20.Poetic Painting

20. Poetic Painting. Response to Freda Murck, who wrote: (May '05)

When you characterize Yuan Jiang's work as a "poetic evocation," what do you mean? Are you referring primarily to the successful depiction of mist and atmosphere? This is often how "poetic" is used in our field. I suspect the educated elite disparaged this kind of painting not only because it has no conventionally literati brushwork but also (and more importantly) because it has no poetic content. The narrative is too obvious, laid out for any observer, literate or not, to see. That is, the scorn was not for stories-in-pictures but for lack of literary finesse.

I responded:
I don’t think I’ve ever equated poetic evocation with lots of mists & clouds, although you are right in saying that it’s sometimes done—just as Chinese writers (I forget who) equated qiyun with that. I may have (as in the case of a Liang Kai leaf that I reproduced for the first time in Lyric Journey, or some other late Song ptg) pointed out that giving the picture to extensive areas of mist forces/allows the painter to reduce the solid matter for an effect of concentration and immediacy that I think can properly be called poetic. But it doesn’t just follow from lots of mist.

What I mean by poetic, here and in lots of other cases (I won’t say all), is as defined in Lyric Journey: the ability to evoke the kinds of responses a poem can with carefully chosen, subtly presented, telling imagery. My reading of the Cleveland “Ma Hezhi” ptg (first colorplate in my book, the junks drawn up together at night, scholar & woman in different boats) is an example, and there are lots of others in the book. This is not a narrative that is “too obvious, laid out for any observer”—nobody, so far as I can tell, had noticed it before—in print, I mean, although of course numerous sharp-eyed observers must have—and old Qi Gong told us, reading a completely unrelated inscription mounted with it, that it was about moonlight and space and autumn sky. This is typical of people who would rather read words that they believe somehow explain the picture than look at the picture itself. I once characterized Huishu Lee’s approach as a belief that for every important picture there is a text somewhere that explains it or gives it meaning, and all you have to do to understand the picture is to find the text. I’m not saying that’s useless—you yourself have done a lot of very good work in that direction, among others, although I certainly wouldn’t characterize your writing that way. But with this goes, too often, a disinclination to look hard at the picture, as I’ve been trying to do for quite a few years now—I remember when I was on the grant-giving committees—a period of my life in which I represented “the non-West” on several of them—reading about Edward? Snow (can’t remember first name), admired by Svetlana, whose long-term project was looking very hard at Breughel ptgs, especially the Children’s Games. I don’t go that far, but I do thank it’s a very fruitful and under-practiced approach, often the key to “what the painting is about,” a level of meaning that often goes unnoticed until one points it out. (Several other examples are in my essay on Song acad. ptg. for the 1996 Met “Possessing the Past” catalog—Yan Ciping fan, Xia Gui, etc.)

So with the Yuan Jiang. The implicit narrative isn’t all that blatantly laid out—quite the contrary. I didn’t read it properly myself when N. P. Wong first showed it to me in HK. (How I wish now I had bought it!) But I did make enough good detail slides to point it out to others in lectures sometimes since then, and now will do it in my book (with regrets that I can’t reproduce several really good color details—true also of many other ptgs in the book.) It’s really subtle, understated, evocative, and not at all conventional—I know of only two other depictions of this theme: a fine So. Song fan ptg that went through auction twice in recent years, and the Zhou Fang-style ptg that was in the CCWang sale to Oscar Tang—Mike Hearn gave it that reading, and I think he’s right. Of course not all Yuan Jiang ptgs contain implicit narratives, and not all of those so subtly, but quite a few do, and I think they justify crediting him with this capacity, not so common in the late period. And if, as you write, the literati critics scorn him for lack of poetic content, “The narrative is too obvious, laid out for any observer, literate or not, to see”—yes, right, and the “literate or not” gives away the underlying assumption: that reading the content of the ptg should somehow require knowledge of some written text or texts for full appreciation, as the literati like to believe. The difficulty Chinese writers have in dealing really adequately with Song painting is, I think, largely an outcome of that assumption—it doesn’t meet their expectations because it wasn’t meant to, and the expectations are the wrong ones.

All this doesn’t question in any way the value of all you’ve done on poetry and ptg in the Song, a somewhat different subject and one on which you’ve done extraordinarily fine work. Don’t take any of this as meant critically. I am just laying out the basis for a lot of my own recent readings of ptgs, and my belief that these are also necessary and worthwhile readings, and can be regarded as finding in the works what the artists meant to put there. (Not unrelated is my belief that when we try to read a picture this way and fail, because of representational mistakes or even absurdities brought about by different motives—not depicting things, but copying or imitating pre-existing forms—we have good reason to question the authenticity of the work as a genuine, original, first-hand production.)

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