Notebook, 1993-

Preface - Way - Principle - Idea - Method - Synthesis - References

[Wong, Wucius. The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting, Principles & Methods. New York: Design Press. 1991.]


Part Three - (cont.)

Time - Chinese landscape painting is an art of time as much as an art of space. Its essential qualities, breath and bone, have respectively a time implication and a space implication. The First Canon of Hsieh Ho says "infuse chi/yün to show life-movement," with the movement prominently stressed. Movement in space is a manifestation of time, and the application of time plays an important part in idea-craft.

Of course, shapes on the surface of a painting occupy space and remain unchanged in their given positions. Their movement is not a physical reality akin to what appears on a television screen. It represents, however, a kind of psychological reality, for a painting in a sense becomes a living, breathing, pulsating organism. The landscape provides an opportunity not just for viewing but for taking a spiritual journey. A viewer may walk into the scene and wander with the artist, tracing the ins and outs, ups and downs of the different formations, making brief stops and lingering at points of interest. The small scale of the subjects, the absence of fixed-point perspective and clearly defined horizons, the viewing from a high angle, and general recession into deep space behind the picture plane all enable one intimate scene after another to be revealed and contemplated within the grand scene. A large painting [Fig. 343] can contain numerous portions detailed enough to make satisfying compositions in isolation [Figs. 344-346]

The scroll provides a particularly good format for time application. The scope of vision formed with two eyes comfortably encompasses a horizontal area of roughly 3:5 ratio. Most Western painting formats approach this ratio, as do postcards and movie screens. A narrow vertical scroll shows a drastic departure from this ratio. Although the entire scroll can be seen from a distance, a proper appreciation requires close viewing, accomplished only with up and down eye movements. A handscroll stretching more than ten feet across, with rolling and unrolling revealing sections of about two to three feet at a time, is more than a simple panorama. It actually leads the viewer to travel in time. In fact, given its relationship with time, a Chinese landscape painting might be described in musical terms, for the expression of rhythms in the iteration of shapes and the spreading of forces resembles a musical sequence with accelerandos and ritardandos, crescendos and diminuendos. [p. 90]

Change and Continuity. Time is change, which takes place in smooth transitions as space evolves.

Smooth transitions demand continuity, which allows diversions and variations to interrelate with one another. The concept of Tao calls for an organic whole, and within this whole the constituents attain harmony not only in the order of space, but also in the order of time. Within the order of space, the order of time introduces a sequence of individual scenes which gradually unfold.

In a vertical scroll [Fig. 347], the space in each section provides a different mode of visual experience [Figs. 348-350]. In a horizontal handscroll, space can be treated more diversely, with shifting horizons and subjects arranged in varying distances [Figs. 351-354], perhaps reflecting seasonal or climatic changes [Figs. 355, 356].

An idea-scene may represent the view from a big eye in the distance, at a high slanting angle. It may represent a composite of views from a roving eye that traces the various mountain ridges and water passages. It may represent the artist's memories and impressions of different times. One main point of interest may assert special prominence as the origin, the final destination, or a highlight of the constituted visual journey, but the viewer should be able to find and focus on numerous points of interest in any painting. [p. 91]

The Spreading Force. Incorporating obvious directional movements, time expresses a spreading force, a kind of rhythmic progression achieved by relating one element to another through affinities in shape or orientations. The Chinese call this force shih [Fig. 357], also meaning gesture, tendency, or power, and associate it with the concepts of K'ai-ho [Fig. 358], meaning open and close, and chi'i-fu [Fig. 359], meaning rise and fall. The following passage, written by Ch'ing Dynasty painter Wang Yüan-ch'i [1642-1715 A.D.], explains these terms very clearly:

The dragon's vein is the source of the spreading force in a painting. This can be upright or slanting, whole or divided, continuous or broken, concealed or exposed, establishing the structure. The open-and-close movement comes from high to low, with distinct host and guest elements either densely grouped or sparsely scattered, where winding peaks, meandering paths, gathering clouds and streaming waters emerge. The rise-and-fall movement goes from near to far, with distinct front-facing and back-facing components tending up or down, inclining to left or right, and giving the head, the belly and the foot of the mountain equal stress. These are the manifestations of the structure. Displaying the dragon's vein without open-and-close and rise-and-fall movements can result in general stiffness with loss of the spreading force. Generating open-and-close and rise-and-fall movements with no reference to the dragon's vein is like having the children around without their mother.

Composing with the idea of a strong spreading force to provide pictorial coherence, the artist establishes the host mountain, which displays a prominent ridge where the dragon's vein lies. The lower part of the vein provides the front of the mountain; the upper part its peak [Fig. 360] The vein itself exerts a twisted movement with its descending tendency linked to some trees or a land mass in the foreground, and its ascending tendency crossing over the peak, proceeding in to deep pictorial space, and rising up again towards a distant hill in the background. This expresses the rise-and-fall movement of the spreading force [Fig. 361]. Meanwhile, side extensions of the dragon's vein send off directional lines to form other land masses. Lines approaching the edges of the painting can stop, taper down, or turn back to the main part of the picture. This expresses the open-and-close movement [Fig. 362].

The spreading force activates the illusory three-dimensional space of the painting, forming an organic coherence among the various elements. In this way, a painting with a centrally located host mountain resembles a dragon. The peak represents its head, the ridge its undulating body in a rise-and-fall movement, the side-stretching slopes and cliffs its legs, and other guest elements its claws, respectively in an open-and-close movement [Figs. 363, 364].

Linear Developments. Idea forms have internal and external contours as well as textures, adornments, and moss dots, all of which exhibit directional characteristics. Such directional characteristics generate specific linear developments, which sweep across the pictorial surface. Unlike the spreading force that has a three-dimensional significance, linear developments pertain basically to two-dimensional compositions. They represent the accumulation of brush marks with suitable visual clues, forming bands of active elements in rhythmic progressions. The presence of adjacent emptiness or voids helps to articulate the linear developments.

There are three types of linear developments for effective compositions. In application, the developments may exhibit a clear or subtle presence, and may be combined. The first type is curvilinear development, where the linear pattern takes the form of a swirling C-shape, a flexing S-shape, or an encircling O-shape. In the swirling C-shape development, elements occupy three edges of a painting, with wide open space linked to the remaining edge [Fig. 365]. The swirling movement can be spiral, and elements can intrude into the open space [Fig. 366]. The flexing S-shape development appears in the treatment of soaring mountain ridges [Fig. 367] and in compositions showing intermittent voids in opposite directions [Fig. 368]. The encircling O-shape development, a more contemporary approach, features elements generally fringing the edges [Fig. 369].

The second type is vertical/horizontal development, with parallel horizontals in an E-shape, or with vertical emphasis in an I- or T-shape. The E-shape development expresses distance stressing leveled broadness [Fig. 370]. The I-shape development features a prominent upright land mass [Fig. 371] . The T-shape development pushes the grouped elements toward the upper or lower edge of the painting [Fig. 372], or toward both edges, with a generally light vertical linkage [Fig. 373].

In the third type, called radial development, directional progression originates generally from one point or one place. Two diagonal movements intersect, making an X-shape development [Fig. 374]. Directional lines fan out from one edge of the painting, making a K-shape development [Fig. 375]. More often, lines fan out from the lower portion of the painting, with the K-shape placed horizontally [Fig. 376].

Rhythmic Iterations. In Chinese landscape painting, artists tend to feature shapes of considerable similarity within single works. They treat separate land formations, for instance, with similar internal and external contours, and texture them in the same manner. On the land formations, artists depict similar types of trees, and on the pictorial surface they spread the same kind of moss dots.

Similarly shaped land formations and accentuations could derive from an artist's specific area of reference in nature. But in most cases the repetition of forms reflects the artist's effort to achieve a general visual unity. Based on an individual stylistic inclination, each artist realizes idea-forms in a particular way.

The strongly similar shapes produce rhythmic iterations. Their variations in size and weight are analogous to the variations of duration and magnitude of musical sounds. Their spreading in space, successively and intermittently, incorporates the idea of spreading in time [Figs. 377, 378.

Implementing idea-craft, establishing a composition, the artist applies the concepts of space and time. During this process, to complement the technical or formal side, the artist brings his emotions to the work. His aim is to create a specific mood, to save the work from sterile description or formalism, and to add a dimension of lyricism characteristic of Chinese painting. Indeed, without the presence of mood, no idea-scene is complete.

A painting reflects the artist's state of mind-heart. It represents his view of nature, his responses to nature's various manifestations, his introspection and contemplation, his aspiration and yearning, or his dreams and fantasies. Sometimes the artist introduces a hermitic figure into the painting to stand for his self. In other cases a mountain, a waterfall, a pine tree, or a cluster of clouds carries some symbolic significance.

Mood refers to the general effect of a painting, with all the elements coming together to arouse emotions, to stimulate thoughts, or to lead the viewer towards meditation or contemplation, towards forgetting his or her own existence. Chinese artists have long recognized the expressive power of poetry, considering painting as poetry without words. As Su Shih pointed out, in praising the achievement of T'ang Dynasty poet/painter Wang Wei [701-761 A.D.], poetry is the essence of Chinese painting:

Reading Wang's poems, I can discover painting inside those poems.
Viewing his paintings, I can discover poetry inside those paintings.

The following passage by Kuo Hsi explains how mood is expressed as an idea-scene:

Finding Spring mountains veiled with mist, one feels enlivened. Finding Summer mountains covered with luxuriant foliage, one feels unrestrained. Finding Autumn mountains baring with shattering leaves, one feels solemn. Finding Winter mountains laden with suffocating dark clouds, one feels desolate. Painting can engender such feelings, for the viewer really finds himself inside the mountains. This is the mood behind the scenery presented in the painting. Seeing blue mist and white paths, one thinks of wandering. Seeing a broad river with sunset, one thinks of gazing. Seeing recluses and mountain dwellers, one thinks of residing. Seeing steep cliffs and remote springs, one thinks of lingering. Such thoughts arise in the mind-heart, for the painting, as it is viewed, takes the viewer almost right there. This is wonderness beyond the mood expressed in the painting.

The character translated twice as mood in the above passage is i, idea, which carries multiple layers of meaning. An artist starts with an idea he intends to convey in a painting. He then condenses, heightens, and visually expresses the idea, permeating it with his innermost feelings. In engendering mood, he frequently searches for some common human experiences which can be widely shared, and which he can give a unique pictorial realization. [p. 103]

Idealization. Chinese artist rarely speak of beauty or pursue beauty as a goal. Instead they strive for a kind of organic harmony in their painting, with all elements interrelated. They pursue eternal order, working with elements nested in the mind-heart, which are externalized to approach a state of perfection. This process is called idealization.

Idealization can be seen on two levels. First, idealization pertains to individual shapes. An imperfect shape in nature requires modification to reach perfection. This reflects an artist's particular aesthetic judgment and stylistic preference, and is accomplished through slight alterations, addition, subtraction, distortion, or subtle emphasis. Second, when the artist idealizes the entire pictorial content, the resultant scene conveys the artistÍs vision of an ideal world. Chinese artists generally seek a world of tranquillity, free from the struggles and conflicts of the everyday world. The ideal world makes possible a spiritual journey, or transcendental meditation. [Fig. 379].

A mood expressed in such an idealized world does not necessarily exclude human activities, however. Travelers, fishermen, woodcutters, and farmers, along with scholarly recluses, can become part of the pervading nature with its pulsating rhythms [Fig 380-384]. [p. 103]

Objectification and Personification. Su Shih inscribed a poem on a bamboo painting by his friend Wen T'ung, consisting of these lines:

As Wen T'ung paints the bamboos,
The bamboos replace the man.
Nowhere can he be seen again.
For he has transformed himself.
His body takes shape as bamboos.
Unceasingly emitting new energy.

A similar concept appears in the following excerpt from a treatise on painting by Monk Shih-t'ao of the seventeenth century:

The mountains and rivers let me speak for them. They have come out of me and I have come out of them. I search exhaustively into all the wonderful peaks and sketch them. In the process we meet one another in spirit and achieve complete synthesis, which is a state of ultimate oneness.

As the artist becomes the subject, the artist is objectified. As the subject becomes the artist, the subject is personified. The artist identifies himself with what he paints. He soars loftily with the mountain [Fig. 385]. He flows with the river of no return [Figs. 386, 387]. He grows strong with the pine, withstanding the most disagreeable weather conditions [Fig. 388]. At the same time, the subject takes on special meaning. Fleeting clouds stand for his free thoughts [Fig. 389]. Trees stripped of all leaves represent his sadness resulting from frustrations [Fig. 390].

These inner feelings are seldom explicit, but spread through the painting as an inexpressible mood. As the viewer experiences the work and makes personal interpretations, he or she brings new feelings to the painting.

Escapism. The different moods within Chinese landscape painting point finally to one general theme: escapism. This means yearning for the spiritual, the remote, the golden past, the homeland, or the unattainable; divorce from all worldly affairs, and forgetfulness of all disheartening experiences. The artist frequently portrays himself as a lone figure, a romantic fugitive, a recluse, wandering into the uninhabited parts of nature where he can linger forever [Figs 391, 392]. Or the landscape may show no human presence at all, not even the artist as intruder, for the artist inserts his private self into the scene and no longer exists as a separate entity in the landscape [Fig 393].

The Chinese associate escapism with i, a term pronounced similarly to the i standing for idea but represented by another Chinese character [Fig. 394]. This i also vaguely means unrestrained reposefulness. It indicates the artist seeking complete spiritual freedom, disregarding all existing conventions, restrictive rules, and common practices. The pursuit of i is particularly evident in paintings featuring scanty expressive brush marks showing little concern for objective realism. [p. 108]

Fantasy. Escapism may lead to fantasy, as the artist thinks of some utopian retreat away from social or political turmoil. Introducing fantasy, he may achieve a dreamlike mood. Or he may create seemingly unreal landscapes where he can find private satisfaction and enjoyment.

Paintings with strange land formations may derive from unusual but entirely real landscapes. With exaggeration and reorganization, even distortion and transformation, such scenes appear far removed from nature as it is commonly experienced [Figs 395-401]. In general, however, Chinese landscape paintings depicting fantastic scenes observe the Principle that guides natureÍs operations. For this reason they should not be equated with the movement in modern art called Surrealism, which emphasizes irrationality. [p. 110]

In creating a painting, an artist shapes, positions, and interrelates elements in such a way that the resultant composition exhibits a subjective order, which may or may not conform to the Principle. This effort, to transform and reorganize the forms and the entire pictorial space, could be called reconstitution. More than fantasy, which is still an illusion of three-dimensional space little different from daily experience of the material world, reconstitution follows ideas that are drastic and deeply personal. In fact, the artistÍs search for a subjective order demands that the viewer adjust his or her aesthetic judgments, to the point of adopting new attitudes.

This represents a contemporary mode of thinking related more to my own endeavors than to the tradition. But it represents a creative extension rather than rejection of the Chinese landscape vision evolved through the centuries. Experiments with shapes and compositions should express the artist's unique vision, reflecting his thoughts and feelings, and not stem from mere pictorial playfulness. [p. 112]

Geometrization and Dissection. As external contours for idea-forms, straight lines may partially or totally replace sinuous lines, for it is not unusual to find shapes in nature with straight edges, right angles, and parallel arrangements [Fig. 402]. Certain works in the Chinese tradition in particular those highly stylized, exhibit such geometrization [Figs. 403-405]. As the human race interferes increasingly with nature, geometric elements become more common sights as reflected in contemporary landscape paintings [Fig 406].

Applying geometrization to both the positive shapes and the negative space leads to a form of pictorial dissection. Individual geometric lines or an entire geometric grid superimposed on the elements divide the overall pictorial space into sections [Fig 407]. Existing shapes either maintain their forms in extending from one section to the next, show some disruptions and changes or assert independence within separate spatial cells in addition, mass and void may become interchangeable [Figs 408-410]. [p. 112]

Dislocation and Amalgamation. Dislocating relocating, or removing one part of a shape may cause the shape to take an uncommon configuration [Fig. 411]. Such disruption establishes unexpected relationships, such as contradictory sizes, scales, positions, and directions.

An artist can create many interesting effects in this manner. For instance, he might bring forward a distant subject so that it overlaps a nearby subject [Fig. 412]. Or he might shift, twist, and multiply the horizon, even place it diagonally or vertically [Figs 413, 414]. Bringing together a number of separately developed shapes, perhaps along with their adjacent voids, with or without smooth transitions, produces an amalgamation similar to a collage, but without physical cutting, tearing, and pasting of the constituents [Fig. 415]. [p. 114]

Distortion and Transfiguration. A distorted shape can look as though it has been compressed, stretched, bent, creased, crushed, shattered, or ripped apart [Figs 416-419]. This distortion, implying the existence of some unknown force acting upon the shape, carries an emotional message to the viewer.

Equally suggestive, transfiguration takes place as a shape representing one particular subject partially changes into something rather different. Rivers with a number of tributaries become trees with spreading branches [Fig 420], or branching trees become cracks and gaps in land formations [Fig 421]. This technique sometimes leads to a surrealistic treatment of the subjects. [p. 116]



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