CHINESE PAINTING: FORMATS, STYLES, TOOLS, CALLIGRAPHY

CHINESE PAINTING

20080303-Ni_Zan_Autumn_Wind_bamboos wiki.jpg
Autumn Wind by Ni Zan
When people think of Chinese painting they think of graceful, harmonious, images of flowers, birds, water, mountains, trees and other natural objects. "There is no art in the world more passionate than Chinese painting," wrote New York Times art critic Holland Carter. "Beneath its fine-boned brush strokes, ethereal ink washes and subtle mineral tints flow feeling and ideas as turbulent as those in any Courbet nude or Baroque Crucifixion."

The oldest paint brush found in China---made with animal hair glued on a piece of bamboo---was dated to 400 B.C. Silk was used as a painting surface as early as the 3rd century B.C. Paper was used after it was invented I the A.D. 1st century. The oldest existing Chinese paintings are Buddhist works painted in caves and temples. Painting has generally fallen into two major traditions: 1) the court tradition, depicting urban and rural scenes often in great detail; and 2) the literary tradition, with evocative landscapes and still lives. Many Chinese paintings are covered with stamps. These are from artists and scholars who liked what they saw and left their seals as testimony of their approval. They are kind of like artistic applause.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources on Chinese Painting: China Page chinapage.org ;University of Washington depts.washington.edu ; Chinese Painting Collection Blog chinesepaintingcollection.blogspot.com ; China Vista chinavista.com . Books: Chinese Painting by James Cahill (Rizzoli 1985). Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei by Wen C. Fong, and James C. Y. Watt (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996). Wen C. Fong, Professor of Art and Archeology at Princeton, is the consultive chairman of the Asian Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Barnhart, Richard M., et al. Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven and Beijing: Yale University Press and Foreign Languages Press, 1997; Clunas, Craig. Art in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997; Harrist, Robert E., Jr., and Wen C. Fong. The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection. Princeton: Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999; Hearn, Maxwell K. Cultivated Landscapes: Chinese Paintings from the Collection of Marie-Hélène and Guy Weill. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002; Hearn, Maxwell K. How to Read Chinese Paintings. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008; Hearn, Maxwell K., and Wen C. Fong. Along the Riverbank: Chinese Painting from the C. C. Wang Family Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999; Silbergeld, Jerome. Chinese Painting Style: Media, Methods, and Principles of Form. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982. Barnhart, Richard M., Wen C. Fong, and Maxwell K. Hearn Mandate of Heaven: Emperors and Artists in China: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exhibition catalogue.. Zürich: Museum Rietberg, 1996; Cahill, James, ed. Shadows of Mt. Huang: Chinese Painting and Printing of the Anhui School. Exhibition catalogue.. Berkeley: University Art Museum, 1981; Fong, Wen C., ed. Returning Home: Tao-chi's Album of Landscapes and Flowers. New York: George Braziller, 1976. Sullivan, Michael The Arts of China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Calligraphy : China Page chinapage.org ; University of Washington depts.washington.edu ; China Vista chinavista.com Brushes China Vista ; Calligraphy Masters on China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com

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Painting of a painter
Good Websites and Sources on Chinese Art: China --Art History Resources art-and-archaeology.com ; Art History Resources on the Web witcombe.sbc.edu ; Art of China Consortium nyu.edu/gsas/dept/fineart ;Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Visual Arts/mclc.osu.edu ; Asian Art.com asianart.com ; China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com ; Huntington Archive of Asian Artkaladarshan.arts.ohio-state.edu ; Qing Art learn.columbia.edu Museums with First Rate Collections of Chinese Art National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw ; Beijing Palace Museum dpm.org.cn ;Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Sackler Museum in Washington asia.si.edu/collections ; China Page Museum list chinapage.com

Chinese Culture: Cultural China (site with nice photos cultural-china.com ; China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu China Research Paper Search china-research-papers.com ; Book: The Culture and Civilization, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press).

Links in this Website: CHINESE ART FROM THE GREAT DYNASTIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; TANG DYNASTY (A.D. 690-907) Factsanddetails.com/China ; SONG DYNASTY (960-1279) Factsanddetails.com/China ;YUAN (MONGOL) DYNASTY (1215-1368) MING DYNASTY (1368-1644) Factsanddetails.com/China ; QING (MANCHU) DYNASTY (1644-1911) Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE JADE Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE CERAMICS AND PORCELAIN Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE PAINTING Factsanddetails.com/China ;CHINESE CALLIGRAPHY Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE CRAFTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; COLLECTING, LOOTING AND COPYING ART IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China

Chinese Painting and Calligraphy

In imperial times, painting and calligraphy were the most highly appreciated arts in court circles and were produced almost exclusively by amateurs--aristocrats and scholar-officials--who alone had the leisure to perfect the technique and sensibility necessary for great brushwork. Calligraphy was thought to be the highest and purest form of painting. The implements were the brush pen, made of animal hair, and black inks made from pine soot and animal glue. In ancient times, writing, as well as painting, was done on silk. But after the invention of paper in the first century A.D., silk was gradually replaced by the new and cheaper material. Original writings by famous calligraphers have been greatly valued throughout China's history and are mounted on scrolls and hung on walls in the same way that paintings are. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Painting in the traditional style involves essentially the same techniques as calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black or colored ink; oils are not used. As with calligraphy, the most popular materials on which paintings are made are paper and silk. The finished work is then mounted on scrolls, which can be hung or rolled up. Traditional painting also is done in albums and on walls, lacquerwork, and other media. *

Maxwell Hearn of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The discipline” of painting this kind of mastery requires derives from the practice of calligraphy. Traditionally, every literate person in China learned as a child to write by copying the standard forms of Chinese ideographs. The student was gradually exposed to different stylistic interpretations of these characters. He copied the great calligraphers' manuscripts, which were often preserved on carved stones so that rubbings could be made. He was also exposed to the way in which the forms of the ideographs had evolved. Over time, the practitioner evolved his own personal style, one that was a distillation and reinterpretation of earlier models. [Source: Maxwell Hearn, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

History of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy

Maxwell Hearn of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: Chinese ideographs evolved from “their earliest appearance on bronzes, stones, and bones about 1300 B.C. (known today as "seal" script, after its use on the red seals of ownership); their gradual regularization, culminating with the bureaucratic proliferation of documents by government clerks during the second century A.D. ("clerical" script); their artful simplification into abbreviated forms ("running" and "cursive" scripts); and the fusion of these form-types into "standard" script, in which the individually articulated brushstrokes that make up each character are integrated into a dynamically balanced whole...The practice of calligraphy became high art with the innovations of Wang Xizhi in the fourth century. [Source: Maxwell Hearn, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Beginning in the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), the primary subject matter of painting was the landscape, known as shanshui (mountain-water) painting. In these landscapes, usually monochromatic and sparse, the purpose was not to reproduce exactly the appearance of nature but rather to grasp an emotion or atmosphere so as to catch the "rhythm" of nature. In Song dynasty (960-1279) times, landscapes of more subtle expression appeared; immeasurable distances were conveyed through the use of blurred outlines, mountain contours disappearing into the mist, and impressionistic treatment of natural phenomena. Emphasis was placed on the spiritual qualities of the painting and on the ability of the artist to reveal the inner harmony of man and nature, as perceived according to Taoist and Buddhist concepts. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Beginning in the thirteenth century, there developed a tradition of painting simple subjects--a branch with fruit, a few flowers, or one or two horses. Narrative painting, with a wider color range and a much busier composition than the Song painting, was immensely popular at the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). *

During the Ming period, the first books illustrated with colored woodcuts appeared. As the techniques of color printing were perfected, illustrated manuals on the art of painting began to be published. Jieziyuan Huazhuan (Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden), a five-volume work first published in 1679, has been in use as a technical textbook for artists and students ever since. *

Chinese Artists and Forms

Unlike artists in the West who were either skilled craftsmen paid by the hour or professional artists who were commissioned to produce unique works of art, Chinese artists were amateur scholar gentlemen "following revered ancients in harmony with forces of nature."

Calligraphy and painting were seen as scholarly pursuits of the educated classes, and in most cases the great masters of Chinese art distinguished themselves first as government officials, scholars and poets and were usually skilled calligraphers. Sculpture, which involved physical labor and was not a task performed by gentlemen, never was considered a fine art in China.

Works of calligraphy and paintings were generally not painted on canvas like Western painting. They appear as murals, wall paintings, album leaf paintings, hanging scrolls and handscrolls. Hanging scrolls are hung on walls as interior adornments; handscrolls are unrolled on table tops; and album leaf paintings are small paintings of various shapes collected in book-like albums with "butterfly mounting," "thatched window mounting" and “accordion mounting."

Calligraphy and Painting Tools

right The tools and brush techniques for painting and calligraphy are virtually the same and calligraphy and painting are often considered sister arts. The traditional tools of the calligrapher and the painter are a brush, ink and an inkstone (used to mix the ink). Chinese calligraphers and painters both used brushes whose unique versatility was the result of a tapered tip, composed of careful groupings of animal hairs. Chinese calligraphers prized bamboo brushes tipped with hair from the thick autumn coats of martens.

Many brushstrokes depict things found in nature such as a "rolling wave," "leaping dragon," "playful butterfly," "dewdrop about to fall," or "startled snake slithering through the grass." Natural terms such as "flesh," "muscle" and "blood" are used to describe the art of calligraphy itself. Blood, for example, is a term used to describe the quality of the ink.

Calligrapher’s paper is still made by hand in some places by smoothing oatmeal-like pulp made of inner tree bark and rice and pressing and drying it.

“Reading” Chinese Painting

Maxwell Hearn of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Chinese way of appreciating a painting is often expressed by the words du hua, "to read a painting." How does one do that? Consider Night-Shining White by Han Gan, an image of a horse. Originally little more than a foot square, it is now mounted as a handscroll that is twenty feet long as a result of the myriad inscriptions and seals (marks of ownership) that have been added. Miraculously, the animal's energy shines through. It does so because the artist has managed to distill his observations of both living horses and earlier depictions to create an image that embodies the vitality and form of an iconic "dragon steed." He has achieved this with the most economical of means: brush and ink on paper. [Source: Maxwell Hearn, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“This is the aim of the traditional Chinese painter: to capture not only the outer appearance of a subject but its inner essence as well—its energy, life force, spirit. To accomplish his goal, the Chinese painter more often than not rejected the use of color. Like the photographer who prefers to work in black and white, the Chinese artist regarded color as distraction. He also rejected the changeable qualities of light and shadow as a means of modeling, along with opaque pigments to conceal mistakes. Instead, he relied on line—the indelible mark of the inked brush.\^/

“Amateur and professional alike shared a reverence for the past. Artists would manipulate antique styles and reinterpret ancient subjects to lend historical resonance to their work. But the weight of past precedents was also a heavy burden that could make painters acutely self-conscious. Sometimes their solutions were eccentric and challenged the viewer's ability to judge them by what had preceded them. At other times, a knowledge of past models made them keenly aware of the illusionistic power of art, the capacity to mimic reality as well as to distort it.\^/

“To "read" a Chinese painting is to enter into a dialogue with the past; the act of unrolling a scroll or leafing through an album provides a further, physical connection to the work. An intimate experience, it is one that has been shared and repeated over the centuries. And it is through such readings, enjoyed alone or in the company of friends, that meaning is gradually revealed.” \^/

Inscriptions and Seals on Chinese Paintings

Many Chinese paintings and works of calligraphy are covered with inscriptions and seals, often so much so they seem to dominate of the painting. Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University wrote: “Many handscrolls contain inscriptions preceding or following the image: poems composed by the painter or others that enhance the meaning of the image, or a few written lines that convey the circumstances of its creation. Many handscrolls also contain colophons, or commentary written onto additional sheets of paper or silk that follows the image itself. These may be comments written by friends of the artist or the collector; they may have been written by viewers from later generations. The colophons may comment on the quality of the painting, express the rhapsody (rarely the disenchantment) of the viewer, give a biographical sketch of the artist, place the painting within an art-historical context, or engage with the texts of earlier colophons. And as a final way of making their presence known, the painter, the collectors, the one-time viewers often "sign" the image or colophons with personal seals bearing their names, these red marks of varying size conveying pride of authorship or ownership.\^/ [Source: Dawn Delbanco Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Maxwell Hearn of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Consider Night-Shining White by Han Gan, an image of a horse. Originally little more than a foot square, it is now mounted as a handscroll that is twenty feet long as a result of the myriad inscriptions and seals (marks of ownership) that have been added over the centuries, some directly on the painted surface, so that the horse is all but overwhelmed by this enthusiastic display of appreciation.” [Source: Maxwell Hearn, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“Chinese scholar-officials “covered Night-Shining White with inscriptions and seals. Their knowledge of art enabled them to determine that the image was a portrait of an imperial stallion by a master of the eighth century. They recognized that the horse was meant as an emblem of China's military strength and, by extension, as a symbol of China itself. And they understood the poignancy of the image. Night-Shining White was the favorite steed of an emperor who led his dynasty to the height of its glory but who, tethered by his infatuation with a concubine, neglected his charge and eventually lost his throne. \^/

“The emperor's failure to put his stallion to good use may be understood as a metaphor for a ruler's failure to properly value his officials. This is undoubtedly how the retired scholar-official Zhao Mengfu intended his image of a stallion, painted 600 years later, to be interpreted. Expertise in judging fine horses had long been a metaphor for the ability to recognize men of talent. Zhao's portrait of the horse and groom may be read as an admonition to those in power to heed the abilities of those in their command and to conscientiously employ their talents in the governance of their people.\^/

“Once poetic inscriptions had become an integral part of a composition, the recipient of the painting or a later appreciator would often add an inscription as his own "response." Thus, a painting was not finalized when an artist set down his brush, but it would continue to evolve as later owners and admirers appended their own inscriptions or seals. Most such inscriptions take the form of colophons placed on the borders of a painting or on the endpapers of a handscroll or album; others might be added directly on to the painting. In this way, Night-Shining White was embellished with a record of its transmission that spans more than a thousand years.” \^/

Chinese Handscrolls

Many Chinese art masterpieces are painted on scrolls, which are not intended to be hung or mounted on walls, but rather are meant to be stored in boxes and periodically taken out to be looked at. This helps preserve the frail paint which breaks down when exposed to humidity and air. Collectors have traditionally unrolled their scrolls after the rainy season in the summer, savored them with some tea and returned them their boxes.

Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University wrote: “ A significant difference between Eastern and Western painting lies in the format. Unlike Western paintings, which are hung on walls and continuously visible to the eye, most Chinese paintings are not meant to be on constant view but are brought out to be seen only from time to time. This occasional viewing has everything to do with format. [Source: Dawn Delbanco Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“A predominant format of Chinese painting is the handscroll, a continuous roll of paper or silk of varying length on which an image has been painted, and which, when not being viewed, remains rolled up. Ceremony and anticipation underlie the experience of looking at a handscroll. When in storage, the painting itself is several layers removed from immediate view, and the value of a scroll is reflected in part by its packaging. Scrolls are generally kept in individual wooden boxes that bear an identifying label. Removing the lid, the viewer may find the scroll wrapped in a piece of silk, and, unwrapping the silk, encounters the handscroll bound with a silken cord that is held in place with a jade or ivory toggle. After undoing the cord, one begins the careful process of unrolling the scroll from right to left, pausing to admire and study it, shoulder-width section by section, rerolling a section before proceeding to the next one.\^/

Handscroll paintings were generally much longer than they were wide. Compositions were focused from left to right and most scrolls contained one painting although some had several short paintings mounted together. One 85-foot-long silk handscroll from 1550 contained 1,000 figures and 785 horses.

History of Chinese Handscrolls

The first handscrolls, dating back to the Spring and Autumn period (770-481 B.C.), appeared in ancient books and documents and were made mostly from bamboo or wood strips bound together with chord. Beginning in the Eastern Han Period (25-220 A.D.) silk and paper were commonly used.

Until the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 690-906), most books and documents were kept as handscrolls that were around a foot and half wide and varied in length from a few inches to several hundred feet. The proper way to look at a book-style handscroll is to hold it vertically, unroll it from the left and roll it from the right, examining a section at a time.

Scrolls unfortunately are one of the world's most fragile art forms. Careless handling, exposure to bright light and humidity, inept restoration, insects, temperature changes all contribute to the deterioration of paint. Plus, silk is a protein-based animal fiber that breaks down over time and has damaging chemical reactions with pigments and glues. Western oil paintings, by contrast, lasts longer because the pigments are preserved in oil and protected from the elements by varnish.

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Plum and Bamboo by Wu Zhen

Viewing Chinese Handscrolls

Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University wrote: “The experience of seeing a scroll for the first time is like a revelation. As one unrolls the scroll, one has no idea what is coming next: each section presents a new surprise. Looking at a handscroll that one has seen before is like visiting an old friend whom one has not seen for a while. One remembers the general appearance, the general outlines, of the image, but not the details. In unrolling the scroll, one greets a remembered image with pleasure, but it is a pleasure that is enhanced at each viewing by the discovery of details that one has either forgotten or never noticed before.\^/ [Source: Dawn Delbanco Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“Looking at a handscroll is an intimate experience. Its size and format preclude a large audience; viewers are usually limited to one or two. Unlike the viewer of Western painting, who maintains a certain distance from the image, the viewer of a handscroll has direct physical contact with the object, rolling and unrolling the scroll at his or her own desired pace, lingering over some passages, moving quickly through others.\^/

“The format of a handscroll allows for the depiction of a continuous narrative or journey: the viewing of a handscroll is a progression through time and space—both the narrative time and space of the image, but also the literal time and distance it takes to experience the entire painting. As the scroll unfurls, so the narrative or journey progresses. In this way, looking at a handscroll is like reading a book: just as one turns from page to page, not knowing what to expect, one proceeds from section to section; in both painting and book, there is a beginning and an end.\^/

“Indeed, this resemblance is not incidental. The handscroll format—as well as other Chinese painting formats—reveals an intimacy between word and image.” A “handscroll is both painted image and documentary history; past and present are in continuous dialogue. Looking at a scroll with colophons and inscriptions, a viewer sees not only a pictorial representation but witnesses the history of the painting as it is passed down from generation to generation.\^/

Chinese Painting, Calligraphy and Poetry

Poetry is much more fully integrated into painting and calligraphy in Chinese art than it is into painting and writing in Western art. There are two words used to describe what a painter does: Hua hua means "to paint a picture" and xie hua means "to write a picture." Many artists prefer the latter.

Poetry, painting and calligraphy were known as the "Three Perfections." Poems are often the subjects of painting. Painters were often inspired by poetry and tried to create works with a poetic, lyrical quality.

Recalling a series of twelve poems by Su Shih (1036-1101) that inspired him, the great master painter Shih T'ao (1641-1717) wrote: "This album had been on my desk for a year and never once did I touch it. One day, when a snow storm was blowing outside, I thought of Tung-p'o's poems describing twelve scenes and became so inspired that I took up my brush and started painting each of the scenes in the poems. At the top of each picture I copied the original poem. When I chant them the spirit that gave them life emerges spontaneously from paintings." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

When a painting did not fully convey the artist feelings, the artist sometimes turned to calligraphy to convey his feelings more deeply. Describing the link between writing and painting, the artist-poet Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) wrote:
Do the rocks in flying-white, the trees in ancient seal script
And render bamboo as if writing in clerical characters:
Only if one is truly able to comprehend this, will he realize
That calligraphy and painting are essentially the same.

Other times the message of the calligraphy was more mundane. An inscription on the side of Sheep and Goat by Zhao Mengfu read: "I have painted horses before, but have never painted sheep, so when Zhongxin requested a painting, I playfully drew these for him from life. Though I can not get close to the ancient masters, I have managed somewhat to capture their essential spirit”.

Difference Between Chinese and Western Painting

Art in the East developed very differently from art in the West. In China, calligraphy (the art of making letters) and painting evolved together and thus painting, the graphic arts, poetry and literature became linked together in way they never did in Europe.

The expressive and philosophic aspirations of Chinese painters were much higher than their counterparts in the West. Historian Daniel Boorstin wrote in The Creators, "their works were less varied in subject matter, color and materials. Their hopes and their triumphs offered nothing like the Western temptations to novelty, and their legacy is not easy for Western minds to understand." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Linear perspective was introduced by Europeans. The Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci criticized Chinese art in the 16th century for its lack of perspective and shading, saying it looked "dead" and didn't have "no life at all." The Chinese for their part criticized oil painting brought by the Jesuits as being too lifelike and lacking expression.

Chinese Painting Styles and Goals

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Bamboo by Zhu Wei
By the Tang dynasty the criteria for good painting had been established. One of the main objectives was capturing the qi, or life force, of the subjects. In the Tang dynasty artists favor figures over landscapes. As time went by the reverse became true.

Chinese painting can be divided into three major stylistic forms: 1) the meticulous, detailed kung-pi style and 2) the free, expressive hsieh-I ("sketching ideas") style. 3) The middle path avoids both extremes and tries to capture the "inner spirit" of the subjects, which has always been more important than simply rendering the outward form.

One of the most important notions of classical Chinese painting was the "Concealment of Brilliance." Overt expressions of technical skill were considered vulgar. "Creativity and individuality were highly valued," but only in an understated way "within the framework of tradition."

Whether the subject of a work of art is a single dignified mountain or range with a thousands peaks and valleys, the goal of Chinese painting is to draw the viewer into the painting a create a "kind of reality like the palpable world." Artists who chose the liberated approach kept their energies focused and never followed their emotions and thoughts to the point they created abstract or representative art. Artists who painted extremely fine details did not copy their subjects.

Color, Shading and Perspective in Chinese Painting

20080303-fu105.jpg Confined by the tools of the calligrapher, Chinese painters all but ignored color. Shading was regarded as a European technique, introduced second-hand by Buddhist missionaries in the A.D. 3rd century.

Classic Chinese artists never developed the idea of central perspective and the vanishing point which were essential to the development of Renaissance art in Europe. "Instead," Boorstin wrote, "the Chinese captured space in their painting, by an invisible linear perspective that diminished objects in the distance, and by aerial perspective that made distant objects increasingly indistinct.

The Chinese developed and classified three personal points of view, all related to ways of viewing a landscape: the "level distance" perspective, where the spectator looks down from a high vantage point; the "deep distance perspective," where the spectator's vision seems to penetrate into the landscape; and the "high distance" perspective, where the spectator look up. This helps explain why the Western observer feels strange when looking at a Chinese painting. And also why Chinese paintings seem to need no frame." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Copying, Forgeries and Fakes

What is regarded as fake in the West is often treated with great reverence in China. Even great Chinese masters copied works of their predecessors right down to their signatures and seals. Chiang Dai-chein, regarded by many as China's greatest 20th century artist, was an expert forger who sold thousands of paintings attributed to classic painters. The wide availability of counterfeit goods and indifference to copyright laws today shows the notions of individualism and individual ownership remain weak in China.

New York Times art critic Holland Carter wrote, "Debates about authenticity have always been part of art in China, where 'originals' are often chimerical things, creative copies are revered as supreme masterpieces and distinctions between copying and forging are fuzzy."

"The inspiration of nature and past masters," wrote Boorstin, "gave a special kind and continuity, originality, and inwardness to painters. ...Forgery acquired a new ambiguity. The Chinese artists' proverbial talent for copying leads reputable art dealer nowadays to be wary of offering 'authentic' old Chinese paintings. Seeking constant touch with the past and the works of great masters by hanging pictures on the wall in rotation according to the seasons or festivals, the Chinese created a continuing demand that supported workshops for mass production by professional painters. These artists following the Tao showed remarkable skill in making both new originals and copies of copies.” [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Michele Cordardo, the director of the Central Conservation Institute in Rome, was invited to China to work in Xian. He told The New Yorker, "The Chinese have a different sense of the value of original and copy...The Chinese...have a tradition of conserving by copying and rebuilding...This system of considering by copying or rebuilding works well as long as you keep the artisan traditions intact. The problem is that those traditions have broken down in China...Once the continuity of Chinese imperial civilization came to an end knowledge of traditional pigments, resin, and textiles, and techniques of painting, wood carving or building quickly began to disappear."

Image Sources: 1, 14) Wikipedia; 2, 4, 8, 9, 10) University of Washington; 3) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 5, 6, 7 ) China Beautiful website; 9, 12) Palace Museum, Taipie; 11, 13) Metropolitan Museum of Art; 14) Shanghai Museum. Luo Ping ghost painting from the Met in New York, Nelson-Atking Museum, Ressel Fok collection, Shanghai Museum

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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