This is 8th in a series on D&Dables in art history
The general Western ignorance about far eastern art is chosen: the records of who painted what, when, and why they said they painted it and what people thought about it are extensive and go back a very long time. In eras where Europe was producing pictures attributed to like "Master of Echternach(?)" China had painters with actual names and life dates and scholars producing extensive bodies of theory about them. So we can't fault their book-keeping for our cluelessness.
Part of the problem is your average modern viewer looks at, say, this...
|Fan Kuan, Travellers among Mountains and Streams 11th C|
...and then this…
|Zhang Lu, Hurrying Home Before The Rain 16th C|
…and hears that they are separated by five or six hundred years--most of which were spent arguing about painting--and they're baffled.
These paintings seem to eschew so many of the gimmicks Western art (not to mention nearly all the other kinds of images we see every day) rely on--color, action, directness, showy displays of technical knowhow, theatricality, anatomical illusionism, ornamentation--and not even because the artists lacked the time, resources, or technology, but just because they felt like it. They felt like it for 3000 years.
|Li Cheng, A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks c. 960|
|Zheng Xie, 18th C|
|Yi Chong, 16th C. Ably representing Korea.|
|Qishan Wanfo Temple|
|Model city from…some time. I'm guessing Han but|
|No idea when this is from because even though|
Peter Hogarth's book "Dragons" is amazing
its illustration attributions suck.The scales
and claws suggest to me a relatively late date
The homes and temples of the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing rulers were, like those of the Medicis and Popes, filled with awesome fancy junk. China, in fact, mastered awesome fancy junk (full of, yeah, color, action, directness, showy displays of technical knowhow, theatricality, anatomical illusionism, ornamentation) faster than almost anyone else.
|Zun and Pan Assemblage, C 435 BCE|
|Zhou or Han vessel|
|Gilt bronze dragon, 750 CE|
|Dancing weirdoes, Eastern Han, 25-220 BCE|
The Eastern palaces were equally magnificent, but the scroll paintings were conceived as a contemplative rest amid the silk and splendor, not a climax of it.
East Asian ink painting became aligned with poetry and calligraphy--as in Islamic art--but whereas in the Middle East the calligraphic line turns the poem into a picture, in the Far East the calligraphic line turns the picture into a poem.
You turn the corner, you see the scroll, you lean in, you follow the movements, you are taken far from the calculated and crafted world where the scroll hangs, into not just nature, but nature as seen by another. The brushstroke is an island of human touch hanging on the wall of an otherwise seamless, symmetrical, dyed, gilded, lacquered and manufactured world.
It keeps what the person has seen and how they saw it from being lost--like tears in rain, as the guy said. Western painting--oh hold on I have to grind up some bones to make yellow--is a much too indirect art for sketching impressions, at least before it found out about Eastern painting.
|Hongren, 17th C|
Painting existed in a para-literary space rather than the decorative, sculptural or architectural one that Western art chose to compete with. Kurt Vonnegut likened the mind-clearing effect of coming home from work and reading a short story to a "Buddhist cat-nap". The ink painting tradition isn't too far from this idea: The artist takes you--(using a distinctive and personal hand) away and you read the painting as much as look at it--then you return to the world.
Unlike a typical western painting--and much like a story waiting quietly in a book--they don't grab your attention. Grabbing would require intruding on the room, the paintings do not look back at you. They wait for you to look into them, and then hold it as long as you're willing to engage them.
|Zou Fulei, A Breath of Spring, 1360|
|Same thing, close-up|
|Chen Rong, Nine Dragon Scroll, 13th C,|
even the dragons are waiting behind clouds...
|more of that|
|Li Di, Maple Falcon and Pheasant, 12th C. Birds|
in trees was a whole genre unto itself.
|Monkeys in a loquat tree, 11th c.|
Chinese paintings allow you to step into them, Western ones ask you to step into them (think of the Mona Lisa looking, smiling, saying "the world's like this, ok?"), Japanese paintings, from surprisingly early on, threaten to step out into your space.
While those Chinese monkeys up there have the good sense to repose for the unknown painter in both the loquat tree and the composition it and they both serve, these Japanese monkeys insist on fucking around. The way they hang almost satirizes the way the scroll hangs from the wall.
|Attributed to Mori Sosen but it doesn't look|
like his other monkeys so I dunno, 18th-19th C
|Hakuin Ekaku, 18c|
|By the 20th century you could argue the influence|
was going the other way. This is the Chinese artist
Pan Tianshou, from 1961.
Now part of it is the influence of Japanese Zen and the emphasis on spontaneity--here's Sesshu in 14something…Landscape Splashed With Ink:
…and Enku--a 17th C monk--embodied this direct Zen aesthetic in wood temple sculpture...
But there are other forces at work underlying this sensibility:
Chinese liondragons? Just chillin'--carved from the same ineffable celestial cloudstone ether into which they stare…
Japanese temple monster? You can totally tell someone went and looked at a real animal at some point before carving this guy…maybe it was just a shaved shih-tzu, but it was something with muscles and teeth and a face...
19th C netsuke. And there's also bunraku
puppets and noh masks and a billion other
things I don't know enough about to
even scratch the surface of...
…and there's also a distinctly Japanese willingness to let the decorative elements…
….into the paintings. Here's Ogata Korin (16th C) prefiguring Gustav Klimt:
I'd submit that the reason almost all eastern and western paintings look so, well….old…to us up until very recently is we don't live in those same rooms. The homes of the modern not-fabulously-wealthy are hopelessly eclectic--we have all this shit because we might need it--the Ikea shelf and the New England blanket and the Japanese printer and the Italian yard sale end-table and the fake-Turkish rug and a dog bred by Chinese emperors to look like a lion. So we want a picture to bring its context with it, and establish a mood under its own power--the artist can't rely on the environment to provide the necessary counterpoint. It can be a conscious effort of will for a modern person to collect the necessary calm to engage a Velazquez or a Li Cheng, even when we recognize there's something worth seeing there.
I'm going to guess Japan's emerging merchant class had the same problem as modernity approached, and so, to serve them, Japanese artists created the earliest artform which is is still capable of giving the contemporary viewer no impression of being seen through a mist of time, the one that is still capable of striking even a child as being as fresh and as immediate as a snapchat: the ukiyo-e print.
The "pictures of the floating world" merged the fluidity and personal touch of ink painting, the design sense of the luxuries and textiles, and the visual ferocity always latent in the mythological sculpture to create something which became--as the form reached its peak in the 19th century--as different from what had come before as Jerry Lee Lewis' piano is from Mozart's.
|He made this insane painting right before he died.|
I wonder if a young Bill Waterson ever saw it.
On top of that, the artist had to rely on rely on the block-carver to transfer their design from drawing to block plus maybe even new owners adding personal ownership seals to the final image--much as a contemporary comic penciller needs to develop a style that works no matter who the colorist, inker and letter are.)
|The rest of the Ghost of Genta Yoshihira|