Nan Rae speech to a Pasadena, California group in February, 2010
discussing many of the differences and the development of Western and Eastern art

With painting in the West, there was a gradual development thru the centuries of technique and visual understanding such as the development of perspective in the 15th century, the use of a vanishing point and the discovery that objects blurred and faded as they receded.

Huge ateliers (workshops) developed so that by the 17th century, Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish baroque painter’s 21 paintings of the events in the life of Marie de Medici, Regent of France was produced... his apprentices did most of the work. The ‘name’ artists were actually supervisors in these studios and they would add the flourishes that made the work come alive with their imprint. With Rubens it was usually faces and hands.

Thru by the 18th century, it was unthinkable to simply paint a group of objects for the fun of it. Until the Impressionists, it was never about expression or the 'feelings' of the artists. Although the early paintings were strictly religious themes, their painting per se were not a religion for the artist.

So, one could say that the Western artist or guild member of that time was similar to the palace painters in the East who were also artisans, working at the pleasure of the emperor and painting meticulous flowers, birds and insects in the Gong-bi or palace style. Creativity was never an issue.

In the East, from the beginning, painting was what we would call a religious experience, close to an epiphany for the literati or gentlemen scholars who were the ruling class. One would be so enraptured that feelings just overflowed onto the paper. There was total freedom of expression... Art was a vehicle for expressing these feelings.

This did not occur in Western art until the Impressionists beginning with Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet - ridiculed at the time. Today, everyone loves the Impressionists for the ‘feelings’ they expressed, but who did the Impressionists love? A clue is Monet’s discovery of Japanese woodblock prints in a Zaandam Holland grocery store. He later said of that moment:

“It was an enchanted day, as if life shed something of its complicated indirectness, becoming simpler, clearer, more intelligible and more beautiful.”

Carved on a wall in the Musee Marmottan in Paris is the following by Louis Gillet referring to Monet’s nympheas..

“Amazing painting, without drawing and without border...

Song without words... Or art... Without the help of forms.

Without a sketch... Without a story... Without a fable... Without allegory...

Without body and without face... By the sole virtue of tone...

It is all lyrical effusion.

Where the heart speaks... Surrenders itself... And sings its emotion.”

Gillet could have been describing a Chinese brush painting!

However, when we look at a Chinese brush paintings for the first time, we might experience the same reaction the early Impressionists received or the first time we saw a Picasso, a Jackson Pollock, a Cy Twombly, a Joseph Beuys, or Bruce Nauman. Thinking, "I don’t get it." To get it is to know it is all about feelings. These literati were the Impressionists of their day... Centuries ahead of the West.

However, unlike modern Western expressionists, moral character for the literati was the highest prize. And no matter how abstracted or simplified, the subject of the painting was always clear.

In the 11th century, as a protest against various oppressive governments, these literati or gentlemen scholars formulated their ideals and theory of art.

The requirements for a literates were moral character and intellectual background. "If the moral character is not high, there is no way for him to handle the ink properly." There should be nothing negative in his mind before he can bring out the wonderful and the unexpected with his brush, such as mist, clouds and beauty which naturally correspond to the spirit and growth in heaven and earth. If one is preoccupied with worldly thoughts, he will only be like a lacquer-ware (or palace painter).’’ they thereby made the distinction between themselves and the artisans and craftsmen at the service of the emperor.

Painting was highly developed by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th - 17th centuries. Called (h)Sieh-e ('written idea') each brushstroke became a living idea. With emphasis on the energy and movement of the lines and forms, the flower/bird paintings were done rapidly in ‘po mo’ or throw ink style without any drafting lines or sketching!

This was based on "The Six Canons of Painting" written in the 5th century by Hsieh Ho which still forms the basis of all Chinese brush painting.

1. The life force.

Circulation of the Ch'i is the breath, spirit, vital force of heaven and produces movement of life... the heart of the artist.

2. Bone work. The brush stroke creates structure.

The stronger the brushwork, the stronger the painting. Character is produced by a combination of strong and lighter strokes, thick and thin, wet and dry, dark and light.

3. According to the object, 'draw it's form'.

In order to do this one must 'connect' with the object emotionally and this produces a work that is not necessarily realistic or botanically correct but rather as one feels it. Unlike the Western artist who usually has a model of what he is painting in front of him as he works, the literati would take a stroll in the garden, breath in the wonder about him and then, being refreshed, go in and express the fleeting moment on paper. Truly painting of the mind and spirit. ( It’s important to note their scholar’s table would be set... . Kimbell Art Museum, Ft Worth Tx. )

4. According to the nature of the object, apply color.

Note: Black is considered a color and the range of shadings it is capable of in the hands of a master painter creates an impression of colors for them. If color is used it is always true to the subject matter but always pale by comparison to the use of color in the West. This is why we see so many ink only or monochromatic Chinese brush paintings.

5. Organize compositions with the elements in their proper place. Space is used in brush painting the same way objects are used. Space then becomes an integral part of the composition. (Note: 1/3 blank)

6. In copying, seek to pass on the essence of the Master's brush strokes and methods. Remember, I mentioned each brushstroke was considered to be a ‘living idea’.

Note: To the Chinese copying is considered most essential and only when the artist fully learns the time honored techniques, would they then branch out into areas of individual creativity.

You would; 1. Copy .2. Paint in the style of. 3. Finally do your own thing.

It is important to note that calligraphy in the East has always been the highest art form. In fact, one style of calligraphy called grass or running is so abstracted that only writers at the highest level can ‘read’ the characters.

The first two subjects that grew out of calligraphy were Bamboo and the Chinese Orchid. Those two subjects are part of the Four Gentlemen or Four Seasons in brush painting... The other two being the Plum and the Chrysanthemum.

We can say that Chinese brush painting is meant to be more than the mere representation of an object. It is most importantly, a symbolic expression. That is why a full plant is never painted, but rather a few blossoms... So a plum branch represents all of plumdom and in fact all of life itself which is a Dao principle. That is why it's done without looking at the subject but rather bringing it forth from your mind and heart and becoming in the process, part of nature... .There's an expression, ... 'From heart to arm, to hand to brush to paper’.

These men created environments that nourished the soul and protected them from the encroachment of the world at large. Their whole life was an art form and we can see this today in the gardens they created, the most famous being in Suzou. (Duplicated at the Huntington in San Marino, CA)

Literary and artistic women were accepted at the elegant gatherings where they would paint and write poetry and romantic marriages would develop. The saying went 'only extremely gifted men are capable of deep interest in women'.

One literati said, 'painting is the expression of subtle observation and untrammeled thinking in the broad minds of the noble and cultured literati'.

These individuals saw themselves as embodiments of moral, intellectual and artistic perfection and were very protective of their elegant and selective world.

Taking delight in their amateur status meant they did not have to please patrons. Thus they were free to enter that 'wonderful realm' the Dao - "the way".

One form of escape in art was a retreat to the past and the more allusions to the past, the more sophisticated the work.

Chinese literati paintings are referred to as ‘silent poetry' and are divided into two basic categories; flower and bird painting which is always expressionistic and landscape painting which is lofty, highly stylized and given to complex scenes.

The name for landscape is Shan Shui or "mountain/water" and mountains and water or mists appear in almost every landscape painting. We view in these landscapes no sense of perspective, scale or light source which is why the paintings can look strange to Western eyes.

A thousand miles can be compressed into a single scene and nature is always supreme.

To own a scroll painted by a previous ‘master’ one would assiduously study it and actually ‘take a vacation’ thru the scene... Each brush stroke would be examined and the method used to convey elements, such as Mi Dots for foliage, would be copied.

It was not unusual for the inspired owner of a scroll to write a poem on it. In fact, if the Emperor or another person of high stature owned the work, they would place their personal seal or chop on it as would successive owners. This is why we can see so many seals on a painting and it’s useful today when scholars determine the provenance of a painting.

The concept of metaphors in a painting is important to understand Asian painting. The towering mountains covered in mist and below a tableau of events - with every element a metaphor. Human figures and any man-made structure such as boats and pagodas are very small in order to indicate the reverential dominance of nature over man. When we see a little boat with a solitary fisherman in it, we are to understand that this is a literati gentleman scholar who has withdrawn from public service during a turbulent time. A void or large empty area can be a metaphor for the troubled world. A crane, as a symbol of longevity or immortality evokes a transcendental meaning elevating the image of an ordinary hermitage to something otherworldly.

The six dynasties poets of the 3rd century were much admired and copied... A member of the group that was called 'the sages of the bamboo grove' lived a life of Daoist retreat from society and all of the literati traced their landscapes to this 6th dynasty period.

Ni Tsan, (1260-1368) in the 14th century was one of the four great masters of the Juan era and is probably the most copied and revered. Ni Tsan was great because he was Free... Fearless... Bold... Daring and paradoxical. His goals were simplicity, purity and loftiness. Drafting skills were left to the palace painters. He would show an idealized world, free of human figures and untainted by any appearance of human influence. He and earlier artist/poets were used as first hand models to evoke the spirit of antiquity. A painting based on Ni Tsan or another Yuan master might also bear a literary reference from an earlier time to establish the work as a continuous transmission from the 'divine beginnings’ of landscape painting.

This type of painting became a psychological self defense in a turbulent menacing world. Because Ni Tsan lived when the alien Mongol armies of the North ruled China, he was a symbol of passive resistance.

As a protest against various oppressive governments or the invading Mongol hordes, the literati - these gentlemen scholars- who were highly placed in the government - would retreat... They would not get involved in resistance and compared themselves to the bamboo which bends and does not break. They withdrew to their homes where they used painting as a form of expression that spoke of their longing for a better time, their missing a particular place or a friend that had departed.

An 8th century poet said, 'when injustice occurs, one sings out.' And sing out they all did with this ‘silent poetry’ that blended the pictorial, the calligraphic and the poetic!

It was said 'if anyone discusses painting in terms of formal likeness, his understanding is nearly that of a child.'

Brushwork assumes greater importance than the actual shapes represented and one becomes aware of the rhythms, patterns and variations of the painters brushwork. (Different patterns for foliage.)

The ideal was to capture the essence or spirit of nature and this became the highest state of ultimate enlightenment which came as a sudden flash of insight into the nature of reality... Very Zen.

Eremitism became a means of mentally transforming one's environment. A minor hermit was shown in the mountains and woods, a major hermit was pictured in the heart of the city.

Entering this eremitism, without the support of external things and with his heart at rest, there was total union with the Dao so an interesting work would be emerging. Because of this... the viewer would have a sympathetic response... responding with his heart, spirit and essence when looking at the painting.

Dr David Viscott told of being enlightened at the age of 14.

Walking down the street he felt a presence... It was a connectedness. He could feel the presence of each star as a sun in its own right and he could feel its energy. He felt every blade of grass and every leaf as an entity in its own right. This all happened at the same time without his thinking about it.

At the same time there was an incredible peace. He knew that the answer was part of the knowing and he knew that the moment was sacred. He stood in that state of grace for about 15 minutes with an enormous sense of love for everything and everyone. He knew that there was no battle and that he had already won, no matter what would ever happen, he would turn out O.K.

How very Chinese!

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