Literati Painting: A Synthesis of Art and Meditation

This is a digitally constructed collage. I put together pieces from different classic Chinese paintings and tried to mimic the style of a fourteen-century literati artist.

I’ve done research on China in the past, especially Chinese traditional art, and have written about it here and here. This week I decided to start writing a new book about China. I will use art as a reference point and bracket that reference between two centuries–the fourteenth and twentieth. And I will focus my attention on one city that just happens to straddle the Yangzte River: Chongqing.


Credit

It was Chongqing that became the last stronghold of the free Chinese in WWII (Second Sino-Japanese War). And it was there that fierce resistance by the Southern Song Dynasty held invading Mongols off for years.

Why art? Because in China, art has been a vessel for culture and tradition. Through conquest and revolution, art has endured. I find that to be especially true in the literati tradition.


A Word About the Picture at the Top of the Page

The picture was prompted by a contest on Steemit, which I enter every time it’s open. In the contest we are challenged by a fellow Steemian, @shaka, to make a collage from one of his photos. Rank amateurs (like me) and graphic artists participate. Sometimes a good idea prevails over skill…that gives me hope. However, I don’t enter to win. I enter to have fun.

Here’s @shaka’s photo, as it appeared before I made the collage:

Here are the elements that went into my collage:

[By the way, emulating, or even copying an artist is considered to be an homage, in the literati tradition]

The tree was extracted from this picture:

Wu Zhen Fishermen section.steemit 2,5x562,2cm._ca._1340._Freer.public.jpg

Fishermen, by Wu Zhen. China, fourteenth century. Public domain.


The meditating gentleman was extracted from this picture:

Ni_Zan_Portrait_Yuan2.jpg

Ni_Zan_Portrai_Yuan, unknown author. China, Yuan Dynasty (approximately fourteenth century). Public domain


The lotus flowers were extracted from this picture:

lotus.jpg


Pink and White Lotus, unknown artist. China, Yuan Dynasty. Public domain.


The birds were taken from this picture:

Loquats steemit and_Mountain_Bird anonymous public.jpg

Loquats and Mountain Bird, by anonymous. China, fourteenth century. Public domain.


The ducks, reeds and characters were taken from this picture:

Ducks_steemit and_Reeds_MET_47_18_19.jpg

Ducks and Reeds, by Lin Liang. China, fifteenth century. Public domain.


The hint of chrysanthemum was extracted from this picture:

chrysanthemum steemit public Xian'e_Changchun_Album_08.jpg

Xian’e Changchun Album 08, by Guiseppe Castilione. Between 1722-1725. Public domain.


If you’d like to see the blog that accompanied this collage, you can find it on Steemit. It’s called The Brain: Meditation, Flow and Literati Art.

I’ll try to post a new chapter for my book once a week. That’s going to be a challenge, but I might as well aim high 🙂

Advertisements

Art and Life

plum website Lu Zhi
Plum Blossoms, by Lu Zhi,  Public Domain

Increasingly, I see no distinction between art and life, although there is a sense of the word “art” that suggests fabrication.  As a writer, or someone who loves to write (sometimes it feels pompous to call myself a writer), I have found art to be simply another form of expression, one that flows naturally as a complement to my words.  This is a view that traditional Chinese artists embrace, particularly those artists known as literati.

In literati painting, inscriptions on the work are intrinsic to the art.  The literati derive their inspiration from nature, tradition and philosophy.  In literati painting, art is an expression of character.  Technical skill, or “artifice”, is less important than the genuine inspiration evident in the work.

Traditional Chinese art often features one of four themes known as the Four Noble Ones or, the Four Gentlemen.  These themes are the plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum.  The essay below is adapted from my book, Four Masters of Yuan and Literati Art: Tradition in China from Mongol Rule to Modern Times.

The Four Gentlemen in Chinese Art

 

Literati artists have an affinity for nature. In their response to nature they believe they are revealing essential qualities about their own character. The qualities they hope to cultivate in themselves, they believe, are innate to certain plants. Four of these, called The Four Gentlemen in Chinese Art–the bamboo, chrysanthemum, plum and orchid–are said to embody different aspects of a noble character.  In fact, the plants are also called The Four Noble Ones.  Each of these plants has been featured across the centuries in exquisitely expressive art.

 

china bamboo elegant stone ni zan website public
Wood, Bamboo, and Elegant Stone, Ni Zan Public Domain

Wood, Bamboo and Elegant Stone, a painting by Yuan Dynasty artist Ni Zan (above), is part of a long tradition that reveres this plant.  Bamboo is seen as a natural embodiment of longevity, humility and endurance.

chrysanthemum website ong
Chrysanthemum, by Ong Schan Tchow, with an inscription by Lin Sen, President of the Republic of China.  Public Domain

Ong Schan Tchow, a twentieth-century painter, devoted a book to the study of chrysanthemums. This flower holds a special place in Chinese culture because the flower was first cultivated there. Chrysanthemums blossom in autumn, when winter is looming and other flowers are fading. It is the flower’s ability to flourish when others perish that makes it a metaphor for withstanding adversity.

Lu Zhi, an artist from the Ming Dynasty, was also a calligrapher and poet. His painting, Plum Blossoms, is featured at the top of this page. The plum tree blossoms in winter. This winter bloom, in harsh circumstances, represents to the Chinese the qualities of endurance and prosperity.

orchid 96 smaller
Orchid, by Hu Zhengyan, Public Domain

Another Ming Dynasty artist, Hu Zhengyan, was also a printer and calligrapher. He was a traditionalist who featured a variety of simple, natural themes in his painting. The image presented here is “Orchid”.  In the orchid many see qualities of humility and grace. The orchid blossoms in remote locations and often exudes its fragrance in solitude. The nobility of quiet repose is much admired in classic Chinese art and poetry.

 

Art in China

Six Gentlemen, by Ni Zan (1301-1374)

Ni Zan - Six Gentlemen

China is much in the news.  It seems that many in the West cannot decide whether China is a worthy ally or a wily competitor.  The lack of clarity arises not so much from linguistic barriers as it does from a cultural disconnect.  We in the West, particularly in the United States, don’t know much about China.  We buy Chinese goods and many of us enjoy Chinese food.  Student exchange programs with China have increased in recent years, but familiarity with our distant Asian neighbors is limited in scope.  Any attempt to increase understanding of China is a step forward.  One path that may take us in that direction is through China’s art, particularly a style of art known as literati painting.

On this page are four landscape paintings, all of them either in literati style, or influenced by the literati.  Comparing the four paintings reveals something fascinating: this style of painting has remained essentially consistent for hundreds of years.  That is not a coincidence.  That is a reflection of a profoundly significant aspect of China’s culture.  Tradition and history are revered, preserved and emulated.

As Westerners attempt to achieve an understanding of the modern powerhouse that is China, they would do well to regard its past.  China’s traditional art offers a readily available, aesthetically beguiling opportunity to do that.

Joint Landscape by Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and Wen Zhengming (1470-1559)

shen zhou Joint Landscape rhythm MET_DP235702_CRD

 

Hermitage in the Mountains, by Tang Yifen (1778-1853)

Tang Fi 1856 'Hermitage in the_Mountains' rhythm,_painting_by_T'ang_I-fen

 

The Painting by Gao Jianfu 2, by Gao Jianfu (1879-1951)

gao jianfu 1935 rhythm

An essay in which I go into greater length about the importance of tradition in China may be found at another website I maintain, noplaceforrumors.com:

https://noplaceforrumors.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/four-masters-of-yuan-and-literati-art-tradition-in-china-from-mongol-rule-to-modern-times/