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Touching Mystery
Never tired of looking at each other -
Only the Jingting Mountain and me 
Li Pai
The roots of Chinese painting go to China’s ancient traditions. The emergence of this art is tied to the philosophy of Taoism and Confucianism, to the symbolism that originates from hieroglyphics, and it is based on the spiritual and moral foundation that is the mutual penetration of spirit and matter. Its characteristic trait is spirituality, an aesthetic attitude toward reality. The questions are: what is reality? What is man, what is his thought? What is spirit?
The logical cognizance of Beauty as a philosophical category in Chinese painting is expressed in its artistic aesthetics, and it can be designated as a breakthrough through the world’s ugliness to the realm of harmony. The alloy of the logical and the emotional expressed in the symbols of the Chinese language has become the foundation for painting, its graphic and symbolic expression. The symbolism in Chinese painting connected the micro- and macro-worlds of the Chinese philosophy of Taoism and Confucianism: “In a single grain the Universe is contained.”
Chinese painting is a special kind of art which presupposes joint creative work from the artist and the viewer. It is based on strict canons, and it makes moral demands not only on the artist, but also on the viewer; here the high purpose of art is to teach people virtue. This joint creative work helps one rise to generalizations of the eternal, the universal. The titanic images of mountains in Chinese painting emphasize the boundlessness of nature and of man who realizes the nature of the spirit (the mind). Man is perceived as inseparable from nature; the artist likewise merges with nature; as he paints the mountains, he reflects his own soul, his spirit. This hugeness is the urge toward the eternal, the generalization. In the depiction of mountains the material world has symbolic and spiritual meaning in Chinese painting. The vision that sees the exceptional, the beautiful in nature and in man – it is a different vision of the world, a different aesthetic, a different artistic perception of the world compared to Western artistic aesthetics. “There is nothing you can see that is not a flower; there is nothing you can think that is not the moon. He to whom things are not a flower is a savage. He who has no flower in his heart is a beast,” – thus did the Japanese poet Bashō write aphoristically.
The history of China’s ruling dynasties was likewise reflected in the aesthetics of painting: that art put in the foreground now the mountains’ grand scale, now man depicted up close. However, thought some subjects underwent conversion or dominated in different times, this never changed the philosophy of Chinese art; it continued speaking to the spiritual vision through the subjects’ clarity and liveliness.
Chinese painting is more philosophy than painting as such or the craft of brushwork. It cannot be imitated; Chinese painting is expression, not depiction. It is always unique and depends on the minutest of details: the force of brush pressure; the concentration of ink; the number of ink absorption strata in the brush; the structure of the paper; the intensity of the artist’s hand motion, of his breath and his energy. This all cannot be repeated, and that is why Chinese painting is impossible to copy in principle. This kind of painting is unique in its essence. Its subjects can and should be copied, but the spirit cannot; it can only be expressed. The phrase by Qi Baishi sounds very naturally here (I quote from memory): “Too much likeness is vulgarity, while too much unlikeness is deception.”
Any kind of imitation that dismantles the dichotomous structure of the world in Chinese painting - the structure maintained by the two opposing principles of creation, Yin and Yang; all attempts to transfer Chinese subjects into other artistic media, such as canvas, oils and all other drawing tools; any manifestation of disregard for the proportions of space, etc. – all this destroys utterly the meaning of this art and can never be called Chinese painting.
Chinese painting is a different philosophy of aesthetics.
Chinese painting is comparable to poetry in its rhythmic quality. Poetry frequently accompanies Chinese painting; in antiquity it was almost required accompaniment. Poetry strengthens association in the viewer. The artist’s main sayings related to the depicted subject used to be written directly on the painting.
Chinese painting is comparable to music in phrasing, intonation, in the touch (the stroke – staccato, legato) and the intonation accent, in the pause. That which is the pause in music in Chinese painting is the free space, the breathing.
Chinese painting is the aphoristic expression of the aesthetic idea. In this special kind of “writing” the essence is revealed in seeming simplicity. This simplicity should not be confused with vulgar simplification and primitiveness which are practiced by artists who are illiterate in this kind of art.
Chinese painting has its own Laws which are spelled out in The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting. Along with the main principles and methods of the “craft,” composition, perspective, etc., this book defines the philosophical essence: the integrity of the universe is shown through depiction of the separate, the particular. Mastery of the secrets of brush painting with Indian ink must be flawless and precise, since nothing can be erased or adjusted. This voyage begins anew every time.
Chinese painting is a method - same as oil, gouache, pastel, watercolor painting. It matters not which subjects the painter depicts. Chinese painting is not subjects; it is the language of Indian ink and brush. The character is expressed here through the brushstroke itself; the stroke is its spirit. A stone cannot be “downy”; down cannot be “stony”. Otherwise you end up with fakes, “simulacra.” Such painting has the right to exist, but it should be called differently. It is precisely the adequacy of the brushstroke to the spirit of the depicted subject that determines the authenticity of the painting. This is why it cannot be imitated.
Everything that ventures beyond the framework should be called differently, such as: ink painting, paints and ink on Chinese paper, mixed technique, etc. It is the same with respect to the ethical constant of Chinese painting: aggression and chaos are outside the philosophy of this art’s artistic truth.
In this connection, the expression “modern Chinese painting” has no meaning. Should one measure modernity by the variety of subjects, such painting does indeed exist; here we need simply to reach an understanding about terms. This principle is applicable to any other direction in painting: for example, if a certain kind of painting transcends the boundaries of, say, impressionism as a method, then it is called something different from impressionism. Expansion of subjects within the genre’s bounds does not change the method (technique in the broad sense of the word). The subjects are merely a reflection of the historical time, but the essence of the method remains constant.
However, one shouldn’t confuse the variety of genres with the artist’s hand, with his understanding and expression manifested in the artistic image within the framework of one and the same method. Some see the essence in reality; some see it in a distorted fashion. There are many reasons for this: from the “size” of the artist’s personality to his mental state.
In modern painting in China (note well: not “Chinese painting,” but the art of painting in China) one can observe several directions or currents: for example, the Yunnan style (Yunnan heavy color painting) which for a very long time was not included in the canon of “Chinese painting” and is to this day designated as “painting with Indian ink and paints on Chinese paper”; it has practically transformed into the art of the print. Some use European watercolors and other paints on paper and on silk; some draw with oil paints on Chinese paper and on silk. Even though the culture of the Chinese school of painting originates from the flat image, at present we see volume and “Western” perspective emerge. Some modern artists paint on paper and superimpose the paper on canvas. Then there is also the newly fashionable technique of three-dimensional graphics on Chinese paper with elements of ink wash. The number of innovators is endless; they are as many as there are painters who presume to seek new methods in painting. This is a natural sign of the times.
However, in China as well as in the West there are dealers who sell and buy twisted “masterpieces” under the guise of modernity. Twisted aesthetics look particularly incongruous, parody-like in the Chinese version of art. The alien aesthetics of “horror, catastrophe and collapse” does not fit into the classical Chinese world vision which is based on humanist philosophy. Artistic creations “modernized” by meaninglessness or by so-called freedom (that is just for show) have all the philosophical significance of a storm in a soup bowl. Such works are nonsense and worth a dime a dozen.
Still, this sort of art does exist and is labeled by illiterate interpreters as “Chinese painting.” It exist for its own sake, for the benefit of dealers and of none-too-choosy interpreters and buyers, for the purpose of making money – which has no relation to art and especially to that “mysterious” – or, more exactly, difficult-to-learn – art-cum-philosophy: “Chinese painting.”
Valentina Battler
May 20 , 2011

Translated into English by Paul Sorokin

© Copyright Valentina Battler.  All rights reserved

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