Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Chinese Painting

Ming Dynasty, Celestial Globe
Vase, 1403-24
What most people know about Chinese art begins and ends with Ming Vases, knowing precious little even at that. Quick, name a Chinese artist? Now, name an Italian artist. China is a country with a artifact-documented art tradition going back some ten-thousand years. Italy (and most other countries) cannot match that. Moreover, China is almost 32 times the size of Italy with more than 21 times the population. Yet even the stereotypical "man on the street" could easily name far more Italian artists than those of Chinese descent (or oriental artists of any nationality). Even though Marco Polo introduced the western world to Chinese art and culture around 1300, the way the "other" half of the planet lives and the art they produce has remained so foreign to the West as to be practically unfathomable.

Why is that? The simplest answer is that the West was focused outward while the Chinese and other oriental cultures focused inwardly. Western culture spread. Eastern cultures did not. That was what Marco Polo found, it's what similar travelers today would find in visiting Beijing or Tokyo, Bangkok or Hong Kong. Pizza has traveled around the world, fortune cookies...not so much. Coca-Cola is everywhere. I can't even think of a single Chinese soft drink. With this heavy domination of the billboard, is it any surprise that western art has come to overwhelm that of the oriental variety? It's neither a matter of quantity or quality. Oriental art stands up very well in both categories. Of course, part of the problem is the term I just use, "oriental." China itself has several artistic cultures, to which you can add the Indonesian, Korean, and Japanese varieties, all of which the western world lumps into a single mental and visual entity.
Fisherman's Evening Song, Ming Dynasty, Xu Daoning. Though painted as a
scroll some seven feet in length, it is intended to be viewed in two-foot sections.
As the Ming vase (top) suggests, once you pass from the prehistoric to the "historic," what we'd refer to in European history as ages or eras, in talking about Chinese art, is divided into dynasties. Dates and titles are often barely mentioned. From a political point of view, early Chinese history is much more complete than its western counterpart, though its art contributes much less to the narrative than that which we derive from Egyptian, Persian, or Etruscan cultures of the same period. In addition to a division by historic dynasties, Chinese art is also categorized into work done by "official" court painters and basically all the rest. Written history in China is literally "in writing" (which derived from images). Such calligraphy is often combined with painting (below) on a mostly even basis of importance. Painting tools, styles, and techniques are all related to calligraphy. Perhaps because of this, Chinese art is far more decorative in nature and domestic (as opposed to monumental) than in the West. That's not to say that narrative art lacks a vital presence in Chinese art, only that it falls more in the realm of myths, legends and story-telling, and seems to western eyes more subtle. For thousands of years, in one form or another, history painting claimed the top tier in the content hierarchy of western art. In China, even court artists preferred more to glorify the individual and explore the present.
Cherry Blossom Tree No. 31, 2010, Qujun
Chinese artist have long been famous for their delicate, watercolor (or ink) landscapes, but just as often they prefer to paint that which makes up the landscape rather than the scene itself. They focus on exquisite detail and design rather than grand illusions. Unlike western art where artists have long tended to eschew paper in favor of canvas or plaster, the Chinese embrace it, although they also like painting "on" things--lacquered boxes, porcelain, and of course, silk (as in clothes). From earliest times, their tastes have always run toward birds, flowers, and big cats. None of these items have much interested western artist even in modern times.
Like no other art culture on earth, Oriental art, and particularly that of the Chinese, is divided between traditional painting styles and techniques, and the "modern" in which there is more often merely a Chinese "flavor" to work which otherwise is international in style, scope, and appearance (bottom). As in the past, the West "invades" while the East focuses inwardly, its contemporary art influenced rather than influencing. For a culture as ancient, huge, and diverse as that of China, its art is remarkable for its passive qualities as any other element.
Red Mattress No. 5, Yang Yongsheng. She claims an influence from J.M.W. Turner.


  1. Great post, all the paintings shared by you looking awesome thanks for sharing.
    famous chinese paintings

  2. Eric--

    Thanks for sharing your appreciation. I'm especially appreciative in that art from the Far East is definitely NOT my forte.