Fa Ruozhen, Landscape, 1692
Yesterday I went to 'Masterpieces of Chinese Painting' at the Victoria and Albert Museum - a beautiful constructed survey from 700 to 1900. You immediately recognise that you are in a different space.
The devotional imagery of Buddhism that greets you in the earliest surviving exhibits is unfamiliar to most yet it is devotional and that (if not its meaning) remains recognisable. However, their material medium, that is silk, gives a whole different texture and colour to the paintings.
Recently I saw the Lindisfarne Gospels, in their Durham home, a work of a similar time devoted to the sacred and found myself contemplating the difference. Both carry images of life at its utmost liveliness - the Enlightened and the Gospel. The former seem to flow in a dynamic unfolding cosmos, the latter stand as emblematic gift. The former is becoming, unfolding, the latter being, enfolded, given. This shift of 'metaphysical' emphasis, I realised, is inherent in the chosen materials. Banners flap, pages (or icons) stand. Silk allows colour to flow, vellum stands figure into pose. Both contain energy flowing into life but form, shape it differently. This is not to say that the metaphysics is determined by the materials but does suggest that metaphysics chooses different paths of craft, selecting the most appropriate.
Nor is this a sharp division. Each (as in the classic Yin and Yang symbol of China) carries the seed of its opposite. The Bodhisattvas manage imperious pose in their flowing movement. In Celtic Christian imagery, the life of its characters threaten always to break out from the page. Each sacred tradition carries all within it yet speaks with different emphases.
Of my favourite images was from the 'apparition school'. These were paintings of Chan (Zen) monks of broad, even crude, brushstrokes that appear to materialise out of the void of no-thing yet present presence formidably.
This one is attributed to Shi Ke and is entitled 'Two Chan Patriarchs Harmonising their Minds'!
One feature of Chinese painting that is arresting is that often they were made as painted scrolls to be rolled out, admired, rolled up and stored. Looking was not a casual good. My favourite of these was Chen Rong's Nine Dragons from 1244.
Nine dragons playfully weave a cosmos from their dance. Seen rolled out entire it is stunning and captures another element in Chinese painting - a persistent reference to humour that flows with the grain of things. The dragons exhibit smiles, surprise, concern, curiosity at their activity. In Taoism, dragons are images of the cosmic forces that bring forth the world. It is hard to imagine a Western sacred painting (of a similar or indeed later period) depicting genuine humour and a tolerant sense of this maybe so!
Finally, the landscapes, such as that by Fa Ruozhen (above) are always a reminder that we live in the world's imagination and care. There are no boundaries here between viewer and viewed: what is seen is a mutual arising in a shared subjectivity that we celebrate in both image and song (as so many of the paintings are accompanied by beautifully written poems). Nature is greater than us, mine is a transient stay on the world; and, yet we are it. We share a common unfolding nature that grants meaning to the whole, once we surrender 'mine-ing' it.
It was a beautiful transport to a different place, geographically, culturally and otherwise...