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CHINESE THOUGHT AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO PORTRAITURE: - a comparative overview Lee Wen January 1992, London Though not the oldest, Chinese cultural history is the longest continuous civilizations in the world. Modern China is the direct descendant of Neolithic proto-Chinese cultures established in the Yellow River valley dating as far back as 2000 B.C. Chinese and European cultures possess the two most ancient traditions of representational painting. A survey of painting gives us a visual account of the development of the human consciousness through the artists and their works of art. Arising from a different socio-cultural and historical background, the themes, techniques, styles and aesthetics of Chinese art inevitably diverge from western directions. Chinese painting is epitomized in the mastery of landscape painting but it is interesting to find that although portraiture is not entirely absent, the subject of the artist himself in selfportraiture is markedly avoided. Art schools in the Western tradition are apt to resort to selfportraiture as a rewarding and fulfilling exercise. The self as a subject seems worthy for focus and attention, equal to other subjects like landscape, still life or other natural subjects. Though portraiture was not a relatively late development, it was rare to find recognizable likenesses as an important characteristic until after 1400 AD. It was only during the Renaissance with the propagation of the Western idea of man as mankind's most proper study that portraiture began to emerge as a significant genre in its own right. 1 The Reformation brought about a crisis in art when the Protestants objected to pictures of saints and regarded them as signs of a Popish idolatry. Within Protestant regions, painters lost their former best source of income, which came from painting of saints and biblical stories in churches and cathedrals. The effect of this crisis is best seen in the German painter Hans Holbein the younger (1497-1543) who started his career in altar painting. In 1526 he went to England where he continued his career painting portraits within the royal household. Henry VII finally gave him the official title of Court Painter. Subjects for portraiture during these early times were largely monopolized by rulers, the aristocracy and later by the merchants and bankers. Craftsmen, painters and sculptors were not equal in class and could not make the same claims for the social and intellectual status such an indulgence might prove to imply. Dryden (1471-1528) the German graphic artist and printmaker was one of the earliest artists who chose to use himself in his various sketches. However it was only with Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) the Flemish artist, who was an art-dealer and diplomat and therefore was able to justify self-portraits in luxuriant oils that his status deserved. Despite a lowly status, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 69) broke the taboo by constantly returning to his own image as a source for many oil paintings. He observed his self-image in the mirror with a complex objectivity and sincerity, leaving out all traces of pose and vanity, which most commissioned portraiture, would require. They were never an attempt at disguising his aged wrinkles or ugliness. At the beginning of the 19th century Paul Cezanne (18391906), Paul Gauguin (18481903) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) were deviating from the 'art as imitation' ideal that


Western art have long dealt with since Plato's aesthetics of mimesis was lodged. What they investigated later set precedents for the 20th century movements in Cubism, Primitivism, and Expressionism. Amongst them Van Gogh, also made considerable effort in self-portraiture. He often expressed what he felt using primary colors, broad brushstrokes and welcoming distortions as he saw fit. The self-portrait therefore became an important and acceptable genre in western painting, which never gained as much significance in Chinese painting. The Chinese regard for painting as a fine art has a close relationship to writing. Not only are the materials of brush and ink on silk or paper similar to that of writing but it is also classed as one of the three ways of apprehending nature. Yen Yen-Chih (384-456) cited these three graphic conventions as language, representing concepts (tu-shih), the eight trigrams of the I-Ching, representing nature's principles (tu-li) and painting, representing nature's forms (tu-hsing). 2 Painting was to be more than just a craft but also a means of interpreting and understanding natural phenomena. It was an embodiment of the artist's feelings towards the subject depicted in his response to nature. The earliest writings assigned 3 functions of painting as illustrative, magical and moral. The moralistic function prevailed over the other two. Examples of portraiture as early as Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 220 A.D.) showed idealized expressions of exemplary figures like the Duke of Chou, Confucius and other culture heroes. There are more written records about the early painters than the actual paintings that survived. Earliest evidence of portraiture are those attributed to Ku Kai-Chih (344-406), an artist of great reputation working at the Chin Court of Nanking. Two scrolls representing the archaic style are 'Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies' (illus. A) and the other called 'The Nymph of the Lo River', both showing an illustrative type of painting. For Ku KaiChih the purpose of painting was to portray the spirit through form. By way of gestures, pose and action implied, likeness has never been important, even in later portraitures in Chinese painting. The Chinese word for portraiture, ʻyin-tuʼ (shadow picture) or fushen (depicting the soul) emphasizes its predilection of giving an impression of the subject, going beyond likeness. The idea was to capture the spirit using form only as a vehicle. When Hsieh-Ho (479-502 A.D.) wrote the Six Principles in painting, he laid out the basic elements in good painting, which became the cornerstone for all later Chinese art criticism and aesthetics. The first and most important principle was 'chi-yun-sheng-tung' (breathresonance-life-motion). 3 ʻChiʼ was the all-pervasive life force in every living being, of which there were two particular types. 'Shenchi' (breath of spirit) or 'shen-chi' (breath of life) was the objective and descriptive qualities of representation or depiction. The other was ʻchuang-chiʼ (robust breath) (breath-cultivation) or 'chi-li' (breath force), showing the individual, personal qualities of the artist. 'Yunʼ (resonance) referred to the harmonious manner of execution of the painting itself. A good painting therefore must have the spiritual element of ʻchiʼ in a personal way of depicting, alive with harmony and full of motion. 4 In Chang yen-yuan' s (mid-9th century) 'Record of Famous Paintings in Successive Dynasties', during the Tang Dynasty, he reiterates going beyond 'formal likeness'. He advised painters to aim for 'that which lies beyond formal likeness', insisting that if a painter had only sought for 'chi-yun' (breath resonance), formal likeness would be present in his work


inevitably. He also commented on the relationship between the artist and his work saying, "from ancient times, those who have excelled in painting have all been men robed and capped and of noble descent, retired scholars and lofty-minded men…ʼ thus indicating the exemplary role in that of the artist himself. He writes about 'seeing the man in his works' while commenting on the landscape paintings of Yang Yen (late 8th century),' He was polished and elegant in his bearing, vigorous and energetic in his spirit and feeling. He was good at landscapes; his work s were lofty and unusual, refined and strong… When I look at the late Mr. Yang's landscape pictures, I see in imagination what he was as a man his imposing stature and unconventionality.ʼ 5 Chinese aesthetics therefore placed emphasis and value on vigorous and elegant brushwork, stylistic innovations that reflect nobility of the artist himself. These precepts became the foundations for the wide acceptance of 'literary man' artists (wen-jen hua) during the Yuan dynasty (1260-1368). The emergence of the 'wen-jen huaʼ aesthetics was partly stimulated by the introduction of unorthodox brushwork in calligraphy into painting. This was already evidenced during the Tang dynasty, not because the brushwork could depict better representation but because they were more efficient in showing the artist's temperament. Painting then became closer to calligraphy as a single art while the emphasis also drifted from subject matter to formal elements. The later evolution of 'wen-jen hua' recognized in painting the Confucian notion of communicating learned thoughts of the artist. The painting, regardless of its subject matter, was a revelation of the nature of the man who painted it. Expressive contents of mood, feelings and emotions depended on personal qualities and transient feelings, not the qualities of the subject matter represented. Kuo Jo-hsu (late 11th century) was the leading spokesman for the ʻwen-jen huaʼ theorists. He expounded in his 'Experiences in Painting' (Tu-hua Chien Wen) that painting and calligraphy were the artistsʼ imprints or images of the mind (hsin-yin) and hence were reflections of the artist, the man, his ideas, thoughts and self-cultivation. 6 Another Sung Dynasty poet-artist who advocated the wen-jen hua theory was Su Shih or Su Tung Po (1036-1101). He was variously interested in Taoism and Chan Buddhism and objected to the stern morality of the Neo-Confucianists. He derided those Neo-Confucianists who preferred formal likeness as exemplifying the investigating of things leading to the extension of knowledgeʼ. For Su Tung Po painting was an expression of the artist's inner self and ʻto discuss paintings in terms of formal resemblances is a view comparable to a child's'. Adding that 'the artisans of this world may be able to capture the form perfectly, but when it comes to the principles, only a superior man of outstanding talent can discern them'. 7 In the light of these aesthetic theories we find that Chinese painting did not aspire towards real-life likeness. In portraiture too, from the earliest examples like Ku Kai-Chih, the aim was to capture the spirit through form. Artists were said to be able to reveal his qualities and temperament through his paintings. Not because of the subject matter shown in the work depicted them but by the way of brushwork displaying innovation and originality. The main belief was that Self-cultivation is basic to artistic creativity. Nobility and goodness in the artist will give rise to good painting. The dichotomies of subject and object, self and society, man and nature was unreal and seemingly transformable through the act of creation. There is a close association between the society and how an artist sees himself, and his physical body in nature. 8 In traditional China's holistic cosmological view and even in today's in modern China, the self is often described in reference to its social role and


functions. For the Chinese, uniqueness should not draw too much attention; common features are more readily upheld. In Western society, adulthood implies a completion of growth whereas the Chinese idea of becoming a person (cheng-jen) implies an unlimited potential for development. Maturation then is a life long process for which to attain genuine humanity requiring one's continuous effort, culminating at death. Thus the only time a portrait was painted directly from the subject was when the ancestral portrait was being done. 9 Sometimes these were done while the subject was still alive but usually these were painted after death. During the three days before burial, the artist sketch the face in detail from the subject and finish the painting in his studio, filling in the appropriate costume and dress. The Chinese do not see this as an art form though these have been prized by Western collectors. Ancestral portraits served in their function of being part of ancestor worship altars and ritual halls and were treasured only for this purpose. (illus.B) Both the Confucian and the Taoist pursue the Tao (the way of nature) and recognizes this as inseparable from one's self. The Confucian's self-cultivation was also a development of selflessness. The Taoist sees egotism as having desires and strives 'tzu-jan' cultivating or tuning oneself with the ultimate 'tao' which requires a conscious effort to rid himself of such 'desires'. For Chuang-Tzu, who was apt to rejecting political activity, confounding our logic and normal mental processes, the individual was a transient creature. The self develops and changes through nature from 'tao', the ultimate source and returns to it at death thus upholding an anti-materialist stance towards the self. The specific needs of the masses sets a priority especially in modern China where individuality is usually not encouraged. There is a less egotistical and more collectivist orientation in modern Chinese Marxism, which equates the self to a fluid entity, that seems to recall the Confucian concept. A concern for the self is usually derided, played down. The tendency is more towards group oriented of self-concepts. In social and psychological surveys, Chinese levels of self-esteem have been found to be comparatively lower than that of his western counterparts. 10 When the art of landscape painting gained popularity and prominence during the end of the tenth century, portraiture fell into less competent and less capable artists. The elite and literati developed "wen-jen hua' aesthetics favoring an amateur spirit of expressing one's self and mind through painting. "Professionals' were derided as insincere and were not taken too seriously. Although portraiture revived in the 16th and 17th century by the literati-'wen-jen', it was usually in the landscape, gardens and other romantic settings, which helped, evoked the spirit of the people portrayed. (Illust.C) Self-portraiture never developed to any considerable significance in Chinese painting but the images of the artists were represented spiritually through the brushwork, innovation and originality in the calligraphy and nature painting, especially through landscapes instead. This evolved and developed following the Chinese aesthetic principles backed by a philosophy of integration with nature and favoring the spiritual evocation of representing the self in nature. However the intimate situation of self portraiture where the artist explores his outer and inner image of self at close quarters, offering this privileged position to the viewer of looking at the artist through his own eyes may never find justification in a culture which nurtures a selfeffacement of the individual and which advocates the integration of self with nature.


Afterword The preceding essay started with the question of why self-portraiture did not grow to become an important aspect in Chinese painting as compared to its role in Western painting. This is such a complex question which I feel could have been dealt with in greater depth than my short essay allows. Without intending to be superficial, I've tried to confront the question from as many angles as I've felt necessary. If there is one aspect which I felt I've not covered sufficiently is that of elaborating on some Chinese artists. This self-conscious avoidance is due to my inability to find any artist dealing with the subject of self-portraiture and also my fear that the choice of artists may not be exemplary due to my limited knowledge of Chinese artists at large. After writing this essay I came across two self-portraits. One of them is by Wang Wei (Tang dynasty), an aristocrat, scholar and poet, showing him turning away as if in defiance of the viewer and seems an ironic depiction of the Chinese denial of self-portraiture. The other is that of Tao-chi an enigmatic artist of exceptional individualism and modernism (1640-1720?) who once boasted of being a painter of 'no style' (wu-fa). He developed his 'single-stroke' aesthetic theory opposing the didactic encyclopedic analysis of brush strokes advocated in the 'Mustard Seed Garden' manual on Chinese painting. The painting was done when he was 33 showing the artist supervising the planting of pine trees with the assistance of a boy disciple and a monkey. Although it was painted in a manner, which was in keeping with the narrative, gestural and inclination of the Chinese predilection for balance with nature it also illustrated his deviation from the norm. Being of such rebellious countenance and adventurous individualism it is no wonder that he was able to give us a realistic self-portrait, which defied the norm in Chinese attitudes towards self-portraiture in painting. Endnotes 1 Gombrich

E.H. 'The Story of Art' (The Phaidon Press, Oxford 1934), also Martindale, Andrew, ʻHeroes, ancestors, relatives and the Birth of the portrait' - The fourth Gerson Lecture (Gary Schwartz/SDU Publishers 1988) 2  (2) Wen C. Fong 'Images of the Mind' (The Art Museum, Princeton University 1934) - pg.3   3  Wen C. Fong 'Images of the Mind' - pg.4; Sickman and Soper, The Pelican History of Art The Art and Architecture of China' 1984 - pg.65   4  (ibid.) W.C.Fong 'Images of the Mind' - pg.5   5  Acker, Williams, "Some Tang and Pre-Tang Texts on Chinese Painting' (Leiden 1954) pg.7275 6  (ibid.)

W.C.Fong, 'Images of the Mind', pg.5-6

7 Bush,

Susan 'The Chinese Literati on Painting' (Harvard University Press, Cambridge,


Massachusetts 1971) pg.32 8 Douglas, Mary 'Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology' (Pelican 1970) - an extensive study of this relationship of the individualʼs physical body and the social body: - 'The social body constrains the way the physical body is perceived. The physical experience of the body, always modified by the social categories through which it is known, sustains a particular view of society. There is a continual exchange of meanings between the two kinds of bodily experience so that each reinforces the categories of others.'   9  Lancman, Eli -'Chinese Portraiture' (Charles C.Tuttle Co. Tokyo, Vermont, 1966) pg.38-40   10  Bond, Michael Harris (editor) 'The Psychology of the Chinese People' (HK: Oxford University Press 1986), pg.236. Bibliography Acker, Williams, "Some Tang and Pre-Tang Texts on Chinese Painting' (Leiden 1954) Bush, Susan, "The Chinese Literati on Painting" (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1971) Bond, Michael Harris (editor) "The Psychology of the Chinese People" (HK:Oxford University Press 1986) Calvin, Lewis and Walmsley, Dorothy Brush, "Wang Wei, the Painter, Poet", 1968 Douglas, Mary, "Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology" (Pelican 1970) De Bary, W.T, “Self and Society in Ming Thought" (N.Y. Columbia University Press 1970) Edwards, Richard, "The World around the Chinese Artist" 1987 Fong, Wen C. "Images of the Mind" (The Art Museum, Princeton University Press 1984) Gombrich, E.H. "The Story of Art" (The Phaidon Press, Oxford 1984) Lancman, Eli, "Chinese Portraiture" (Charles E.Tuttle Tokyo 1966) Lin Yutang, "The Chinese Theory of Art" 1967 Marsella, Devos and Hsu (editors) "Culture and Self" 1985 Munro, Donald (editor) "Individualism and Holism; studies in Confucian and Taoist values" 1985


Sickman and Soper, "The Pelican History of Art: The Art and Architecture of China" 1984 Siren, Oswald, "The Chinese on the Art of Painting" 1963 Spiro, Audrey G. "Contemplating the Ancients: aesthetic and social issues in early Chinese portraiture" (Berkeley: University of California Press 1990) Waley, Arthur "An Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting" (1923) Other publications "The Beginnings of Portrait Painting in China" - Max Loehr proceedings of the International Congress of Orientalists twenty-fifth congress vol.5 pg.210-14 Moscow 1960 "The Question of Individualism in Chinese Art" - Max Loehr Journal of the History of Art Vol.22 1961 pg. 147-58 reprinted in the Garland Library of the History of Ideas vol.14 NY and London 1976 pg. 19-30 "The Paintings of Tao Chi" catalogue of an exhibition Aug.13-Sep 17, 1967 held at Museum of Art, University of Michigan Illustrations (A) Admonitions of the Imperial Princess by Ku Kai Chih (4th century A.D.) Ink and color on silk Ht.19.5 cm L 347 cm British Museum, London (B) Ancestral Portrait – Artist Unknown (Late Ming) Ht.144 cm (C) Mi Fei Bowing to the rocks by Chen Hung Shou (late Ming) Color and ink on silk Ht.116 cm, private collection, Japan Cover Shi Tao (b.1641) Master Shi Planting Pines (detail H near 21cm), hand scroll, ens. H 40,3 x L 170cm, light color on paper. Located at the National Palace Museum.


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(A) Admonitions of the Imperial Princess by Ku Kai Chih (4th century A.D.) Ink and colour on silk Ht.19.5 cm L 347 C~ Bri t ish Hus eum , London


(B) Ancestral Portrait Art is t U II k n 0 wn (1 ate 1'1 in g )

Ht.144 cm


(c) Mi Fei Bowing to the rocks by Cn e n Hung S ;lOU (1 a te t'1i ng )

Colour and ink on silk Ht.116 cm private collection, ]3Jan

Chinese Thought And Its Relationship to Portraiture: a comparative overview  

A comparative historical survey of how artists approach representation of self in painting in Chinese thought vis-a-vis Western thinking.