Disclaimer and Invitation
Most Chinese paintings and calligraphy works are not as dated
But Months to Centuries Later
Here we share research results
not often found elsewhere
Fearless of New Findings
witih no claim to Absolute Authority
but only Absolute Honesty
and the right to err as seekers err
but now in untried ways
let us lift off where Rowley’d left it
and clear our minefield with method
to let in light where darkness looms
This Web-Paper is an attempt to explore the visual features or Period Style of an era in Chinese landscape painting rather than proceeding from attributed works clustered under the name of a single Master. Here we explore the perceptual characteristics that seem to be unique to Qing painting around the reign of the Qianlong emperor (r.1736-1796) Hongli. This period has left much unspoiled authentic testimony in its Court-commissioned paintings, scrolls and copper-plate engravings that have not been subject to retouching, cropping or resizing and, in the context of imperial paraphernalia, garments and utensils from the same period, makes it possible to attempt to describe in an orderly manner the changes in painting then or recently manifested. Much has been brilliantly studied on the meeting of East and West, notably by Michael Sullivan, James Cahill and Richard Vinograd. Here we explore only the formal aspects, with the hope of becoming better acquainted with the zeitgeist and image of this period.
It is also a first attempt to present in web-page format an academic ‘paper’ with the unique advantages of the internet. Now we can, and should, proceed from the visual evidence as our first point of departure, being able to enlarge details for close-up examination as rarely possible before on such a wide scale. And the text, like a children’s book, only follows the images with enquiries, hypotheses or exegeses.
Riegl’s notion of an ‘History without Names’ frees art historical scholarship from its traditional bondage to ‘signed and dated’ attributions. For the past century or more it has been this stifling bondage that has confined the student to works attributed to a certain Master and to line up his attributed oeuvre in a fictitious ‘chronology’ based on purported ‘dates’ rather than an in-depth investigation of the works themselves. This passive method has obliged countless scholars to concoct lame explanations for a Master’s evident ‘change in style’ when confronting what in effect are works from different hands and usually different periods.
Here we can depart from the approach of studying a famous Master through whose works light may be shed upon his person, his thoughts or his age. Instead, we first examine authentic visual evidence drawn from Qing Court collections, and these collectively and in context of the furnishings, architecture, lacquer and ceramics present enough parallels to form hypotheses about prevailing perceptual tendencies.
Qing Court-based works have revealed unmistakable characteristics that distinguish this period from all previous ones. These features bear a strong relationship, not by accident, with contemporary tendencies in Baroque Europe. Incidentally, these features appear also in paintings bearing names of ancient masters as well. In this essay some though by no means all of these interesting period features are highlighted in chapters and by sections. In many, corresponding details are cropped from their respective paintings and placed side by side to show the similarity. When an individual detail is clicked, the name of the painting as well as the total view should pop up in a separate window, which can be closed to return to the discussion, Qing-dated and also forgeries ascribed to ancient masters appear side by side to highlight in each section the particular period feature in the heading, and in the context of similar features appearing on contemporary Qing works.
In the first ‘chapter’ we begin with an examination of the copperplate engraving of a scene from the Yuanmingyuan Western Compound, to study the ways in which this work differs from works of previous centuries. The analysis proceeds in logical order, beginning with identification of distinctive characteristics in general structure, in morphology, and in brushwork behaviour. Having outlined the general characteristics, we proceed to the identification of particular themes that seem ‘new’.
The ‘Index’ to our left indicates the organization of this illustration-cum-text paper. There are eight ‘chapters’, most comprising sections, each to illustrate a particular observation. Thus under changes in morphology, for instance, we find two (among doubtless many more) changes illustrated, one being a more rational interrelationship of formal elements within a single composition, the other being the schematisation and reduction of forms, as well as their decorative proliferation. The chapter on new brushwork behaviour, for instance, shows how Qing brushwork has become linear, uniform and unchanging, as well as decorative in its execution and in its dispersal. The second section shows how brushwork, and the larger units of brushwork in the form of minor motifs, are dispersed for a decorative effect. A third section presents the finding that the traditional ‘modelling stroke’ used for rough surfaces, the oblique axe stroke or fupicun 斧劈皴has disappeared entirely from view. Instead, they are replaced by an awkward application of L-shaped hooks and lines – all in the very same unswerving unified ‘line’.
Qing examples are used from the beginning to the end of the eighteenth century, their common features of newness identified. Together with these are the same manifestations from ‘ancient’ attributions illustrated. This helps us clear out a great deal of the erstwhile inexplicable gaps in stylistic continuity from Tang to Qing. It explains why we could not find anything from archaeological or more securely datable Song and Yuan examples from Japanese collections that correspond in style in structure or in brushwork. This is I believe because the Tang, Song, Yuan, and even Ming attributions introduced in these ‘pages’ are all products of the eighteenth century Qing, as we identify their Qing characteristics. Such is the advantage of approaching the history of Chinese painting without resorting first to labels, but depending first to last on the eye, and using texts and sources only in the second stage.
Such a presentation may seem unfriendly to those new to Chinese painting. I hope that to the seasoned student it may open another dimension to seeing. The hyper-linked names or terms need not be clicked during your first reading. Rather, click it only if you are curious, and click ‘close’ to return to the discussion. I hope you enjoy this experience, and since this is an experimental website with an open forum, don’t forget to visit the discussion area and make your contribution. It is only with corrections and additions and re-corrections that we can eventually be delivered from the seemingly everlasting ‘middle ages’ of Chinese painting studies where scholars are evidently hard put to date a painting within a thousand years.
徐小虎 謹識 Joan Stanley-Baker, Tainan, October 2003
Qianlong Court Engraving Yuanmingyuan Western Complex
This is one in the series of twenty copper engravings by European and Chinese Court artists depicting the various buildings, gardens and mansions built in the European compounds northwest of the Imperial Palace, begun by Kangxi era (r.1662-1723) completed under Qianlong (r.1723-1796). They testify not only to the original appearance of these complexes, but to the thoroughly hybrid fruit of this period of intense artistic exchange between East and West. In this example of the Yuanmingyuan 圓明園 Court for instance, artists trained in European architecture and painting techniques incorporate certain Chinese elements into their modern creations, including the curved bridge and gate either side of the mote-stream, and the earthen hillocks beyond the compound wall with their Chinese-style open pavillion. In painting the master for this copper engraving, they have created layered hills with rounded outline and gentle ‘shading’ interspersed with trees. These ‘hills’ are rendered with a ‘Chinese’ feel in shape and modeling – but executed in largely identical fashion, as everything else in the print, without individuation, contributing to the sense of overall unity that Wolfflin had observed in Baroque painting in Europe.
Striking is the Baroque expression of visual values in an amazing number of features that must have seemed new to the Chinese eye but yet have been almost instantly and masterfully absorbed into eighteenth century Chinese arts. In motifs these include wisteria (here organized into four European trellis clumps), the ornamental shrubs shaped like poodles, the flat-surfaced stone facade or wall, and in following images the Roman pine, the sculpture-like oblong rocks built in angular upward thrusts, the thickened, ornate and expressive clouds that thread their way horizontally through woods and mountains, as well shading of the underside of objects in European fashion seen in other Court works below, etc. Morphological novelties include the almost compulsive parallelism of lines (even without labyrinth), the regimented, equidistant disposition of linear elements, the half-realistic half-abstract depiction of natural forms arranged with decorative intention.
Most remarkable is the curious ‘brushwork behavior’ seen here in a new, Baroque linearity that dominates painting, where lines of all elements are largely reduced to equal value (inspired perhaps by the novelty of engraving, where linear uniformity is of course a direct result of the hard engraving tool or stylus?). The following segments explore these new features that, by the eighteenth century, are richly and deeply incorporated into Chinese Court and literati painting alike. And because of their common Baroque quality, it is easy to recognize these features as they appear also in the many forgeries evidently produced at this time.
This space on this Website is dedicated to a preliminary exploration of features that characterise this fascinating period. Readers are asked to realise that statements here are not final, but result of observations and comparisons that await refinement with your help. Please do not hesitate to query what you see, or to add your own observations and comments to what is hoped to become an open FORUM which hopefully will help turn a new leaf in our common pursuit.
The various Baroque manifestations we shall examine in works the mid-eighteenth century by Tangdai 唐岱(1673-1752+), Huang Ding黃鼎 (1650~60–1730), Sun Hu孫祜 (active mid 18 c), or Wu Hong吳宏 (active 1750s), or indeed the Court commissioned paintings of consorts at leisure, copper engravings of Qianlong’s constructions or military campaigns, are mostly foreshadowed here in the later works of Wang Hui. These works by Wang Hui illustrate the encroaching parallelism of contour lines in the rounded ‘Southern school’ mountain forms that were already evident in the Yongzheng era. Most of the ‘European Baroque’ elements seen in the Qianlong–period paintings and engravings are already in formative process here. Wang’s own dynamic gathering and folding of concentric mountain forms rise and writhe as the proverbial “Dragon Arteries” advocated by Dong Qichang (1555-1636). Now adding opaque, ornamental ‘designer’ clouds to silhouette decorative tree foliage, increases rhythmic abstraction. This hallmark Qing feature becomes formulaic, regimented and decorative through the Yongzheng and Qianlong eras.
Here, in this first decade of the eighteenth century bracketed by Wang Hui’s three works, of 1702, 1706 and 1708 we see landscape evolving toward this new textural homogeneity. Now smoothly repeated mountain folds are whipped up like heavy cream, resembling the skin of the sharpei dog 沙皮狗. The overall linear parallelism, the surface or textural smoothness and uniformity anticipate the same characteristics in Europe-derived copper engravings, and may explain why Qing Court painters were so ready to embrace their introduction to Chinese painting with such ready acceptance.
北宋之崇高元朝之深曠 Northern Song Magnitude, Yuan Clarity
Qing landscape paintings often evoke Northern Song painting in their grandeur, in the stunning height of their mountain forms, and actually surpassing the Northern Song in depth – because Qing painters have mastered Yuan recession into deep space as well. In spatial recessional consistency they also surpass the Yuan, for more than in Yuan painting they hint at incidents ‘beyond’ the clearly visible horizons. Thus ghost-like peaks or flat marshlands may loom pale in mists barely discernable, wafting up in the upper half of hanging scrolls, sighing from impossible distances. All the while, Qing monumental landscapes witness a sharp increase in human and structural incidents. Painters following Wang Hui ( 1632-1717), like Tangdai (1673-1752+), Sun Hu (Sun You, fl. 1750s) and Huang Ding (1650~60 – 1730) among others, all developed their own distinctive personal styles. In structure however they share common period characteristics.
At the same time, there is marked decrease in both motif variation and brushwork typology as well as in geological credibility. On the other hand, this reductionist development in Qing painting is amply compensated by stunning skills in draftsmanship and in its often hair-raising spatial aerobatics that lead the eye to soar and tumble from breathtaking heights and with dramatic ‘speed’.
Each of these painters has his individual stylistic preferences, but they collectively maintain the basic unitary principles outlined above. Walled compounds in dense woods are rendered skillfully to be seen clearly ‘from above’ as tucked hidden within dense woods or hills. The practice in and production of such rich and high-angled perspective like the Yuanmingyuan series depicting the ‘owner’s favourite retreat’ facilitated the creation of eremitic mountain villa-type compositions ascribed to beloved literati titans like Wang Wei, Lu Hong of the Tang, Guo Zhongshu and Li Gonglin of the Song plus their alleged imitations, as well as countless hand scrolls with close-up observations of human activity within pavilions or garden settings ascribed to Wen Zhengming and Qiu Ying (omitted in this discussion). Painters of the time perfected the bird’s eye view of mountain hideouts amidst dense foliage, with wall-enclosed complexes with manor houses and courtyards, all spied from above.
This fashion is seen in scrolls depicting mountain manors, courtyards bounded by moat and walls or fence, under the names of Li Sixun, Wang Wei or Li Gonglin. Mountain villa scenes and other hermitages all affording perfect visibility into the shenyuan 深遠deep- space interiors. This bird’s eye perspective also afforded many scenes of scholars or monks socializing or contemplating in outdoor settings that require the viewer to search through masses of woodland foliage before these are ‘discovered’, increasing the pleasure of viewing in this anecdotal ambience. This penchant echoes the Baroque fascination with skillfully crafted tiny drawers within drawers, all carved like gorgeous hollow ivory spheres within each other so highly prized at the time.
王翬之後的典型畫家如唐岱(1673-1752+) 仿范寬山水, 孫祜 (或祐, 約1750年代) 關山行旅圖，黃鼎 (1650~60-1730)群峰雪霽軸（1729）都有個別的風格偏好，但仍保有著上述基本的統一原則。在描繪密林中被牆垣包圍的住宅時，常相當技巧性地將視點提高以便清晰地看到藏在林木、山岳間的景物。這種隱居的意象和透視技巧的普遍化，由類似主人公之別墅如同「圓明園」圖等系列的繪畫及銅版圖畫之興起，促進了古人隱居之山莊畫類─如唐人王維的「輞川圖」，盧鴻的「草堂」，宋人李公麟的「山莊」─等主題的發展及作偽的能力和意圖。我們也可以在數不清以明朝大畫家文徵明或仇英命名的手卷中，像近距離觀察般，看見美麗典雅的人物在遠方涼亭、庭園或屋內活動的清晰景象（在本文略）。當時畫家都能完美地表現鳥瞰的視角，俯瞰隱蔽於繁密簇葉間，有籬笆、土牆環繞的莊園宅第與庭院。
形態特徵分析 New Features in Morphology: Interrelationships Rationalised
For the art historian, motifs and morphology are different aspects of investigation. Similar motifs appear in Chinese painting throughout its history: mountains, streams, trees, people and buildings. How these forms or motifs relate to each other – constitutes the morphological study that has proven unrivalled in dating art works, especially Chinese paintings that more than any other society tend to ‘follow the ancients’ and, as we see here, have in each age encouraged the major industry of forgery-production. Here we line up four sections of horizontal prints comprising landscape and figures.
For Song period landscape composition. structure and morphology, the Korean Mizangquan carved in the late tenth century (高麗成宗十年 991 CE) sutra Bizangquan 祕藏詮 – Secondc row left) together with the Liao dynasty sutra illustration 《遼藏/契丹藏》遼重熙七年(北宋景佑五年1038 CE, right, second row) provide ideally illustrate mediaeval perception that characterise structure and morphology of the early late10th-11th-century on the one hand, and those of the eighteenth century (below) on the other. The Korean and Liao works show a subjective approach to spatial extension into the background that has continued from Tang practice, where mountains even when rather tall, are depicted as viewer from the foreground, and especially in the Liao work, emphasis on ‘principal subjects’ makes them ‘larger than life’ – as here in the foreground worshippers standing, rather outsized, in the ‘rough’ waters.
In contrast, the woodcut from the Sackler Collection from the Bizangquan allegedly from a block dated to 1108 ( far right) 傳1108年木刻佛經插圖《秘藏詮》 , shows eighteenth century perception in its largely rational scale, where recession into depth is logical and consistent, and where mountains as they recede toward the farthest background are seen from a high vantage point and gradually diminishing in size along the way – but always pellucid even in the farthest distance, like the two copper engravings of the 1760s depicting Hongli’s martial exploits. In Qing rendering, although man-made structures are emphasised, as the thatched huts in the Bizangquan illustration, or the fortified stone structures in Hongli’s battlegrounds, the relationship of buildings to their contexts are clearly far more ‘rational’.
Unlike Song morphology, motifs become decorative in the eighteenth, and are distributed throughout the painting surface with the artistic intention to increase visual pleasure with carpet-like decorative spacing, regardless of subject matter. This is true of Buddhist as well as martial images, it would seem, and characterise this age.
In brushwork, major changes characterise the eighteenth century. Outlines become refined, and modelling of rocky surfaces with their hard, jagged texture is done in equally ‘refined’ and uniform linearity.
In contrast to the three Qing works, ‘brushwork’ even in the carved block of the Liao reflects painting of the time and the carved ‘strokes’ are more ‘realistically’ rendered, much as such rough surfaces were done in the eighth-century. Note the changing width of the strokes in the foreground wave curls, the mixed angular protrusions that model the central rocky mountain both along its vertical plane, and built up in front of it and to its right to suggest craggy ledges. These have entirely disappeared in the Qing Sutra example where instead a series of L- or 4-shaped lines represent the stony ledge beneath the three-story building between the two other thatched structures. (In other examples of craggy rocks we shall see elsewhere, they are ‘refined’ to become meaningless L-shaped gestures. The disappearance of the axe stroke, the avoidance(?) of visual references to rough surfaces suggest that perhaps Qing Court aesthetics found them harsh or ‘unsightly’ remnants from the downgraded ‘Northern School’ Tradition?)
New Features in Morphology: Reduction, Schematisation and Proliferation
In eighteenth century painting, forms are reduced in type and simplified in structure. Rather than empirically-based texture modelling cunfa [皴法」for volume and surface roughage, artists now assume viewer-familiarity with subtleties of Chinese landscape painting. Tis can be seen (moving right from top left) in a mid-Qing handscroll for the Qianlong emperor describing aboriginal life in Taiwan, in a Hongli (Qianlong) battle copper engraving, in a snow landscape ascribed to Ming dynasty Master Wen Zhengming, and (below) in a Festivities scroll ascribed to 17th century painter Wu Bin, to Yuan master Qian Xuan, (further down), to Sui dynasty master Zhen Ziqian, yet another Qian Xuan handscroll, and Northern Song master Li Gonglin. In a dramatic move toward the decorative and evocative, and in keeping with Baroque tendencies prevailing in Palace objects like Europe-introduced clocks, Chinese painted ceramics, metals, lacquerware and textiles as well as painting also moves toward dramatic reduction and symmetrical arrangement of motif-types achieving in all a pleasing, harmonious, balanced and decorative effect. Not surprisingly, this is accompanied with a dramatic reduction in brushwork types, affecting the rendering of motifs which as a result become ‘cloned’.
A good example of this development are the symmetrical triangles that now appear as mountain forms. They indicate a new tendency toward brushwork linearity, here displayed in repeated echelons, as in the eighteenth-century anonymous work depicting Aboriginal life in Taiwan and the copper engraving of one of Hongli’s battles. The device is deployed with special effectiveness in coloured decorative painting – affecting most of all the ‘ancient’ works in the ‘Tang’ or fugu 復古 mode. And this is most apparent in forgeries done in blue-and-green paintings with fine-lined contours bearing ancient authorships like Qian Xuan ( b.1235, jinshi 進士1260-64) here seen in two spurious but attractive examples: Wang Xizhi Admiring Geese, and Homecoming from Office 傳錢選 歸去來圖卷). We see this practiced also in a landscape scroll ascribed to Wang Shen (ca. 1048 – ca. 1103) Yingshantu 傳王詵 瀛山圖, and in a lovely work ascribed to Zhan Ziqian (c.591-618), Spring Outing 傳展子虔 春遊圖 , and in an attractive album ascribed to Ming master Wu Bin 吳彬 (fl. 1568-1627) called Annual Festivities: Escaping Summer Heat 傳吳彬 歲華紀勝圖冊- 避暑. All the spurious works, like genuine works of the Qing, are founded on easily repeated simple formulae that when grouped in echelons produce a pleasing harmonious effect, without structural complications to tire the weary imperial eye.
Another hallmark is the high-angled grand perspective that takes in whole temple compounds, hermitages or villas, spread wide amidst mountains. The brushwork of the contour outlines, although on the whole even and unchanging in width, do repeat themselves in a sensuous manner displaying elegant ‘gestures’ 「姿態」in the execution of a single attenuated draw. This subtle tendency reveals a self-conscious self-display that had resulted perhaps from the overwhelming adoration of Yuan literati brushwork by Ming painters in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. We see this even in the engravings and prints, where the loss of descriptive function of contour lines are clearly evident. A good contrast of this shift in artistic intention is seen in the two Buddhist illustrations, one found in a Liao (980-1012) site, the other in the Fogg Museum purporting an improbable Song date that we have just seen.
Structure and morphology of the new ‘antiques’ tally with Court productions of the time. In effect we may consider the possibility that the blue-and-green style we have regarded as the artistic pinnacle of the Sui-Tang period, may in fact not have emerged till a millennium later. That is, we may posit that the Qing painting industry literally ‘invented’ this Sui-Tang style, based on glimpses of that style as it had been ‘refined’ over the centuries, in particular the in the late-Ming echoes of Wen Zhengming attributions in myriad elegant garden settings and courtly gatherings.
Highlighted in this selection is the regularised, virtually even spacing of the outlines. Morphological significance is given, not to the volume of each mountain, but to the elegant parallel brushwork in attenuated, languid lines that echo each other across gentle stretches of pale colours. That is, a subtly expressive, almost emotive quality in decorative brushwork has become the artistic intention. In such outlines they are further adorned with over-sized black ‘moss dots’ 苔點 that, in the eighteenth century, are often even further embellished with a bright mineral green centre.
Now blue-green mountain ranges are pacified, submissive, decorous like handmaidens. They are not distant, impenetrable, offering difficulties as did their Tang and Song forebears, as in this eighth-century Dunhuang image. The rolling hills do not form regimented symmetrical echelons, the artistic intention is to indicate distances between mountains by means of the ochre shading beneath each, separating it from the one in front. Trees, ornamental as they are for an expression of springtime, are not disposed at equidistant points as in the Yuanmingyuan engraving or the forged antique paintings. Technical stress is not on linear brushwork, but on the shading that differs from range to range for a sense of volume, and distance. The same general function and purpose continue in Japan into the thirteenth century, in a handscroll depicting the life of Monk Honen where the layers, albeit decorative, are built up of repeated applications of wash, graduating in tonal intensity for descriptive purposes. Not until the Qing do outlines become so obvious, so self-conscious and ‘alluring’.
The same brushwork-and-surface relation prevails on silk or paper. Except for monochrome works, colours in general are softly brushed onto clean surfaces that permit a characteristic transparency. Tonal shifts are typically gradual and colouring covers the entire surface, as in oil painting. Brushwork is notable for its elegant and elegiac movements that repeat themselves as do the motifs, in characteristic linear series or motif clusters. This elegant courtly manner was transferred to antique green-and-blue style painting that, on the one hand evolved from (genuine) narrative painting of the late Ming where compositions increasingly resembled ‘book illustrations’, expertly showing interior details, in concert with the rising popular genre of the novel and romance. On the other hand, however, it developed an ‘antique’ style then much in demand, and perfectly suited the ambience of the times as we see in the forged antiques selected here ascribed to legendary Masters of the Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties. For the more ancient works, the choice and disposition of motifs necessarily underwent modification for an effect of distance and mystery to eighteenth-century eyes, albeit leaving telltale residues of current fashion.