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Chinese Art

Chinese Art: Painting, Calligraphy, Stone Rubbing, Wood Engraving

by Werner Speiser, by Roger Goepper, by Jean Fribourg
Universe Books, 362, 174 plates (4 in color) pp., $37.50

This is another of the big, colorful, high-priced volumes that seem to have become the staples of the art book market. The texts of these books are seldom written because anyone really wanted to write them. They are usually commissioned by a publisher to accompany the plates, which are for him (and for most purchasers) the real matter of the book, the reason for its existence. Understanding this, we may read with some sympathy and qualified admiration the essay by Werner Speiser on Chinese painting that forms the major part of the volume. Speiser has covered more or less the same ground several times in his previous books. Here, in a repeat performance that he may well have undertaken somewhat reluctantly, he seems to be straining to avoid repetition. His success in doing so deserves praise, but it was at some cost. The publisher states that most of the illustrations for his essays were taken from previously unpublished pieces. Some of the newcomers are welcome, such as the album leaf by the entertaining late-nineteenth-century figure painter Jen Po-nien, who has been revived in recent years as a “people’s artist” in Communist China, but is scarcely known elsewhere. More often, however, the littleknown paintings are of decidedly less interest than the standard, often-reproduced ones they replace. In the end, Speiser’s search for the unfamiliar seems forced, and, in the case of his text, unfortunate. A book like this one is not so much for specialists as for readers who come to Chinese painting for the first time, and for whom the same old things are not old or same at all. The danger of Speiser’s approach is that those readers will be deprived of observations that are no less valid for having been made before, and of a revelation of the achievements of major artists who are represented here only by minor or doubtful works.

The presence of paintings of questionable authenticity is not in itself unusual; every general work on Chinese painting has had its share of them. But this failing, practically unavoidable so long as the study of Oriental art is still far from the level of Western art history, is compounded by Speiser’s preoccupation, evident from the first page of his account, with the problem of authenticity and with other scholarly issues that are properly peripheral to a popular treatment of it. For instance, the statement that of the hundreds of landscapes ascribed to Tung Ch’i-ch’ang (1555-1636) “only three can really claim to be authentic examples” not only runs counter to most informed views, but loses whatever authority it might have when one of the three, and Speiser’s choice for reproduction, turns out to be a leaf from the album in the Tokyo National Museum, a work which is accepted by few scholars outside Japan and is, moreover, not even in Tung’s style. Similarly, it is all right to reproduce one of the pair of landscapes in the Kotoin in Kyoto ascribed to the early twelfth-century master Li T’ang, but not all right to call it an “unimpeachably signed masterpiece,” when the signature and the paintings are now under heavy fire from most scholars. A writer so concerned with the problem of forgeries should either have been more scrupulous about keeping them out of his book, or else put up with them as unwelcome company, as the rest of us have done, and gone on to write more about Chinese painting in a positive vein, less about limitations in the study of it.

Apart from this, however, there are many excellent passages in Speiser’s essay, among them his description of the forms and materials of painting, and his account of collecting and connoisseurship in China. The “short historical outline,” which could so easily have been a rehash, is original and challenging. Speiser’s thesis that the crucial years in the lives of painters are “say between fifteen and forty,” in which they may be “subjected to events of a magnitude which molds their lives, and which they never really shake off,” deserves to be developed at greater length. It promises to illuminate such a period as the early Ch’ing dynasty, when a “hard-pressed, storm-racked generation,” still young when the country tell to the Manchu invaders, produced the great individualist artists of the late seventeenth century. Speiser also offers a good deal of biographical matter about the painters that is not available in the standard sources. Here again, however, it would be useful to have references, since we would like to know where he found this material and how reliable it is.

The shorter section on calligraphy by Roger Goepper is an excellent survey, marred only by the translator’s awkwardnesses and evident misunderstandings. It is still too brief to fill our need for a comprehensive treatment of Chinese calligraphy in a Western language (the best are in Japanese, and Goepper acknowledges his reliance on one of them, by Kanda Kiichiro, for his historical outline). Perhaps Goepper, one of the few Western scholars to investigate the subject seriously, will in time write that too. Meanwhile his essay, illustrated with good plates of twenty-five well-chosen examples, lays before us the whole range of this art, which the Chinese have always held to be at least as important as painting. It can be read with profit by anyone who wants to go beyond the fashionable admiration for Far Eastern calligraphic that the prevalence of calligraphic styles in recent Western painting has awakened. Such admiration has usually been directed toward the bold bravura styles, the flourish and “gesture,” with the real aims of the greatest masters scarcely suspected: the tightly organized design, brushwork that is disciplined without ever slipping into the stereotyped and over-elegant forms of “beautiful handwriting,” and—least glimpsed of all, since an understanding of any part requires some grasp of the whole—the intricate interrelationships of style that give the whole tradition its structure and beauty. One calligrapher would perform complex variations on the manner of an earlier master, another would take his work as a new point of departure, and so on through the centuries. Calligraphy is thus a visual manifestation of that continuity within the scholarly community that gave Chinese culture its unparalleled power of survival. This aspect of Chinese calligraphy will perhaps always remain unintelligible to all but a few outside China and Japan, depending as it does on values not easily communicable. Of the theoretical concepts behind calligraphy, the function of the written character as symbolic abstraction holds the greatest fascination for the Occidental artist, who must envy a culture that supplied such a rich store of meaningful signs. The other side of Chinese calligraphic theory, which sees handwriting as an embodiment in brushline of the individual temperament of the writer, and attaches accordingly a moral value to it is somehow less attractive to our age, perhaps because of its humanistic Confucian overtones. It might, nevertheless, be given more serious attention as a theory of artistic expression than it has so far received outside the Far East. It provides, for one thing, an effective answer to the charge that non-objective art is somehow dehumanized, and might also help to account for, although hardly to curb, some of the wilder excesses in our own painting.

The book concludes with a treatment of Chinese woodblock prints, the text by Jean Fribourg. The plates are a delight; the text is the least satisfactory in the book, not because M. Fribourg is insufficiently learned in his subject, but because his writing is illorganized, filled with irrelevancies, disconnected observations, and passing allusions to people and articles very few readers will recognize. Though it is difficult to make one’s way through, it contains a great deal of useful information, the fruits of forty years of research, according to the publisher—who should, as a service to M. Fribourg and his readers, have employed or induced someone to turn his manuscript into a coherent essay.

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