Ancient Chinese Paintings

Ludwig Bachhofer, 1941

Each time we look at a work of art, we have to adapt our eyes to the peculiar way of vision which the artist- an architect, a sculptor, a painter- had used. It may be a subtle adaption, when it is a matter of works which form a group in space and time, for instance, when we look at Florentine paintings of the last two decades of the XVth century. It asks for a much greater effort when we come from them to works hailing from another epoch and another country: Dutch paintings of the XVIIth century demand a very different visual attitude. With these changes in seeing the majority of us is familiar, be it by education, by experience or simply through our cultural heritage, though it should be understood that self-deception about one’s appreciative abilities is very common.

The difficulties begin when we are confronted with an art of non-European origin; the attitude towards the visible world is then so radically different from ours that we are usually at a loss. People coming from Western to Chinese painting are disposed to exclaim, “How flat these pictures look!” Those who have been educated to give themselves account of their impressions will soon find out the reasons. Chinese painters do not represent the plastic quality of objects. Light and shade which serve to produce this affect in Western- and in Indian- painting, are ignored by them. The few cases where an attempt in this direction is made are always indicative of foreign influence, though the phenomenon was never understood and never mastered. This peculiar attitude towards form was not taken deliberately, but evolved naturally from the attitude common to the early stages of painting everywhere and at all times, namely, to concentrate foremost upon line as the sole means of isolating one form from another. Whereas the West began, as early as in the Vth century B.C., to incorporate the haptic experience in its graphic and pictorial representations, and has, since then, practically never ceased doing it, China had not done it, obviously because she did not think it essential. That she did not do it is another question, and the answer would lead into the psychology of nations and into metaphysics.

Accustomed as the Westerner is to an interpretation of the visible world in terms of plasticity even in two-dimensional representations, Chinese paintings appear to him light and delicate. So they are, in a higher degree that ever reached in the West, and this makes them so remote from common experiences. They are pictures of an enchanted world which seems to consist of a subtler matter than the one in which we live.

To the delicacy and lightness of form corresponds a delicacy and lightness of means. Silk and paper prevail over any other material as ground, india-ink and water colors over a sort of tempera. It is Quite telling that all colors, or a mixture coming close to them, were known as early as in the first millennium A.D., but that their discovery was of no practical consequence. Wall-paintings, sometimes of enormous size (a few of them can be seen in American museums), were done in tempera, but it must be remembered that they do not differ in style from any of the movable scroll-paintings or album leaves.

As to subject-matter, they are, on close inspection, rather the same in Chinese painting as in the West; deities, man is root and is action, animals, landscapes, and flowers. It is, however, of capital interest that these motives were of varying importance at different times. As everywhere in the mastery of art, landscape was late in becoming a theme in its own right, and the same holds for charming representations of flowers and animals. Yet it should be borne in mind that these motives appeared in China half a millennium earlier and played a much more decisive role that in the rest. Taken as the expression of a certain state of mind, it must be realized that clarity and freedom of spirit, and naturalness of feeling, in short, what we call humanism, was common to the elected Chinese at a time when the rest of the world had not even an inkling of this ideal.

The history of Chinese painting goes back to the middle of the first millennium B.C. Drawings of real and fantastic animals, fighting each other or man, were used for the decoration of vases and mirrors in bronze. Literary records tell of wall-paintings with historical and mythological themes. The flourishing period of wall-painting lasted from the Vth to the Xth century A.D. after Buddhism had come to China. Although its influence can be felt everywhere, it was above all the arts which profited by the introduction of new ideas and new ideals. In the Xth century a profound and radical change took place in the spiritual and artistic life of China, corresponding roughly to the Renaissance in Europe. In painting it can be observed the old conception of a picture being the sum total, however well balanced, of several elements, is superseded by one which treats it as an individual entirely. This was the prerequisite for the rise of landscape painting which visualizes space as unlimited and all-embracing. Landscapes of the IIIth and IIIIth centuries appeal at once to the Westerner, for they come very close to landscapes by the Dutch masters of the IVIIth, they are identical in their conception of space, and very similar in their treatment of form. A word must be said about the monochromy of such pictures. It was the logical result of the new ideal of absolute unity which was attained by reducing all constituents of a painting to one and the same optic denominator entirety. As an inevitable reaction against the dissolution of form which came about towards the end of the XIIIth century, a sort of neo-classicism sprang up in the XIVth century which chose as its models works of the severe linear style flourishing from the VIIth to the IXth century A.D. With the lessons and accomplishments of the five intervening centuries, neither lost nor forgotten, something new came into being which had only a superficial resemblance to the old. On the other hand, the free, bold and slightly diffuse style of the closing XIIIth was carried over into the next century by some artists who used it for landscapes and flowers. It turned a little thin and bloodless in the process, but this did not prevent it from becoming the style do corpe of scholars who felt the urge to express themselves though painting in the centuries to come. From the XIVth century onward the pictorial style of the XIIIth, and classicistic style were used though in characteristic modifications.

In China, as everywhere else, portraiture was considered from the outset as one of the greatest and glorious tasks and achievements of the art of painting. No doubt that the earliest “portraits” of famous men did not go beyond the representation of the social type they belonged to. Portraits in the specific sense we attach to the word exist from T’ang times (618-906 A.D.). They were kept in the ancestral temples or in monasteries or temples, if the sitter had joined one of the Buddhist orders. Strict likeness was an implicit postulate, artistic merit of secondary importance. Though most painters made free use of this allowance, some of them have created pictures which rank undoubtedly amongst the greatest and most impressive portraits of all times.

The collection of Chinese paintings of Mr. G. Del Drago in New York is one of the best known in Europe and America. Some of its pictures were shown in the Exhibition of Chinese Art held at the Prussian Academy in Berlin, 1929; in the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Munich, 1930; in the Castello Sforesco at Milan and in the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, 1931; in the Albertina, Vienna, in 1931; in an exhibition at the Royal Palace in Milan, in 1933; and in he famous show at Burlington House, London, in 1935-56.

The selection we have the honor of displaying here gives a cross section of the history of Chinese painting from about 1200-1800 A.D.

When reading the catalogue, it must be remembered that signatures, inscriptions, are no guaranty of their authenticity. They were often attached at some later period, very often by a supposed connoisseur. The criterion to prove them true or false is the style of the painting itself. If it is in keeping with the style of the epoch to which these documents ascribe it, the paintings may be regarded genuine.

Chicago, Autumn, 1941

This text was taken from the exhibition catalogue.