The Essence of Chinese Painting (VIII)
At regular intervals, I try to analyze various aspects of Chinese painting, its philosophy, concepts, techniques, etc. based on short contributions. I studied Chinese art, lived in China for 5 years, studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and wrote my dissertation on Chinese free-hand style painting. My pictures are presented HERE. More articles can be found in ART THEORY
Six Persimmons by Mu Qi Fa Chang (牧谿 法常):
Each of us probably knows this picture, at least we saw it more or less consciously. Some Japanese art historians believe that it is the most important image of all time. (1)
But although it has such an important place in art history, it is all the more surprising that it is so difficult to find out something about the content, the meaning of the work. Usually, only the surface is scratched. So, it is puzzling why 6 and not 7 or 8 persimmon figs were shown … Often we only hear opinions such as “that the picture is above everything that can be expressed with words”, or something similar, which does not help us any further.
In this post, I would like to share some of my thoughts on this important painting.
Muqi or Muxi (牧谿), also known as Fachang (法常), was a Chinese Chan Buddhist (2) monk and painter who lived in the 13th century, around the end of the Southern Song dynasty. Today, he is considered to be one of the greatest Chan painters in history.
The painters of Chan Buddhism did not enjoy much fame in China themselves. What is more, the painters of this genre were often denied artistic abilities in general and their paintings, which often depicted everyday things, met with widespread incomprehension. The surviving paintings of that time are now all in Japan and are national shrines. This painting in particular almost has the status of a national treasure.
First of all, we as viewers should make ourselves aware again that in a painting in which so little is shown, every detail is of utmost importance and did not “happen by chance”.
What is the content of the painting? Persimmon figs. That alone is a challenge because until then no Chinese painter would have had the idea of painting something as banal as persimmon figs. Personally, I am quite sure that Mu Qi chose this subject because these fruits had not yet been depicted in Chinese painting before and thus nothing symbolic or even moral was attached to them other than bamboo, the plum blossom, the iris, and so on. With the selection of these fruits, Mu Qi avoids clinging, Upādāna, in the viewer.
If we take a first look at the 6 persimmons, we notice that the leftmost and rightmost ones resemble an Enso (3).
From there one can easily come to an interpretation of our painting in the direction of the “wheel of life”. We enter the world from nowhere with nothing, enter innocently as if coming from the light. In a later phase of life, we are “green behind the ears” (persimmon #2 from left) but crisp and in the juice, so to speak. At the beginning of our adolescence, we start at the very bottom (#3 – we look up to superiors. Also check for perspective, the view of the “head” of #3 from above). We reach the zenith of our life and our work #4 and become superiors ourselves. From then on it goes downhill until we leave this life again. Leaving it with nothing, and merging with the great Dao.
The painting style:
From a painter’s perspective, we first notice that the objects were represented technically quite differently. From a simple boundary line on the left and right of the figs to the use of glazes. While some (the left ones) reflect the quality of the persimmon figs quite well, this is not the case in the right section. Viewed in isolation, #5 would not even be recognized as a persimmon fig. In my interpretation, persimmon #5 stands for age, and decay. “The paint is off” – so to speak.
And something else could support this interpretation. If we take a closer look at the stalks of the fruit, it is noticeable that 1 – 3 all point to the zenith of being. At #5 you can also see decay and Kaki #6 points out of the picture, out of this existence.
A little comparison with a photo of 6 persimmons is fascinating. Here it becomes particularly clear what xie yi (4) can do. Mu Qi’s portrayal captured something that the photo cannot, the spirit, and spiritual power, they are “more real than the real kakis”, so to speak.
Why 6 persimmons?
One of the questions that keep coming up in connection with this picture is: Why 6? Well, I don’t see 6 persimmon figs. I see 1 + 5. The number five makes sense in Chinese. The whole picture suddenly makes sense.
For a better understanding of this thought let’s look at this album sheet by Zhu Da (5) below. Essentially, it’s about a group of trees. And, of course, the same applies here the trees were not arranged arbitrarily. In the center stands the host tree and around it the guest trees. This principle of zhu-ke (6) is essential in China. Not just in Chinese painting but also in society. If we look at the arrangement of the persimmons we might see it differently now.
How do the 6 objects communicate with each other in Mu Qi’s painting? Like on the album leaf by Zhu Da the host (shown slightly larger) leans benevolently toward the guests and they look up at him in awe.
If we do not stick to persimmon figs when we look at this great painting (they are only substituting anyway) we see a master with his 5 novices (zhu-ke principle). The master in this painting tries to clarify the ultimate truth through the principle of the Enso.
(1) Six Persimmons (Chinese: 六柿圖 liùshì tú) is a 13th-century Chinese painting by the monk Muqi Fachang. It was painted during the Song dynasty. Muqi was one of the two great exponents of the spontaneous mode of Chinese painting (the other being Liang Kai). It features six persimmons floating on an undefined, but skillfully mottled background. It is painted in blue-black ink on paper.
The painting became famous for the tremendous skill of brushstrokes.
(2) Chan (Chinese 禪 Chán), from Sanskrit dhyāna (meaning “meditation” or “meditative state”), is a Chinese school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. It developed in China from the 6th century CE onwards, becoming dominant during the Tang and Song dynasties.
Chan is the originating tradition of Zen Buddhism.
(3) In Zen, ensō (円相, “circular form”) is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.
The ensō symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and mu (the void). It is characterized by a minimalism born from Japanese aesthetics.
(4) Freehand brushwork is a genre of Chinese traditional painting which includes poems, calligraphy, painting, and seal. In Chinese called xie yi (Chinese: 写意 xiěyì), which literally means “writing ideas”. It was formed during a long period of artistic activities and promoted by the literati. Through the inheritance and development in the past dynasties, freehand brushwork has gradually become the most influential and popular genre.
The freehand brushwork emphasizes the semblance in the spiritual aspect. This kind of artwork does not chase physical similarity and the cooperation of reality.
(5) Bada Shanren (八大山人, literally “Mountain Man of the Eight Greats”, ca.1626-1705), born as Zhu Da (朱耷), was a Chinese painter and calligrapher. He was of noble lineage, a descendant of the Ming dynasty Prince of Ning (寧王).
(6) 主 (zhǔ: master, host) 客 (kè: visitor, guest)