Autumn Leaves, or some thoughts on artistic tradition

(completely revised)

The very clever Taiwanese have invented a way to reproduce National Palace Museum scrolls in very high resolution  on paper with high silk-fiber content; with the result that the product feels like the real thing.  And though it does not quite look it up close (no reproduction ever does), it has its own very special beauty.

The reproductions are almost unreasonably expensive:  for that kind of money one may as well order a hand-painted copy.  But there was a special reason to acquire this.

I think this picture size is big enough to show that Zhao Meng-fu’s Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua mountains (painted in A.D. 1295) does not — by a long shot — rank among the best paintings painted in China; nor even the best work by Zhao Mengfu himself;  yet, for all that, it is the example par excellence of all extant Chinese literati art.

For one thing, it was painted in what was at the time considered an archaic manner:  parts of the painting are executed in brushwork and colored in colors intentionally designed to reproduce the techniques of great masters of the past.  Yet, other parts — much of the texture of the landscape — are in a new kind of brushwork, which was Zhao’s own invention.  This would have been readily understandable to Zhao’s audience — all of whom were professional brush-users — the brush being used as much for writing as it was for painting.  Thus, one could say that the work was a conscious — and consciously transparent — transformation of the ancient tradition:  the creation of a new work within the time-honored genre.  A work not designed to break the boundaries, overthrow, break away — which is generally — and rather unreflectedly — considered a true hall-mark of greatness in the west since the romantic era — but to comment on and add to what has gone before.

Which is, of course, a mark of the Chinese approach to their cultural tradition.  Unlike western Europe, China has suffered several foreign — worse: barbarian — conquests, both devastating and long-lasting, and yet her artistic tradition has not experienced the sort of artistic revolutions we have experienced in the west.  Not until the break out of the Cultural Revolution (1966) has a Chinese artist ever raised the slogan to reject the old and to start afresh from scratch; and even that was only short lived phenomenon, long since abandoned (and with considerable embarrassment).  One is tempted to theorize that nations threatened by foreign conquest are more likely to hang fast onto their cultural tradition.  But the Chinese approach to art is also conditioned by the formative reading of Confucius, who held that the only thing that differentiated humans from animals (and barbarians) was siwen (斯文) — the cultural tradition.  Thus, a Chinese academician’s response to the Salon des Refusés would not have been what some of the French critics have said —— to say that the new art is ugly, or wrong, or bad, or unskilled, or cheap, or dishonest — but to observe that in its radical departure from the past, in its search for a new beginning…  it endangered civilization; it cut us off from what has gone before, returning us, as it were, to our former, raw (the Chinese who refuse to eat raw lettuce say:  “uncooked”), animal nature.  That it threatened the whole social fabric; that it threatened us with a return to the stone age.

One hears this argument from some western conservatives from time to time — it was Burke’s main line of attack on the French Revolution; but such thinkers, rare as they are, usually use it to defend political institutions:  kings, the established church, slavery, death penalty; not any set of artistic principles.  Which is, if you think about it, odd:  art was in the west commonly put to overt political propaganda uses; why would not the political structures that benefited form a style stand up to defend it?  It seems that western institutions most involved in using art to political ends routinely chose to promote new art.

This is notably different from the attitude which has obtained in China where every successive dynasty inaugurated its reign with a critical reissue of the classics and a faithful recasting of ancient sacrificial vessels.  An establishment of every new Chiense dynasty was always presented as restoration of the brilliant past:  a return to virtuous origins, a sweeping away of perversions and mutations.

(Zhou dynasty bronze age are still reproduced, and proudly owned, today, millenia after their use has been forgotten; not because they support some ideology, but simply because they are thought to be the foundation of siwen:  a cultured man, and, moreover, a society of cultured men, must reproduce, own and mediate on these vessels, even if he (or they) have no clue what they are for).


Now, Autumn colors was not just created within the tradition; it has become a significant part of it.  Like a stone dropped in a pool, it has produced endless ripples in the field of culture which still wonder about its surface interfering with others similar.

It has acquired, in the last 700 years, its own status of a classic.  It has acquired — much in the manner in which a bottle dropped to the bottom of the sea acquires various growths and barnacles — numerous comments — some in prose, some in rhyme — directly on its surface — in the areas left blank by the painter (perhaps intentionally for that purpose); as well as numerous colophons (pieces of silk or paper added either in front or in the back of the scroll lengthening the original 90 cm to something like 4 meters); and a huge number of collector’s seals — sixty four applied to the main body alone!  Some of the inscriptions are in excellent hand and some of the seals are among the best in their genre; it is they rather than the painting itself that establish the scroll’s immense artistic value.  As if that were not enough, many of the seals and inscriptions are by China’s most famous people — emperors, ministers, scholars, artists and collectors.  (Imagine a Mantegna with notes on its surface by several dukes of Mantua, Charles I, Louis XV, Horace Walpole, Jacques Louis David, Pierpont Morgan, Caluste Gulbenkian, Charles Dickens, William Hazzlit, and Claude Monet).

In this, Autumn colors — an OK painting at best — should have been a poster-child for those post-modernist thinkers who hold that the only thing which makes one work greater than the next is that it has — technorati-ratings-like — generated more discourse.  Yet, unlike those post-modernists with whose work I am familiar (which, I am sure is too small a number), a Chinese scholar would not be inclined to stress the fact that the choice of the particular subject of discourse is more or less arbitrary.  For while he might concede that Autumn colors isn’t especially great, and a better painting may have been selected as an object of all this commentary and seal-affixation, he would not on his life suggest that one might as well discuss something else today.  Because, for whatever reason, perhaps arbitrary ones, Autumn colors were selected for reflection and discussion, they must be reflected upon and discussed today.  To choose another topic today would wipe out the past and uproot the society.

What makes us cultured is that we’re discussing  Autumn colors, you see:  I comment on a comment on a comment on a comment on a comment on a comment on a comment on the work.  Should I suddenly start commenting on something completely different — a newly discovered, fresh, brave, angry, iconoclastic man who does actions or found objects, for instance — I would be, so to speak, beyond the pale.  There wouldn’t necessarily be anything wrong with either the artist or my commenting upon him, but — both of us would be recognized by a Chinese artist as participating in some wholly new, different, and incompatible activity. It would amount to spiritual emigration, a secession, a cutting off.


I keep mediating on this topic whenever I am reminded — and I am reminded of it a lot — how totally ignorant modern western artists, architects and designers are of our own artistic tradition.  Many of them are very talented people and they often do have good ideas; but to the extent that they are untutored, they are condemned not just to repeat the past, but to repeat its most basic and primitive stages.  There is a lot of lateral movement — let’s up sticks and camp over there now — invent a wholly new style, open up a new field of art — but it does not feel to me like a move forward —  It does not represent an improvement on the tradition.  And for this, it seems to me to lack depth.

Looking this morning again at the Gulbenkian show of still life, I had a deep sense of satisfaction in seeing how the genre unfolded over a 300 year period, with each successive generation of artists expanding it, redefining it, introducing new techniques, new objects and new presentations.  I get this sensation a lot by looking at Chinese ink paintings.  But a book on nineteenth century European art does not deliver this sort of satisfaction.  Much of the art seems primitive:  a promising new beginning perhaps, but one not taken a step further by the next generation of artists, because they felt under pressure to make their own break-throughs and their own radical departures.  Until it has gone through centuries of civilizing process — refinement upon refinement, commentary upon commentary — this new stuff will remain what it is, primitive, elementary; and we, its users, “uncooked”.


Some other very clever Taiwanese have designed a useful and not-too-frustrating way to view the whole work, brushwork, seals, colophons and all, in great detail here. Check it out.


(There are other ways in which Autumn colors is exemplary, of course.  For instance, its genesis is quintessentially Chinese:  it was painted as a gift from one scholar to another, a social occasion analogous to the American Hallmark card.  Or:  the treatment of the subject matter:  the painting is supposed to represent certain features of a real landscape; but it presents them transposed — the two named mountains are in fact much further apart than they appear in the painting.  As a rule, the Chinese landscape is never ocularly faithful:  a Chinese painting is supposed to be a painting, not the real thing.  As the “Pamuk theory” of Asian art puts it:  a painting of a tree does not paint the tree, it paints the tree’s meaning.  A Chinese landscape is always imaginary:  it represents places in the mind.  And so forth.  But that would make for a different essay).

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