Have you ever heard about Chinese traditional painting? Have you had the chance to see an artwork of such a tradition? If not, doesn’t it bother or intrigue you that, studying art history at school and through our lives, we stay so far away from and so ignorant about Oriental (or indigenous, or African) forms of art and culture? It does bother me and that is why in this text I will give you a glimpse of this fascinating non-Western art manifestation: the Chinese traditional painting.
The admirable art of traditional painting is made in a material invented and improved by the Chinese people: paper. Paper used to be an inaccessible resource to the majority of the population. Since it was made of silk, an expensive raw material, it could only be afforded by emperors or aristocrats. However, 1900 years ago, Cai Lun, a high official of the Han Dynasty, perfected the papermaking production by using as its raw material tree bark and rags, which made the reduction of its price possible, allowing the expansion of its acquisition and usage. For the art of painting, paper made of silk or rice is used, due to its high quality, which better displays the charm of the artwork. Just as the quality of paper interferes with the art on account of its ink absorption, the specificities of each paintbrush are also crucial.
Regarding not only technical but also meaningful aspects of the traditional Chinese painting, while western paintings focus on a more realistic approach and the representation of the three dimensions, Chinese painting is characterized by the portrayal of the object’s essence. The themes explored by them are portraits, landscapes, birds and flowers, very commonly connected to poems, showing the brilliant work of artists in qualifying its work with poetic meaning.
One of the biggest and most famous Chinese painters was Qi Baishi (1864-1957), and his art work caught my attention when I was searching for Chinese traditional paintings. First starting his manual work as a carpenter, he did not initially have a mentor to teach him painting techniques, only later in his life. By his own efforts, he practiced and learned painting, calligraphy and poetry. To learn how to paint, he guided himself using the painting guidebook from the Qing Dynasty, called the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden. At his first paintings, he used the gonbi technique, which is characterized by the detailed painting; but later he also painted using the second traditional Chinese painting technique, called xieyi, characterized by vigorous strokes. Gladly, he had success and recognition for his work during his life, the opposite of some artists like Van Gogh, who only became famous after their death. Aside from other prizes and honors, in the year of 1953, he was selected as the Outstanding Artist of the Chinese People by the Ministry of Culture.
Among so many brilliant paintings, one that particularly caught my eye was Carp (1884). There is a legend about carps in China, which recounts that many carps swimming between the turbulent water of the Yellow River wanted to jump over the Dragon Gate, to become a dragon. It was a quite complicated achievement, but a few were successful in it, creating the symbolism of carps. Carps that turned into dragons are compared with people that are hard-working, dedicated and by their perseverance achieve prosperity. Interesting, isn’t it?
Finally, my personal favorites were Cold Night (1910), A lone traveler on a moonlit night (1938) and Protein, squirrel and cherries (1944). The latter reminded me when I first saw squirrels and got immediately captivated by them. Last, but not least, the first two paintings made me think about loneliness but also transported me to a nice healing walk at a place with blowing wind, a landscape that is very appropriate for reflection. Silence and contemplation are greatly necessary for our life, and one of the most enchanting things about Chinese paintings is that they offer, in my opinion, both for artists and the art admirers, moments of calmness and serenity. Therefore, it would be greatly enriching if we were more stimulated to know more about it and other kinds of Oriental art and culture at school, in the media, on TV, having more contact with non-Western productions, traditions, philosophies.
Júlia dos Santos Acerbi