No study of landscape painting is complete without due regard for Chinese genius in that art. A student of water-colour especially will find immense interest therein. Though, unfortunately, the best examples are mostly inaccessible, there are originals in many of our museums, and some appreciative essays have been published, illustrated with half-tone reproductions, and we have with us large quantities of Japanese prints that reflect Chinese influences.
One of my earliest possessions was a tome, now long out of print, entitled "Landscape in Art" By Josiah Gilbert, who proclaimed that in Raphael all qualities of art find place in more even balance than the world has seen elsewhere, that in Turner Landscape found its highest exponent, and that Chinese art is soulless copying, displaying "the conventionality of an archaic helplessness". It was a poor introduction to the glorious impressionism practised by the schools of the Celestial empire.
Gilbert denied even a love of nature to the Chinese, claiming that in their gardens and parks there is a prevailing tendency towards the artificial. He had read somewhere that one Chinese emperor had tried to lacquer the stems of his trees, and that another provided artificial leaves for his trees in winter. Further reading might have informed him that yet another emperor, Huitsung, was much addicted to landscape painting, and that such masterpieces at his Autumn Landscape, and his Winter Landscape - he might even have seen these by asking his way to the Konchi-in Temple- represent wild inaccessible places, untouched by the hand of man, and uninhabited save by one innocuous hermit.
His estimate, of course, is radically wrong. The Chinese were the first to consider landscape of sufficient interest in itself to form a subject for pictorial art, or to be worthy of the brush of a master of painting. While European painters at the time of the early Renaissance were immerging saints in landscapes that were childishly conceived, badly studied, and very conventional, the Chinese schools of pure landscape had long enjoyed great popularity.
The Dutch painters of the sixteenth century were the first to paint landscape in Europe, but in China Lich I, in the year 200 B.C., made paintings of the Four Great Rivers, and others of the Five Great Peaks. In the twelfth Century A.D. the school boasted its highest achievements under the House of Sung. By that time such early conventions as mountains outlined with gold, and filled in with green, had given way to a very full expression of naturalism, qualified by an exquisite sense of arrangement, and so universally agreeable, that it has influenced all modern art.
While the impressionists of France painted light, those of China regarded idealized form as of paramount importance, and used colour adjunctively. To the latter light, chiaroscuro, and movement, have little relative importance compared with form and arrangement and adequate colour - form rather suggested than perfectly realized.
It is true that, before the full flowering
of Chinese genius in landscape, artists were guilty of a repressive
conventionalism. For example, sixteen strokes were prescribed
for the representation of mountain curvatures, each with a picturesque
title". There were wrinkles like hemp fibres, like tangled
hemp fibres, like the veins of the lotus leaf, an unravelled rope,
a thunder head, bullocks hair, eddying water, scattered brushwood,
alum crystals, the face of a human skeleton, as if cut with a
large axe, with a small axe, like a horse's teeth, like a folded
belt. In the best oriental art there is apparent a perfection
of technique that rivale that of the reputed perfect painters
of Europe, whether Andrea del Sarto, or the Dutchman Vermeer,
and an idealism often surpassing theirs. In such aspects of painting
comparison may be justified , if not in others. While we may appreciate
and admire Chinese and Japanese graphic art, it does not move
us nor impress us so profoundly as our own, which, by birth and
understanding, we are better qualified to understand. In its idealism,
however, there is a noble quality that may well be studied by
all of us with profit. The humility and love of nature which it
manifests may be commended to young landscape painters too.
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