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Rising Western fascination with Chinese landscape paintings

Editor: Li Kun 丨CCTV.com

10-05-2015 09:01 BJT

By David Clayton, professor of art history at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

Traditional Chinese landscape paintings deserve to be recognized as fascinating works of art. There’s the great beauty, and it’s appealing to Westerners.

For over four hundred years, there’s been an easy crossover between Western naturalistic art and Chinese landscapes and portraiture. Whether its willow-pattern china or the influence on 19th century landscape, Westerners have looked upon it in admiration and  incorporating certain aspects of it into the Western forms.

For example many beautiful painting from the first 50 years of the 20th century are now on display at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) in Beijing. Apparently, it appears as if historically the influence went both ways and these images are as affected by contact with the West.

What we see here is art that reflects what is good, true and beautiful in creation, reflecting the inner harmony and beauty of nature and of humanity, at a period when the West had abandoned those ideals in favor of forms with other aims in mind, such as expressionism and abstract expressionism.

The irony is that these Chinese artists were doing more to preserve traditional cultural values than many of their Western counterparts.

If we look at any of the paintings at the NAMOC exhibit, we see these features. There are a limited number of principle foci of interest, which are more detailed and more colored (if they are colored at all). The areas in between these are muted in color and rendered in monochrome, usually black and grey ink washes and in parts we even see areas of no paint at all, just the paper or at most a hazy mist. 

In Western painting that developed according the baroque style (that was established in the 17th century and persisted in landscape and portraits to the 19th) we see a similar pattern. It is more subtle, but it is there.

In both traditions, when this is done well, it does not fragment the composition. There is always a unity to the painting. It looks like a single scene not one painting containing three unconnected scenes.

In the lovely painting Crossing the River in Fall Rain painted in 1941, most is rendered in monochrome, with some hints at fall red-brown in places and the only other color is in the figure if the boat.

We see a similar effect in another wonderful landscape, Red Trees and Green Hills.

Look how restrained the artist is and how well he knows, in each case where to give us hints of color and details and where to hold back, all the time maintaining the overall harmony of the composition.

Additionally traditional Doaist understanding of the natural world and our relation to it, as manifested in Chinese art, can be in accord in many ways with a Middle Ages worldview.

There’s an English translation of a Chinese book intended to teach artists called, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting. This was written in China in the 1600s (which, coincidentally, is the baroque period of the West). The understanding of the way that man observes and has a natural appreciation of the beauty of the natural world which is evident in this book stands in accordance with a similar Western worldview, and which is reflected in Baroque art.

The Daoist worldview does not include God, but it does recognize heaven, a place that is non-material. For Doaism and Christianity alike, the natural world reflects a heavenly order and the task of human beings to work in harmony with it.

Therefore, just like Western painters from the same period, they saw the beauty of the natural world as something that pointed to a place beyond it, that was non-material.

When we apprehend the beauty of nature, it would be argued, we perceive intuitively the harmonious relationships that exist between the parts; and the harmonious relationship of the whole to a Christian God and to a Daoist heaven.

Compare, for example, two quotes that follow: The first by St Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval Catholic philosopher and theologian, and the second by the Chinese sage, Lao Tzu:

‘The order of the parts of the universe to each other exists in virtue of the order of the whole universe to God’ St Thomas Aquinas (Questiones disputatae de veritate, 7,9)

‘Man’s standards are conditioned by those of Earth, the standard of Earth by those of Heaven, the standard of Heaven by that of the Way [Tao] and the standard of the Way is that of its own intrinsic nature.’ Lao Tzu, (from Tao Te Ching, XXV, 6th century BC)

The traditional Chinese approach was to seek to capture its beauty by mimicking the way that people observe nature, which is just like the baroque method.

The landscape tradition in a naturalistic tradition is much older in the China than in Europe. As a result the skill with Chinese artists struck the balance between the representation of the particular and while putting into the context of whole composition was more sophisticated in Chinese art than in the baroque landscapes of this period. Therefore, Westerners might look to these beautiful works by master in the Chinese traditions as models to understand and guide them if they wish to re-establish the tradition of beautiful landscape artistry again.

 davidicons@gmail.com

( The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Panview or CCTV.com. )

 

 

Panview offers a new window of understanding the world as well as China through the views, opinions, and analysis of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.

Panview offers an alternative angle on China and the rest of the world through the analyses and opinions of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.


 

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