Notes on DVDs watched - 3 Japan & China

Notes on DVDs

12.03.18 Oriental Images - Hokusai, Shitao & Persian miniature

Hokusai - The great wave off Kanagawa, 1831
This picture was originally bound in a book, called 36 views of Mount Fiji. The film shows lots of examples of the other views, and then close-ups of parts of the Great Wave. Hokusai also made erotic paintings, and had a notebook of drawings, including a cariacature of the artist. He had an influence on The Impressionists - eg Monet's garden and bridge were designed after Hokusai, and van Gogh's painting of his room shows a Japanese print.

The film has a demonstration of the etching of the print - the carving is done first, leaving a raised part. Then colour is added, first blue, which is rubbed over the block; then paper is added: a bamboo pad is used to press with, which gives some texture. Yellow is added, then grey. Hokusai left instructions on the precise shade of eg the grey. White areas are where the paper shows through. Different versions of the print exist, because it depends on how much colour has been put on the block.The size of the print depends on its arrangement in the frame, decided by the printer. In his notebook he drew trees and other wave paintings, curves, spirals, and a proliferation of tendrils.

The series on Mount Fuji shows a realistic depiction of ordinary life, but with an emphasis on its fragility. There is an obsession with the mountain, which is also unstable, and may produce ash clouds at any time. The wave looks like a volcano, and some clouds have the silhouette of a dragon. The wavelets could be an octopus, as in his erotic drawings. The foam could be in the shape of beaks or claws. The picture was once called Image of the floating world; this emphasised the idea of oblivion, things being ephemeral. There is the question of what will happen next in the picture - will the sailors escape, or be drowned?

In 1834, Hokusai wrote: "From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking in to account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own."

Shitao - Mount Jing Ting in autumn, 1671
The artist Zhu Ruoji, called Shitao, was born in 1642 in Guilin in China and died in 1707 in Yangzhou. The DVD begins with a description of the painting, starting at the top with clouds and mountains, and water cascading down; then sloping rocks, a hut in a clearing, a cliff with sparse vegetation. A small river runs through a gorge, then broadens out; there is a small island with a few trees growing on it, below it a surface of water bordered by weeds. Finally 6 columns of Chinese characters, which says that the artist wanted to do away with himself, but couldn't abandon painting; there is his signature and another of his pseudonyms. Another of his paintings is his self portrait at the age of 30 - a rarity in Chinese painting; it contains a rock in the shape of a wave - a reference to his name, which means frozen wave.

Zhu Ruoji spent his childhood in the lands bordering the course of the Yangze river. His childhood was tragic and turbulent - at his birth, the Ming dynasty was collapsing and the Manchus were invading Northern China, and seized Bejing. His father, who was of the lineage of the Ming, resisted, and was killed with nearly all his family, by partisans of another pretender to the throne. Only 3-year-old Zhu Ruoji survived, carried off by a servant. He then lived in hiding before wandering from monastery to monastery, and eventually became a Buddhist monk; he was soon singled out for his gifts as a calligrapher and painter. He remained attached to the Guilin region, which was famous for its karst scenery, and visited by many painters. Peaks can be seen above clouds, pines cling to rock faces; waterfalls, rivers, paths and terraces abound. Zhu Ruoji moved to Bejing, where the Manchu were then established, and peace had been restored.

Painting in China can't be separated from writing; they used the same materials, brushes and silk. Chinese pictograms were originally representations of things eg mountains and sun. The symbol for landscape - shansui - is a combination of water and mountain, and landscape painting always has these two elements. The painter recreates the world in miniature according to the Tao, or way; at creation the breath or life force becomes two breaths - the female yin and the male yang.

A Chinese scroll is of silk or paper, which is fragile, and was not designed to be hung permanently on the wall like Western paintings. The horizontal scroll was to be looked at on a table and unrolled as a succession of scenes, from right to left, like Chinese writing. One chooses which parts to show depending on the season, or festival, then puts it away. The vertical scroll came later - it is unrolled slowly and the whole thing can then be looked at. This one is made with ink on paper, which is then laid on silk; it is 86 x 42 cms. Ink comes in the form of hard sticks, prepared from lamp black, mixed with glue and aromatic substances. A little water is put in a stone bowl, ink is added and mixed to a suitable consistency. The paintbrush is a bundle of hairs tied and stuck in a bamboo handle; the hairs can be goat's, wolf's or deer hair, and come in 3 different densities, giving different line thicknesses. Ink is distributed by the brush tip depending on the pressure applied; the brush is held over the paper and the painter must not lean on the table. Much practice is needed in order to obtain the correct control of the brush, and the long apprenticeship begins with the study of nature. The different strokes used have been codified; they can be made with the brush held vertically, and some older artists only used this method. The brush can also be held on one side, which allows more spectactular effects. Shitao advocated using both methods.

In paintings, rocks are very important, similarly to the human body in Western art; they show the underlying geology. Shitao uses blobs to show moss and other vegetation, and uses dilute ink, which is harder - with thicker ink one can cover up mistakes. The overall effect is to seek paleness rather than colour. The composition of the painting is solidly structural; it is divided into several planes. There is a contrast of forms - the round mountain and the jagged peaks, trees are both horizontal and vertical. The hut is the only human structure, and also has the only straight lines. There are 8 nuances of colour from deep black to pure white. Some thicker strokes and then thinner ones show depth e.g. on trees. Areas of white cloud split up mountains and help show depth; the white comes from the paper and expresses the void. There are 3 areas of interest - the human, the forest and the mountain. Shitao particularly liked bamboo, which with the pine tree and flowering cherry, all portray the season. He wrote a book on techniques, in which he maintained that all painting stems from a single brush stroke; he had great influence on subsequent artists.

09.04.2018 Art of China 1
Modern China is industrial, powerful and home to many people, but to understand it, we need to know its history. In Sichuan province, in SW China, there are modern festivals where dancers wear masks, which is a link to an older civilisation, only discovered by accident. More than 3000 years ago, it was a remote region called Shu, which was barely accessible; it was covered with forests where pandas lived in the wild. In the rest of China, the Shu people were known as people of the eye. In 1986, workers discovered a pit with broken pieces of gold, bronze and jade artifacts buried with piles of elephant tusks. The most remarkable find was a bronze mask with eyes protruding on stalks by about 16cm. At this site of Sanxingdui, this is thought to be an image of the semi-legendary Shu king Cancong. Carbon dated to 2000BC, it is unlike any other Chinese art; it had previously been thought that the cradle of Chinese civilisation was on the banks of the Yellow River, near the modern city of Anyang. It is thought that the eyes symbolised the worship of light - many people used to worship the sun. This must have been an advanced civilisation - there was a huge bronze tree, nearly 5m tall, which would have been very difficult to make; it might have served as a totem. Legend has it that there were originally 10 suns in the sky, which were too many: the gods sent a man, Houyi, to destroy 9 of them. The museum curator thinks the 9 birds might represent the 9 suns, the one at the top being missing. Also dominating the museum is the huge bronze statue of a man; he has hollow hands, which might have held the elephant tusks. No writing was found in the city, only the remains of the lost city walls. Artifacts were deliberately destroyed, which may have been due to some natural catastrophe, or an invasion.

Writing was and is very important in China - one of the school's most important lessons. Calligraphy is the most fundamental and unchanging art form. School children are taught how to hold the brush; they need to hold the elbow up high when making a large character. Unlike other forms of writing, Chinese writing holds messages from history; it teaches people how to think and conform; it is an indication of its history - how China came to be. The Yellow River is a waterway flowing through the heartland in the central plains, and used to be thought central to early civilisation. Near the modern city of Anyang the Shang dynasty built their ancient capital Yin, where the first examples of Chinese writing were found in the early C20. It is still being excavated; there is a museum underground, on the site of the early city. The main exhibits are the "oracle bones"; marks were made on turtle shells, which have been dated to 1200BC, and were the earliest form of writing (contemporary with the eye masks). One can recognise many current Chinese characters, e.g.the sign for teaching is that of a child next to a man with a whip - this indicates "child learning to do arithmetic" [!] Oracle bones were used in divination in the Shang dynasty; soothsayers would heat the bones and read the future from the cracks which appeared. Usefully for posterity they also inscribed the questions and answers on the bones, such as "Will the harvest be good?" The most touching questions are about the Lady Fu Hao; she was the favourite consort of the king Wu Ding, and also a commander in his army. One of the questions was about whether it was safe for her to give birth; there were many other stories about her. In May 1976, archaeologists working on the foundations of the Shang royal palace uncovered a magnificent tomb. This was the only tomb not to have been looted; it contained bronze ritual vessels. Writing on the inside of the vessels said this was the tomb of Lady Fu Hao. Several skeletons found were probably those of her retainers. The bronze vessels were richly decorated and showed great skill in casting; there were varied designs, of animals such as cicadas and dragons.

The Shang worshipped ancestors as others worshipped gods; in modern China people still make paper offerings at shrines of their ancestors of things they will need in the afterlife. The practice is rooted in the teachings of the most influential of Chinese philosophers - Confucius. He was born in C6 BC, about 10 years before Socrates in Greece. He came to be worshipped in temples, but was basically a humanist whose teachings were to help people live on this earth. Reverence for ancestors and respect for tradition were his essential teachings; this permeated the whole of Chinese society, standing for good order and benign rule. At the time, the country was divided into warring factions and his dialogue was confined to a narrow elite.

Change came from Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor; he was an iron ruler of c.250BC (when the Romans were just asserting themselves in the West), who called himself Shi Huang of Qin. He united the country basically by fighting everyone else (as the Romans did), He standardised weights and measures and introduced currency. His capital was at Xianyuang, where his tomb is to be found - a large mound. Records 50 years after his death talked of a buried army, but it was not until 1974 that in a series of pits were discovered the terracotta army: ranks of soldiers. Artistically these came from nowhere - the first realistic sculptures in Chinese history. They face East towards his enemies and the conquered states. They were his shock troops, to ensure immortality by fighting death itself. Their faces are all different, and reflect the many different peoples he ruled over. They were made by a huge workforce, and had details of the makers attached to ensure quality control. Originally they were brightly coloured, but the colour flaked off most of them when the pits were opened. Qin Shi Huang died aged 49, probably poisoned by a medicine to make him immortal (!); there is a legend that his tomb is surrounded by a lake of mercury, and archers with primed crossbows. The only items found near the entrance to his tomb so far are a pair of chariots with a team of 4 horses. These are very lifelike compared to anything in the rest of the world at that time. They were in 1000s of pieces in 1981, and have now been restored. The emperor toured his empire 5 times in a similar chariot. The bronze casting used the most advanced techniques, with much detail which required being cast several times. The curator had seen several sculptures in western museums which were very lifelike and was amazed when he found these Chinese ones with such high craftsmanship. Some experts think this was a result of contact with other parts of the world; unification not only brought more trade with the west but also let in ideas.

Trade flowed through Xian, through the desert to the oasis town of Dunhuang. Later called the Silk Road, this was the route through which many goods and ideas flowed from China to the edge of the Roman empire. It is a harsh terrain, but towns grew up along the route wherever there was water. It is on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, and travellers brought not just goods but gods. The most influential religion was Buddhism, which arrived from India in 1st century AD. Just outside Dunhuang are 492 caves, which for 100s of years had been used for shelter by local tribes; now opened to the public, they are frequented by tourists. There are many wall paintings, mostly of the Buddha, which show great freedom of expression, and painted and carved sculptures. There are scenes from 1000 years of Chinese art and life all together. The earliest are brightly coloured, while next to them are some in a much darker style, with distinct Indian features and demons. The Buddhist message was that ordinary people could achieve enlightenment; worshippers paid for their images, accompanied by images of the enlightened Buddhas they hoped to become. There are also images of the practical benefits Buddhism can bring to a hard world, e.g. protection from robbers, etc. To record the paintings, there is a project to photograph them for posterity, and also artists are copying them. In a temple constructed outside one of the caves is a very large statue of the Buddha, made in 595AD and unusually showing a woman. By then the Tang dynasty was in its golden age, and the Buddha celebrated the only female empress, Wu Zetian. She prospered, and promoted Buddhism, partly because Buddhist scripture said a woman could rule the world. Buddhism was changing belief and social practice. A picture shows the Healing Buddha and the Pure Land; in helping the sick to recover, music would play an important part. There are scenes of dancing and music playing; a particular dance, the Hu xuan dance - twirling on the spot, was popular in the Silk Road region. As Buddhism spread, attitudes of compassion were more widespread, but also the attitude to death changed. Ancestor worship had been coupled with ideas of immortality, but now the idea became that of being reborn in paradise. This was depicted with ideas from the "west" i.e. India, full of healthy people, music, a pond and sensitive water, which could change temperature according to the bather's temperature. Being more creative and free was Buddhism's gift to China. Previously people just hoped not to die - now they had a vision of afterlife as paradise.

But disorder returned to China. 1500 miles to the south, hidden in a bamboo forest, is a hidden treasure trove. Sculptures depict the opposite of paradise - scenes of hell.These were made at Dazu, in the middle of the C8, when the Tang dynasty was convulsed by disorder and terror. Without good behaviour and piety, you might go to hell; these are morality tales showing the consequences of bad behaviour. In Buddhism, drinking is forbidden, and the effects of drunkenness are shown. There is a depiction of the Buddhist wheel of life - the cycle of birth and death, from which Buddhism can set you free. But Buddhism was also tolerant of other religions, and there are also images of Confucius and Taoism: Confucian beliefs show filial piety and praying for a son. Chinese culture was tolerant and absorbed influences, making them their own.

09.04.2018 Art of China 2
The golden age of Chinese art began with a C10 emperor. Invaders meant that scholars retreated; then later they returned. Montains were thought of as sacred, linking heaven and earth. Landscapes of trees, mist and mountains are to be found in the Yellow Mountains area of China. Philosophers going back to Lao Tzu held that in nature was to be found the true way, or Tao. After 200 years of war and disorder, the genre of landscape painting began, 1000 years before the west. A masterpiece by Fan Kuan - "Travellers among mountains and streams " was a large painting showing towering mountains. Man and nature were one, with the men shown small; ideas of harmomy in nature were different from those of the west. 50 years later was "Early spring" by Guo Xi, in 1072. Mists and mountains were theatres of change, as unity was achieved under the Sung dynasty. The mountain peaks represent the emperor and the lesser peaks the princes.

500 miles to the north is the Yellow River; on it Kaifeng was the heart of the new China in the Sung dynasty. It was a vibrant city, now of 5 million people. The Sung emperor ended the curfew of trading by night; previously Confucius and Taoism had depised trade. Now trade was good, and the pressure of trade led to the invention of paper currency - the first of Chinese inventions. C12 Kaifeng became the richest city in the world. It was the source of the famous Qingming Shanghe Tu scroll; this is painted on silk, 24cm x5m. It shows busy scenes of everyday life - shops, inns, chatter, depicting prosperity and confidence. Not much is known about the artist [Zhang Zeduan]. The scroll is kept in Beijing; a professor says it shows disorder - the government officials entering the city have let their horses loose; the city gate is open and unguarded as a caravan enters; the boats full of grain are not being supervised by officials, so there is no control; at the bridge, a boat has almost hit it and the passengers are trying to avoid a crash; 2 sets of official are fighting on the bridge. The person in charge of the country, who is depicted in a painting as playing the zither, was the emperor Huisong. He was his father's 11th son, so never expected to become emperor; he was more interested in art than in governing. This was the heyday of the literati, scholars who ran the country, and came to Kaifeng to sit their exams for the civil service; there are replica statues of them in the modern street. Moveable type was invented in 1041 and made books much cheaper, which led to Sung China's Enlightenment. Huisong was also himself a talented artist; one silk painting by him, "Ladies making silk", shows ladies sewing. He aimed for realism; precision was necessary in silk painting as mistakes could not be rectified. Another famous painting of his is "Auspicious cranes" of 1112 AD; apparently clouds covered the palace, and then cranes flew in and sat on the roof, which meant all was well. He wrote a poem about it and also invented his own calligraphic style. Now calligraphy and painting were both on the same piece of silk, with a signature. The emperor was obsessed with collecting rocks from different parts of the empire, which he considered auspicious for the empire; they symbolised his good rule. But using his ships to collect rocks meant that the city ran out of food, and tax collected from the sale of silk went to bribe the northern tribes on the frontier. In 1127, Kaifeng was sacked by these nomads from the north, the emperor was captured and died a prisoner.

There was also a threat from the Mongols. A painting of the time shows lots of dragons; in 1244AD this was a vision of the end. In 1279 Kublai Khan declared himself emperor of a wide area, and called it the Yuan dynasty, with its capital at Beijing. The Mongols built The Cloud Platform outside Beijing: a busy gateway, with images of the Buddha and other gods, and inscriptions in 6 languages including Sanskrit and Tibetan, showing the cultural diversity of the empire. The scholar officials were replaced by the Mongols' own administrators. A painting by Zhao Mengfu was a portrait of a government official, next to a horse, which may have contained a hidden message. The geometry of the composition, made up of a series of arcs in the figures of the horse and groom, and framed by the level ground line and vertical inscription, appears to have been constructed with a compass and square. The Chinese term "compass-square" means "regulation" or "order." Thus, the painting may also be read as a metaphor for good government and, by extension, a measure of the artist's moral rectitude. Similarly, the painting "Horse Herding in Autumn Countryside", of 1312, may show the artist's ambivalence to his situation; his horses are all facing in different directions. He was of royal descent, so was not trusted, and not given an important position.

Most scholars retreated to the tranquility of the countryside, and here introduced a new art of self-expression. In the past, scholars would meet to listen to music and practise calligraphy and painting; now they met to demonstrate solidarity, and a continuing artistic heritage. Zhao Mengfu also gravitated there from the court. The most influential of the group was Ni Zan, who was wealthy, but sold all his possessions to live on a houseboat in the country. His most iconic work was "The six gentlemen" of 1345; this depicted 6 trees, as metaphors for his friends. He was very fastidious, and a portrait of him shows him in very clean clothes, with attendants. In 1368, the Yuan dynasty collapsed after internal squabbles, and were followed by the Ming dynasty. They built the Forbidden City in Beijing; this conveyed the Confucian values of order and harmony. There are 5 bridges which symbolised the 5 elements - fire, metal, wood, earth and water. There are 5 Confucian virtues: benevolence, honesty, knowledge, integrity and propriety.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony in the centre emphasises that the emperor is supreme. It is the ceremonial centre of imperial power, and the largest surviving wooden structure in China. It is nine bays wide and five bays deep, the numbers 9 and 5 being symbolically connected to the majesty of the Emperor. The Ming set up a new academy of painters, to restore the reputation of Chinese painting. These painters harked back to the refined style of the Sung dynasty. Some painters rejected Confucian doctrine, and pursued their art away from the court. They were joined by Tang Yin, the most famous.

But commerce couldn't be stopped. 500 miles south of Beijing are found hills full of caolin, which is known as China clay. During the MIng dynasty so much china was exported that it was given the name of the country. Jingdezhen was the centre of production, and recent excavations there of the Ming imperial kilns have shown many sherds, which are being pieced back together. The style was now rich and exuberant, with many colours under the glaze. When the emperor ordered a piece, several copies were made so that he could choose the best piece, but the rest could not be sold so were destroyed. 500 craftsmen were employed, and the china was exported everywhere. The blue-and-white ware idea in fact came from Arab countries, such as Iraq. The sultan saw the plain white ware and suggested that it could be coloured; the blue pigment was imported from there. Potters customised their ware with e.g. Islamic motifs, Sanskrit script, European crosses, so such decoration could be round the edge with a Chinese scene in the centre. 300 million pieces were exported and the taxes went to the emperor, who could then fund the building of the Great Wall of China. This was to keep out everyone, including the Mongols; China was withdrawing into itself. The Renaissance in Europe passed China by; their golden age was ending and the challenge came from the west.