The Chinese Literati Painting Tradition

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The Chinese Literati Painting Tradition

One can not help but marvel at the beauty of the Chinese landscapes, the vast space, the intricacies, the imaginative structures, the subtle colorations. To a western eye they are beautiful but to the Chinese they are far more. The paintings embody or portray all aspects of Tao. The caligraphy and imagery in each painting take on spiritual significance. The artist-scholar can spend years searching for understanding in each work. This understanding he seeks is not just of the scene he sees but of universal structure and himself within it. In turn, his discoveries surface in his brushwork, composition, and the spirit of his mountains, trees, water, and sky. It is no wonder, that the cannon for Chinese art remained among the literati painters over so many centuries.

Through painting, one could reach a further understanding of Tao or rather repossess his ancestors knowledge of Tao.

The Tao, with its associated notions of oneness of "spirit and matter," the external flux of all things, the resolution of opposites, and the significance of the nonexhistant, was the cornerstone on which Chinese based theirpainting and their theories of painting

It is the search for understanding that drives the artist-scholar to paint. Shen Chou, an artist from the Ming Dynasty tells of his new found knowledge and cleansed mind which he has reached through only experiencing nature. His words are translated from the calligraphy in Night Vigil (above, center).

Through mental abstinence and by sitting alone by the light of the flickering candle long into the night, I must pursue both the [outer] principals of things and the wondorous [inner] workings of the mind. By using this method for self-cultivation and responding to things, I shall posess understanding.

The Literati were generaly of the beurocracy. They were well mannered in Confucian traditions, well educated, and well off. They were first scholars before they were painters. In fact painting was generally concidered an outlet for scholars. Scholar-painters were greatly respected, their work was part of high culture. The great artist-scholars wrote at length, advising techniques for painting and calligraphy. They formed different schools of thinking across China. Their names and spirits were remembered through vast literature and in the paintings themselves. Every succeeding generation of artist scholars rekindled the spirit of their ancsestors through their own works of art and literature. And so it continued until the fall of Dynastic China.

Unfortunately though, literati remains difficult for Westerners to fully comprehend and appreciate.

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