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Far-Eastern Art

Chinese Monumental Art

by Peter Swann, with photographs by Claude Arthaud, by 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 the more obvious practical value for a large audience, Swann’s the greater appeal for specialists or amateurs of the exotic.

The History of Far Eastern Art is avowedly an attempt to convey the maximum quantity of useful knowledge to beginning readers, the college art major, or the interested layman. Its success in this purpose is comparable to H. W. Janson’s in the art of the West. There is a remarkable abundance of accurate information about the major arts of India, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan, throughout their periods of vitality. The illustrations cover both the unforgettable heights and the characteristic plateaux of achievement, on the whole very well. Opinions are reasonable and well-buttressed. Even in the areas in which the author claims only elementary experience, the arts of Java and the steppes and Mughal painting there is no manifest lowering of level. Those in which he is a recognized expert gleam with confidence and affection.

In contrast to the signs of long and meticulous preparation in the Lee book, Swann’s seems a product of resourceful improvisation. As the Foreword makes clear, its nucleus was a set of good photographs taken recently in China by two professionals. These record primarily the Great Wall, some of the stone sculptures of Yün-kang and Lung-men, frescoes and clay images in the Kansu cave temples at Tun-huang and Mai-chi-shan, the approach to the Ming mausoleum of Yung-lo north of Peking, and views of the imperial buildings in the Forbidden City. To this heterogeneous assortment have been added a smaller number of subjects from Western museums, filling out a total which—by not looking very hard at several of its parts—could be described as Monumental Art. A well-proportioned text provides general background and explanatory analyses of the subjects shown. Since most of the material is Buddhist, the religion and its art are given substantial coverage for both India and China, down to the seventh and eighth centuries. The writing is lucid, graceful, and efficient, with late Georgian or even Churchillian reminiscences: the Yüan dynasty, for example, has “its finest hour.” As a picture-book the volume is impressive. The color plates are striking and look as if they should be faithful (though the inaccessibility of the originals makes this impossible to prove). The choice of material is a little disappointing. Very little of it is new, except perhaps the quality of the color. The non-Buddhist subjects have been available for a generation, since the early publications of Sirén3 and the albums of expert photographers like Hürlimann. Of the collectors, teachers, and museum people who are likely to be most keenly interested in the art of the cave temples, many must be familiar with almost everything shown through Chinese and Japanese sources. The most recently discovered site, Mai-chi-shan, has been well covered for five years or more through two picture-books. Tun-huang has been exploited over and over, through hand copies of the frescoes and photographs. I am speaking here, of course, for a privileged minority who can count on energetic and experienced New York or London book-sellers, or even deal directly with Tokyo and Hongkong. All the same, if Swann’s book had been illustrated exclusively by photographs from China; if it had included more cave material, or some of the recently excavated objects from the big city museums, instead of its rather routine filler material from the Guimet and Cernuschi in Paris, readers at all levels would be more fully satisfied. Doubtless the situation that made this impossible was created by the Peking government in its role of dispenser and withholder of privileges. Indeed it is not unlikely that the absence here of objects from Chinese museums is due to a planned division of monopolies, museum objects going to the Czech photographers of Ancient Relics of China and the rest to the French. The allotment has so far kept all non-Chinese publicizers away from the richest of all the new collections, those of Peking itself. It will be interesting to see to whom this most golden of apples will be awarded, and in what sort of political environment.

Most of Lee’s illustrations are of predictable objects, intelligently chosen with no pretensions to novelty. Most are technically satisfactory. A few, including a high percentage of the color plates, are illegible or misleading. The one real surprise is a Japanese Buddhist drawing, said to have been found recently in the store-rooms of the famous Kyoto temple Kozanji and done by a known monk of the early Kamakura period. There are four figures, drawn with vigor and great precision, who act out a kind of blasphemous parody. A central and dearly cherished belief of the Pure Land faith is the coming of a heavenly escort to the deathbed of the believer, to ensure his instantaneous transfer to Paradise. The leaders of the welcome party are in all but the least deserving cases the Buddha Amida and his two great lieutenants, Kannon and Seishi. One of the devices used to fix the mind of the dying worshipper on this promise was to allow him to hold a cord fastened to a movable image of the Buddha, which could be drawn close as he prayed. Here the action is absurdly reversed. One end of the cord is being energetically hauled in by a Buddha figure on a lotus throne; the other is a noose around the neck of a monk who is resisting ineffectually, digging his heels into the ground. Of the two savior Bodhisattvas, Seishi points derisively at the spectacle, while Kannon uses his lotus seat as a kind of shovel to push the monk forward. Kozanji is also the owner of the well-known Animal Caricatures handscroll, in which the ritual worship of an enthroned Buddha image is mocked in a different, but no less comic way. The temple in early Kamakura was the headquarters of a reform movement which was growing away from traditional Japanese Buddhism, like the Pure Land cult but in an opposite direction. It is conceivable that the parody is an authentic document of inter-sect rivalry, a cynical comment by a Kegon intellectual on the soft emotionalism of Jodo. On the other hand all other known Japanese satire drawings are sketches, as unorthodox in technique as in subject, while this is as precise as an icon. The degree of irreverence involved is so extreme that I can think of no parallel in any religious art except a painting by the German diabolist Hans Baldung Grien of Christ being hauled bottom up to Heaven by a crew of energetic cherubs. It is also possible, therefore, that the piece is a modern hoax, by some corrupted traditionalist working in the vein opened by Kano Hogai.

Both books contain a sprinkling of blemishes, small errors of fact, unexplained references, or unlikely interpretations. Most of these are concentrated in the field of Buddhist art; for a very good reason: since the death of Helen Chapin in 1950, no one in the West has known the subject thoroughly enough to be able to write about it at length without at least an occasional misstep. Lee, for example, has looked at the two great summa of Japanese Tantrism, the twin mandalas, from the at present normal vantage point of semi-indifference, and so gives each the characteristics of the other. (It is evidence of our still elementary standing that this sort of misstatement seems understandable and unimportant—to me also—where in the similar systems of crystallography or anatomy it would be disastrous.) Swann, again, finds the Seven Buddhas of the Past in two quite impossible places, at miniature scale within the haloes of Chinese Buddhas like the colossi at Yün-kang, and riding a succession of oddly composed teams—elephants, white horses, lions, etc.—in a Wei-style painted frieze at Tun-huang. The first are actually nameless, and uncountable, emanations from the person of the central Buddha, and the others the great disciples of Sakyamuni, sweeping in procession through the sky. In terms of Christian art such confusion has been unthinkable for two generations; here one accepts it tolerantly, as a normal trait of immaturity.

Three more general statements by Swann merit brief attempts at refutation. The Japanese were not more interested in portrait sculpture and better at it than the Chinese; it merely happens that their work has been better published, and is familiar in the work of a unique master, Unkei, Chinese architects were not primarily nameless, lowly craftsmen; the most important in every age had high rank and were remembered as individuals. When the art was at its height, in the Sui dynasty, the most gifted state architects had positions comparable to Bernini’s. Finally, only the buildings of present Peking, from a late and deflated stage of architectural creativity, can be used to argue that the Chinese never knew the compulsion to build ever higher. Their lost wooden secular towers must have been miracles of structural daring; and a city in the traditional grand manner, like the Northern Sung capital at K’ai-feng, was as full of towers as San Gimignano.

  1. 1

    Pantheon (The Bollingen Foundation), 1956

  2. 2

    A publication of the Musée Guimet, Paris

  3. 3

    Osvald Sirén, History of Early Chinese Art and The Palaces and Gates of Peking.

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