The Seething World of Jizis Paintings
- As viewed on a Macintosh Computer in a Manhattan Apartment on Riverside Drive.
Arthur C. Danto
The Benevolent Person is Boundless, His Artworks Impressive and Natural
-A Discussion of the Essentials of Jizis Landscape Paintings
As a general rule, I do not review an exhibition based on photographs of the works on view. I was once asked to write about a show of the great Venetian masters, Paulo Veronese, which was to be installed in our National Gallery in Washington. But the magazine wanted the review to appear when the show was up, which would mean that I would have to review paintings that were not even in the country yet. The editor said that they could give me transparencies of everything, and I could work from those. Months after I wrote the review, I went to the opening of the show. I realized the moment I entered that I would have written very differently, had I done so on the basis of the paintings rather than their photographic reproductions. I would have written about the glory of the paint, of which the photographs could have given me no idea. Veronese was obsessed with the gorgeousness of life, beginning with the flesh and skin and hair of beautiful women. My review was quite different. Years later, I read a letter by John Ruskin to his father, in which he describes how a painting by Veronese in the Municipal Museum in Turin changed his entire view of God and the universe.
But all I know of the paintings of Jizi are what I have seen on the screen of my laptop. Some of Jizis paintings are somewhat in the traditional style of Chinese ink landscape, but they do not look like the quiet meditative scrolls I have seen in the Metropolitan Museums collections, where small figures are depicted standing by rivers and even by waterfalls, in clearings in dark forests of pine trees, with clouds and perhaps patches of mist. By sheer coincidence, I started to write this on the anniversary of the great earthquake in Sichuan Province last year. I wondered if those who built those devastated villages were reassured by those beautiful paintings of the beneficence of the ground under their feet. Lets build our homes here in this quiet landscape, amid soaring peaks and waters falling through groves of evergreens! One wonders if they ever thought of the landscapes they were surrounded by as capable of shaking, opening up like the jaws of giant serpents, swallowing children they shook like apples out of trees, causing them to tumble into darkness.
When I first got to know Mr. Jizi (Wang Yunshan), I was moved by his broad mindedness and compassion (ren). After viewing his paintings, I felt that both their uninhibited spirit and their ability to carry the Dao were equally important. By spirit here I mean the talent aroused in artists since ancient times by mountain, rivers, and the universe, not the impromptu and leisurely images of the literati, nor the escapades and self amusement of those who merely play with brush and ink. By Dao here I mean both the Dao of Heaven and Earth, and also the Dao that molds character. Even if a painting does not have people in it, still that painting pulsates with human strength. This strength is externalized as natural landscapes, some of which are desolate, some wild, and some magnificent. These paintings construct a world of landscapes that are sublime and also slightly tragic, and so mysterious that they cause people to meditate on them.
Jizis hills seeth and tremble like troubled waters. One feels that mighty dragons lie in troubled sleep. When they do wake up, and stand on their heavy legs, the ground above them will split, and chasms will open up. Art betrayed the people who built those villages, seeing nature as calm and reassuring, scenes to write poems in, or philosophical disquisitions on the goodness of the Tao. In Jizis paintings it is as if the winds lash the grasses as they howl. The grasses hold onto their place by roots that run deep into the rocky soil. There is no ultimate difference between grounds and water, sea and soil. The whole world is hostile to our dreams of peace and poetry.
Jizi lived beyond the Great Wall at the foot of Mt. Yan. For several decades he was steeped in a bold and broad environment of mountains and rivers. His remarkable landscape creations have reached new heights in the cultural spirit and main body of Chinese art, a cause for both admiration and surprise. I visited Jizis apartment in Beijing several times and was always moved by his artistic dedication, and admired the delightful vitality and vast spirit of his paintings.
I began to open up, one at a time, the little windows in which attachments to a text are found. It is a slow, and for me, a somewhat tedious process, but, when the attachments are images, there is often a surprise behind them. I had not anticipated the shift from landscapes to what a crude sensibility would call abstractions. My sense is that these have the same feeling of wildness and almost savagery that the landscapes have. In a way, I felt that these show what lies underground, what, if we were to dig deeply into the earth, we would discover, like caves and chasms. Or what we might see if we were to crack open a geode, and discover a little world, no less savage than the landscapes insinuate.
As early as the Northern and Southern Dynasties, Zong Bing had already theorized that: Sages use their own intelligence and wisdom to realize the Dao; worthies clarify their minds to savor artistic images that emerge from the Dao; in this way, both sages and worthies comprehend the Dao. Landscape painting uses forms to adorn and embody the Dao, allowing the benevolent (ren) to rejoice at finding enlightenment among landscapes. From the beginning, traditional landscape painting based the viewpoint for its value judgments on this metaphysical quest for the Dao. Thus forms adorned the Dao, and were physical signs of the Dao that provided pleasure to viewers. Because the Dao is abstract and primeval, and due to the constraints of the cultural position of adorning the Dao, the forms of traditional landscape painting, on the basis of maintaining a certain degree of identity, had the artists using accrued combinations of brush and ink symbols; a subjective, virtual space-time continuum; fixed drawings, stylized techniques, and an orientation toward relatively constant artistic values - all of which became the significant features of traditional landscape painting. These limits and constraints, although they assured the completeness and purity of the traditional landscape painting system, and allowed the ancients in the midst of their ability to model mountains and mold rivers to describe the unaffected spirit in their bosoms, and in the realm of going beyond the image to embody their intuition of the Dao, nevertheless, this relatively mature system also presented a relatively rigid visual language. How to breakthrough this paradox was not only an internal requirement in the historical development of traditional landscape painting, but also an issue that is now even more urgent in the face of Western cultures impact on and penetration into Chinese culture in the contemporary and modern periods.
I began to think, as I opened window after window, of a famous poem by a nineteenth century visionary poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It must exist in a Chinese translation. Its title is Kubla Khan, and its subtitle is: A Vision in a Dream; a Fragment. Coleridge had this dream as the result of smoking opium. It is a fragment, because he was awakened by a visitor, knocking at the door. It tore him from his dream. Here are the first few lines:
In the more than fifty years that Jizi, who will soon be seventy years of age, has pursued the arts seeking the Dao, he has deeply felt the anxieties of the present age, and the anxieties and confusion in the development of art. He uses benevolence (ren) as his foundation, nourishes his vast, flowing passion nature, and structures his philosophy from the Dao of Heaven, earth, and man. As the poet said: The vast, flowing passion nature is just the sense of righteousness that exists in the world. What this sense of righteousness confers on humanity is a highly integrated sense of truth, goodness, and beauty, and of the noble, tragic, strong, upright, and serene. The artworks of artists are the products of the artists taking an action (youwei) but their artworks should also embody a spirit of taking no action (wuwei). Taking no action is the spirit of the universe, the spirit of the great Dao. Artists are not only understand the harmony among Heaven, earth, and man, but also are proponents of this harmony, while at the same time they seek a cosmic consciousness. Jizi strictly grasps this type of artistic seeking: his artworks are concrete manifestations that he bears responsibility for this seeking for a cosmic consciousness, and for this reason he named his landscapes the Dao of Ink Landscapes. From the following quote from Jizi, we can see his self-disciplined pursuit of this goal: Viewing my paintings is not a cheerfully pleasant experience, a relaxing pastime, nor an experience that experts on traditional and orthodox brush and ink paintings relish, but rather an experience for those who can exchange serious ideas on all aspects of the artworks. My paintings are not the brush and ink works that the literati delighted in painting, they are not poetic paintings, and they are not paintings that play with ink, or that joyfully satisfy the artists wish to express his carefree spirit like all those paintings of mountains and recluses. My paintings do not have spiraling smoke, drizzling rain, floating boats, weeping willows, dripping ducks, matching pairs of Mandarin ducks, or Ladies Among the Plantain Trees. What my paintings set out to do is express the endless movements, tenacious struggles and rivalries, and the loud screams of life in the universe. I strive to use my artistic language to wash away humanitys depressions and troubles, and to seek the true meaning of life in the universe.
The goal of artistic language is producing a mode of expression about art, rather than the purposeful expression of art. The fundamentals of this artistic language are what is being described and how it is being described. The traditional art of the East and the West each has its own artistic language system; nevertheless, we can see among the differences a consistent pursuit of the artistic spirit. Jizis landscape paintings use just such a historical view, a sense of the times, and a strong sense of purpose to perfect his own artistic language in order, not only to penetrate the vertical image sequence in the language of traditional landscape painting, but also to carry out a horizontal dissection of Western art, so that in making decisions about the vertical and the horizontal image sequences, the artist opens up a new realm for his own paintings features and figures.
Did Kubla Khan
The Dao Inspires Creation of the Image; Mind is the Source for Creating the Artistic Realm
A stately pleasure dome decree,
The image is the basis for the visual arts, and different landscape images present different artistic interests and realms. In his Discourse on the Northern and Southern Schools, Dong Qichang emphasized a plain and innocent literati aesthetic and, by stressing the independent nature of ink and brush paintings, Dong restricted the Northern School and raised the Southern School. At the same time that Dong was developing the literati style of brush and ink painting, he was also forfeiting the true beauty of landscape painting. By insisting on using similar graphic modes and following the same painting routine, Dong in effect waylaid creative use of the brush. The Northern and the Southern Schools have their differences, something already evident from the earliest development of landscape painting. But does this initial basing of landscape painting on creative accomplishments and on the different natural conditions of different landscape features allow us to say that the Northern School led by Jing Hao and Guan Tong was either inferior or superior to the Southern School established by Dong Yuan and Ju Ran? This type of differentiation is really rather meaningless. Northern places produce a bold people while southerners are more gentle, and differences in aesthetic orientation alone do not allow us to directly declare one superior and the other inferior. Mr Jizi was born in the North and was raised amidst northern lands and waters. All of his landscape paintings - no matter whether his Snow and Ice Landscapes, his Dao of Ink Landscapes, or his later landscapes of self structured scenes that permeate the cosmic consciousness - all these landscape paintings have their origins in Northern landscapes. Of course, an individuals encounters in life are external factors, Jizis inner drive comes from finding the source for paintings in ones mind as well as a cultural knowledge powerful enough to penetrate history.
Where Alph the sacred river ran,
Jizi has astutely grasped the transcendent spiritual essence of traditional painting. He has inherited the ideology of purifying the mind to glimpse the Dao, and purifying the mind to get the sense of an object. He has thought deeply about what after all is the highest realm that Chinese painting wants to attain. He has drawn cultural and spiritual nourishment from Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, and realized that transcendent realm of the Dao where the sages trace out the beauty of the universe, and comprehend the myriad of things in the universe; where great images have no forms, and great music uses sound sparingly; and where looking for it, there is no form; listening for it, there is no sound; and men who discuss it find it abstruse. Jizi has taken the narrow definition of Dao and extended it, endowing it with the vitality of the times. He collectively designates the Confucian, Daoist, and Chan Buddhist spirits as the spirit of the great Dao. This spirit of the great Dao is not only the organic content of personal cultivation, but also the projection of ones sentiments onto nature, both of which ultimately emerge as images that transcend nature.
In Caverns measureless to Man,
In the Snow and Ice Landscapes of his early period, Jizi primarily took Tibets majestic and sacred mountains and rivers, as well as the Yanshan mountain range both within and without the Great Wall, as his themes. After these themes underwent subjective cropping, they metamorphosed into scenes of universal significance and broad grandeur. Among these are scenes of traditional Tibetan temples and the meandering Great Wall, manifestations of humanitys own strength that are also the pictures visual centers. With the undulating, mighty mountains as the central subject, the magnificent towering mountains, surrounded by clouds that surge and billow, provide a counter force to the buildings on the towering, motionless mountain peaks, and to the great tension that lies hidden inside these mountains. The solemn and sacred snow mountains that are deep and secretive change into varied clouds and mists, while the deep and solemn temples, the thick and dull Lama trombones, the strong religious atmosphere, the broad and intensive folk customs - these kinds of wonderful, natural scenery and mysterious and ancient cultural landscapes are a profound cultural heritage symbolizing for humanity an eternal allure that is charming and mysterious. The Dao of Ink Landscapes and the later new compositions that permeate the cosmic consciousness have both advanced the refinement of depicting scenes of mountains and rivers that transcend a space-time continuum. These landscape paintings have images that not only appear to be ancient caves, but also some kind of unknown outer space where various types of mountainous forms interlock, extrude, and mutually overlap with round forms to create a multi-dimensional imagery that possesses strong symbolic significance. Just as Jizi himself has said: In my explorations of landscape painting, the landscapes in the paintings are not composed of mountains that one can see in the natural world with ones own eyes, nor are they reproductions of the imitated, decorated, and scenic natural mountains in other landscape paintings. Rather, the landscapes in my paintings are symbols that as much as possible signify art. I borrow these symbols to express a deep awareness of my primary ideas so that this deep awareness, by means of the objects in the paintings, can as much as possible overflow with intuitive understanding. Jizi has taken the state of mind where Heaven and humanity are one, a state of mind that exists in the traditional landscape creative process and, by means of intuitive comprehension, visually expressed this state of mind in the paintings, painting it as visual, aesthetic objects. These traces of the realm of the Dao give people a sense of the mysterious, the sublime, the tragic, and the sacred. The paintings great tension and broad realms give people a spiritual shock that seems to be a kind of transcendental purification of their souls.
Down to a sunless sea,
Partial Remodeling and Total Reconstruction
The poem then describes the great gardens, with forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spot of greenery. But then, as if we were tracking the great underground river, running through caves, where rocks fly through the air - Huge fragments vaulted.
Delineation, light ink strokes, rubbing, spotting, and staining are all basic brush and ink strokes and methods of artistic expression in traditional landscape painting. Some painters, based on their painting process, use these methods independently, while other painters apply them flexibly. As for displaying mountain rocks, most rocks have three tableaux: a rock is first delineated, then light ink strokes and staining are used to distinguish lightness and darkness. The brush strokes used for this were developed by painting different landscape topographies. Ultimately, the brush strokes become various types of stylized techniques. These stylized brush techniques have names such as: the axe swing stroke, the wrinkled stroke, the folded band stroke, the veins of the lotus leaf stroke, the horse teeth stroke, the dense dotting stroke, and so on. In fact, the artists used lines as units and either shortened the lines to dots or extended them for a tableau. These then became a collection of three different brush strokes: the line, the dot, and the tableau. Due to his unique way of creating images, Jizi, in connection with traditional landscape paintings display of snow and ice landscapes by using the brush to produce weak, pale spots, created unique brush techniques such as the coarse snow stroke, the split snow stroke, the wrap around snow stroke, the nest of snow stroke, and so on. These brush stroke techniques embodied the use of tableau as the basic creative unit; within the tableau, lines appear that are agile and use ink in interesting ways. These brush stroke techniques display the mottled changes in the textures of mountain rocks that are quite consistent with the modern aesthetic vision. The textual relationship among tableaux utilizes certain shading techniques that not only have a segmental sense of weight, but also coincide with the overlapping method brought about by the layered changes that traditional landscape painting used to display the shaded (yin) and lighted (yang) aspects of mountain rocks. The panoramic landscapes of the Northern Song not only emphasized having the painting show its essence when viewed close up, by which they meant pursuing a subtle view of local mountain rocks that embodies the physics involved, but they also emphasized having the painting show its power when viewed from afar, that is that the imposing manner of the whole painting radiate the timeless Dao of landscape painting. Jizi fully absorbed the Song landscape artists concepts of artistic rules and reasons. On the ample basis of partial remodeling, Jizi uses great architecture throughout his landscape paintings in which the real and the theoretical are equal, the dynamic and the static participate equally, and the clouds that completely cover the painting wander among the mountains. Jizi frequently employs the layered accumulation of ink technique that not only drips ink thickly, but can also be used to apply white carefully to maintain an outer appearance of the immeasurable traces of clouds and mists. Jizi has obviously learned from the approach to clouds in Western landscape painting, while at the same time, in order to enhance contrast, he has grasped the sense of rhythm and excitement of the whole panorama. Jizi also cleverly utilizes the role of light: the blackest and whitest physical images are juxtaposed for contrast, highlighting the visual tension.
Jizis landscapes remind me of the wildness of Coleridges description of seething water, vast rocky domes, fragments of dislocated stone, dancing and crashing into the underground sea.
In composition, traditional landscape painting stressed arrangement and management so that traditional landscape painting could give even more expression to, and derive more meaning from, a planar surface. Especially after the landscape paintings of the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties, however, the spatial sense gradually became faded and exhausted. The method of the three distances became even more independently applied, and one could no longer dwell or roam in the fascinating spaces of landscape painting. The lack of a visual sense could not of course shock a viewers inner mind. In his Dao of Ink Landscape Series, Jizi completely broke with the traditional stylized composition and advanced his restructuring of images to establish a deep and mysterious space that made people realize the reality of chaos and distress, and that led them into a holy land of the soul that is mysterious, distant, and profound. In order to expand the layout, broaden the scene, and comprehend the realm of the Dao, Jizi carried on the traditional scattered perspective method, which is also the foundation for a panorama, and created a perspective on space of four or more dimensions that he named the multi-dimensional perspective. He said: The universe is extremely deep and profound, and its time and space have no location, no direction. . . . As much as possible, I expand an artworks limits on the expression of forms, and give expression to the artworks unlimited spiritual sphere. At the same time, Jizi transformed the traditional relationship between the real and the false to counter the tradition of putting less emphasis on emptiness. He also mastered Western arts relationship between the real and the false, thereby greatly strengthening the tension in his artworks, and fusing the paintings black and white relationship and the optical effects, boldly utilizing a black color that traditional landscape painting called dead black, thereby reinforcing the paintings overall feeling of depth. At the same time, Jizi learned from factors used in plane surface composition such as apertures with mountain rocks overlapped and interspersed. His shading effects are as intangible as a time tunnel.
I have to wonder whether this impression of dreams and fragments, rocks and waters, would survive, were I to see these works, or is this just an illusion due to electronic transmission, and the actual touch and brush of the paintings actually a convey a whole different world?
A Solemn Sublimity, An Illusional Brilliance
（Arthur C. Danto is famous American philosopher and critic of art, Emeritus Professor of Columbia University, his books After the End of Art and The Abuse of Beauty, etc. are acclaimed highly worldwide.）
My paintings are not the kind of paintings that stop once they have reached the level of providing the viewer with a pleasant mood or some character cultivation (although they often include these). Nor do I require that viewers completely understand my paintings. Instead, I only require that the initial feelings that people viewing my paintings have, by means of a first intuition, cause them to reflect rationally on the paintings and, by means of this reflection, come to their own understanding. I believe that this type of understanding, no matter the point of view, enables them to relate to the deepest layers of my mind. I strive to create the power to shock, and to impact and cleanse the viewers soul. Jizi is extremely clear about the ultimate concerns and pursuits of his art. He sums up that a philosophical realm of poetry and the height of a realm of the humanist spirit are the profound philosophical thoughts that give his artworks a strong, spiritual penetrating power that moves peoples souls in an almost religious manner.
Religion is a type of belief, and the greatest feature of religion is perhaps that it embodies a spirit of transcendence and purity. Jizi puts it well: The universal spirit of art is not religion, but it has a religious ethos. His Snow and Ice Landscapes depict a sacred atmosphere: the desolate, melancholy, snowy plateau; the solitary yak walking alone; the towering, quiet temple; a cows skull placed atop a rock for worship
Confucius previously proposed this formula for self-cultivation: Set your will on the Dao; be in accord with virtue; depend on benevolence (ren); take pleasure in the arts. In Jizis works, not only does art give pleasure, but art is also the best choice for carrying the Dao, for transmitting the Dao, and for embodying benevolence (ren). Art, in other words, is Jizis whole life. The noble-minded person, like Heaven itself, continues to advance with a lofty fortitude. An energetic life has caused the art of Jizi, this benevolent (ren) person, to be free and boundless. The explosive force of his art will have lasting repercussions in the context of a long ago and remote Chinese art form, and especially in the overall pattern of the development of contemporary Chinese art. How Chinas traditional ink art should develop is an issue that presents a major cultural choice. Traditional art is most definitely not something that is fixed and unchanging, but how it should change and how to put the change into practice are difficult issues, and many artists have given a lifetime of effort to this issue of how best to change tradition. With regards to this issue, we can say that the creative artistic practices of Jizis paintings have provided us with a good case to research the transformations in contemporary Chinese ink art. Studying and viewing his art should provoke us to think deeply about Chinese art at this point in contemporary art history. That a great talent takes time to mature has always been a fascinating theme in the history of Chinese aesthetics.
(The author is a research fellow at the National Art Museum of China.)
Translated by E. F. Connelly, PhD