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"My Country And My People" by Lin Yu Tang (1935)   by Henry Li

Chinese painting, the flower of Chinese culture, is distinguished by a spirit and an atmosphere all its own, entirely different from Western painting. It is as different from Western painting as Chinese poetry is different from Western poetry. That difference is hard to grasp and express. It has a certain tone and atmosphere, visible in Western painting, but essentially different and achieved by different means. It shows a certain economy of material, marked by the many blank spaces, an idea of composition determined by its own harmony and marked by a certain "rhythmic vitality/' and a boldness and freedom of the brush which impress the onlooker in an unforgettable manner. Somehow the picture before us has undergone an inner process of transformation in the artist's mind, shorn of its irrelevancies, its disharmonies, and giving us only a completely satisfying whole, so true to life and yet so different from it. The design is more obvious, the elimination of material more rigidly carried out, the points of contrast and concentration easier to trace, and we decidedly feel that the artist has interfered with the material reality and presented it to us only as it appears to him, without losing its essential likeness or intelligibility to others. It is subjective without the violent assertions of the artist's ego in the modern Western painting, and without the latter's unintelligibility to us common men. It manages to achieve a decidedly subjective appearance of things without making contortions. It does not try to paint all before one's eyes, and it leaves a great deal to the onlooker's imagination, without degenerating into a geometric puzzle. Sometimes the concentration on the immediate object is so intensive that only the tip of a plum branch is given in the whole picture and left there as perfect. And yet, with all this subjective interference with the material reality, the effect is not a jarring assertion of the artist's ego, but a complete harmony with nature. How was this achieved, and how did this peculiat tradition grow up?

This artistic tradition did not come by chance or by an accidental discovery. Its characteristics may be most conveniently summed up, I think, in the word lyricism, and this lyricism came from a certain type of human spirit and culture. For we must remember that Chinese painting is closely related, in spirit and technique, to Chinese calligraphy and Chinese poetry. Calligraphy gave it its technique, the initial twist which determined its future development, and Chinese poetry lent it its spirit* For poetry, painting and calligraphy are closely related arts in China. The best way of understanding Chinese painting is to study these influences which went into the building of that peculiar tradition.

Briefly stated, this peculiar tradition, which we have called its lyricism, is the result of two revolts which modern Western painting is going through, but which came to the history of Chinese painting in the eighth century. They are the revolt against the subjection of the artist's lines to the painted objects, and the revolt against a photographic reproduction of the material reality. Chinese calligraphy helped it to solve the first problem, and Chinese poetry helped it over the second. A study of these revolts and of the genesis of this artistic tradition will enable us to see why Chinese painting came to have its present character.

The first problem of Chinese painting, and of all painting, is; What shall be done with the lines or strokes as paint is put cm the canvas or ink on the silk? It is a purely technical problem, the problem of "touch." But no artist can escape it, and the touch used will determine the whole style of his work. If the line is mechanically used to trace the lines of the painted objects, it can have no freedom of its own. Sooner or later, we shall get tired of it.

This article was published on Friday 27 March, 2009.
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