The exact discipline germinates the seemingly easiness
The unremitting efforts beneath the charm of a masterpiece
by Wong Tsz Mei
The core of Chinese traditional culture is that one should first cultivate the selfhood to maturity, having a sound moral integrity, and then one could deal with many other things with great facility. As in the domain of calligraphy, our tradition deemed that even a skilful calligrapher, if with faulty moral quality; would not be able to compose superb works. So the prerequisite to be a superlative calligrapher is that he has a good mind of self-government, rather than the sole pursuit of technique. Our tradition thought highly of the value of a man's intrinsic worth all the way. The kaleidoscopic picture of the world could easily make people lose the orientations and get dazzled by the capricious phenomena. Therefore with the capability of restraining oneself, we gain ourselves the firm stances with which it would enable us to handle the reticular situations and tackle the intricate state of affairs much easier.
Harking back to the topic of calligraphy and painting, many of them seem to be effortless rendering of accomplishments. However it is inconceivable for the outsiders to know how painstaking the artists made efforts to polish their spirits and the required expressive skills. The great artist Wen Zheng Ming (1470-1559) of Ming dynasty was a modest and amiable man, and would not ingratiate himself with the bigwigs. The regular script which he wrote is good example for us to learn of how a high level of aesthetic value could be arrived at. As a matter of fact, he had imitated much calligraphy of others with his own conception of the vitality being per fusing to every single stroke. The whole impression of his calligraphy is the briskness in the resplendent and dignified style which let us not fed up with repeated appreciation. According to legend, even he reached his old age of eighty years; he would compose his teeny calligraphy of the “Thousand Character Classic” once with the wrist raised every morning. We could see that a real master having the spirit of self-denial, would never slack up even when he had made a name for himself. Therefore the charms of the masterpieces are the manifestation of the rigorous self-discipline towards perfectibility. If we only follow the trails of the attention-getting appearance of the art pieces, without knowing the importance of the endurance to cultivate our inner selves. We are just like sacrifice the substance for the shadow and could not fulfil ourselves as the true artists or the true connoisseurs in the end.
Striking a deep chord in the reality of nature
By viewing the works from the imperial academy of Song dynasty (960-1127), the unity of all the ingredients in the paintings being so elegant and quiet, we easily take for granted that the expressive methods are as simple and leisure as what we have seen. On the contrary, it is a struggle of reaching the peak of perfection and then at the summit of success which reverts to the relaxation of calm and serenity. At that moment, the bright and dazzling splendour turns into sunshine and fresh air making the atmosphere so warm and charming that we are carried away and we ignore this plain style is an enormous achievement with great sense of dedication and commitment. Of course, these court painters gained full support of the emperor and that could be an advantage, but the patronage of emperor Hui Tsung (reigned 1101-1126) is not only that he was a most competent painter himself and was partial to the styles which he loved the best. Emperor Hui Tsung understood that it was the critical moment of the development of national painting. He knew well of the trends at that time and deployed all the forces of his enthusiasm with the enforcement of strong administrative measures as to cultivate the court painters, to improve them to be the literate artists. So at that time, to get into the Royal Art Academy was not by dint of playing up to those in power, but had to go through the screening test of the Academy. Furthermore, the admitted candidates had to participate in the training courses of the Academy. Therefore, although the court painters were highly skilled, the Emperor still demanded them to get improvements progressively.
On one occasion, the construction of a new palace had completed, and the court painters were painting on the walls and on the screens as the interior decorator. What being painted were all beautiful artworks but they were not very much appreciated by the emperor. Only a work piece named “Slanting Branches of Chinese roses “by a young artist was praised by Hui Tsung, and he was granted a handsome reward. The rewarded painting represented the blossoming roses with the particular configuration of petals, leaves, pistils and sepals to reveal that the time of blooming was exactly at noon without the slightest error. With keen observation, the artist could grasp the characteristics of Chinese rose, for the look of it is not the same in four seasons and it has subtle change in one day. Sometimes, during the visit to the new palace where the newly painted murals had been placed, if the emperor found that some paintings on the walls could not reach a higher standard of accomplishments, he would give orders to smear the murals and asked the artists to reconstruct them.
In order to attain to the demanding requirements, the court artists were driven to develop the scrupulous attentions to reality, and at the same time they had to interpret the reality of nature with subtle feeling for nuance.
A painstaking construct to accommodate safety and relaxation
A scroll named “Lying in the shade of pagoda tree to dispel summer heat” having the classical idiom of imperial art of Song dynasty is executed by an anonymous court painter .The conscientious and meticulous attitude of mind is fully displayed in the layout of the art piece. Furthermore, with his artistic attainments and adaptable wits, the artist achieved the unity of shape and vividness in a genre scene. In the painting, a platform bed is the major element, with a man lying down who is fully stretching and exposing most part of his chest. It is the natural pose of a man to cool off in high summer. On the left end of the bed, a screen was attached which served as the head of a bed which guarded the sleeper's head. Therefore in a semi-enclosure he could sleep in privacy, and not to be exposed in wide open. However, the conscientiousness of the artist is down to the very last detail. The painting of the screen is a winter scene. The screen bordered on the edge of the scroll and was cut short. However, having a glimpse of it, we still can see the hills covered with snow with bare branches, which is an interesting comparison with the thick tree-crown of the pagoda tree outside. The delightful inventiveness of the artist indicates a kind of feeling nice and cool mentally by viewing a chilly winter landscape when someone wakes up from his nap. The ingenuity is easily passed over with a quick look.
As regards physical ingredients were arranged on a flat ground, it seemed that the rectilinear forms dominate the overall arrangement of the picture: the figure lying in the oblong shaped bed with one end attached to the rectangular screen, assorted objects on a rectangle table which is adjacent the bed. Especially the table in black silhouette at a distance having considerable visual weigh in relation to the group of rectilinear objects in the foreground holds the observer's attention, and one is willing to identify the formal complexity, intricacy of the tininess of objects on it. However, our visual observations would not be enough to help up by the careful perusal of the clarity of particulars. Our sight would go further up, induced by the upright positioned trunk on the left. The tininess and neatly depicted leaves exert their fascination of softness, still more the comfort to shelter one from summer heat. Such intrinsic interest let us see the whole length of the upper border of the scroll. Subsequently, the oblique top view of the screen on the left leads our eye sights to the lying figure. He is the main subject-matter of the painting. And what all we have scrutinized beforehand are the ideal setting and foils to him.
To some extent the Chinese sense of contained volume is demonstrated in the figure which drew by contours are purely linear. The movement of the actual lines is clearly intended to be three dimensional, but by no means has it bound to the silhouette of the object. They lead the eye over, under, around and behind the body in the picture. The lines of draperies double back upon themselves in serpentine folds. The configuration and interplay of the liveliness and neatness of a multiplicity of varied lines showing their ethereal nature not only delineate the suppleness of the raiment, but also develop graceful circular rhythms in a continuum of undulating movement. Even the twigs of the belt being the insignificant details were drawn earnestly, they seem to float and flutter as to form the beautiful twists. As a matter of fact, the whole curvaceous weaving tissue of pattern is executed with “long-breathed” line which the artist depends upon a kind of mental concentration and immediate control of movement. Therefore the whole interest of the figure lies in the vivid expression of movement and life given by springing brush lines; moreover the freedom of linear expression response to the artist's unspeakable mentality and emotion, abandoned the restriction of imitating the composition of human shape, from which an unfettered effect is given to the figure.
The angular objects in the scroll, are not the transcription of the seen world through the sober means of the pure craft of painting. The precision and exactness is demonstrated, but also a sensitive response to the organization and overall coherence. The bed and table are depicted as “inverted perspective”, appearing as the opposite of what the imitation of nature would suggest. Instead of converging toward distance, the visual perceptions of the bed and the table are divergent. The artist adopts the inverted angle to let the surface of the bed broaden toward the back and then the broadened locus make more room for the rhythmic curvilinear form to exhibit itself. On another hand, as there does not exist the adherence to convergent perspective, the visual conveniences are so obvious that the artist could freely organize the layout to reconcile incongruous formal elements to achieve the bravura effect with the seemingly effortless artifice.
The lacking of worthy successor
It is from the seventeenth century, in the period of Qing dynasty (1644-1911), that the western cultural infiltration reflected in the changed way of the artistic response to the sensory world. Another court painting presented here is an art piece of the Xianfeng period (1851-1861).The painting depicts Empress Dowager Cixi playing a game of “weiqi” in a garden scene en-framed with large pine, peonies in a pot, orchids growing on the ground and exotic rocks. The composition is carefully worked out and the painting is executed with meticulous detail which the artist strived for and ended up in insipid exactitude and truth. There is not much agreeable aftertaste for us to savour. Why is it so different with the court paintings of the Song dynasty?
Immediately, our attentions focus on the chess table which is objectively correct descriptions of physical nature, conformable to the central perspective. Especially the Empress Dowage Cixi and the aristocratic man both resplendently in their outfits flanking the two sides of the table upgraded the position of the table. In the painting, the drawn figure of Cixi resembles her features. The delicately depicted ornate garment displays the fine workmanship of the embroidery on the gorgeous silken robe. We can imagine how beautiful the real clothe is embroidered with clumps of flowers in coloured silk threads in the main field of the robe. Other decorative patterns are employed on the three borders edging the lapel and the hems. To take a close look, we can see a bracelet being worn on the front as a pendant. This kind of bracelet would also be worn at the wrist. The material of it is derived from agalloch eaglewood or some other fragrant tropical wood. Therefore the bracelet would diffuse a mild and very pleasant scent, believed to be analgesic and capable of regulating respiration and unblocking blockages in body. It was used in Cixi's time.
We can also observe the long nails of the left hand rested on her thigh, and the other hand are just putting in the “weiqi” box ready to take out weiqi pieces from it which is also decorated with beautiful patterns. Her headgear in the form of two outstretched wings with the embellishment of peal and hairpins, with her earrings, the pair of high-platform shoes whose uppers are of imperial yellow satin embroidered with brightly coloured patterns, all these go with her attire. Moreover, the podium which Cixi is sitting on is also depicted with the colours soft and delicate revealed extremely fine quality of the articles in the court.
Opposite side of Cixi, a man standing with a slightly bending posture is also eye-catching in his plain blue gown for its large patch of unitary blue colour. However, with careful observation, we would notice there are medallions of the “shou” character, meaning longevity which was a kind of auspicious motif, on the gown. In the middle of the girdle is a jade belt hook and the thumb ring worn on right thumb seems to be the same material. Thumb ring is archer's ring which first appeared as an accessory worn on thumb to help to pull the bowstring, or to protect the thumb. In later period, it became just a symbol of status with purely decorative purpose.
There are some more decorative bijous hanging from the belt. The delicate small watch maybe is gold-plated for the glaring colour, and the winding mechanism which was ingeniously designed, can be seen at the bottom. This kind of refined gear was exported from Switzerland or France at that time. The renowned Swiss watchmaker “Bovet” even set up business at Fleurier in 1820, specializing in small watches for the Chinese market. Beside the hanging watch is the scent holder or fabric fragrance pouch which was carried by men and women alike to function as freshener or sanitary accessories since the Qin dynasty(221-207).Common stuffing for scent holders includes dried or fresh flowers, agar wood, sandalwood, aromatic herbs and medicinal herb. The court painter strives for exhibiting all the technical skill to describe the main figures and the chess table between them. However the perspective of the table focus our sights to the emptiness in the end, notwithstanding he tried hard to tell us how illustrious are their statuses. The two portraits in the painting are as stiff as pokers similar to two wax figures being placed in it. Therefore the whole work is exanimate. Only registered a fading fragment of the bygone glory time which petered out to emptiness which were intimated to us by the chess table with convergent perspective.
The pursuit of “likeness” to what can be seen was more and more sophisticated and reached a climax in Tong dynasty (581-618).At that time, the artist Wu Dao Zi was one of the outstanding elite to animate the subject matter with verve, not just an accurate representation. As time went by, the forward development in painting was in a difficult situation of finding an orientation to move on. During Song dynasty, when Hui Tsung succeeded to the throne, he frowned on the detail-oriented verisimilar expression. He sensed that inside the similitude of an image should exist the spirit to animate the whole configuration. He realized that a kind of refined affections, the poetic artistic conception being per fused in the art piece would establish the long-lasting intimate charm.
In order to enable the court artists to broaden and deepen their ideological territories, first of all, the questions given in an examination for recruiting court artists were mainly of the expressions of poems. For example, one of the questions is “A tavern at the side of a bridge in an exuberant growth of bamboos”. The average candidates put emphasis on the depicting of the tavern, while the master-hand would translate into poetic tableau the winsome verdant bamboo forest with an antiquated bridge, and a cloth signboard with the word “Wine” on it is sufficient for the intimation of tavern. Therefore all the also-runners were that lack of independent thinking and void of imaginations.
Furthermore, the entire enrolled court painter still had to undergo the demanding artistic standard which was set by the emperor, and also had to participate in the training courses both of reading up classic scriptures and painting practices. Under such exacting indoctrination, the creative thinking of the individuals, the vivification of an art piece had not been stifled; on the contrary, Hui Tsung cultivated the minds and temperaments of the artists with poetry, mastery skill and the spirit of self-improvement, that were the prerequisite of the true masters' personalities. As a result, the paintings of Song court are the unintentionally exudation of the highly cultivated personalities of poised and refined manners, but without showing any trace of precocity; so sophisticated and at the same time vigorous that the Song court paintings are the valuable national heritage. Hei Tsung is an insightful innovator who made a great contribution in the development of Chinese painting.
However such excellent tradition had already reached the peak, lacking worthy successor. The exactitude and stiffness of Qin dynasty court paintings are of not much aesthetic value, but still have the value of historical research. In Hong Kong, the situations of art expression and art appreciation are disappointing. The so-call contemporary arts or the false traditional innovative paintings are being greatly patronized by the arts bureaucratic organizations. Therefore the average citizens here know little about the value of traditional culture, and not to say to understand the importance of living up to it. The leadership lacking a broad and long-term-view is a calamity to traditional culture.