Fewer than 10 whimsical but highly controlled black brushstrokes were enough to outline a bouquet of plum flowers and make it burst with personality. In the next panel, the artist repeated his process, only to rotate the flowers to a slightly different angle. The juxtaposition of this series of Chinese paintings almost echoes Monet’s series of Haystacks or Rouen Cathedral to study the effects of light on objects, but they aim to explore something much more metaphysical.
The exhibition, Nature Observed and Imagined: Five Hundred Years of Chinese Painting, displays paintings and furniture from the family collections of Martin Tang ’70 and Bobby Tsai ’83. While none of the works exhibited is particularly iconic, the selection does display a rather comprehensive sample of techniques and subjects of Chinese painters from the 15th to 19th century.
Landscapes of water and mountains, plum flowers, bamboo and courtly scenes dominate the exhibition. Human figures were present but rarely the main subject — painted with the same gestural, reduced style of the misty mountains and bamboo stems, calculated as equal elements of the painting instead of reference points for perspective. Linear perspective is not a major concern for these painters, but the some paintings do achieve a sense of aerial depth through the mixture of brush strokes and the varied diluteness of ink. Depth, like every other representational element of the paintings, was natural and spontaneous rather than measured and calculated.
Simultaneously in the western world during the 15th to 19th century, painters were concerned with realism and representation. Even though the subjects of the paintings are often biblical and imagined, there is evident a deliberate effort to mimic colors and textures of reality. In China, however, the painters were attempting to illustrate their conscious desire for and belief in harmony — an essence that transcends human beings, mountains, rivers and the sky to create a sense of unity and spirituality. Abstraction, thus, is the only way to achieve that goal.
The expressive and interpretive way that the artist rendered his subjects are always concerned with Confucian notions of unity, the obsession with the meaning of constellations and the belief that the state of nature is a warning or approval of human behavior. Abstraction and representation, observation and imagination, movement and stability, ink and paper, the reality and the spiritual are all calibrated to illustrate harmony and connectedness.
Although ink on paper, the most common medium in this exhibition, can be used like watercolor to create almost photographic images, the painters opted to preserve the visible brushstrokes and showcase the painting process. Bamboo stems were summarized in a single stroke, with extra pressure applied at the segments. Even the close-ups of the bamboo leaves were created with one stroke alone, beginning at the stem of the plant with a loaded drop of ink and trailing off with individuality. The contour of the hills with studded brushstrokes to mimic the unevenness of the forest is enough to represent mountains and water surfaces are often left blank and textureless, balancing the dynamic brushwork of the rest of the painting to create an incredible sense of serenity.
Take “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” (1821) by Zhang Yingjun, for example. The mountains, rivers, open sky, trees and manmade cottages are all painted with the same style, and the lack of obvious treatment of perspective brings nature, the universe and mankind onto the same plane. Nature and humans are reflections and extensions of one another, and while the painting does celebrate the majesty of China’s natural beauty and explore the expansiveness of the universe, it does not aim to portray the powerlessness of mankind against nature and the cosmos. Rather, the smallness of the cottages nestled in the trees and the mist seemed apt and appropriate, illustrating a perfect sense of stillness and equilibrium with no anticipation or need for movement and revision. Even the calligraphy in the corner blended in, uniting human intellect and natural beauty.
In “Distant Hills and Migrating Geese” (ca. 1800) by Zhang Yin, on a panoramic scroll seven times as wide as it is tall, diluted ink covered much of the canvas and blended the sky, water and land into a dreamlike, expansive field. Foggy outlines of mountains in the distance floated above what appear to be clouds, and a tiny but defined temple sits on a lonely cliff. Although negligibly small, the sharpness and intricacy of the temple balances the weight of the mountains and the openness of the water and sky, creating an idealistic image of the relationship between every part of the universe.
In addition to the religious and philosophical beliefs of the Chinese, the paintings also embody China’s political history and foreign exchange. One painting, “Archery Contest in the Changchunyuan” (1750), by Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione, is a vibrant explosion of color. It shows clearly influences of early Renaissance painting through the treatment of architectural details and attempts at linear perspective. “Twenty-Four Transformations of Guanyin” (ca. 1580) by Miss Qiu is painted with gold ink on black paper with uncharacteristic consistency in line quality, echoing Indian Buddhist art. Politics, human psyche, nature and spirituality are blended into a scroll of breathtaking meditation.
Original Author: Lucy Li