7: Eastward, Islam, China, 2nd to 13th Century
Before returning to the Western world and take up the story of art in Europe, we must at least cast a glance at what happened in other parts of the world during these centuries of turmoil. It is interesting to see how two other great religions reacted to the question of images, which so engaged the mind of the Western world. The religion of the Middle East, which swept everything before it in the seventh and eighth centuries AD, the religion of the Mohammedan conquerors of Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa and Spain, was even more rigorous in this matter than Christianity had been.
The making of images was forbidden. But art as such cannot so easily be suppressed, and the craftsmen of the East, who were not permitted to represent human beings, let their imagination play with patterns and forms. They created the most subtle lacework ornamentation known as arabesques. It is an unforgettable experience to walk through the courtyards and halls of the Alhambra (Fig. 2.5) and to admire the inexhaustible variety of these decorative patterns. Even outside the Islamic dominions, the world became familiar with these inventions through Oriental rugs (Fig. 2.6).
Ultimately we may owe their subtle designs and rich colour schemes to Mohammed, who directed the mind of the artist away from the objects of the real world to this dreamworld of lines and colours. Later sects among the Mohammedans were less strict in their interpretation of the ban on images. They did allow the painting of figures and illustrations as long as they had no connection with religion. The illustrating of romances, histories and fables have done in Persia from the fourteenth century onwards, and later also in India under Mohammedan (Mogul) rulers, shows how much the artists of these lands had learned from the discipline which had confined them to the designing of patterns.
The moonlight scene in a garden (Fig. 2.6.1) from a Persian romance of the fifteenth century is a perfect example of this wonderful skill. It looks like a carpet which has somehow come to life in a fairy-tale world. There is little illusion of reality in it as in Byzantine art. Perhaps even less. There is no foreshortening, and no attempt to show light and shade or the structure of the body. The figures and plants look a little as if they had been cut out of coloured paper and distributed over the page to make a perfect pattern. But, because of that, the illustration fits even better into the book than it might have done if the artist had wanted to create the illusion of a real scene. We can read such a page almost as we read a text. We can look from the hero, as he stands with his arms crossed in the right-hand corner, to the heroine, who approaches him. and we can let our imagination wander through the moonlit fairy garden without ever getting too much of it.
The impact of religion on art was even stronger in China. We know little about the beginnings of Chinese art, except the fact that the Chinese had been skilled in the art of casting bronze at a very early date, and that some of the bronze vessels used in the ancient temples go back to the first millennium before Christ-some say even earlier. Our records of Chinese painting and sculpture, however, are not so old.
In the centuries immediately before and after Christ, the Chinese adopted burial customs somewhat reminiscent of the Egyptians, and in these burial chambers, as in the Egyptian ones, there are a number of vivid scenes which reflect the life and the habits of these long bygone days (Fig. 2.7). At that time, much of what we call typically Chinese in art had already developed. The artists were less fond of rigid angular forms than the Egyptians had been, and preferred swerving curves. When a Chinese artist had to represent a prancing horse, he seemed to fit it together out of a number of rounded shapes. We can see the same in Chinese sculpture, which always seems to twist and turn without, however, losing its solidity and firmness (Fig. 2.8).
Some of the great teachers of China appear to have had a similar view of the value of art to that held by Pope Gregory the Great. They thought of art as a means of reminding people of the great examples of virtue in the golden ages of the past. One of the earliest illustrated Chinese book scrolls that have been preserved is a collection of great examples of virtuous ladies, written in the spirit of Confucius. It is said to go back to the painter Ku K’ai-chi, who lived in the fourth century AD.
The illustration (Fig. 2.9) shows a husband unjustly accusing his wife, and it has all the dignity and grace we connect with Chinese art. It is as clear in its gestures and arrangement as one might expect from a picture which also aims at driving home a lesson. It shows, moreover, that the Chinese artist had mastered the difficult art of representing movement. There is nothing rigid in this early Chinese work, because the predilection for undulating lines imparts a sense of movement to the whole picture.
However, the most important impulse to Chinese art probably came through yet another religious influence: that of Buddhism. The monks and ascetics of Buddha’s circle were often represented in amazingly lifelike statues (Fig. 3.0). Once more we see the curved outlines in the shape of the ears, the lips or the cheeks, but they do not distort the real forms; they only weld them together. We feel that such a work is not haphazard, but that everything is in its place and contributes to the effect of the whole. The old principle of the primitive masks ( Fig. 0.1) serves its turn even in such a convincing representation of a face.
Buddhism influenced Chinese art not only by providing artists with new tasks. It introduced an entirely new approach to pictures, a reverence for the artist’s achievement such as did not exist either in ancient Greece or in Europe up to the time of the Renaissance. The Chinese were the first people who did not think of the making of pictures as a rather menial task, but who placed the painter on the same level as the inspired poet. The religions of the East taught that nothing was more important than the right kind of meditation. To meditate is to think and ponder about the same holy truth for many hours on end, to fix an idea in one’s mind
and to look at it from all sides without letting go of it. It is a kind of mental exercise for Orientals, to which they used to attach even greater importance than we attach to physical exercise or to the sport. Some monks meditated on single words, turning them over in their minds while they sat quite still for whole days and listened to the stillness which preceded and followed the holy syllable. Others meditated on things in nature, on water, for instance, and what we can learn from it, how humble it is, how it yields and yet wears away solid rock, how it is clear and cool and soothing and gives life to the thirsting field; or on mountains, how strong and lordly they are, and yet how good, for they allow the trees to grow on them.
That is, perhaps, how religious art in China came to be employed less for telling the legends of the Buddha and the Chinese teachers, less for the teaching of a particular doctrine-as Christian art was to be employed in the Middle Ages–than as an aid to the practice of meditation. Devout artists began to paint water and mountains in a spirit of reverence, not in order to teach any particular lesson, nor merely as decorations, but to provide material for deep thought.
Their pictures on silk scrolls were kept in precious containers and only unrolled in quiet moments, to be looked at and pondered over as one might open a book of poetry and read and reread a beautiful verse. That is the purpose behind the greatest of the Chinese landscape paintings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is not easy for us to recapture that mood, because we are fidgety Westerners with little patience and little knowledge of the technique of meditation–no more, I suppose, than the old Chinese had of the technique of physical training. But if we look long and carefully at a picture such as (Fig. 3.1), we shall perhaps begin to feel something of the spirit in which it was painted and of the high purpose, it was to serve.
We must not, of course, expect any portraits of real landscapes, picture-postcards of beauty spots. Chinese artists did not go out into the open, to sit down in front of some motif and sketch it. They even learned their art by a strange method of meditation and concentration in which they first acquired skill in ‘how to paint pine-trees’, ‘how to paint rocks’, “how to paint clouds’, by studying not nature but the works of renowned masters. Only when they had thoroughly acquired this skill did they travel and contemplate the beauty of nature so as to capture the moods of the landscape. When they came home they would then try to recapture these moods by putting together their images of pine-trees, rocks and clouds much in the way a poet might string together a number of images which had come into his mind during a walk.
It was the ambition of these Chinese masters to acquire such a facility in the handling of brush and ink that they could write down their vision while their inspiration was still fresh. Often they would write a few lines of poetry and paint a picture on the same scroll of silk. The Chinese, therefore, consider it childish to look for details in pictures and then to compare them with the real world. They want, rather, to find in them the visible traces of the artist’s enthusiasm. It may not be easy for us to appreciate the boldest of these works, such as (Fig. 3.2), which consists only of some vague forms of mountain peaks emerging out of clouds. But once we try to put ourselves in the place of the painter, and to experience something of the awe he must have felt for these majestic peaks, we may at least get an inkling of what the Chinese value most highly in art.
For us it is easier to admire the same skill and concentration in more familiar subjects. The painting of three fishes in a pond (Fig. 3.3) gives an idea of the patient observation that must have gone into the artist’s study of his simple subject, and of the ease and mastery with which he handled it when he came to paint this picture. Again we see how fond the Chinese artists were of graceful curves, and how they could exploit their effects to suggest movement. The forms do not seem to make any clear symmetrical pattern.
They are not evenly distributed as in the Persian miniature. Nevertheless, we feel that the artist has balanced them with immense assurance. One can look at such a picture for a long stretch of time without getting bored. It is an experiment well worth trying.
There is something wonderful in this restraint of Chinese art, in its deliberate limitation to a few simple motifs of nature. But it almost goes without saying that this approach to painting also had its dangers. As time went on, nearly every type of brushstroke with which a stem of bamboo or a rugged rock could be painted was laid down and labelled by tradition, and so great was the general admiration for the works of the past that artists dared less and less to rely on their own inspiration.
The standards of painting remained very high throughout the subsequent centuries both in China and in Japan (which adopted the Chinese conceptions) but art became more and more like a graceful and elaborate game which has lost much of its interest as so many of its moves are known It was only after a new contact with the achievements of Western art in the eighteenth century that Japanese artists dared to apply the Eastern methods to new subjects. We shall see how fruitful these new experiments also became for the West when it first got to know them.
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