The Essence of Chinese Painting

The Essence of Chinese Painting

The Essence of Chinese Painting

The Essence of Chinese Painting


The following essay lays no more claim to dealing with, or even to touching upon, all the problems of Chinese painting than it does to being a comprehensive history of this branch of art.

Every scholar engaged in this field of study is aware of the urgent need for detailed work concentrated upon the scrupulous accumulation of material, and hence inevitably unrewarding in terms of outside recognition, and of the truly astonishing lack of analyses limited to individual paintings or narrowly restricted groups of artists, schools or pictorial themes.

It seemed unnecessary to add yet another to the historical surveys of this branch of art published in recent years, the most important of which are Osvald Sirén's magnificently conceived seven-volume work, Chinese Painting, Leading Masters and Principles, London, 1956-8, and James Cahill's well-informed summary, Chinese Painting, London, 1960, with its wealth of new material. A prior requisite for any fresh historical work would be further specialized studies of individual phenomena in the evolution of Chinese painting and an objective scrutiny of the known body of pictures. Such studies are at present being pursued, above all in America and Japan, where comprehensive and good collections afford the best conditions for their prosecution.

There is really no need to stress the topicality of the subject. It is demonstrated on the one hand by exhibitions of Chinese painting in America and Europe, and on the other by the fact that many painters representative of the most recent trends in Western art call upon the creative and formal principles of Chinese painting in support of their own practices.

It is this latter fact, in particular, which I believe justifies the line of approach that I have chosen here. The complex phenomenon of Chinese painting is viewed in this book from the angles of phenomenology, morphology, and typology. The first chapter, especially, shows both how far Western artists could really draw upon the spiritual heritage of the Far East and how far one-sided and incomplete study of this heritage has led to the development of ideas which run parallel to it only in part and, indeed, very largely only in appearance.

In this book an attempt will be made to introduce Chinese painting to the Western reader from the viewpoint of its spiritual and technical presuppositions, that is to say its aim is to place the viewer with little or no previous knowledge of this art in the correct position from which to look at it. Historical knowledge alone will not give him direct access. The author's purpose is to arm the reader with what he regards as the necessary intellectual equipment to enable him to look upon any Chinese painting 'with other eyes'.

To achieve this aim we must employ those aesthetic and formal criteria which the Chinese themselves brought to a high pitch of perfection more than 1,000 years ago. At the same time, however, these criteria must be kept subservient to the methods of Western art criticism and art history, otherwise we shall run the danger of a one-sided and romanticized view of the matter. Even in this direction, however, the author wishes his book to be regarded rather as a first endeavour than as final and conclusive, since the serious consideration of Chinese painting from this point of view is still in its infancy.

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