A Short History of Chinese Art

By Ludwig Bachhofer | Go to book overview

PAINTING

SHANG TO FORMER HAN

IN a strictly technical sense, painting was known in China from neolithic to modern times. The alleged invention of the brush by Mēng Tien ( 220 B.C.) was probably an improvement of the tool then in use.

The Shang had the walls of their tombs decorated with paintings whose patterns were certainly those found on their bronzes. More recent works, especially lacquers, show that the current designs were merely executed in a different material.

From this point of view, the sunken ornamentation of early Shang bronzes is the most ancient relic of Chinese painting (cf. fig. 11). Indeed, by using one's imagination, it is not difficult to form an idea of what the walls of a room looked like when covered with such motives in green, red, and yellow. These were the pigments discovered in the funerary chambers of the Royal Tombs near Hou Chiachuang; the outlines were probably drawn in black.

Such paintings are usually called symbolic when the stress is laid on subject matter, or stylized when on form. Not much is gained by these terms: it must be understood that they do not designate simply two different aspects of one and the same thing. A bat, e.g., is a symbol of good luck; as such it was painted in the most impressionistic manner in about 1500 A.D. No less ambiguous is the word "stylization." Those who use it are often apt to forget that a drawing by Rembrandt is as "stylized" as one by an Egyptian painter. "Omission of the accidental, and reduction of an object to its basic form" is a definition of stylization that fits widely different works. The reason is that different times have different ideas about what is accidental and what basic.

In this particular case "stylization" is brought about by representing practically every motive in terms of approximately right angles. In other words, ancient Chinese paintings, as preserved in the décor of Shang bronzes, is the result of that very early apprehension of form in which only changes in the direction of outlines are discriminated and represented in the most impressive manner: at acute angles. As everywhere else, line lost its intransigent angularity and became more flexible as time went on.

It was not before the seventh century, the time when the Li Yü style flourished, that Chinese art began to depict animals with a semblance of nature; not instead of, but alongside, the old theriomorphous symbols. Fragments of a basin from Li Yü

-86-

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A Short History of Chinese Art
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 5
  • Preface 7
  • Acknowledgment 8
  • Contents 9
  • List of Illustrations 11
  • Chinese Dynasties 15
  • The Neolithic Age 17
  • The Bronzes 26
  • Sculpture - Shang to Han 55
  • Painting 86
  • Notes 129
  • Index 133
  • Plates 141
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