Landscape of the Soul by Nathalie Trouveory
A word about the author …Ms. Nathalie is a qualified Art historian. As the wife of a diplomat, she had the occasion to visit many places in the world that are sites of great archeological value. Her husband is the Belgian Ambassador to India.
Introduction .. There is a wide gulf between the way artists and art lovers in the West and the East perceive, and appreciate art. This is perhaps due to the way the two very divergent cultures have evolved over the ages. In the western system, the paintings bare themselves in great detail allowing the art loving public to feast their eyes in the intricate but very accurate forms of the flora and the fauna, and the landscape. In the eastern system, the painter exposes much less than they hide. It is let to the discerning watcher to unravel the hidden meaning of the painting. In some ways, the eastern school of painting has philosophical undertones.
The essay ..
The renowned painter Wu Daozi lived in the eighteenth century in China. Many folklore, some true, some imaginary, are associated with his memory. According to one such story, the last Tang Emperor, Xuanzong had asked Daozi to paint a landscape that would decorate the walls of his palace. The master artist didn’t allow anyone to see his work except the Emperor. For this, he had hid the painting behind a screen. The canvas had mountains, trees, rivers, forests, waterfalls etc. accurately depicted. The Emperor used to be delighted to see the work.
Question .. Who was Daozi? Why did he begin to paint a landscape? Answer .. Wu Daozi was the eighteenth century Chinese painter of great renown. He was asked by the Tang Emperor, Xuanzong to paint a huge landscape on the wall of the royal palace.
On one occasion, Daozi asked the emperor to peer into the cave at the foot of a mountain, where a spirit lived. He clapped his hands to open the door of the cave. Further, he said that the inside of the cave was a place of bewitching beauty. Having described the interior like this, he prepared to usher the Emperor inside. Daoji walked in first, but before the Emperor could step in, the door got closed cutting off the painter from the outside world for good. A bewildered Emperor stood there, clueless and confused.
Question .. What myth is associated with the painting done by Wu Daozi on the palace wall? Answer .. Daozi began his work and did a magnificent landscape art on the wall. There was the drawing of a cave somewhere in the painting. Daozi invited the emperor to venture into the inside of the cave that was a place of breath-taking beauty. Daozi clapped his hands, and the door opened. First Daozi went inside and the emperor was was to follow him. However, just after Daozi had stepped in, the door got closed. Daozi never emerged from the cave, and it left the emperor completely bewildered.
Traditional education in China is replete with such stories. Confucius and Zhuangzi used such stories to drive home a moral message. The story may be totally fictional, but it throws some light on the way ancient China saw the value and relevance of visual art. This approach stands in sharp contrast to Western perception of art. A certain painter in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium painted a dragon, but didn’t complete it. The eye was not created. The painter feared that the dragon would break free of the painting and fly off.
In Antwerp, Belgium, there lived a master blacksmith named Quinten Metsys. He was besotted with a certain painter’s daughter. The painter felt Quinten’s profession to be too lowly for deserving his daughter’s hand. The cunning Quinten thought of a plan. He sneaked into the painter’s studio on some pretext, and drew a fly on the canvass. The fly was near perfect, and appeared to be true to life. Later, the painter was passing by the canvass, and swatted the fly thinking it to be a real one. The painter was impressed with Quinten’s work and admitted him as an intern. Now, he got unfettered access to the studio. Not long after, Quinten married the daughter with a great sense of accomplishment.
Question .. How did Quinten Metsys manage to marry the girl he fancied? Answer .. Quinten Metsus was a blacksmith in Antwerp, Belgium. He was enamoured of a beautiful girl who ws the daughter of a certain painter. On one occasion, Quinten managed to sneak into the painter’s studio. He drew a fly on the canvass of the painter. The painting looked like a real live fly. The painter came in later, and swatted it to clear the canvass, but to his great surprise, it was a drawing, not a live fly. Impressed with the work, the painter permitted Quinten Metsys access to his studio to work as an intern. The young man made good use of his free access to court the daughter. Finally, they were married.
When we see the two examples — the dragon’s eye-less painting, and the fly on the canvass, we can conclude that the Western school of painters strove to draw near perfect figures of objects. The closer their painting looked to the real life one, the higher was the acclaim for his work.
Question .. What was the specialty of the western school of painting? Answer .. The western painters tried hard to make their paintings as close the real life objects as possible. The race was to reach perfection in this aspect. The dragon painted by a painter in Antwerp was left incomplete without its eyes, because the painter assumed it would fly off if it gets its vision. In the same way, Quinten Metsys succeeded to paint a fly that looked identical to a real fly. This is the way, western painters tried to reach professional perfection in their art.
In the Eastern school, apart from the creation of perfect figures, there is a hidden, but clear message. Daozi’s painting pointed to this characteristic. It underlines the truth that there is another mystical domain beyond this material world. Only the wisest of the wise have access to it. The Emperor ordered the painting, and Daozi dutifully completed it. However, the key to the eternal truth remained with Daozi. He had to lead the Emperor to the other domain. In the process, he willfully departs from this world and enters the other.
The western painters excelled in paintingexact reproductions of real world objects. Their endeavour was always to paint a hoto-perfect reproduction. This was Figurative painting. The Chinese also painted objects and landscapes, but their emphasis was different. The Chinese painters wanted the visitors to see their work through the viewer’s eyes, and sense and experience the same gush of emotion which he felt while creating the work. Just as the painter himself, his viewers can see the art from any perspective. The painter builds in this freedom in his work. So, Chinese paintings are multi-dimensional.
Question .. What are the underlying differences between the western and eastern schools of painting? Answer .. The western painters worked very hard to make their paintings like real objects. The closer the resemblance, the greater was the appreciation from the viewers. The Chinese painters also tried hard to paint exact replicas of the objects and scenes, but their work had a dimension to it. All works had a connect with the metaphysical world which an ordinary viewer generally can’t comprehend of. To enjoy the work of a Chinese painter, one has to deepen one’s understanding of the unseen world. It needs a strong discerning sense to appreciate the Chinese paintings.
In the horizontal scroll, one scene slowly recedes to yield place to another. Such gradual unraveling of different frames gives a sense of time. To get the real sense of it, the viewer must be intimately involved in the viewing process. He can proceed to enjoy the painting in his own pace taking his mind and body together. In this way, the Chinese painter implores the viewer to enter his mind, so that they can see it from his perspective. The landscape thus becomes a spiritual and conceptual space for the viewer.
This concept is called shansui. The word literally means ‘mountain water. Roughly, the word alludes to a landscape. There are two elements involved here — the mountain, and the water. The two elements complement each other. This is the ‘Daoist’ view of the universe. The mountain is the Yang, and the water is Yin. The mountain soars upwards to the Heaven. It is stable, majestic, and dry. On the other hand, Yin implying water, is fluid, hurtles downwards, and cool. Daoism perceives the Yang — the mountain– to be masculine, and Yin — the water — to be feminine. The two entities interact with one another in a middle domain or ‘Middle void’. In some ways, it can be likened to the system, the person breathes in the air, holds it inside for a few moments, and then exhales. The ‘holding in’ of the air is akin to the Middle void’ of Daoism.
The middle space is crucial. Without it, no interaction between the Yang and the Yin can take place. This is why, in the Chinese style of painting, some white, un-painted space is left to separate the Yang and the Yin. We can place man in the middle void. The Heaven and the Earth interact through the humans. Francois Cheng sees the humans as the eye of the Universe.
Question .. What is shansui? What is its similarity with the Indian practice of pranayam? Answer .. The Chinese perceive the earth as made up of three distinct domains — the Yang meaning the mountains, the Yin, the waters, and the Middle void, meaning the vacuum that separates the Yang from the Yin. The Yang is masculine, solid, and static. It soars to the sky. The Yin is fluid, has no shape and flows downwards. They Yang comes and meets Yin in the middle domain of void. This concept is named shansui. The Indian practice of pranayam has three stages too. We breathe in air (Yang), hold it inside for some time (the Middle void), and then exhale (Yin). Although the idea appears far-fetched, the similarities between the shansui and the pranayama can’t be ignored.
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