, copied from bad reproductions.) Reduced almost to pure surface texture; ref. to LS minimal, perfunctory. Existence of such ptgs. as these, in which brushwork, repetition of similar strokes, used to produce consistent and interesting surface, forces us to recognize importance of this same element in other ptgs. which may retain more of semblance of picture.

S.S.  Bamboo att. To SuShih, 11th cent.; blossoming plum branches by Ching Sung, 18th cont. Could talk abt. In terms of brushwork: both these kinds of ptg. depend heavily on calligraphic element; stolid, stable Su Shuh vs. fanciful, eccentric Chan Nung but want to introduce here second category of expressive means; expressive form; meaningfulness of whole structure of comp., and of forms that make it up. Again, somewhat sep. from subject matter and its associations. A 14th cent. Chinese writer says that he prefers to pt. bamboo when in angry mood, orchids when happy; bamboo, w. leaves sticking out like spears, firm stalks, suited to expres. of anger, fierce emotion, while orchids, w. Long, supple leaves waving gracefully, better suited to joy, exhilaration.  These are not standard connotations of these plants in Ch. art; ptr’s choice of them based entirely on relationship he feels bet. their forms and human states of mind. Present-day aesthetician Rudolph Arnheim, among others, stresses exactly the same expres. Capacity of forms; uses example of willow, which has air of melancholy, not because tree itself in any way sad, but because branches, tendrils, hanging in long curves, suggest as he says “a comparison w. the structurally similar state of mind and body that we call sadness.” Blossoming plum, because it blossoms very early in year, has assoc. of rejuvenation, rebirth for Chinese; also transient beauty, since blossoms last such short time. But also, and apart from this, lacy pattern formed by twigs and flowers, contrast bet. heavy branch and fragile blossoms, extreme attenuation of branch, all formally expressive, in way described by 14th cent. Chinese and modern Western writers quoted, of human states of mind and patterns of experience.

S.S.  Wu Li, 17th cent.; LS in FGA. Even more suited to such expression thru forms and their relationships is LS. When Chinese talk abt. “host” and “guest” in mts., or master and servants, and use similar terms of human relat. in speaking of trees, stones etc., they are not falling into pathetic fallacy, but recog. formal analogies w. human situations, w. recurring patterns of existence. Such a ptg. as this is endlessly fascinating; and what makes it so isn’t any penetrating presentation of nature, but its power sheerly as construction – use of very tall, narrow format; diag. thrusts of leaning peaks, one side to other; repet. of similarly-shaped rocks in rows, and repet. of these rows throughout picture; qual. of brushwork not easily discernible in slide – these, and not mts. And rivers and trees, are essential elements in this ptg. I won’t  attempt a detailed analysis of it, but will only say that such an analysis would have more in common w. The analysis of a musical comp. – tensions and their resolutions,  balance or dynamic symmetry, etc. – than with kind of nature – poems that Sung LS ordinarily inspires (and very properly) (Another poem of details).  Meaning lies in forms; in kind of symbolism of form that is largely independent of what form represents. Wu Li has drastically limited materials in his LS; constructs his comp., makes his statement, out of this limited repertory, w/o becoming so involved. w. associations that natural objects carry with them when treated more naturalistically and sympathetically.  Houses etc., very much subordinate.  One is reminded of Cezanne, who urged his models to try their best to look like apples; likewise concerned primarily w. form.

S.S.  LS by Wang Yüan-ch’i also FGA; a few decades later. Wang is author of short treatise on LS extreme contrast to treatise of Kuo Hsi in 11th cent., is totally devoid of comment on LS of nature; concentrates on conception and execution of ptg.  Says that when one studies an old ptg.., “One should look for its main ideas, how it is composed, how one may move out of and into it, where it is slanting and where straight, how things are placed, how the brush is used, how the ink is distributed.”

Again, a reduction of nature to simple forms, in complex arr. that has little to do w. relat. of things in nature. Development of type-forms in Ch. ptg., this transformation of visual appearances into a somewhat schematized repertory, usually interp. as means of universalizing ptg. by making rock which rep. all rocks, etc. generally true observation for early periods; but in later Ch. ptg., dif. matter – abstraction of form as withdrawal from object, not as going deeper into it.  This isn’t a popular way to approach Ch. ptg, because doesn’t allow kind of romantic commentary that other approaches encourage. When we talk abt. any essentially abstract art, forced to discuss in terms of formal means – as Chinese do, in talking of such as this—no one would think of praising Wu Li or Wang Yüan-ch’i for understanding, perceptive treatment of scenery.

S.S. Two more details. Color here; but even this inn abstract way, like warm and cool system of Cezanne or Cubist. Recognition of  power of forms to symbolize human relat. and exper. goes back to early times in China, when Confuc. music theorists found, in way octave reinforces tonic, other notes harmonize or produce discord, analogies to loyal ministers acting in unison with, or harmony with, their ruler; other subjects in harmony w. them; and so on, creating consonant structure of society. Not so explicitly moralized in ptg., but same kind of thought.

S.S. Hung-jen, likewise 17th cent.; individualist. Fond of ambiguities, of sort seen in opening of scroll: long line, at first seems upper contour of sloping land mass with rocky cliff protruding above it; later forced, by context, to become shore-line of river. Such plays w. solid and space, in Hung-jen, reinforced by qual. of brushline-straggling, often hesitant, absolutely w/o any touch of bravura; but never static. Throughout creation of ptg., ink values, shapes, details, down to smallest element, indiv. stroke – mind of artist revealed at every point.  This as I said earlier not strictly same as expression, in sense of direct outpouring of emotion; this expressly avoided by Ch. ptrs., according to theorists, and one feels it to be true in most ptgs. rather, a relevation of totality of man; his temperament rather than his feeling; at partic, moment; permanent qualities rather than transient moods. Intensity of moment caught – Chinese hsung   but not personalizing emotions Chinese speak of “seeing man in ptgs.” Really come to understand working of his mind; his conception of the world and his place in it; the thru abstract formal means I’ve been trying to define.

S.S. Tao-chi, 17th cent., greatest of individualists; “ Drunk in Autumn Grove,” hanging scroll in Crawford col. superb ptg. on terms I’ve been talking abt.—(wet, much use of kind of pointillist tech.), also formal construction of scene; but in this case, subj. deserves more attn. old men drinking wine, in autumn grove (to dispel melancholy); sense of sadness in postures, echoed in ptg. of trees (symbolism thru form again); reddish color pertains to autumnal mood.   Would be absurd, however, to discuss this inpurely abstract terms; ptr. not so aloof from his subj. as others we’ve been looking at; on the contrary, seems deeply involved with it.  Third category of expressive means, then, is subj. matter; Chinese views of ptg. ,ptg. “meant” same thing as subject “meant” – that is, it affected one in same way; one responded in same way.  In such a picture as this, however, meaning or mood it evokes (melancholy, among other things) depends as much on execution as on things depicted. Tao-chi’s highly indiv. rendering transforms trees and mists and river and bldgs. into his own private idiom; creates his own world. Visual image, then, is not objective of artist, which he tries to recreate in ptg., as in so much Occidental ptg.; but rather point of departure; from which he can go off in various directions.

If one asks, in fact, why Chinese never arrived at total abstraction, non-objective art, when they came so remarkably close to it, answer (nowhere explicitly stated in Ch. art literature, since ptrs. Don’t bother to explain why they don’t do something that evid. Never occurred to them)—answer probably lies in just this concept of transformation. However radical the departure from the starting point which is the visual image, some remote ref. To it always remained, and ptg. was “read” in ref. To it; recognition of what artist had done to his visual materials contrib.. to expres. of ptg., and, in anti-realistic styles, contrib.. to air of oddity, eccentricity. To omit all ref. To nature deprives ptg. of this extremely effective expressive means. Don’t mean to say this is nec. an undesirable limitation; artists have always imposed limitations on selves, part of process of forming a style – but is a limitation, and for Chinese , one they never submitted themselves to, at least until recently.  One might note how “abstract” calling. Fashionable today in Japan, which is similarly devoid of all ref. to written characters, strikes one as quite impoverished and lacking in discipline, seen beside great calling. Of past, however eccentric and illegible that may have been.

S.S. Visual image may be transformed, departed from, in various ways. One: in direction of fantasy Left Wang Mang, 14th cent; right Fan Ch’i, 17th cent. Ptr. Out of fairly naturalistic materials, ptr. Creates awesome dream-world, which obeys quite dif. Laws from those that govern real world. Fascinating dev., reminds one of Surrealists; I touched on this in previous lecture, won’t go into concept to remark on it.

S.S. Another variety of distortion is kind of primitivism which runs thru much of scholar ptr’s school. Here, ptg. att. Li Kung-lin, 11th sent, but more likely by 13th cent. follower of his. Outrageously bad perspective; childishly drawn figure; scroll full of such pseudo-artlessness, has air of naiveté that is completely belied by some very sophisticated ptg. of such natural elements as trees, insects. Artistic motives for this primitivism very complex; involve deliberate amateurism; admiration for archaic styles and their lack of obvious skill and finish; harmony of style with subj., since these are illustrations to agricultural poems of ancient China, from Book of Odes.

S.S. Once this element of primitivism becomes firmly rooted in Ch. ptg., whole problem of values further complicated; hard to distinguish deliberate awkwardnesses of ptr who is really very capable and sophisticated, such as Tung C-c (left, ptg. in FGA) from works of genuinely amateurish “Sunday ptr.” Such as Hsiang Y-p, noted 16th cent. Collector, whose LS scroll in Crawford col. (right) is considerably above average for him. Distinction exists; not an illusion, but making this distinction, and defining it, is another of many difficulties that later Ch. ptg. presents us with.

These are two modes of transformation; there are various others; and along with these, and more important than any, is fundamental transmutation of basic materials into repertory of meaningful forms, and into private idiom of brushwork, the two basic categories of expressive means I spoke of earlier.

Before leaving category of subj. matter, want to comment on question of symbolic content in subj. matter in ptg.; that is, use of symbols that have fixed meaning, understood by all members of particular culture. This brings up a point on which Chinese theories of ptg. and modern Western ones – at least some of them –tend to differ. In West, art has traditionally been seen as an individual activity (since Ren., at least); the creation and appreciation of it dependent upon impulses and responses of particular people. But lately, emph. in theoretical writings more on art as social or cultural phenomenon, conditioned by forces operating thru whole society; art seen as source for understanding of whole society, as in writings of Malraux. Among psychological theories of art, distinction between Freudian approach – forms and motifs of art as symbols reflecting unconscious life of artist – and Jungian, which sees most meaningful symbols in art as arising from collective unconscious, assuming function of archetypes, common to all people w/in particular tradition, and even to some extent cutting across cultural traditions. This point of view, as enunciated by Jung himself, Siegfried Giedion, many others, is chief counter-argument to individualistic theories of art, which are curiously unfashionable today – curiously, because of nature of our art, which is anything but universally intelligible.

Chinese had richer fund of common symbols, perhaps, than most other societies, because of unparalleled longevity and cohesion of tradition, also importance of symbolic mode from earliest times; symbolism so prevalent in Chinese art, throughout history, that it is popularly thought of as kind of fundamental characteristic of the art. But for Ch. ptg., I think we have to stay with individualist approach, as do Chinese theorists themselves.

Arguing against the “collective unconscious” notion, and the dependence on symbolism, one may note that the extremely limited range of subjects in later Ch. ptg does not correspond to what we know to be most potent symbols in their culture. In early art, symbol and subj. virtually synonymous; art devoted to animals—tiger, serpent dragon to fungus, to clouds; later, to landscape symbolism, w. mts., trees, mists etc. Assuming archetypal importance. But in later centuries, although these motifs still treated as symbols in popular art, not so in “polite arts” – poetry and ptg. Trees, hills, in Tung C—LS treated in way that could hardly allow them to function as meaningful symbols; don’t retain enough independence and self-assertion for that; treatment of them, and their arrangement in comp., is what matters; they are, in effect, like expressively neutral pieces of lumber out of which ptr. Builds his structure.

Shift from concept of ptg. as technique to ptg. as (in words of Max Loehr) a humanistic discipline means it can be engaged in by those who haven’t time and patience and ambition to learn technique; so old danger, that skilful techniques will be end in itself, is replaced by new danger, that in flouting technique the emancipated artist may be concealing his inadequacy in other areas.  In this, we surely recognize a familiar situation, and feel a kinship with the Chinese.

S. In fact, in many cases they are borrowed from earlier ptg. – in this case, chiefly from Ni Tsan, 14th cent. Landscapist, seen here is one of 2 ptgs. In Crawford col. Preponderance of this rather stereotyped river landscape in later Ch. ptg. surely isn’t to be explained by fascination w. This particular scene; the scene is repeated until one can only conclude that in itself it is of fairly small importance.

S.S. Two more examples – Wen C-m of 16th cent., Hung-jen of 17th. Both sections of handscrolls; both derived, in part at least, from Ni Tsan landscape formula. Persistance of such a motif as this—or bamboo, or blossoming plum branches – has to do rather with its adaptablility to formal concerns of the artist.  A motif, of a type of painting created by an earlier artist or series of artists, provides a point of departure, just as the visual impressions from nature do; and in both cases, the mode of the departure, which is individually conditioned, matters more, in the end, than the nature of the original materials.

Hung-jen, by the way, a fine example of the kind of cultivated naivete I remarked on earlier; he is as far from true artistic innocence as Paul Klee and Miro.

This phenomenon of art derived from art brings us to the fourth and last of my categories of expressive means: derivation from, or reference to, earlier art.  I mean this as something distinct from normal process of artist taking his place in a still viable tradition, following earlier artists in that tradition.  In much of later Chinese ptg., it is a more conscious matter – ptr. “working in style of” earlier master, using this reference to style as part of expres. means of ptg. Wen Cheng-mind and Hung-jen, ptrs. Of these two LS, were surely taking advantage of special associations that style of Ni Tsan had for Chinese connoisseurs; a certain emotional aura goes with the style—as with us, for instance, certain notions of order and chaste simplicity in life adhere to classical Greek styles; conjures up whole complex of feelings.

S.S. Such a ptg. as the Ch’iao Chung-ch’ang Red Cliff, one of the finest pieces in Crawford col, full of allusions to the archaic. in this passage – the poet,   Su Shih, climbing to the top of the cliff – the rectilinear rock formations evoked, for Sung dynasty scholars, very early landscape styles, T’ang dyn. and before. In fact, this picture illustrates admirably everything I’ve been talking about –- expressive brushwork, in the dry, slow-moving line; meaningful forms, in rocks, trees, formal repetitions; a decided primitive throughout; the associations of the subject, Su Tung- p’o’s prose poem The Red Cliff, one of the three or four best-known poems in Chinese literature, and composed only a few decades earlier by a poet who may have been known to the painter. Here the artist’s reference to earlier styles is rather intellectual, in a sense art-historical; in other cases, closer to direct imitation.

S.S.  In the anon, handscroll, for instance, it is still very much a matter of controversy whether the so-called blue-and-green style of landscape, as used here belongs to an early period, the 10th century, when this style was still current (this view of M.L. , who wrote entry in catalog) or the early 12th cent., when this stile revived as an archaism—as I myself believe in the case. May seem unimportant, but really a crucial distinction in understanding the picture: was the ptr. depicting a landscape,  primarily, or evoking an old style?

This shouldn’t be confused with the traditionalism which is sometimes seen as characteristic of Chinese culture, although related to it in that it implies a respect for the past.  Such stylistic allusions not at all incompatible with originality, individualism; rather allow artist to enrich his works w. further levels of meaning.

S.S.  In such a ptg. as this – landscape, if you can call it that, by Ch’ien Hsüan, late 13th cent. (unpub., little-known picture, but famous in China)—in such a ptg, meaning depends chiefly on very complex, sophisticated interplay of archaism – free reference to antique styles—and an intense originality, an experimental quality which makes it distinctly bizarre.  Ptr. assumes viewers will be familiar w. styles he’s playing on; and also that they won’t judge his picture for its fidelity to actual appearance of LS.

Something very familiar to us here, also.  Chief dif. is that modern Western artist familiar w. much more; not only his own trad., but something like totality of world art—Malraux’ “imaginary museum”—and can draw on all this as he pleases.  In sculpture: Henry Moore admits that genesis of whole series of reclining female fig. was Mayan fertility goddess. Jacques Lipschitz has done bronzes which show unmistakeable familiarity w. Shang and Chou bronzes of China.  In ptg: many examples; Picasso comes to mind at once – both he and Dali have recently done series of plays and variations on a single ptg. by Velasquez. And one thinks of classical allusions in many ptrs. –Picasso, Chirico, Erni. common also in music. Poetry.  All quite different from straightforward imitation; reveals a preoccupation w. style as an independent element in art.

S.S. Tung C-c (Crawford) – trees and rocks; Chinese connoisseur would read as juxtaposition of trees in manner of Ni Tsan, rocks in that of Wang and Meng.  What is involved here is question of consciousness. Some of my distinctions may seem too limiting; surely absurd to deny that pre-modern artists in West made use of expressive power of abstract form, etc. The point is that the Chinese were concerned, both as artists and as critics, much earlier than we, with capacities and functions of ptg. other than representational, with ptg. other than representational, with ptg. other than as picture.  We are occupied, now, w. morphology of forms – mysterious growth and transformation of forms in art, through time; one of chief interests of art historian.  But no people, other than Chinese, engaged until recently in such a sophisticated kind of re-using, manipulating, transforming, playing upon, the forms and motifs of their predecessors.  We talk of expressive uses of color, composition, linear quality, things somewhat apart from the descriptive or representational uses of these same elements; but we talk in terms that would have been unintelligible to our own ptrs. until well into 19th cent. Chinese were saying, by 11th cent., that likeness of picture to its subj. has little to do w. quality of ptg. as work of art.  We are more concerned, generally, w. style the w. subj.; but this interest rep. Very sharp break with our tradition before last century or so. Chinese were consciously creating styles, re-using or alluding to styles, combining and contrasting styles, by 11th and 12th cent., even more so from 14th; doing this w in such a severely limited range of  subject matter than subject sees to be clearly of secondary importance.

One of the things that Ch. ptg. to us, then is its char. as a reflective art; concerned w. itself, its attitudes twd. itself affecting its course; subject to kind of feedback, whereby critical and theoretical ideas derived from new currents and mvts in painting, to far toward determining ensuing currents and mvts. – as is the case in recent Western painting., where artists are intensely aware of what critics and theorists are saying.

Last of all, inevitably, one comes to question of value. Can such reliance on previous art be a valid expressive means? Can brushwork and other abstract elements be the vehicles of meaning in great art, or must the meaning of great art be bound up w. subj. matter?  I don’t think these are answerable questions, or even very good questions. A work of art can be seen as a performance w/in certain limits, controlled by certain rules, which are set by the artist and his contemporaries. These forms by which artists works can be material – choice of media; stylistic – choice of style, or simple adoption of prevailing one; formal problems, whether aimed at creating illusion of space and solidity on flat surface (European, some Chinese) or articulation of surface by lines and textures of brush (other Chinese). Or intellectual/emotional, as in matters of subj. they comprise, in fact, all the things I’ve been talking about.  Certain artists and groups of artists have certain assumptions, conventions.  Criticism or evaluation according to a constant, inflexible aesthetic system, if applied to a variety of arts, of dif. periods and places, can only lead to distortion of values.  A failure to acknowledge the validity of what the Ch. literati ptrs. Were doing blinded Western critics, until recently, to their achievements; because terms acc. To which they worked made to sense to us until recently. Now they make very good sense.

Greatness in art, then, depends upon two things; upon the stature, the sheer human value, of the terms w/in which the artist works.  Don’t mean to suggest all of equal value; very questionable whether Mondrian, moving his rectangles of primary colors around on a surface, can ever rival achievements of, say, Titian painting a portrait. And (2) upon the artist’s success w/in that set of terms, or conditions. Can be judged best by someone who understands and is in sympathy with, those conditions.

Enjoyment of art, or satisfaction one gets from it, depends from it, depends somewhat upon 2nd of these factors –artists’s terms. Later ptg. of China is case in point: understanding terms w/in which these ptrs. Worked, what made one ptg. great and another, superficially similar, mediocre, can be long and difficult process; somewhat esoteric art, made all the more so by its deceptive simplicity in externalism. Anyone can see that a ptg. by Tung C-c is a kind of landscape; but anyone unfamiliar w. artist’s aims and means is likely to assume it’s a bad landscape, which it isn’t.

This is the failure of notions of “universal values”, or “an eye for quality” which supposedly will perceive virtues of art work of whatever time, place, tradition. To counter-object that such ptg. as we’ve been looking at may be founded in false values, one can raise questions what are false values? That is, can a system of values accepted universally by educated class of a civilization of magnitude of China, for six centuries, be declared invalid by us? In any case, no one, so far as I know, who has ever come to understand this art has continued to have a low opinion of it, as many have before they came to understand it.

So later Chinese panting and modern Western ptg. share perilous status of arts that have rejected simple values in favour of values so complex, even devious, that many people are inclined to doubt their very validity.  Chinese painting surely confounded the doubters by rising to levels of greatness that are quite simply beyond dispute.  Whether modern Western painting has done the same, or will do so, is still very much a matter of controversy; but the somewhat parallel experience of the Chinese inclines us to optimism.

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