CLP 48: 2001 "Types of Value in 17th Century Chinese Painting." Lecture, Taiwan Nat'l U., Taipei

Types of Value in 17th Century Chinese Painting.

(Introductory stuff.)

Taking on this problem of course raises broader problems: how does one define value, or quality, in art at all? And how, more specifically, in Chinese painting? The first, broadest question I won’t attempt to answer; but I’ll begin by offering a few observations on value in Chinese painting generally, before focusing more on the 17th century and the paintings in the exhibition. (For my purpose I’ll expand the 17th century, as the exhibition does, to include some part of the 18th.)

The Chinese traditionally have been very fond of pithy, catchy slogans that claim to give us the central truth about any subject. These are easy to memorize, all too easy to repeat. Everybody knows the ones for art: “Calligraphy and painting have a common origin” or “Chinese painting doesn’t pursue the outer appearances of things, it pursues the inner spirit” etc. I always cautioned my students to avoid these, since they can have the effect of stifling thought: no need to think more about the subject, just repeat the conventional “truth”. For the question of value in painting, the “great truth” is: It’s all in the brushwork: you don’t have to see the painting as a picture, just look at the brushwork and you’ll see whether it’s a good or bad painting, by a good or bad artist. As my old and admired friend C C. Wang puts it, “You should look at the brushwork, not at the scenery”--by which he means the pictorial qualities, the work as a picture..

Now, I’m not saying that these formulations are entirely without truth; only that they are very partial truths, usually biased in favor of the scholar-elite class who made them up; and they get in the way of serious considerations of any subject. For painting, brushwork is certainly one of the features of a work that we have to pay attention to; but the same is true (with some differences, of course) in Western art--this is not an exclusively Chinese criterion. Scholars of Western oil painting write about the facture or “making” of the painting, or the artist’s “touch”, as an important factor in dealing with authenticity and quality in works by Titian or Rembrandt or Vermeer or van Gogh or any other artist with a distinctive style. I will say more about this as we go on.

As most everybody knows, the Yuan-period writer T’ang Hou made a list of six criteria for judging paintings and put ch’i-yün, the great undefinable quality, at the top, followed by pi-i or “brush conception”; at the bottom of his list he put hsing-ssu , lifelikeness or truth-to-nature, as the last aspect of the painting one should pay attention to. But this was of course because in T’ang Hou’s time literati painting, in which brushwork was emphasized, was on the rise, and the works of the great academy and professional masters of the Sung period were declining in critical acclaim. To apply T’ang Hou’s criteria to Sung painting would be nonsense, as I will try to show in a moment.

I am not arguing, of course, that those who argue for brushwork as the touchstone of quality in Chinese painting really make their judgmeents purely on that basis; of course they don’t--they have to be affected, like anyone else, by other aspects of the paintings. It is only on a theoretical plane, or perhaps rhetorical, that they make their claim. But it the claim, or the dogma, of the primacy of brushwork has nonetheless had a limiting and negative effect, I think, on our ability to discuss questions of quality for Chinese painting while taking full account of the real issues--we feel somehow guiilty if we talk or write about the painting as a good or bad picture, as though we are afraid that Tung Ch’i-ch’ang will come back and denounce us as philistine.

How has this unfortunate situation come about? The problem begins when early critics and theorists such as Tang Hou were confronted with the striking innovations in painting being made by artists such as Chao Meng-fu, and had not yet developed a critical vocabulary adequate for writing about this new kind of painting, with its complex archaistic references and other expressive complexities. They fall back on vague, undefinable qualities such as ch’i-yün and “brush-conception” to praise the artists. Later, connoisseurs who earned some part of their living by making judgements of paintings for new collectors, or for collectors not yet sure of their own eyes, needed answers to the question, asked by the client, “Why is this painting good, and that one bad?” The answer had to stress the undefinable qualities, perceptible only to the cultivated eye, if the connoisseur was to maintain his prestige and exclusive capacity to make these judgements. He couldn’t say “Because this was done by a highly talented and skilled artist and that by an unimaginative and clumsy one,” or “because this one is an original work by a good artist, while that one is by a copyist, and I will show you why,” since those answers would lead to distinctions that the client could see for himself. Instead he would say “Because this one has good brushwork and that one bad,” and add that only the connoisseur’s eye trained by many years of studying paintings could tell the difference. We are all heirs to this system, and must respect it as historically important on the one hand, but recognize on the other its inadequacy for making analytical and objective judgements, as best we can, of the paintings we encounter.

Let me give an example to show how T’ang Hou’s criteria aren’t useful for justments of quality in Sung painting.

S,S. When in 1957 a section of the famous handscroll by Wang Hsi-meng titled “A Thousand Li of Rivers & Mountains” was published in color in a Chinese magazine, painting specialists were very excited and imagined it must be a great masterwork of the blue-and-green landscape style. It was a genuine, famous work from the time of Emperor Hui-tsung, done for him by a gifted artist, Wang Hsi-meng, who died in his early twenties. When a group of us went to China in 1977, it was one of the first things we asked to see.

S,S. But it turned out to be a disappointment; the story was better than the painting. Young Wang Hsi-meng wasn’t really such a highly trained and capable painter, and the scroll was monotonous: the same blue and green mountains, trees, waterfalls etc. for yard after yard (meter after meter).

S,S. It was obvious that other people had felt the same way: the first five or six feet were darkened by exposure and showed signs of wear; but after that the silk was light, the colors fresh, all like new. Those who had looked at it over the centuries had rolled a bit, become tired of it, and given up. It was a symbolic gift from the artist to Hui-tsung, portraying the emperor’s prosperous and flourishing realm; its value was more political than artistic.

S --. We also saw a less-known handscroll painting attributed to Chao Po-chü, a famous master of the academy, which in the reproduction hadn’t looked as interesting--rather elaborate and fussy.

S,S. But this turned out, when we saw it in the original, to be the real masterwork: done by a highly proficient artist who really cared about his mountains and trees and rivers, all the materials of his world, and portrayed them, within the archaistic framework of the scroll which dictates the oddly twisted mountains, as differentiated, readable, interesting. One can spend a long time looking at this painting without ever being bored, visually engaged with all its imagery and incidents.

S,S. People move about in real spaces, approaching gates and walls and towns, or stopping to gaze at a waterfall. (etc.)

S,S. (Chao Po-chü at right, Wang Hsi-meng at left.) If we return now to look at corresponding details in Wang Hsi-meng’s painting, we see why his does not engage us in this way; he gives us conventions instead of believable images.

Now, if we were to talk in these terms to a traditional Chinese critic, he would say we were being naive and philistine; he might repeat Su Tung-p’o’s well-known lines about how anyone who discusses painting in terms of resemblance is like a child. And yet, a kind of resemblance, a serious and successful attempt to portray interesting visual materials, individually and recognizably, in readable spaces, is a large part of what makes the Chao Po-chü painting great.

I use this as an example of how “brushwork” criteria can be quite inadequate for judging paintings, and how a kind of hsing-ssu, in the sense of careful attention to the visual qualities of the things depicted, can be an entirely valid component in judging quality in painting, especially for the Sung and earlier periods. But also for some later painting, as we’ll see.

Now, we will jump to the late Ming-early Ch’ing, the 17th century, and to very different kinds of painting, which must of course be judged by different criteria.

S,S. (Wei Chih-huang). To begin once more with a negative example, one that I think of as a bad painting. (There aren’t many in Mr. Chen’s collection, so I have to make the most of the few there are.) Wei Chih-huang is taking advantage of a late Ming taste for odd or even bizarre landscape, a taste that both Wu Pin and Tung Ch’i-ch’ang satisfy, in their different ways. But he misses the point: the picture has to be both bizarre and interesting, well put together, convincing; and his picture is only bizarre. He invents a simple formal theme and repeats it throughout: curly or scolloped contours, masses of big fat tien or dots. And with those his imagination gives out: he has little more to offer.

S,S. He attempts a wierd natural bridge, but we don’t believe in it, we don’t care. He adds a house and figure, and they are completely conventional, uninteresting. Similarly with his trees. So here we can speak of a negative criterion: the painting must have enough creative thought put into it to offer diversity within a coherent style, and so hold our interest in a way this one doesn’t. For an an artist who almost consistently puts this kind of creative thought into his paintings, we can turn to Wei Chih-huang’s great contemporary Tung Ch’i-ch’ang.

S,S. Tung Ch’i-ch’ang’s interesting formal ideas are set within structures that are themselves imaginative and arresting; he is seldom boring. Here, in a landscape of 1621, the composition itself embodies a novel idea: the three large trees in foreground, leaning leftward, are answered by three successive landscape masses behind, leaning rightward. But this doesn’t begin to exhaust the inventiveness of the work. A rising, slanting mass of earth or rock, like an axe, beginning quietly at the base of the further bank, gives rise to others, larger and more striking, all the way up to the highest peak. And the painting has much more to offer in formal relationships. If we say we admire Tung Ch’i-ch’ang because of his good brushwork, then, we are missing much of the point of his pictures--not really missing it, because we can see it and respond to it, but missing it when we try to articulate our responses to his paintings, and fall back on the old conventions.

S,S. Whenever one is writing a general history and characterizes some artist as secondary or minor, someone who owns a painting by that artist or has written a term paper on him will rise up to argue that he isn’t really less good, just different. I have had that happen over and over in my career--there is almost no painter who doesn’t have his defenders. Sometimes this can be for the good, because fine artists are sometimes neglected for wrong reasons; but it’s also true that there really are secondary painters, who cannot, however hard one tries, be raised into the top ranks. One such is Shen Shih-ch’ung. The album by him in the collection is fine among his works, but still stops short of holding our attention as a painting by Tung Ch’i-ch’ang will do. Shen Shih-ch’ung can take old styles to new extremes that make them mildly interesting--Ma Yüan at left, Wang Meng at right. But one turns quickly nonetheless to the next leaf.

S,S. His contemporary and sometime rival Chao Tso has larger ideas for innovative formal structures, but still falls far short of the radical inventiveness of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, and in the end is placed, rightly I think, slightly below the top rank of painters. Chao Tso’s handscroll of 1611 begins with a flat, quiet view over a river with fishing boats to a long grove of trees within which clusters of houses are seen, and through which a ropy band of fog floats.

S --. This is, of course, a reference to the style and imagery of the late Northern Sung master Chao Ling-jang or Chao Ta-nien. But Chao Tso fails to transform the earlier image significantly, simply quoting it or copying it into his own work.

S,S. He ends his handscroll more powerfully, as he does most of them painted in this early period, by bringing the scenery closer up and charging its components with dynamic energy. The movement of the rocks, the earth banks, the stream, surges upward on one side to the climactic point, the house with figures, then subsides downward toward the end of the scroll. This is an interesting idea, and is well realized, but it doesn’t catch and hold our attention in the way that one of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang’s formal manipulations does, mostly because it isn’t radically new, and because of the soft brushwork and relatively naturalistic style in which Chao Tso depicts his forms. It is as if Picasso had never moved out of his Blue Period; Chao Tso could never rise to rival Tung Ch’i-ch’ang.

S,S. When Tung Ch’i-ch’ang infuses his pictures with references to old masters, they are typically starker, more abstract, transforming his sources in a more extreme way, making them serve his new formal purposes. His Landscape in the Manner of Wang Wei (he does not title it that, only writing that it is in the manner of a Wang Wei poem) draws on his very imperfect knowledge of Wang Wei’s style,

-- S. derived from late imitations such as this “River Landscape in Snow.” The recognition of his stylistic references was part of what his contemporaries appreciated in his painting, and therefore is relevant to the question of value.

So, of course, is his brushwork, which a traditional Chinese connoisseur would emphasize in defining why Tung Ch’i-ch’ang is a great painter. But to concentrate on brushwork, I think, is to miss qualities of the painting that play a larger part in structuring our experience of it. Other artists of the time could manage “good brushwork” in the way Tung Ch’i-ch’ang does it; none of them could match his constructivist feats, or the subtleties and sophistication of his allusions to old masters.

S --. His direct disciple Wang Shih-min, for instance, in this landscape of 1651 (an earty work for him, and closely in Tung Ch’i-ch’ang’s manner), exhibits impeccable brushwork but nothing in his formal structure that departs from Tung’s interpretation of the style of Huang Kung-wang. Wang Shih-min adds nothing new, that is; and that was to be the pattern of his career, synthesizing without inventing, except in a minimal way. (The younger two of the so-called Four Wangs, Wang Hui and Wang Yuan-ch’i, are both represented by excellent works in the exhibition, but I will not pursue that direction further here.)

These examples are enough to make my main point, which is that criteria of quality in 17th century painting are multiple and diverse; any attempt to formulate a set that will apply to all the paintings of the time is misguided and doomed to failure. Paintings, that is, are good (or bad) in a variety of ways. Some are common to art everywhere--repetitiveness, for instance, is boring, and formal inventiveness exciting, so long as it keeps some hold on the established disciplines of the art.

S.S. I will illustrate that observation once more with another late Ming handscroll in the exhibition, Feng K’o-pin’s handscroll of rocks and bamboo, painted in 1622. Feng K’o-pin was the son of a well-known calligrapher, and a calligrapher himself, besides being, no doubt, a literatus of high cultivation. But he was no painter. He has mastered the formula for depicting a lumpy rock or earth form, shaped roughly like a clam-shell, taking it from a painting by the famous calligrapher Hsing T’ung, along with the minimal convention for bamboo twigs and leaves, which he takes (he says) from the Yuan-period bamboo specialist Li K’an. And he simply repeats these in different arrangements to fill up his scroll.

S --. Another exciting section. I didn’t make more slides because they would have been wasted. A painting in this style by Hsing T’ung survives, in the former Abe collection, and appears to be just as dull. The painting is accompanied by twelve colophons by notable people of his day; but they were invited to write by the artist himself, and of course praise the work.

S.S. In the strongest possible contrast to this is the excellent scroll of orchids in ink painted by Wang To in 1651. Wang To is, of course, best known as a major calligrapher, and he could easily have slipped into repeating the conventions for ink orchids, without violating the expectations of his audience, who would have said: He isn’t really a painter, after all, we shouldn’t expect a painterly picture. But here, at least, he paints like a painter, not a calligrapher, and the outcome is a work that fascinates, offering cool and lovely plays of ink gradations, interesting variations on the basic formula for painting orchids.

S,S. Another section, with detail. Certain brush effects, such as dry brushwork and shading within the brushstroke, are more difficult to handle when painting on silk; in Wang To’s hands they seem easy, and the silk gives a special elegance to the work.

S,S. It would of course be wrong to say that Wang To’s excellence as a calligrapher is irrelevant to his painting; certain effects are common to the two arts, and his calligrapher’s control of the brush is evident in the clean, firm strokes of the orchid leaves. But good calligraphers who attempt painting can sometimes fail badly, and Wang To’s achievement here is chiefly done in painterly terms, not calligraphic. Where calligrapher-painters are often carried away by the velocity of their brush-movements to the point of dissolving their images, Wang To makes firm pictorial structures throughout. This is a scroll that offers rich visual pleasures.

S,S. If we admire Wang To’s scroll for subtle ink values and refined arrangements of repeated brushstrokes, how can we also admire such paintings as Ch’en Hung-shou’s, which have none of these qualities? We have to shift aesthetic gears, look to the paintings for something else. Like a Sung or pre-Sung artist, Ch’en Hung-shou paints in ink outline and color washes, a manner that implies precise, even analytical description of the phyiscal properties of the things he depicts. But then he subverts the viewer’s expectations (which are based on early paintings in this linear manner) that the things described will correspond closely with things of the real world. Instead, Ch’en Hung-shou distorts his forms in a playful archaism. It is this contradiction that Ch’en exploits in his style: strange, crotchety, sometimes bizarre forms depicted in lsuch sure-handed and precise line drawing that we are made to believe in them. The tree, grotesquely twisted as it is, must be exactly the way it is; the scholar’s manner of carrying his basket (with wine, perhaps?) on a pole over his shoulder is certainly not familiar to us, but the artist, by being so precise in showing us how these things look makes us trust his pictorial report of them. It is a very odd experience, and exhilarating in its way.

S,S. A kind of twisted-rope bag held by the man, as well as the woman’s cloth bag slung over her shoulder, are unfamiliar and a bit mysterious to me (someone here can probably tell me what they are), but again they are described so exactly and completely that they exist for us. The incident that unites the figures is similarly unclear, but it holds our interest nonetheless, excites our curiosity.

The criteria by which we judge the excellence of Ch’en Hung-shou’s paintings are scarcely applicable to any other master of the late period; he is an artist who created his own system of values, and challenges the viewer to understand them and accept them. No one else did what he did so well.

S,S. Moving again to the furthest possible contrast in style and value system, without moving very far forward in time, we see Ch’eng Sui’s undated Landscape. The slide at right, made from a reproduction, loses the subtleties of the painting; but the slide at left, from the original, is too dark, so I will show it in details:

S. starting with this one, at the bottom. In 1981 I organized, with a seminar of eight specialist graduate students, an exhibition of Anhui-school painting. Because the painting of this school was deliberately austere, generally devoid of color and figures and incident and other popularizing features, we assumed that the paintings would be of limited appeal to the Western audiences of Berkeley, Princeton, and other places where it was shown. Instead, it proved to be unexpectedly popular: good reviews in the newspapers, a lot of enthusiasm among ordinary museum-goers. And among the paintings in it, next to the great painting by Hung-jen titled “The Coming of Autumn” (which we could show only for a brief period), the most popular was this work by Ch’eng Sui; visitors would stand for long periods in front of it, fascinated by its subtlety and complexity.

S -. Closer in. The structure of the composition, and the coherence of the painting as a picture, emerges as one gazes at it longer.

S --. (Upper half of the painting.) Now, to say that the attraction of the painting lies largely in its brushwork would be true enough, so far as it goes. But it would be, again, a very partial truth, not getting at the real reason the painting holds our interest for so long. What the viewers at the exhibition were gazing at for long stretches of time was not simply the dry, crumbly brushwork in itself, but the it way it is made to represent, quietly but convincingly, a rich, complex landscape. Ch’eng Sui has sacrificed not only color and washes but also strong tonal contrasts in his use of ink.

S --. (Closer in again, at the top). When one first looks at the painting it appears to be a flat, uniform field of small, dry smudges of ink, with no prominent forms or clear composition. But its structure emerges as one looks longer, and also a wealth of detail, making this as richly complete a world as landscapes in the traditional styles. The success of the best Anhui-school landscape painting often depends on effects of this kind, I think, in which a minimalist manner of painting in dry brushwork and linear drawing is used to depict simple but satisfying scenery.

S.S. As it happens, another masterwork of dry-brush painting, in my estimation, is in Ch’en Chi-te’s collection. This is the miniature album of paintings of blossoming plum branches by Ch’en Chuan, or Ch’en Yü-chi, a master active in Yangzhou in the early decades of the 18th century; he is not usually included among the “eight eccentrics” of Yangzhou, and was older than most of them. He is said to have learned directly from Shih-t’ao, and precedents can indeed be found in Shih-t’ao’s work for crotchety branches of blossoming plum done in a dry-brush manner. The ink is applied in strokes so soft that they catch the nap of the paper and seem to crumble, while keeping their momentum. Some strokes are so light in tone as to almost disappear into the paper.

S,S. Two more leaves. The brushlines, tracing the branches and twigs of the tree, seem to wander freely over the surface, changing direction or doubling back as if at the artist’s whim. All these patterns can, no doubt, be paralleled in the natural growth of the twigs, and are not simply invented; the effect is no less quirky. One reads into the style a quietly unconventional temperament and an unhurried delicacy of touch.

S --. A leaf from the album in the exhibition by Ch’en Chuan’s contemporary Huang Shen, painted in 1726, offers a nice study in contrasts and similarities. The patrons or consumers of painting in Yangzhou liked their paintings to be strong expressions of artistic personality, and they certainly got them here: the reticence and hesitancy implied in Ch’en Chuan’s brushwork vs. the impetuous, unrestrained quality of Huang Shen’s. How much these artistic expressions corresponded to the real personalities of the artists--whether, that is, Ch’en Chuan was really reticent and Huang Shen really impetuous--is an unanswerable and ultimately irrelevant question, since expression in art is far too complex a process to allow simple equations of artist and work. Analyzing art as psychobiography is a practice discredited in art history generally, but survives more than it should in writings on Chinese painting.

S,S. With such a painter as Chu Ta or Pa-ta Shan-jen, the temptation to do that is strong: to say, that is: the artist was mentally unbalanced, and this unbalance of his mind is expressed in his paintings. Since that assumption underlies appreciations of his paintings by many people who see them, one might argue that a sense of “madness” behind his paintings is part of their value. In a paper I gave at a Pa-ta Shan-jen symposium in 1988, and published in the following year, I argued instead that Pa-ta, after going through a bout of real mental disorder or madness and assuming that role in society, drew on the experience to paint pictures that seemed somehow to express “madness”, pictures that satisfied the expectations of his audience and came to be much in demand. Among the qualities I identified in anyalyzing the ways he produced this effect is compositional unbalance--here, for instance, in the way the curving lotus stalks appear inadequate to support the massed ink of the leaves at the top, and also the ambiguous relationship of these to the rock at right, leaving the viewer slightly unsure about solid and space.

S,S. Some of Pa-ta Shan-jen’s landscape paintings exhibit similar effects of ambiguity and unbalance; others, like the one at right, are clearly based on the model of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, and are relatively stable. The painting at left, the other of the pair of landscapes in this album (together with two leaves of calligraphy), is more complex and more interesting, simple as it may appear at first. The composition is obviously based on the formula of Ni Tsan, which was being imitated by many other artists of this time, especially those of the Anhui school.

--S. But Pa-ta, as usual, gives it a curious twist. In the foreground of Ni Tsan’s landcapes, typically, along with a few trees, is a rest-shelter or t’ing-tzu, placed so that one can imagine sitting in it and gazing at the distant shore. Pa-ta turns this formula upside down, placing the t’ing-tzu in the distance without diminishing it in size, forcing the viewer to locate out there and gaze back at the ungainly pine tree. This is not the work of a mad artist, but of a very smart and sensitive one producing a calculated effect of aberration.

S,S. The delights of Pa-ta’s landscape lie within the realm of formal values and plays on the past, with only minimal reference to real experience of the real world. The opposite is true of Fan Ch’i’s album of 1666, which deliberately evokes memories of real experiences in nature, and especially the experience of moving through the world and absorbing impressions of simple scenery in different seasons, weather, and times of day. Brushwork is quite beside the point for this project, except as it contributes to this effect. The origins of this kind of painting are in the Southern Sung; my book The Lyric Journey is about exactly this kind of painting, which uses imagery like that of poetry to arouse sensations we can call poetic. We are made to hear the sound of the stream, understand the distances that must be traversed.

S,S. (Two more leaves.) Houses appear, not as images of reclusion and security as in so much other Chinese landscape, but as stopping-points on one’s journey. The road continues beyond, to lead out of the picture in the distance. In this respect the pictures are so much like those of the 18th century Japanese artist Yosa Buson that one wonders whether Buson could have seen Fan Ch’i’s painting; but this, although not impossible, is unlikely.

S,S. (two more leaves.) The original order of the leaves cannot be known, but the winter scene with the artist’s signature and date must be the last, and is an effective close: the cluster of houses, with no passage indicated beyond them, represents shelter from the cold and a destination finally reached. (I understand that Professor Richard Vinograd spoke about Fan Ch’i and the Nanjing school yesterday--I was unable to hear him, but I’m sure he treated this album much more fully and interestingly than I have.)

S,S. One of the surprises and delights I encountered in going through Mr. Chen Chi-te’s collection last October was this 1696 painting by Shh-t’ao, with which I will close. This is one of four excellent works by this great artist in the collection. It was previously unknown to me, and seems to me one of Shih-t’ao’s most engaging productions from one of his best periods. It records a meeting in the Blue Lotus Pavilion at Kuang-ling, that is, Yangchou, where the artist had been living most of the time since his return in 1693 from his sojourn in Peking, staying often in the estates of wealthy patrons as an artist-in-residence. His host at the gathering asked him for a picture, he writes in his inscription, and he obliged, “casually (or spontaneously) capturing the likeness”--of the pavilion and its surroundings, that is, and what the assembled guests were gazing out at, over the town and the river. It’s significant that instead of using one of the common verbs for painting, hua or hsieh, Shih-t’ao uses hsing-ssu as a verb, literally “to likeness”--exactly the practice of “getting a resemblance” that the critics, from T’ang Hou onward, had condemned. Shih-t’ao was no respecter of conventional wisdom or critical taboos. And in fact the painting is, among other things, an enchanting image of a particular place at a particular moment, as Shih-t’ao must have gazed at it, meditatively, from the pavilion--or rather, since he was himself in the pavilion, imagined someone gazing at it from a more distant and elevated vantage point.

-- S. The Ch’ing-lien Lou must be the two-storied building in lower right, seen over a wall. A flock of birds circles around it, and circling flocks are seen over the trees in middleground, preparing to roost: the time is evening. This, like the leaves of the Fan Ch’i album, fits my definition of “poetic” painting as I attempted it in the “Lyric Journey” book, except that it is much richer, fuller, transmitting a complex, multi-leveled poetic experience. And here, once more, “good brushwork” is scarcely to the point; the hand of the artist is suppressed in favor of a very sensitive portrayal of a specific place at a particular time. Or so we are made to believe; how much Shih-t’ao’s picture actually corresponds to what we would have seen from near the Blue Lotus Pavilion in Yangchou on an autumn evening in 1696 is a question irrelevant to the success of the painting as an evocative and moving work of art.

-- S. The scene is suffused with mist and sunset light; no figures are visible. Further back we see the masts of fishing boats drawn up along the shore.

-- S. and still further back the landscape fades into mist, with the tops of hills closing the picture in the far distance. All this is done with an ease that belies its real mastery, accomplished through diminution in the trees, gradual elimination of detail, and atmospheric blurring and dimming.

-- S, Back to the foreground. Now, everything that the literati critics had been insisting upon for centuries as the requisites of high-quality painting--good, disciplined brushwork, references to the styles of old masters, certain kinds of formal constructions that had come to serve as cultural icons--are absent from Shih-t’ao’s picture, as from most of his others--ignored, transcended, irrelevant to what he is doing. And at the same time he was painting pictures like this one, Shih-t’ao was advocating in his writings the freeing or emancipation of painting from all these constraints. and reaching a synthesis of style in which they had no part.

Chao Meng-fu, Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, Wang Hui, all had aimed consciously at achieving a “great synthesis” of painting; all had realized immense accomplishments, but not that one. Shih-t’ao, after engaging and absorbing a series of local styles particular to the places where he lived during his paripatetic career, along with studying all the old paintings he had access to, did achieve a kind of synthesis in paintings such as this. But it was an individual synthesis, based on a special mastery of old and new styles, and not accessible to others.

We can dream of a different outcome, in which Shih-t’ao’s expressed goal of freeing painting from all the constraints under which it had labored was realized, and a great new age was inaugurated in Chinese painting. Years ago, at the end of the last of my lectures that turned into the Compelling Image book (published in Chinese translation through the efforts of Jason Chia-chi Wang and the generous support of Mr. Chen Chi-te, for which I will always be grateful), I wrote of Shih-t’ao’s “magnificent failure . . . to bring about single-handedly the emancipation of painting from the weight of the past. . .” The sentence was misunderstood by some to mean that I considered Shih-t’ao ultimately a failure as an artist; but that, of course, was far from my meaning. His failure to inaugurate a new age was not due to any fault or weakness of his, but rather of the artists who followed him, no one of whom had the breadth and power to take up the direction he had pointed. Painters who are in some sense his followers later in the 18th century--Ch’en Chuan, Hua Yen, Cheng Hsieh, others--capture at most some limited aspect of his achievement, as though unable even to glimpse the whole project, much less to continue it.

More than any other late Chinese painter, Shih-t’ao forces us to look back over painting of the centuries that preceded him and recognize that for all its sometime greatness, it also imposed difficulties on painters who were not scholar-amateurs but serious vocational painters, and who were discouraged by the critics from undertaking the simple, natural, all but universal project of representing, sensitively and in their individual ways, the world around them. Please understand that I’m not advocating realism in art (I’ve been accused of that too) or arguing that there should have been more of it in Chinese painting; I mean only to recognize the difficulties that the literati aesthetic imposed upon artists who were drawn in other, more representational directions. And I mean to suggest again, finally, that our criteria for judging Chinese painting have to be broad, manifold, and diverse if we are to do justice to the achievements of its artists. Thank you.

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