Christo­pher Allen charts the bound­aries be­tween art and cal­lig­ra­phy

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Christo­pher Allen

Three Per­fec­tions: Po­etry, Paint­ing, Cal­lig­ra­phy Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne, to June 9

THERE are many points of con­trast be­tween the great paint­ing tra­di­tions of Europe and China, but none more strik­ing than the ubiq­uity of words — of po­ems, in­scrip­tions, sig­na­tures — in Chi­nese paint­ing and their scarcity in the West. Al­most the only words that nat­u­rally find a place in a Euro­pean paint­ing are those that con­sti­tute the sig­na­ture of the artist. Any other writ­ing, for ex­am­ple iden­ti­fy­ing the sit­ter of a por­trait, is read as an in­scrip­tion printed on to the paint­ing’s sur­face rather than ex­ist­ing within the pic­to­rial space.

There are ex­cep­tions, as when words are part of a cityscape or on books and other ob­jects in a still life, but they only em­pha­sise the rule. Words do not fit eas­ily within im­ages in the Western tra­di­tion. Per­haps, as we shall see, that word “within” is a clue as to why not; but in any case the sit­u­a­tion is very dif­fer­ent in Chi­nese paint­ing. Words and im­ages are more dis­tinct and het­ero­ge­neous in the Euro­pean tra­di­tion than in the Chi­nese.

It is not too hard to see a fun­da­men­tal ex­pla­na­tion lies in the pic­to­graphic na­ture of Chi­nese char­ac­ters. Chi­nese char­ac­ters have evolved over sev­eral thou­sand years from lit­eral and schematic be­gin­nings to com­plex and ab­stract forms, but they still re­tain some­thing of their orig­i­nal char­ac­ter, and that is what helps ex­plain the art of cal­lig­ra­phy, which can im­pro­vise on vis­ual themes within the char­ac­ters.

Words in China, that is to say, are not in­com­pat­i­ble with im­ages be­cause they ac­tu­ally are im­ages. Words in the West, writ­ten al­pha­bet­i­cally, are the op­po­site of im­ages, and that is why al­pha­betic scripts can­not take cal­lig­ra­phy any fur­ther than dec­o­ra­tive writ­ing.

On the other hand, al­pha­betic writ­ing prob­a­bly lends it­self bet­ter to log­i­cal and sci­en­tific think­ing be­cause we are aware that words are ar­ti­fi­cial la­bels — the word for a tree has no nec­es­sary con­nec­tion with its ref­er­ent but has its mean­ing as part of a sys­tem of lin­guis­tic signs. Such ob­ser­va­tions, as made by Fer­di­nand de Saus­sure, the early 20th-century lin­guist, would come less nat­u­rally to the Chi­nese mind, when the char­ac­ter for a tree does rep­re­sent the plant in di­a­gram­matic form.

The pic­to­rial na­ture of Chi­nese writ­ing is not the whole story, how­ever. Con­versely, we may say Chi­nese paint­ing is it­self writerly, to coin a term on the anal­ogy of painterly. The same brush and ink are used to paint a land­scape on a scroll and to write a poem be­side it; the empty space around moun­tain peaks be­comes a blank sur­face for a poem, and vice versa.

So there is none of our di­chotomy be­tween brush and pen, paint and ink. But more than that, the ac­tual brush marks are of the same kind in both cases. In fact from one view­point, Chi­nese paint­ing is highly for­mu­laic: there are marks for rocks, leaves, grasses, which ex­ist in many vari­a­tions yet are al­most as stan­dard­ised as writ­ten char­ac­ters. But it is this very qual­ity that al­lows the Chi­nese pain­ter to be so at­tuned to the sense of life in the nat­u­ral world.

When the Chi­nese artist pre­pares to paint a leaf or a flower, he is not think­ing of how to de­fine its con­tours and model its in­ter­nal form. He is us­ing an ab­bre­vi­ated, tra­di­tional pic­to­rial script and his con­cern is to cap­ture, in his ex­e­cu­tion of these con­ven­tional signs, the sense of in­ner life that an­i­mates the plant: to em­body and to ex­press its breath or ch’i.

Al­most any of the works in the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s fine ex­hi­bi­tion of Chi­nese paint­ing and cal­lig­ra­phy could be taken to il­lus­trate these ob­ser­va­tions, but one that is par­tic­u­larly apt is a hang­ing scroll ti­tled Bam­boo and

Rock (1915) by Wu Chang­shuo (1844-1927). The stems of bam­boo on the left are com­posed of sin­gle brush­strokes for each seg­ment, with a short di­ag­o­nal stroke mark­ing the di­vi­sion be­tween seg­ments; the leaves are each made with a sin­gle stroke of an­other, equally for­mal, kind.

The work is de­light­ful, at first glance, be­cause of its acute sen­si­bil­ity to the liv­ing en­ergy of its sub­ject. One could be tempted to say it is full of life de­spite the for­mal and con­ven­tional na­ture of the signs of which it is com­posed, but that would be facile and un­sat­is­fac­tory. In re­al­ity, it is de­light­ful be­cause it is acutely sen­si­tive to its sub­ject and be­cause it is si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­ven­tional: as so of­ten in art

and po­etry it is the ten­sion be­tween the el­e­gance of ar­ti­fice and the in­tu­ition of life that is at the heart of the aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence.

There is an anal­o­gous ten­sion in Western paint­ing be­tween the painted mark or sur­face, ap­pre­ci­ated for its ab­stract beauty, and the evo­ca­tion of the world rep­re­sented by the pic­ture. But be­yond that very gen­eral level, it is the con­trast be­tween Euro­pean and Chi­nese paint­ing that is most strik­ing, es­pe­cially since the Re­nais­sance and its in­ven­tion of per­spec­tive, for it is the per­spec­ti­val vi­sion that is most at odds with the Chi­nese view of pic­tures.

Per­spec­tive is as­so­ci­ated in many people’s minds with the par­a­digm of the pic­ture as a view of the world, as though the frame were a win­dow opened on to an ex­ter­nally ex­ist­ing re­al­ity. It is true the Re­nais­sance some­times thought of per­spec­tive in these terms, and the idea that paint­ing had a vo­ca­tion to rep­re­sent the world with ab­so­lute ve­rac­ity was a pow­er­ful stim­u­lant to gen­er­a­tions of artists. But it was a pow­er­ful idea pre­cisely be­cause it was taken for granted that paint­ing had many other, older and even higher pri­or­i­ties: telling im­por­tant sto­ries, pro­vid­ing a fo­cus for de­vo­tion, giv­ing plea­sure. Per­spec­tive was never about the kind of nat­u­ral­ism that be­came con­ceiv­able only with the in­ven­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy and that was then anachro­nis­ti­cally imag­ined as an am­bi­tion of ear­lier artists. It was not even about cap­tur­ing the full truth of op­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence; that was more the con­cern of painterly artists from the Vene­tians to the im­pres­sion­ists. Per­spec­tive was con­cerned to rep­re­sent a ra­tio­nal and ob­jec­tive — al­though very ar­ti­fi­cial — vi­sion of the world.

It was less about how we ex­pe­ri­ence the world than about how the eye — con­ceived as a geo­met­ric ab­strac­tion — could see it. And that meant a sin­gle view­point, a sin­gle van­ish­ing point and all the pic­to­rial space con­structed in depth. The tran­si­tion is marked in one of the most fa­mous com­par­isons in art his­tory: for Cimabue, a crowd of an­gels had to be rep­re­sented one above the other, while Giotto set them one be­hind the other to cre­ate depth. Giotto rep­re­sents the be­gin­ning of a con­cern to rep­re­sent an ob­jec­tive world that proves enor­mously en­er­gis­ing to art in the West, and is the be­gin­ning of cen­turies of ef­forts to har­monise sub­jec­tive and ob­jec­tive con­cerns. But it is also the def­i­ni­tion of the im­age as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a co­her­ent, self-con­tained vis­i­ble world rather than a sym­bolic lan­guage of forms that can be im­pro­vised to tell sto­ries or evoke imag­i­na­tive scenes. Thus the gulf be­tween word and im­age in the West is dou­ble: be­tween a non-pic­to­rial al­pha­bet and a non script-like im­age.

The Chi­nese artist, how­ever, has no such al­le­giance to the ob­jec­tive. His con­cern is more to cap­ture the sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of, or more ac­cu­rately the in­ter­sub­jec­tive re­la­tion­ship we have with na­ture. The im­por­tance of land­scape in Chi­nese paint­ing re­flects the im­por­tance of na­ture in the cor­re­spond­ing spir­i­tual tra­di­tions, par­tic­u­larly Tao­ism and later Chan Bud­dhism.

So the Chi­nese artist does not hes­i­tate to rep­re­sent dis­tant views as ver­ti­cally stacked mo­tifs, as in the beau­ti­ful River Land­scape (1628) by Zhang Ruitu (1570-1641), in­ci­den­tally a con­tem­po­rary of Rubens. In fact this ar­range­ment is in­te­gral to the medium he is us­ing: the ef­fect of trees sil­hou­et­ted against the blank of the river would be im­pos­si­ble to achieve if he had to take a per­spec­ti­val view, with sight­line par­al­lel to the ground. Oil paint­ing can — and the Western land­scape tra­di­tion re­lies on this — cre­ate depth and space in over­lap­ping mo­tifs. In ink paint­ing, the re­sult would be a tan­gle of lines.

So we come back to the writerly na­ture of the paint­ing: the land­scape is com­posed, like a poem, out of con­ven­tional forms that are an­i­mated by the breath of life born of a pro­found at­tune­ment to na­ture. This qual­ity is at the heart of Chi­nese paint­ing, and it ex­plains the rel­a­tive suc­cess or fail­ure of more re­cent artists, sev­eral of whom are in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion. Thus the pan­das of Wu Zuoren (1908-97), painted on a hor­i­zon­tal scroll, are too lit­eral, too much like the view of the mo­tif a Western artist might have taken — no doubt the re­sult of the in­flu­ence of Western art in the 20th century.

The prob­lem is even more man­i­fest in two pic­tures by Huang Yongyu (born 1924). In one, a cat sleeps on a brick wall; the brush­work is Chi­nese, but the mo­tif and its set­ting on a wall that ex­tends across the pic­ture sur­face re­veal the artist has as­sim­i­lated a Western ob­jec­tivism that is in­com­pat­i­ble with the in­spi­ra­tion of Chi­nese art. Sim­i­larly, his Cranes on a Beach (1981), al­though painted with feel­ing and dex­ter­ity, pre­sents two birds stand­ing one be­hind the other in wa­ter whose sur­face re­flects their legs — adding Western op­ti­cal ef­fects to an im­plic­itly per­spec­ti­val treat­ment of space.

The rea­son this feels un­com­fort­able is the in­con­gru­ous ob­jec­tiv­ity de­tracts from the un­ob­jec­tive qual­ity that is in­trin­sic to Chi­nese paint­ing. A lan­guage that used to have co­her­ence and in­de­pen­dence is sud­denly ac­knowl­edg­ing cri­te­ria that ques­tion its au­ton­omy.

Frogs and Orchids by Ding Yany­ong (1902-78), though a com­par­a­tively re­cent work, is more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Chi­nese tra­di­tion — one based on a con­stant re­cy­cling but also a con­stant re­newal of in­her­ited id­ioms. The pic­ture, in which frogs play among or even climb on to orchid stalks, is en­tirely com­posed of ges­tu­ral brush­marks, at once for­mal and spon­ta­neous, the vis­i­ble ex­pres­sion of the same move­ments of hand, wrist and arm used in cal­lig­ra­phy, here em­ployed to write as much as to draw, the frogs’ end­lessly var­ied move­ments.

This page, clock­wise from left, Moun­tain Land­scape (1628) by Dong Qichang; Pen­guins (1989) by Huang Yongyu; and Pan­das and

Bam­boo (1964) by Wu Zuoren; op­po­site page, red orchid from the

Birds and Flow­ers al­bum (mid-18th century) by Huang Shen

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