The Flowering Field
Contemporary Chinese Painting
Chinese Painting after the End of Art
The title of this essay is inspired by that of Arthur C. Danto's After the End of Art. In this stimulating and provocative book, based on his A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, given at The National Gallery of Art in 1995, Professor Danto notes of the Western artistic tradition that before about A.D. 1400 "...the concept of art had not as yet really emerged in general consciousness, and...images...played quite different roles in the lives of people than works of art came to play when the concept at last emerged and something like aesthetic considerations began to govern our relationships to them." 1 Danto then goes on to argue that "the master narrative of the history of art...is that there is an era of imitation, followed by an era of ideology, followed by our post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes....In our narrative, at first only mimesis was art, then several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors, and then, finally, it became apparent that there were no stylistic or philosophical constraints...It is the end of the story." 2 In this critical scheme, successive art-historical periods are viewed as chapters of a historical narrative that began about 1400 and ended about 1964, after which artists of course continued to create but in pursuit of personal rather than historical goals. The present essay seeks to apply some of Professor Danto's criteria to the Chinese case in an attempt to define more clearly the relationship of contemporary painting to the past and to examine the ways in which contemporary painters differ from their historical predecessors.
I. Art before Art (5000 B.C.-A.D. 300)
The objects of art may first of all be distinguished from artifacts, "objects produced or shaped by human craft...ornaments of archaeological or historical inter est." 3 Extant examples of early artifacts range from works in jade (figure 1) to ceramics (figures 2-3) and to bronzes (figures 4-5). Most if not all of these are assumed to have had ritual rather than solely utilitarian functions and their forms and decoration are thus likely magical or apotropaic in nature.
The jade from Hongshan is fashioned in the form of the formidable dragon, the di-nosaurian origins of which are suggested by the remains now being unearthed in Liaoning province, the source of many of these early jades. The painted bowl in figure 2 served as the cover for a child's coffin-jar and the plaque in the form of a human face in figure 3 seems designed to be placed over and attached to the mouth of some container, suggesting in both cases that the images were fraught with potent meaning.
Painted designs continued to carry great symbolic import to the end of the Neolithic period. The Emperor Shun, for example, an early successor to the Yellow Emperor, is recorded in the Shangshu as having stated:
"I wish to view the symbols of the ancients. Take those for the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountain, the dragon, and the pheasant and do paintings in color on ancestral temple vases; take those for the water plant, fire, husked grain, rice, the ax, and the symbol of distinction and embroider them in color on robes of fine linen."
The Bronze Age in China began with the Xia dynasty (traditional dates 2205-1818 B.C.) and continued well into the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100-254 B.C.). According to the 4th-3rd c. B.C. Zuozhuan, "In the past, when the Xia possessed virtue (to rule), distant regions depicted things and submitted metal (ore).
The Nine Provinces cast tripods to image those things. All those things being presented completely, the people knew their souls and bodies. Note by Tu Yu: during the rule of Yu, pictures of the extraordinary things of mountains and rivers were painted and presented. Having had metal submitted to the Nine Provinces, images of those depicted things were displayed on tripods. Depicting the forms of spirits, demons, and such things enabled the people to prepare against them." In this ex post facto attempt to explain the character and nature of the earlier bronzes, Zhou dynasty writers constructed a scenerio in which border regions sent in painted images of the strange creatures to be found in their areas along with the ore required to cast the vessels; artisans working in the capital then used the drawings as the basis for the designs they cast as surface decoration for the ritual forms. It was thus believed that the imagery - whether cast or, as in the case of the square ding vessel in figure 4, perhaps painted as well - was apotropaic by intent and carried connotations of imperial sway and power.
The lavish use of gold, silver, and inlay of other precious substances on bronzes of the Warring States period (480-221 B.C.) testify on the one hand to their loss of solely ritual functions and on the other to their new or additional duties as markers of status, power, and wealth (figure 6). The old forms were also pressed into service as vehicles for such entirely new goals as narration. One of the most striking and elaborate exemplifications of this new approach to surface decoration are the scenes covering the entire surface of a square hu (figure 7). The designers of this vessel obviously had much to tell and, as can be seen from the mirror-imaging to suggest symmetry in the groups of horses pulling the chariots, they were still in the process of inventing pictorial conventions by which to communicate their messages. Formalized patterns and abstract designs dominate most of the reverse surface of a bronze mirror of this period (figure 8) but in one section is portrayed an armoured rider extending his sword toward a tiger rising to the combat. The three-quarter view which implies pictorial space, the torsion in the figure of the twisting animal, and the verisimilitude of the presentation augur again the beginning of a new era.
Another noteworthy phenomena in any search for the beginnings of art - since there can be no art without artists - is the presence of signatures on significant numbers of late Zhou dynasty ceramics and lacquerwares. Although no details of their lives are known, and writing about the lives of artists began only centuries later, these late Zhou, Qin and Han dynasty craftsmen clearly sought to establish a new and more intimate relationship between themselves and their productions whoever may have commissioned or bought them on completion.
The changes which brought this very long epoch to a close occurred during a period of increasing contact with the larger world - glass is known to have been imported from the West during this period and the potter's wheel and the use of metals were transmitted from China to Yayoi-period Japan at about the same time - and the rather sudden emphasis on verisimilitude, the new interest in narration as well as some of the techniques by which these were realized could depend ultimately on inspiration from abroad. One of the painter-craftsmen who served the First Emperor of Qin was in fact from the Kingdom of Qianxiao , located perhaps in the area of modern Gansu province or even further west. 4
Artifacts produced during the Han dynasty (206 B.C-220 A.D.) by and large represent developments from the new foundation established during the 3rd century B.C. Painting continued to grow in importance as a narrative vehicle but served didactic and moral rather than purely aesthetic ends (figure 9). The public display of paintings seems to have begun with the First Emperor of Qin, who had the palace structures of each of the nobles he destroyed during his drive to power painted and displayed like trophies on the north wall of his capital, presumably as a demonstration of the futility of resistance to his rule. This utilitarian view of painting was enthusiastically seconded by Cao Zhi (192-232): "Among those who look at paintings are none who see the Three August Ones and the Five Emperors and do not look up in reverence, who see the three last cruel rulers and do not grieve and lament, who see rebellious officials stealing the throne and do not gnash their teeth, who see highly chaste and subtle scholars and do not forget to eat, who see the loyal and moral dying in hardship and do not stiffen their heads, who see banished officials and disinherited sons and do not sigh in regret, who see licentious husbands and jealous wives and do not avert their eyes, who see honorable concubines and obedient Empresses and do not praise and honor. From this we know that paintings preserve exemplary precepts." This list suggests the type and range of subjects presented for the moral betterment of the emperor's subjects and we may assume that visual effectiveness and technical competency were the standards by which the work was judged, much as was true of the signed ceramics and lacquerwares. These Han paintings of moral exemplars qualify as art defined as "human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature" but not as Art, "the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium."5
II. Art (300-1300)
Art in this highest, most refined sense began when aesthetic rather than craft standards came to be used in its evaluation. Appreciation of objects or paintings for their individual qualities rather than as members of generic classes encouraged artists to develop their own styles and approaches, which in turn led to greatly increased consciousness of the artist as a creative individual, of interest in his own right as well as for his technical skills. The early Six dynasties period honored such eccentric personalities as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (figure 10) and the 3rd-4th centuries A.D. also saw the rise of the earliest artists known as distinct personalities and then of various critical formulations designed to account for and evaluate artistic excellence.
Although not the earliest critic, Xie He of the early 6th century was clearest about the critical standards he applied to paintings and he was also the most systematic in his judgements on individual painters. These six standards have occasioned a vast and complicated critical literature by Chinese writers from the 6th century down to the present age and by non-Chinese scholars throughout the world during the 20th century. 6 The translation and observations offered here thus exclude the standards themselves and are limited to the remainder of Xie's preface, which was intended to explain the basis on which he ranked a total of twenty-eight earlier and contemporaneous painters.
On the Evaluation of (Ancient) Painters 7
The evaluation of painters is done by summing their virtues and faults. Among painters there are none who do not illustrate some advice or warning or describe cycles of rise and decline. The solitude and silence of a thousand years can be seen just by opening their pictures. 8
Be that as it may, painters have six standards9 (upon which to model themselves); 10few,
however, have been able to fulfill all of them but rather, from antiquity until today, each has attained excellence in only one. What are these six standards?....Only Lu Tanwei and Wei Xie completely fulfilled them.
This being so, extant paintings range between the skillful and the awkward.11 Yet aesthetic values are timeless.12 In respectful accordance with their relative distance (from the standards) and according to their relative classification, the painters are separated into ranked sequence.13 For this reason, that which is here narrated is not extensive.14 Its origin can only have been handed down from the spirits and immortals, whom none have heard or seen.15
In the body of his text, Xie He ranks 28 painters into six categories of excellence and appends comments on their strong and weak points, their period of activity, their style, their status, and often their teachers. The earliest of these artists was active during the Wu dynasty (222-280), 8 during the Jin (317-420), 11 during the Liu Song (420-479), 6 during the Southern Qi (479-502), and 2 during the Liang dynasty (502-557) but there was no chronological bias in their relative ranking. Twenty-one were professional painters, including four out of five artists placed in the first class; five officials were included but, being placed individually in the first, third (two artists), fourth, and fifth classes, their elevated political status clearly gained them no particular advantage in the realm of aesthetics; and one emperor was included by Xie, placed judiciously as the second artist in the fourth class and 24th overall. Rarely in later centuries did any critic approach his task with critical standards so firmly in mind.
Later critics often referred to the Six Standards of Xie He but, over time, changes occurred which suggest the direction in which Xie's basically memetic standards were gradually modified. Writing about 847, the historian Zhang Yanyuan noted: "The painters of antiquity were sometimes able to transmit formal likeness while endowing it with a noble vitality. They sought for what was beyond formal likeness in their painting...As for today's painters, even if they attain formal likeness, they do not generate spirit resonance...If they were to explore painting through spirit resonance, then inevitably formal likeness would reside in it...The representation of things necessarily consists in formal likeness, but likeness of form requires completion by a noble vitality. Noble vitality and formal likeness both originate in the definition of a conception and derive from the use of the brush..." 16 Artists were now expected to probe beneath surface particularity and to somehow embue their pictures with much more elusive characteristics, such as "noble vitality." By the later 11th century and the work of Guo Roxu, the first standard of Xie He - held by him to have been a discernable characteristic of a tangible painting - had been transmorgraphied into something reflective of the painter himself. 17
This clearly more subjective attitude toward painting culminated in the literati movement of the late Northern Song era during the late 11th-early 12th century. The new demand being placed on painting was stated in a poem by Chao Buzhi (1053-1110):
In a painting are drawn forms beyond the (objective) matter,
Chao's statement prefigures the discovery made by twentieth century poets that any poem can, through rhythm, tone, and pitch, communicate with the listener even without explicit imagery, but Chao further insists that the best poem will in addition present imagery as compelling as that in a painting. A painter was likewise obligated, at the lowest level of competence, to at least do no violence to the objective forms he portrayed; the finest paintings, however, would in addition embody or give form to abstract concepts through manipulation of color, line, and composition. It is this attitude that lay behind the oft-quoted lines of Su Shi (1037-1101):
(One who) discusses painting in terms of form and appearance
Su's poetic statement - often taken as evidence for an anti-life-likeness stance in painting -does not argue that a painting cannot be discussed in terms of form and appearance any more than it does that a shi "lyric poem" is not a poem. Shi poetry, which has a uniform number of characters - 4, 5, or 7 - in each line, had been the most popular form during the Tang dynasty (618-906) but during the Song period was being challenged by the ci form, which is divided into two stanzas and has lines of varying length, from 1 to 11 or more characters. Su Shi himself wrote both types of poems but his greatest contributions were in the ci form, where he occasionally broke with the traditional practice of composing to a strict and rigid metrical pattern as one would to music. In the poem quoted above, Su was not arguing that traditional standards were unimportant but rather than those standards, after having been completely mastered, could then be manipulated to some degree for expressive effect.
Later Song dynasty attitudes toward painting paralleled the development of the Cheng-Zhu school of philosophy, which conceived of a primary distinction between nature and mind, of a reality composed of both the concrete (qi) and the abstract (li). Painters as well as philosophers therefore sought to investigate the nature of things (gewu). For both groups reality had an objective existence outside the mind that sought to apprehend it, and this conditioned their basic approach - an attempt to capture both the changing phenomena (qi) and the universality and unmoving reality behind it (li).
The ultimate stage reached by these artists is represented here in landscapes painted by FachangMuqi (ca.1220-ca.1280) and Rofen Yujian (later 13th century). In the painting by Muqi (figure 11), painted probably about 1270, space - the salient characteristic of the natural world - is primary with three-dimensional forms playing distinctly subsidiary roles. This represents an almost complete reversal of earlier appoaches (figures 9-10) in which solid forms were paramount and pictorial space suggested indirectly, by suggestion and implication. In the second example, Yujian's " Mountain Village in Clearing Mist" (figure 12), both pictorial space and solid form are of secondary importance and we view a landscape on the verge of pure abstraction. By writing his poem large and placing it immediately adjacent to the painted image, with nothing to demarcate or to separate the two visual fields, the artist insisted on the primacy of the frontal picture plane, proclaiming that what we see is not a window into some illusory pictorial world but rather a two-dimensional work of art, with only the figures, the bridge, and the roof-tops maintaining a tenuous relationship to the phenomenal world. Clearly this is the point at which Art as defined by Xie He comes to an end.
III. Art as History (1300-1900)
Another way of defining the advent of the new dispensation is to say that the old covenant ended as soon as Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) announced in 1301 that painting without a historical dimension was not Art. "The spirit of antiquity is what is of value in painting. If there is no spirit of antiquity, then, though there may be skill, it is to no avail. Nowadays, men who merely know how to draw in a fine scale and lay on rich and brilliant colors consider themselves competent. They totally ignore the fact that a lack of the spirit of antiquity will create so many faults that the result will not be worth looking at. My own paintings seem to be quite simply and carelessly done, but connoisseurs will realize that they are close to the past and thus may be considered superior. This is said for the cognoscenti, not for the ignorant."18 It is certainly true that many newcomers to the field of Chinese painting will find Zhao's paintings "quite simply and carelessly done" (figure 13), but it is equally true that even a short exposure to the wonders of this tradition will enable one to recognize Zhao's work for the masterpiece it is. Separated by a matter of only decades from the impressionism of Muqi (figure 11) and the abstraction of Yujian (figure 12), Zhao offers instead a contemplative vision of an actual place he had visited but one viewed through the transforming prism of style and painting history.
Zhao's early mentor, Qian Xuan (ca.l235-after 1301), painted his "Dwelling in the Floating Jade Mountains" (figure 14) at almost the same time as Muqi and Yujian painted their space-, light-, and atmosphere-filled visions (figures 11 and 12) but Qian clearly inhabited a different conceptual world. Qian's painting, even more than Zhao's, obviously consists of pigment spread on a flat surface and was produced on a theoretical basis with consciousness of earlier art for persons of acquired taste - all characteristics which figure in Professor Danto's definition of modern art. The value of such a painting is indeed defined by taste, and when this painting was in the United States during the 1950s, in private hands and presumably available for acquisition, no efforts were made to secure it and the painting returned to China , where it is now one of the treasures of the Shanghai Museum of Art.
Like the painting by Zhao Mengfu, that conceived by Qian Xuan appears to have been a figment of his art-historical imagination but, in fact, it too was based on an actual place, where Qian lived. This move to a new conceptual and aesthetic basis for painting was recognized overtly by Ni Zan (1301-1374): "What I call painting does not exceed the joy of careless sketching with the brush. I do not seek formal likeness but do it simply for my own amusement. Recently I was rambling about and came to a town. The people asked for my pictures, but wanted them exactly according to their own desires and to represent a specific occasion. (When I could not satisfy them,) they went away insulting, scolding, and cursing in every possible way. What a shame! But, how can one scold a eunuch for not growing a beard?19 The artist here was functioning like a modern critic, providing an interpretation of his painting that would allow viewers to understand its point and value. Having moved away from direct engagement with outer reality - even that defined in idealistic terms - and having weened the viewing public away from attachment to representational ends rather than the means of representation, Ni Zan and subsequent painters embarked on another great narrative that provided continuing challenges and much scope for innovation into the 20th century and the end of the dynastic period. 20
IV Art's End (1900-1976)
Beginning with the Opium War, quickening with the Boxer Rebellion, and culminating with the Revolution of 1911 that brought an end to the Qing dynasty, many of China 's cultural paradigms were questioned, found wanting in the scales of contemporaneous need, and finally discarded. Whereas during the aesthetic crisis of the late 13th century artists had sought and found new possibilities in earlier painting, many artists of the late Qing and early Republic era, faced with unprecedented political and social upheavals, felt they had little choice but to turn completely away from artistic traditions that were inextricably linked with institutions then in question (figure 15). Having rejected the practices and attitudes of the immediate past, as had been done during the early Yuan dynasty, some early 20th century artists turned not to history again but rather, for the first time, looked actively outside their own tradition, especially to Japan and Europe , for solutions to their perceived dilemma.
The challenges of the new world were complex and seemed to require changes on several fronts: subjects that answered to demands for contemporary relevance, techniques that were not bound to and limited by traditional usage, and theoretical formulations that would allow for direct and immediate rather than idealized expression at several removes. It is clear from consideration of figure 15 alone that the tradition as it existed during the mid-19th century was perfectly capable, in the hands of a master painter, of fulfilling all of the new requirements, but in any case this seventy-five year postmodern period - and especially the period of state control between 1949 and 1976 - finally resulted in a complete break and discontinuity in a lineage of painting that had survived more than two millennia despite several major reorientations in conceptual foundation.
V Art after Art (1976 ff.)
What happens after the end of art is answered in part by this exhibition: art continues to be created but without the necessity to either follow or to reject any or all of the past history of painting. Some of the contemporary artists in this exhibition paint in oils as well as with traditional brush-and-ink, but the selection was limited to the latter technique so as to highlight the current state of guohua painting. It can be seen that some of these contemporary masters have revived Song landscape styles, others follow Yuan and late Ming masters, and yet others were inspired by various Western movements, from impressionism to post-impressionism to action painting. Although the flower-and-bird and animal paintings are closer to tradition, perhaps because of the basic nature of those subjects, the figure paintings again manifest a challenging range of styles and modes of presentation. Free to paint in whatever style they wish, to choose subjects of personal interest and to treat them as they will, contemporary artists are beyond the constraints of criticism or even taste, if they choose to be, and in this sense the future possibilities are truly boundless.
Comparisons between unrelated cultures are often useful, since unexpected parallels or differences may lead to greater understanding of one or both of them, but they are just as often useless, especially when there is no casual relationship between them. But it is salutary nonetheless for those of us accustomed to things Chinese occurring much earlier than their counterparts in the West to note that already during the Archaic period (B.C. 650-480) in Greece, sculpture, architecture, and especially ceramics were already being signed by those who made and decorated them and already during the Classic era (B.C. 480-400) a special space in the Acropolis in Athens was set aside for the public display of art. The Greeks and the Romans after them also developed an extensive critical literature that allowed discussion of individual achievement on the basis of objective norms. Of special significance in regard to painting are the ideas of Plato, who held that there were three modes of reality: the pure idea or form of something, its concrete physical manifestation, and, least perfect, as represented by an artist on the basis of its physical form. 21
Roman artists consciously built on the foundation of Greek achievement but made their own unique contributions in realistic sculpture, monumental architecture, and illusionistic painting. Sporadic contact via the Parthians between West and East during the Han and Roman eras may account for the sudden appearance of realistic sculpture in China during the 3rd century B.C. Victorious leaders in Rome had their military exploits painted on wooden panels for public display from the 3rd century B.C. onward and, as was noted above, the First Emperor of Qin was equally enamored of his own achievements. In any case, by the 4th century A.D., the Chinese had achieved a portrait art of some distinction and were in advance of their Western counterparts in the art of landscape painting.
In the Western world, this early appearance of art produced on an aesthetic basis was ended by a thousand year period during which Christian ritual and ideology reigned supreme and artifacts were designed to serve divine rather than mundane ends. The period in China discussed above as Art (300-1300), during which art was produced on an aesthetic basis with a paradigm of mimesis, coincides almost exactly with this Age of Faith or Pre-Art in the West; both come to an end just when the rise of the Mongols again provided a bridge between them. By that time Chinese painters had already found a solution to the dilemma posed by Plato: rather than striving to replicate the imperfect physical manifestation of pure idea or form, Chinese artists from the 10th century onward were united in their determination to make manifest the underlying reality, the pure essence or ideal form of all phenomena. Artists of the Renaissance like those in Yuan China had recourse to earlier tradition, and artists of both regions used history to free themselves from their immediate past, but Western artists then used that freedom to begin an essentially new investigation of reality - precisely what the Chinese had just turned away from. Chinese art from about 1300 until 1900 fits a great many definitions used to characterize Western art of the modern era, but the two traditions come together again during the early decades of the 20th century in their mutual recognition that history had died and could no longer engender and support positive artistic growth.
Much has been written, and debates continue to attract passionate speakers if not necessarily attentive listeners, on how Chinese painting can, should, and will progress in the immediate future. Neither prediction nor prescription will be attempted here - although the exhibition itself is both of these - but it can be noted that painting is a performing art, like music, and as such it too requires initial training in its techniques, approaches, and conventions. Musicians then go on as performers of the received canon or as composers of works that perhaps act to expand that canon, and the same choices and opportunities are open to all contemporary painters. Musicians can turn to the synthesizer for new effects, abandon the diatonic scale in favor of the Hindu system, or follow Arnold Schonberg's atonal approach and still be considered musicians and still have their productions recognized as music, and comparable strategies in the field of painting must be granted equal acceptability.
Schonberg is remembered today as a composer, not as a specifically Austrian composer, and Helen Kwan is honored as an opera singer rather than solely as a Chinese opera singer; Yo-yo Ma is famed as a cellist, not for being a Chinese cellist, just as Midori is recognized as a violinist rather than a specifically Japanese violinist. On the other hand, Mei Lanfang is honored as a sterling performer of Jingxi or Beijing opera and occupies a different niche than do Helen Kwan and Luciano Pavarotti. When a given field of endeavor is internationalized, whether Italian opera, baseball, or oil painting, the original attachment to a specific country is weakened and its practioners - whatever their nationality - are then accorded the more generalized status that situation requires. Otherwise, one of the factors defining a field may well remain that of its country of origin; sumo is still associated solely with Japan , and hula dancing has not spread far beyond the borders of Hawaii .
What, then, of guohua? At present it is clearly and by intention a specifically Chinese approach to painting. Although it could, in theory, become internationalized as happened with oil painting and other forms of art, guohua requires specialized training and disciplined practice with brush and ink, and neither of these conditions are easy to achieve in the modern Western world. It thus seems most likely that guohua artists, defined in large part by the nature and associations of the specific instruments and formats of their art, will remain the purest representatives of Chinese painting.