There are many good artists here on wordpress and I find the work of quite a few of you very exciting. I know, of course, that most of you have not studied the art of Chinese calligraphy very intensively. So I would be all the more interested in whether the work I’ve been doing lately works can be apreciated by art lovers who do not come from that culture.
This is no “fishing for compliments”, but in times of Covid_19, exchanging thoughts on the internet is particularly helpful I think. So not the technical part of the brush work but the question of whether the optical appearance is visually appealing and arouses interest or if is is considered strange, weird, of no interest.
Because of Covid-19, like many others, I largely self-isolated for a long time now. But two days before Christmas I escaped and visited a very impressive exhibition by Gerhard Richter in Vienna. Although Richter is one of those painters who impressed me very much, I had not seen any originals so far.
After every visit to the exhibition, I am of course full of impressions and sometimes I try to graphically translate something from the exhibition.
This time the attempt was quite pleasing. The idea for the graphic was triggered by an at first glance inconspicuous graphic by Gerhard Richter “cloud” from 1971. A simple, atmospheric picture with sea and cloud. Only when looking a second time do some viewers understand that a cloud formation like this over the sea is not even possible.
Since I have been very impressed by Hideaki Yamanobe’s monotypes for some time, I took an idea from him and the idea of Richter with the Cloud and made this graphic, in which a cloud is reflected in the morning mist. The cloud, yellow from the bright morning sun and its gentle reflection around morning mist (which is of course not possible when the sun is so high) should also suggest an idyllic landscape to the viewer at first glance and invite to more reflection gradually.
After I hadn’t painted for a long time due to my job, I started to sniff it again about a year ago.
In order to regain my sensitivity as quickly as possible, I collected withered leaves and then blossoms and flowers in spring. The first thing I did with it were bookmarks.
Why bookmarks? Because in my opinion they are a genre neglected by art. On the other hand, since I have dealt intensively with the art of Chinese seal cutting for many years, I am enthusiastic about the idea of dealing with a lot of content in a small format.
If the first works were more decorative or rather small calligraphies, they gradually became more constructivist, more minimalist.
This step was also important, as I had left out more and more in my last work, so that often only pictures made up of a few lines remained – although I also like these works very much myself.
When I was younger I rather often used to do paintings and graphics with political content. I know that political statements are not in great demand in art today, which I think is a shame. Sometimes I have the urge to package political content again, even if I know that not everyone recognizes the connection at first glance.
For this work, a poem by Mao Zedong was painted on an inconspicuous sheet of paper. Only when one takes a closer look one realizes that it is an old Hong Kong map. The red lines can be found on traditional Chinese writing paper. In this context they are reminiscent of prison-bars.
It is similar with the theme of rhinos. Historically, one must remember the Mao period, when China built a railroad network in Tanzania and was paid for with rhinoceros horns.
At auctions, libidation cups carved out of rhinoceros horn fetch prices in excess of one million USD.
This article attempts to analyze a simple picture of one of the most important artists of the last century, Qi Baishi 齐白石.
Since Qi Baishi, the Chinese cabbage gained a high status in painting. Because cabbage is a healthy vegetable, Qi Baishi especially loved it. There are many anecdotes about Qi Baishi’s exchange of cabbage pictures for real cabbage.
Western observers often not at first glance can enjoy the beauty of a picture that shows nothing more than a Chinese cabbage and 2 chilies. Classical Chinese painting is full of symbolism: the bamboo stands for the sincere character, the lily for innocent beauty… Those are all noble plants with deep meaning, which have also been dealt with many times in literature. But cabbage?
He once wrote a colophon for a friend on a picture with a cabbage: “It will show it’s famed every day, but it will never forget it’s taste.”
On another picture he writes: “It’s not just that the roots are tasty, but that they are always farmers.”
Up until the first half of the last century, with a few exceptions (Zen, Yanzhou ba guai), it was unthinkable to depict “ignoble” plants. By choosing something as mundane as Chinese cabbage and chilies as the content of the picture, Qi aishi does the following: he bows to the few predecessors who broke this taboo and, above all, he includes something in his canon that the poorest class of the population considered “Noble” applies, especially since it is eatable. We have to keep in mind that in his days meat was very rarely on the table because it was expensive. And, especially in the winter months, there were hardly any vegetables apart from Chinese cabbage, which were easy to store. Even among Chinese cabbage lovers, enthusiasm is of course limited. To make the dish tastier, you add a few chilies. (In painting, if a part of the picture has become boring, a painter uses “a red point” that adds “spice”).
He underlined it with the colophon on the right: “When the peony is the queen of flowers. Lizhi (Lichee 荔枝) stands in front of the fruit, one can probably call the Chinese cabbage the king of vegetables”.
Qi chooses a structure of the image through which he can – similar to the Enso – arrange the objects around the void (nothing). The leaves of the Chinese cabbage, fresh and juicy, strive upwards, the peppers point downwards, creating a tension field. The picture is compositionally well balanced and powerful. Since he paints the Chinese cabbage round and gently on the inside, but toothed on the outside, the viewer’s eye is prevented from taking the shortest route. The top of the cabbage looks almost the same as steps or like a mountain and once the eye has climbed the highest step, it is driven downwards as if on a waterfall – pressed through between the lower part of the Chinese cabbage and the character “ye” 也 (and).
The eye of the beholder is continued (especially by the sign xian 先 (first) to the pepper pods. The lower, larger pod guides the direction of force out of the picture (through its shape), but the smaller one leads the viewer back up to the leaves, where a prong of the leaf creates a connection with the style of the upper chilli pepper. With this trick of leading the viewer first out of the picture but at the same time back in, the field of tension extends beyond the actual picture surface, the picture appears full and powerful.
The connection to the Enso (an eternal circle) mentioned above should by no means be a coincidence. In this picture, too, the eye of the experienced observer describes this eternal cycle.
Similarly, he symbolizes the wheel of life when he, in another painting, depicts tadpoles and frogs in a circle.
1.4 Painting technique
Chinese cabbage is particularly suitable for xieyi painting. In the painting discussed here, Qi initially uses light ink for the body of the cabbage, with the rightmost boundary line being drawn from top to bottom, the other two from bottom to top, in order to create a field of forces.
The cabbage leaves are structured with light Indian ink and accentuated with darker ink, before he sets the veins of the leaves in the drying areas with even darker ink.
In this way, the leaves are rich in “color” and separated from each other in layers. Using light ink, parts of the stalk of the cabbage are accentuated and the roots of the cabbage are shown with a few simple lines, indicating its “origin”.
The presentation of the peppers, as simple as it seems at first glance, is very well thought out.
Use of several brushstrokes per pod, according to calligraphic criteria, so that they also convey a dynamic. The calligraphy also shows itself very well in the styles of the pepper pods.
This brief analysis of the picture, which may seem simple at first glance, only touches on the most important aspects, but shows quite clearly what Qi Baishi’s pictures are about.
A few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when I had the chance to live and study in China, I painted this picture: “Out of the dark”. (I’m not sure if that was really the title that came to mind when I painted it). In any case, it shows Chinese children who run out of the darkness, the “old” towards the light and the new.
At that time, hardly anyone thought this “NEW” would happen so quickly and even fewer could imagine what this “New China” would look like.
Recently, this picture, along with a few others of mine, was published in a book on the relationship between China and Austria over the past 400 years.
(I studied Chinese painting, wrote my dissertation on Chinese painting, occasionally publish articles on Chinese painting and hold lectures on this. I would like to show some aspects of Chinese painting over the course of time).
The fundamental difference between many Chinese and Western paintings lies in the different image structure. To put it simply, it works like a western scale in western painting and like a Chinese scale in Chinese. [Fig. 1] While that balance is static, this one is dynamic. What you put in the left pan in the former, you have to put the same weight in the right pan in order to achieve balance. The Chinese scales, on the other hand, work in that you can place different weights on the two ends of the scales and balance is only created by shifting the suspension so you can read the weight.
The principle of the former includes not only image objects with measurable weight, also e.g. in abstract painting etc. Color areas are also a kind of weight and it is important to balance them out.
In Chinese painting, this question of balance is of fundamental importance even in the individual stroke.
[Fig. 2] Even in the simplest Chinese character yī ( 一 one) we get a very good impression of how this is to be understood. The lower symbol in Fig. 2 shows shuǐ ( 水 water), which as a symbol itself already acts like a scale.
These examples also show very clearly how the ends of the line or the parts of a character “communicate” with one another. In no case can a line begin here and lead “somewhere” in a good Chinese painting or calligraphy. Rather, a field of strength (qì, 气 breath, life force) must be built up between the beginning and the end of the line or the line combinations, and so the “qi” gets embedded.
The principle can be compared with the two palms of the hands in taiji-quan exercises (shadow boxing). Despite the empty space between the palms, they are always in imaginary contact and advanced practitioners can feel the qi haptically between the palms of the hands like a ball.
This qi in the two examples mentioned is not as different as it might seem at first glance. In both cases it is a field of power that is formed between the two poles yin and yang. If the painter succeeds in applying and making visible the principle in individual lines, then in the combination of lines and finally in the entire picture, qì, the most important quality in a Chinese picture, flows through the picture.
As in western art history, Chinese painters have naturally tried over the course of time to sound out the limits in all areas of painting, also using the scales or balance.
Zhu Da (1), perceived by his contemporaries as an eccentric, played with the idea of the scales in countless works. Not so clear at first glance, this example [Fig. 3] but at second glance it is very informative – if we have turned the picture upside down – how the principle of the Chinese scales works in this painting.
Playing with the scales or balance becomes really exciting when empty space (nothing) is thrown into the scales. [Fig. 4] Viewed in isolation, the bird would likely tip over backwards. The empty space and the imaginary line to the signature at the top left of the picture create a counterweight that forces the composition back into balance.
Less spectacular, but nonetheless very sophisticated, Hong Ren (2) composed this little picture. [Fig. 5] If he leaves the left half of the picture completely empty, he piles up on the right rock that point infinitely upwards. The fact that the composition works is mainly thanks to the well-thought-out representation of the tree, which both communicates with the elements shown in the picture and moves the infinite emptiness into the picture, thus creating balance.
300 years later Pan Tianshou (3) takes up the idea of this composition, only he stages a cormorant, which emits its sound in the direction of the upper left corner (emptiness). One almost thinks to hear the bird’s cry. [Fig. 6]
After these smaller works (they were also chosen because they are easier to depict), let’s look at the principle of balance again using a longer, vertical scroll. [Fig. 7]
It comes from Chen Kang (4) and shows a bird on a branch, painted in the sense of Zhu Da. From a heavy, old, gnarled branch a juicy young branch protrudes far into the sky and at its extreme end sits a bird, the light counterweight, so to speak. The creation of 2 perspectives in the picture and the skillful use of emptiness reinforce the impression of space.
Chen Kang also uses a trick that was also often used by Zhu Da: the empty space on the right can be seen through the horizontal, lighter line in the gnarled branch, the thin twig, the tail feather of the bird and the resulting imaginary line to the seal on the right below, in something solid, namely a rock, to be rethought. This we can imagine the bird sitting on a rock.
This trick with the interplay of real versus not real falls into in the category “between absolutely similar and absolutely dissimilar” (sì yú bù sì zhī jiān 似 与不 似 之间) and enjoyed great popularity especially in the Qing period.
As a last classic example [Fig. 8] Ma Yuan’s (5) famous picture scroll hike on a mountain path in spring should be mentioned, (山徑 春 行 shān jìng chūn xíng) an album sheet adorned with a poem by Emperor Ningzong (6) at the top right.
Ma Yuan used the “one corner composition” (邊角 之 景 biānjiǎo zhī jǐng) to transform tension into meditative calm by reducing the image content to the extreme. Hence his nickname one-corner-Ma (馬 一角 Mǎ yījiǎo).)
What we have already discussed above can also be seen in this picture of Ma Yuan, this time executed in more detail, artistically implemented. The principle 似 与不 似 之间 between absolutely similar and absolutely dissimilar can be seen in the treatment of the willow branches, which at the same time also remind of distant mountain ridges and allows the landscape that started on the top left to be interpreted into the distance. Everything that has weight is placed in the lower left corner and the dynamics of the scales create space far away.
Again and again this principle has served the scales not only subliminally (in single lines) but also as the primary content of an image. Representing an example from modern painting, this last charming picture [Fig. 9] by Li Keran (7), in which a lightweight boy pulls a heavy water buffalo to balance.
(1) Zhu Da (Zhū Dā 朱 耷; also known as Bādà Shānrén 八大山人 1625 – 1705) was a Chinese painter and calligrapher of the Qing Dynasty.
(2) Hongren (Hóng Rén 弘仁, personal name Jiāng Tāo 江 韬, stage name Jiàn Jiāng 漸 江, 1610 – 1664 in She Xian) was a Chinese painter of the late Ming and Qing dynasties and a Buddhist monk. He is known as one of the most important masters of the Anhui school.
(3) Pan Tianshou (Pān Tiānshòu 潘天壽; 1897–1971) was an important painter and teacher.
He studied painting with Wu Changshuo and laid the foundations for modern training in traditional Chinese painting. During the Cultural Revolution until his death in 1971 he was subjected to persecution and reprisals.
(4) Chen Kang (Chén Kāng 陳 康 19th century).
(5) Ma Yuan (马 远 Mǎ Yuǎn 1160-1225 was an important painter of the Chinese Song Dynasty.
(6) Emperor Ningzong (宋宁宗 Sòng Níngzōng 1168 – 1224) was the 13th emperor of the Song Dynasty and ruled between 1194 and his death in 1224. He was an important patron of the arts and primarily supported painters such as Liang Kai and Ma Yuan.
(7) Li Keran (李可染 Lǐ Kěrǎn 1907-1989) was one of the most popular Chinese painters of the 20th century. He was particularly popular for his depiction of water buffalo. But he is also considered an innovator in Chinese landscape painting.
Fig.1: Sketch of the principle of western scales and Chinese scales Fig.2: The Chinese characters one (yī 一) and water (shuǐ 水) Fig.3: Zhu Da 朱 耷: Chrysanthemums. Album sheet. From the album Pictures of Flowers, Fruits and Insects No. 2 (huā guǒ wū chóng cè zhī èr 花果 烏 蟲 册 之 二) Fig.4: Zhu Da 朱 耷: bird. Album sheet. From the album Pictures of Flowers and Birds No. 2 (huā niǎo cè yè zhī èr 花鸟 册 页 之 二) Fig.5: Hong Ren (弘仁; 1610–1663) landscape fragment. Ink on paper. 25.2 x 25.3 cm. Shanghai Museum Fig.6: Pan Tianshou (潘天寿), cormorant (lúcí 鸬鹚). 1960. Jiangsu Museum of Art Fig.7: Chen Kang (Chén Kāng 陳 康 19th century). Bird on a branch in the style of Zhu Da. Ink on paper. 107 x 28 cm. Picture scroll. Fig.8: Ma Yuan (Mǎ Yuǎn 馬 遠 c. 1160–65 – 1225). Hike on a mountain path in spring (shān jìng chūn xíng 山徑 春 行). Indian ink on silk. 27.4 cm × 43.1 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei Ill.9: Li Keran (李可染 Lǐ Kěrǎn 1907 – 1989) water buffalo (shuǐniú 水牛), ink on paper, scroll painting 68 x 35.5 cm. 1978 [The picture is from an exhibition catalog from artnet]
Now that the wearing of protective masks is part of our everyday life, I remembered this picture that I painted in Beijing in 1980.
At that time, there was the so-called democracy wall on Chang’an Avenue (simplified Chinese: 长安街). On these wall newspapers were found that represented the first attempts at free expression by the Beijing population. The oil painting reflects those days.
A lot is in progress, new series but also new to existing series, such as these two graphics with Mao Zedong calligraphies.
The callipgraphy reads: 上馬殺賊,下馬學佛 (Shàng mǎ shā zéi, xiàmǎ xué fú Get on your horse and kill the thieves, dismount and study Buddhism) and inspired a great number of monks to serve the nation. in April 1939, the Buddhist monks in Nanyue began to discuss how they could make their contributions in the Anti-Japanese war.