Christopher Allen charts the boundaries between art and calligraphy
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