Painting and poetry

Francois Cheng [tooltip content= “Chinese Poetic Writing: With an Anthology of Tang Poetry (Indiana Univ Press, 1982)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

In China painting occupies the supreme position among all the arts. It is the object of a veritable mystique, for in the eyes of the Chinese, the pictorial art is the one best able to reveal the mystery of the universe. Compared with poetry, the other pinnacle of Chinese culture, painting, through the original space that it embodies and through the vital breaths that it arouses, seems far more apt to go beyond description of the spectacles of creation and to enter into the very gestures of creation. Though it stood outside the religious current, which by tradition was primarily Buddhist, painting was itself considered a sacred practice.

The basis of Chinese painting is a fundamental philosophy that holds precise views of cosmology, of human destiny, and of the relationship between the human being and the universe. Painting represents a specific way of life for putting this philosophy into practice. Its purpose is to creeate not only a framework of representation but also a medium in which true life is possible. In China, art and the art of life are one and the same.

Francois Cheng [tooltip content= “Emty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting (Shambhala Publications, 1994)”] [source][/tooltip]

If the connection between calligraphy and poetic writing seems direct and natural, that which unites the latter with painting is no less so in the eyes of the Chinese. In the Chinese tradition, where painting is often referred to as wu-sheng-shih (silent poetry), the two arts clearly belong to the same order. Numerous poets also devoted themselves to painting, while every painter owed it to himself to be a poet. Without doubt the most famous example is Wang Wei of the T’ang. Inventor of monochrome technique and precursor of the style of painting called “spiritual,” he was equally celebrated for his poetry. His experience as a painter greatly influenced his manner of organizing the signs in poetry, to such an extent, in fact, that Su Tung»p’o, the famous Sung dynasty poet, could say of him that “his pictures are poems, and his poems, pictures.” The primary link between poetry and painting is, put simply, calligraphy. The most notable manifestation of this trinitarian relationship, a relationship that forms the base of a complete art, is the tradition of presenting a poem in fine calligraphy in the blank space of a picture.

Before defining precisely the significance of this practice, it is necessary to underline the fact that calligraphy and painting are arts of the stroke: it is this fact which makes possible their cohabitation. The art of calligraphy, aimed as it is at restoring the primordial rhythm and the living gestures implied by the strokes of the characters, liberated the Chinese artist from the need to describe faithfully the exterior aspect of the physical world, and gave rise, very early, to a “spiritual” painting that, rather than pursuing resemblance and calculating geometrical proportions, sought to imitate “the act of the Creator,” catching the essential lines, forms, and movements of nature. Seeking the same sovereign liberty as the calligrapher, the painter uses the same brush in the execution of his work. lt is only after a long period of leaming to draw a variety of elements from nature and the human world that he begins to execute what may be called in the strictest sense works of art. The ensemble of elements that he must first master have themselves been the object of a slow process of symbolization. Having become signifying unities, they offer the accomplished artist the possibility of organizing them according to certain fundamental aesthetic laws; in mastering these elements it is as if the artist had leamed the visible universe “by heart.” The execution of a work is done without, and beyond, any model (for the work must be an interior projection); it unrolls exactly as does calligraphy, rhythmically, as if the artist were carried by an irresistible current.