Far-Eastern Art

Chinese Monumental Art

by Peter Swann, with photographs by Claude Arthaud and François Hébert-Stevens
Viking, 276, 157 plates (14 in color), 15 maps and diagrams pp., $16.00

A History of Far Eastern Art

by Sherman E. Lee
Abrams, 527, 60 color plates, 656 illus. pp., $25.00

In the great age of ink landscape painting in Japan, a versatile master like Sesshu was capable of working in two widely different techniques. Their names were borrowed from the older art of calligraphy, and so from China. The shin style depended on clear and precise drawing of objects and scenes shown with at least some deference to normal experience. So paintings were made up of irregular, interpenetrating ink washes and scattered linear accents. Their relation to the visible world of mountains and water was veiled in mist. Recognizability lay under the surface, sometimes within reach, often too nebulous for more than fragmentary contact. Their potential success lay rather in creating moods and stimulating the imagination.

Writings in Western languages on the arts of middle and farther Asia, over the last two generations, have tended to separate into something like the same categories. The so ideal has on the whole been much more continuously represented. Its concerns have been with the spirituality of the East, the theotropic passion of India, the Chinese instinct to seek harmony with Nature, Japanese idealism and perfect taste. One tends to remember the so writers by haunting slogans or book titles: rhythmic vitality; Asia is One; the Book of Tea; the Flight of the Dragon; the Spirit of Man in Asian Art; Is Art a Superstition or a Way of Life? In recent years the characteristic so mood of blurred sublimity has been restated in Chinese terms by Mai Mai Sze’s The Tao of Painting,1 with recognizability at its maximum depth. Much the same theme is treated in a newly published study of a famous eleventh-century painter-critic by Nicole Vandier-Nicolas, Art et sagesse en Chine, Mi Fou2 . Very infrequently a writer has been able to turn with assurance from one extreme to the other, or to work over a wide middle zone. This was most spectacularly true of Ananda Coomaraswamy, and continues to be demonstrated by Stella Kramrisch. Mme. Vandier-Nicolas’s study has something of this rare ambivalence. Its display of learning is formidable. On the other hand preference for mysticism over everyday fact is underlined everywhere; and if the book tells a great deal about Mi Fu’s character, idiosyncracies, and taste in the arts it also makes a statement which is the quintessence of so:

Le vie d’un véritable artiste est une longue extase.

The authors of the two books here reviewed belong squarely in the shin camp. Both are experienced writers whose careers have also given them an enviable intimacy with objects. Swann is the creator of the small but impressive Asiatic collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Lee, who served as Oriental curator in the distinguished Seattie and Cleveland museums, has for several years been the latter’s director. Both have a high respect for the monuments, influences, and trends that make up the perceptible world of art history, and are concerned to write about them clearly and with accuracy. The two books differ radically in purpose; Lee’s has…

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