Literati

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Four Gentlemen

This is a kind of P.S. to the last post. I am quite aware of a glaring omission: I never so far have mentioned the arguably most influential school of Chinese painting, the Literati painters. There is a reason for this, of course.

Until the late Song, painting was mainly a sport exercised at the court (and this certainly qualifies as an ouch-pun). When the Mongols took over and called their government the Yuan dynasty, Chinese officials could either become collaborators or go painting on their rural estates. Many of them, unfortunately, chose the latter.

They were self-schooled amateurs with often a background in calligraphy. Their style dominated for the next couple of hundred years and drove e.g. all Mu Qi paintings into exile to Japan (and many others, including most of Xia Gui’s works, were destroyed). They were very scornful of everything that came before them, but especially of all painters that actually had learned their craft.

Let’s take an example, Ni Zan’s “Six Gentlemen”

The six gentlemen, here symbolized by the enduring pine trees, are of course Ni Zan and his buddies who are forced into exile and to stare out on the lake – and the one on the right even forgot the beer and the popcorn! Oh such suffering! Yes, I admit it (very! reluctantly): it is a masterpiece (grumph) – kind of. But not only my old adversary symbolism raises here its head – I also smell narcissism and self-pity of a privileged class.

When I was around 18, I visited the grave of August von Goethe at the protestant cemetery in Rome. The headstone epitaph (without bearing a name), written by his Dad says: “Goethe’s son – preceding the father – died, 40 years old – 1830”. The only thing Goethe knows to say about his son is that he was, well, Goethe’s son. The fool! The abomination! The vanity! (Continue rage ad libitum…) This really got me off Goethe for at least the next twenty years. Yes, yes, yes we are supposed to love ourselves. Can we do it less publicly, though?

Shortly after, in school we had to write an essay about “Iphigenia in Tauris”, which I used to – in my most eloquent, witted and scornful prose – to de-mask the imposter! The essay was well received by my teacher, except for the many comma-errors I had made (working still on that point…).

Apropos gravestone. Take what Heinrich Heine has to say in contrast (from “Journey from Munich to Genoa”):

Every person is a world, which is born with it and dies with it – under each gravestone rests a world history.

That’s more like it, isn’t it? But where was I ? Ah, yes, the literati painters. So what is wrong with them, they painted rather lovely pictures, didn’t they? Yes, some of literati paintings are nice, even innvoative. But to quote from the China Online Museum: “Ni Zan advocated that painting should be used to express personal emotions, rather than to depict physical resemblance.” That sounds rather modern, doesn’t it? Nature here is a tool to serve our needs; it is not there in its own right (at least not in art). You know, I think we have been doing this (it’s called Subjectivism) for far too long (at least the 14th century). And no, I haven’t forgotten what I wrote here quite recently about how my work is created from a place inside me and revolves around an emotional journey. That doesn’t mean, however, that the resulting works are about me. In fact that is the fine line I try to never cross.

Just as a reminder here, Mu Qi’s treatment of the topic “Exile” in one of the “Eight Views”:

This picture, I think, is not about Mu Qi’s emotions but about the mystery and wonder of the world and of existence. “Exile” is here not a political topic but an existential one. “Exile” is something we can overcome by putting the focus outside of ourself. Quelle différence!

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