Nineteenth and twentieth century Chinese paintings.
The Renaissance ideal of pictorial representation was to arrange forms and colors on a flat surface in such an artful way that the unaided eye would be unable to discriminate between the stimuli it received from the picture, and those it might instead have received from the world. How far short of this ideal even a master like Giotto fell is made vivid by an imaginative conjecture once advanced by E.H. Gombrich. Gombrich proposes that Giotto's contemporaries would have gasped had they been presented with "even the crude colored renderings we find on a box of breakfast cereal." Had the Ghost of Artworlds Yet to Come lifted the veil of the future for the edification of Florentines circa 1300 to reveal a Cubist still fife or a minimalist abstraction they could scarcely have accepted these as art. But as defined by the pictorial ideal just sketched, the Raising of Lazarus in Padua belongs to the same history of representation as does that image of an ecstatic beagle on the Milk-Bone for Medium Sized Dogs in my cupboard; and while little can have happened to the human eye through the intervening centuries, the human hand has undergone a progressive development through that same interval, and is capable today of feats undreamt of in Giotto's day. Vasari, who credited himself with living in an age when the hand had caught up with the eye, nonetheless supposed that this could not have happened had God not taken pity on struggling artists by sending down, not a carton of Wheaties to show them the way, but Michelangelo himself, who brought the Renaissance ideal to perfection. Gombrich observed, with great wisdom, that only where there is a way is there a will: Giotto would have had no way of painting Fiesole bathed in sunlight, and so could not have formed the intention of painting such a picture. An immense amount of the technological history of pictorial capacity would have to unroll before artists could tame projects in which splashes of light or heavy shadows could be marshaled to whatever expressive ends.
On the other hand, a pictorial tradition must be ready to receive an artistic revelation from the future. The Milk-Bone beagle, were it to have fallen among the painters of the Sung, might have struck them as a curiosity, but not something that insinuated any degree of retrograde dexterity on their part. They might have seen that image as very like the mirror image of a beagle, but as they were not bent upon projects in which the mirror image was an ideal or a rival, they might have had as great a difficulty accepting it as art as Giotto's contemporaries would have had accepting Picasso or Kandinsky. Indeed, the capacity to hit off individual likenesses was so little esteemed in China as a skill fit for acquisition by artists, that those who in fact practiced it, to be sure long after the Sung, were no more regarded as artists than is the storefront photographer in, say, Patchogue, New York, who does wedding and confirmation photographs. In the absorbing exhibition of Chinese painting from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from the Robert Hatfield Ellsworth Collection, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until September 25, there is a portrait by Wang Yuan, dated 1871, of a scholar, Chao Chih-ch'ien, which really does show its subject in a particularly lifelike way. Indeed, Wang Yuan has appropriated, as we would say today, the exact manner of a street artist, to whom one would go if one wanted a portrait rather than a work of art. In traditional Chinese representation, I have learned from Caron Smith, the curator of this show, it was in the vitality of the brush that the vitality of the subject was felt to be captured, and not in some idea of identical resemblance between the subject and its image. "Let people say of this portrait, which truly resembles me, 'That is Chao!"' reads the inscription on this work, written by its subject. That optical resemblance should have come to be prized, as evidently it had by 1871, marks a deep artistic revolution in China. The appropriation of low art for the expressive purposes of high art at this moment in China is, in its way, as abrupt a transvaluation as that in which the emblemata of commercial art -the Campbell's Soup can label, for example, or the Brillo box logogram--were appropriated and made central in art by Pop artists in our culture in the 1960s. "I do not know if there are people who conclude . . . that the box is superior to a Giotto," Gombrich wrote, implying that the Renaissance ideal specified but a necessary condition of artistic excellence even in its own tradition. But that the like of the cereal box should, in the middle decades of the twentieth century, have become thematic in advanced art is indicative of changes in the moral and artistic climate of the times, of which Wang Yuan's portrait is a distant counterpart in Chinese art.
Sometimes history itself reveals the kinds of intersections which Gombrich's imagined example illustrates, in which a work or class of works from another tradition reveals to the artists of a given time where their future lies. Obviously, they must be ready for such revelation, as Picasso was when he came across the so-called primitive carvings in the Musee d'Ethnographie du Trocadero in 1907. Such art was known, certainly, to artists of an earlier period in France. Already in the 1880s, Gauguin would have seen it as portending an alternative for painting to that defined by the Renaissance ideal. But for the most part, I believe, this art would have been perceived, before Picasso, perhaps as Giotto would have been perceived by the artists of Vasari's time as good for his backward time but essentially as "primitive" (as the artists of Siena are sun explicitly designated). When Japanese prints impinged upon European artistic consciousness in the late nineteenth century, a whole order of representation opened up for artists who learned from the fact that the Renaissance ideal had somehow become eroded. It was as if those prints showed a way in which Giotto, taken as a moment of historical choice, could have generated a historical path far different from the one that led through Masaccio to Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo, and to the academies beyond them. The flat planes, the tilted spaces, the absence of fight and shadow, showed how this whole heavy tradition could be erased, and a new beginning made. It was out of this encounter with an alternative future that Van Gogh, Gauguin, Bonnard and Matisse began what became modem art, in which the eye as an optical system was disenfranchised in favor of something altogether more "cerebral," as Gauguin put it.
What is ironic is that almost simultaneous with the unseating of optical criteria in the West, those same criteria began to transform standards of pictorial representation in China. In the 1870s, for example, photographs began insistently to transform Chinese sensibility. The acceptance of the photograph as implying a possible system of artistic representation must connect with the same impulses that elevated the street portraitist to a position of artistic respectability. And both these transformations must in turn connect with the infusion into China of images from the West that might be the exact equivalents of Gombrich's cereal cartons. Ours has been a culture rich in pictures for a very long time, and after the Treaty of Nanking, in 1842, under which five ports were opened to commerce, immense numbers of labels must have found their way into China, bringing with them an awareness of pictorial possibilities that must have been as explosive in China as the Japanese print became in ours, remembering that those prints were as scorned by high art in Japan as the poster or the box label was in ours. It is my sense that this flood of imagery must have carried the weight of Western prestige, and perhaps was appropriated just because the West had begun to be perceived as culturally superior in Chinese eyes, much, I suppose, as the culture of exotic places like Tahiti was perceived as superior by European artists such as Gauguin. On a recent afternoon, I was examining with Wen Fong (the Met's Special Consultant for Asian Affairs), a pale landscape impressionistically evoked on a fan. Wen Fong could not repress the remark that it was painted during "terrible times" for China. They were times in which the rapacity of Western commerce imposed war, social upheaval, revolution and humiliation upon the vast, weak Chinese nation. And yet despite or perhaps because of this, the West must have appeared in certain ways an exemplary culture: the labels came from the same resources as the gunboat. The entirety of Chinese life and culture was to be transformed, radically, by the incursion into it of Western practices in a process that continues to this day. The Chinese artist was in the avant-garde of this cataclysmic movement, and though the paintings in the Ellsworth collection appear, often, to be paid continuations of traditional forms and themes, not greatly more enterprising in the depictions of flowers, birds and animals, of watery landscapes and dreamful sages and beauties so slender their heads look like flowers on a stalk, than painting in the Ching dynasty ever had been, in fact these works seethe with alien forces and powperful influences that China could not assimilate without great and agonizing change. It is this that makes the exhibition exciting and instructive, quite apart from the aesthetic delights to be found in many of its objects. Who would not take pleasure from the cat painted in dotted fines by Hsu Ku, with its green eyes on top of its head, clawing at a butterfly which looks like an animated ideogram from the calligraphy nearby? But it is China as an inadvertent laboratory of historically induced artistic experiments in which the great value of this exhibition lies.
Surface similarities notwithstanding, these paintings are discontinuous with 'their own tradition simply because the infusion of Western representational vocabularies gave every Chinese artist a vision of an alternative way of working, so that for the first time, really, the Chinese painter painted in the light of a certain artistic self-consciousness. This meant that each image was now a matter of cultural choice. So even if an artist painted in a traditional manner, he had made his tradition his own by deciding to use it. Westerners may well have been regarded as "foreign devils" by patriots and administrators, because of their greed and cultural arrogance. But artistically they were liberators, offering a way to renew an artistic tradition that had grown as heavy and as old as ours when the Japanese print or the African mask offered Western artists a rejuvenating ideal. It does not greatly matter that the Chinese artist might have known Western styles only through fairly debased instances-imagine trying to construct a theory of Dutch paining on the basis of the illustration on the Dutch Masters cigar box. Still, such is the human mind that it is able to achieve such feats, as we construct theories of our first languages on the basis of often pretty debased inputs, from stuttering parents, say, who have heavy accents or speak in pidgin. It takes very little, after all, to open up a new vista.
Part, certainly, of the new level of consciousness consists in the appropriation by the Chinese themselves of certain archaisms in their own tradition. At the turn of the century, what came to be known as "oracle bones" (from the second millennium B.C.), were discovered, bearing incised calligraphic characters. These had immense historiographical and archeological significance-they opened windows, as it were, into the then nearly legendary Shang Dynasty. But the inscriptions were not allowed to stand as merely archeological specimens. Rather, they provided pictorial and calligraphic models for Chinese artists to use in the early twentieth century. They began, as it were, to redefine the brush stroke on the model of the incised mark, so that we find them painting characters and outlining forms as if in emulation of cut lines. This meant, in effect, a deliberate suppression of the accidentalities of the flowing brush-of what we respond to as the brushiness of the brush. Instead we see something almost mechanical-almost looking as if drawn by a radiograph. Wen Fong, in a seminar to which I was invited, sought to show how this archaic calligraphy was adopted to expressive ends by the great twentieth-century master, Ch'i Pai-shih. There is an adorable painting of two togs by Ch'i Pai-shih that you will not be able to see until the second installment of the Ellsworth collection goes up on June 28. It shows one tog, executed in hard, dense, oracle-bone black, staring across at another frog, painted in the watery brush style of a calligraphic tradition that the black frog calls into question. It is as if some sort of style war were being fought in what might superficially seem like just another painting of frogs by a Chinese artist. In fact the frogs are only the occasion for a work that is ready about painting.
You might want now to pay some special attention to three paintings of fruit by Ting Fu-chih. In addition to being marvelous paintings-perhaps the highlights of the show, aesthetically speaking-they embody and somehow synthesize all the tensions I discuss in this review. Fruits, painted in 1945, is a still fife of fruits strewn abundantly across an implicit table surface. The fruits are painted as if solid, with shadows and highlights, neither of which would have been a component in Chinese painting before the introduction of photography. But they cast no shadows, and seem to exist in the kind of space traditional in Chinese art. They are like watery reminders of Dutch still lifes in this genre, say one by Willem Kalf (you might want to drop by the exhibition of Dutch and Flemish paintings from the Hermitage, and check Ting's way with fruit against Kalf's The Dessert-which incidentally shows fruit in a dell bowl patterned after a piece of Chinese porcelain). Yet Ting's paining is clearly a twentieth-century work, as can be seen by his pre-emption of an almost pointil-list style of surface treatment (though with none of the spatial complexities of Seurat's work). Now pay attention to the calligraphy. It is self-consciously archaic and intriguingly self-referential: the inscription reads: "I have selected the characters from several Shang Dynasty oracle bones." So these paintings internalize and meld strategies from and make references to several artistic cultures, almost as if postmodern. Yet they are unmistakably Chinese. All these components are beautifully combined in a fan, painted with a delicious tangle of red lichees, from 1941, with an accompanying poem which again uses Shang calligraphic characters. The miracle of these works is that they assert themselves aesthetically, however much or little we may know of the historical circumstances or cultural collisions of which they are the products.
There is no catalogue as such for the show, and there will be few readers in a position to acquire the handsome but expensive ($8501) three-volume work which covers the paintings and calligraphy in the Ellsworth collection, written by Ellsworth himself. Part of the disincentive is that one of the three volumes is dedicated to calligraphy, which to me, as to most of my readers, is likely to be an inaccessible subject, though I once had the benefit of discussions with my late friend Chiang Yee, who wrote one of the best treatises on it in English. I assume that there must be as close a connection between content and form as Hegel found in classical sculpture, but if one cannot read the characters, the forms must remain empty and abstract. Thus I could not appreciate the writing in a scroll painting near the entrance to the exhibition by Pao Shihch'en, but I especially regretted it in this case because I found the inscription, translated on a nearby label, moving and in an odd way timely. The painting consists of the inscription, and then an image underneath of two men riding together on donkeys, caught up in
The inscription moved me to think about the art world as we live it today. Elizabeth Frank recently reproached me for being insufficiently responsive to the plight of "good artists working in bad aesthetic times." Our times indeed are bad aesthetically, and though I have strong doubts about the future of art, I cannot but pray that some artistic angel would throw into our midst the cereal box we need to find our way forward! Pao's inscription begins this way:
Some chase fame at court. Some chase gain in the market. He who attains fame returns content. He who attains wealth returns secure. There are so many who never cease to strive. The universe is huge and never-ending.
Of the 90,000 or so artists said to be working in New York City today, few wit attain contentment or security, nor wit those who find security be assured of contentment. Pao Shih-ch'en did not achieve either of these himself, as he was a perpetual failer of the state examinations, the only gate to advancement in his culture. Perhaps the two riders have passed their journey philosophizing about fame, money, meaning, bad aesthetic times and the vastness of the universe-just as if they lived in Tribeca, where those topics are unendingly discussed. The consolations of philosophy are distant and thin. Still, the poem is a tiny, moving gift from an early modern Chinese artist to us. Not the cereal box we need, but something to help us through the night. This wonderful exhibition will enable us all to see ourselves a bit from the outside. Its art world is curiously similar to our own.
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|Title Annotation:||Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York|
|Author:||Danto, Arthur Coleman|
|Date:||Apr 23, 1988|
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