China (part II)

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In China, plastic expression is a kind of conventional graphology analogous to writing. The first Chinese painters were the Buddhist monks who, in the course of the same centuries in which the Christian monks were gathering up the debris of the mind of antiquity, cultivated in their monasteries the only flower of high idealism that blossomed on this immovable soil for thirty centuries; and note that these first Chinese painters were also writers. There were no other painters than the poets, and they painted and wrote with the same brush and caused the poem and the image to comment one on the other interminably. The ideographic signs which required a lifetime to learn and which were clothed in a kind of spiritual beauty that the artists seized in the tenuity, the thickness, or the complexity of the black arabesques with which they covered the white paper, brought them little by little to handle the brush dipped in India ink with consummate ease. Whenever their poetry, born of the same current of feeling as the painting, had felt the freshness and the calm of the world around the monasteries, isolated in the upper valleys, the painters who commented upon this poetry looked upon the world with an innocence that had never before been permitted, by their traditional philosophy, to Chinese artists. Landscape, that instrument of liberation and conquest, appeared to them suddenly. And at that moment the Buddhist soul found in them its most serene expression [M. Pal√©ologue, L’Art Chinois].

Never did the Chinese painters, despite the brevity of their style, go so far as their pupils, the artists of Nippon, in the schematized stylization of nature. Here there was no question of decorating houses or temples. They illustrated poems for themselves, in that profoundly gentle and yet profoundly egoistic spirit of the anchorite who has attained to peace from the life of the passions. The agitation of the cities did not reach them. The images, which they traced on the silk with a minuteness that knew no lassitude, or which they slowly brought to birth from the dabs of ink that their brush pressed into the rice paper, often expressed nothing but the inner peace of the philosopher as he thumbs the writings of the sages, amid indulgent trees or at the edge of pure waters. They heard no other sounds than those of the torrents in the mountain or the bleating of the herds. They loved the hours when the day is undefined, the glow of moonlight nights, the hesitation of the middle seasons, the mists that mount at dawn from the flooded rice fields [Ibid.]. They had gathered a freshness of soul like that of the morning in which the birds intoxicate themselves.

It is almost impossible to consider Chinese painting according to that harmonious curve which, in the case of almost all the other schools, seems to sum up all the elements of the work: from its beginning, through the progressive expansion of the elements later on into a balanced expression, and, later still, to their disorder and their dispersal. According to the place, according to the circumstances, the aspect of a century will change. Here, for example. Buddhistic hieratism will not appear. There, it will be prolonged up to the threshold of the modern world, isolated in some region that lies far away from the centers of life, or, in the depths of some well-guarded cloister, thoroughly cut off from the surrounding world that lives and moves. It sometimes takes two hundred years for a province to accept and to yield to the sentiments of another province, where they have already been forgotten. Among the Tibetans this is constant, but it is also more explicable. Korea, for example, always lags behind China, whereas Japan, which leaps over transitional stages, can imitate at will either a form which disappeared from China ten centuries ago or one that is scarcely born to-day. Tibet is impregnated by India, Turkestan by Persia, Indo-China by Cambodia and Laos. In China itself we find the same thing, according to the dynasty, the school, the region, or the religion. A thing apart, as it is everywhere, and almost immovable in time and space, Buddhist art remains distinct from everything that is not itself. It weakens, evidently, in proportion as faith descends, but it still remains distinct and distant, a language symbolic of the infinite and the universal, a spiritual light concentrated in a seated human form and flowing inexhaustibly from all the surfaces of that figure.

If we consider Chinese painting in its entirety and without allowing for its local attempts at emancipation, the artificial survivals from periods when it succumbed, and the general confusion of its development, we may say that some fifteen centuries passed before Chinese egoism consented to tear itself from the contemplative life. Only then could it go down to the torrent where the kingfisher watches for his prey, or furtively approach the bough on which the nightingale, chilled by the dawn, ruffles his plumage as he rolls his last sob, or observe the blackbirds hopping on the snow. It was scarcely before the Ming dynasty, in the fourteenth or in the fifteenth century, that the Chinese painters looked closely at the birds, the fishes, and the flowers, as if to bequeath to Japan, which was asking their instruction, the incomparable science with which two or three thousand years of practical and immediately interested observation had equipped them. With disconcerting facility they disdained, at this moment, the conventional language that had made their art so glorious; they abandoned the disciplined liberty that enabled them to express abstractions of sentiment merely by respecting and exalting the laws of harmony.

Let us turn away from the birds, the fishes, the flowers, the things to be described in their physical aspects; let us for the moment disregard the direct, pure, and clear portraits whose candid penetrating glance astonishes us ; let us also forget the embroidered screens and the decorative paintings with their tremulous movement that recalls the flutter of wings. We then perceive what the great painting of China is; it invades our spirit like a wave of music. It awakens intimate and vague sensations, impossible to seize, but of a limitless profundity; they pass one into another, gradually welling up until we are completely overcome by them. We cannot discern their origin or their end. The forms in Chinese painting have the appearance of still being partly in the clasp of the primeval clay. Or one might say that they appear through a layer of water so limpid, so calm, that it does not disturb the tones which have been fixed and immobilized under it for a thousand years. Whether they tell us of a pollen of flowers, of the undefined shades on the throats of birds, or of the subtle colors that rise from the depths of ripening fruits, the silk paintings of China have nothing in common with the object. They are states of the soul in the presence of the world, and the object is only a sign—deeply loved, certainly—which, according to the way it acts and combines with other objects, suggests that state of soul. The transformation is complete and constant. And through it, when the Chinese paints or rather evokes things like the depths of the ocean, which he has never seen, he does it with a poetry so profound that it creates reality. Thus, on a canvas the size of a napkin, a heron preens his plumage in the morning mist—and the immensity of space is suggested. Space is the perpetual accomplice of the Chinese artist. It condenses around his paintings with such slow subtlety that they seem to emanate from it. The masters lay on their blacks and their reds with gentleness and power, as if they were drawing them forth little by little from the patina of dark amber which they seem to have foreseen and calculated. Children play, women pass, sages and gods converse, but that is never what one sees. One hears peaceful melodies that light on the heart in waves of serenity.

But serenity, unfortunately, is exhausted as quickly as is enthusiasm, for it also is a result of effort. When the Chinese artists departed from the original sources of their inspiration, they resorted to wine in order to attain the mental state prescribed by the sages, and in the artificial enthusiasm of the stimulant, in which they indulged more and more, they discovered their fire, their joy, their irony, their serenity even, in proportion to the amount they drank and to the turn of their minds. In gaining mastery over themselves they destroyed their own life. From century to century, with the strange slowness that characterizes the activity of the Chinese, their painting, which had been taken into the service of the imperial court as soon as it left the monasteries, followed the evolution of their other means of expression. It turned to traditionalism, and did so with an obstinacy especially dangerous, since, if painting is to live, it must remain the most individual of all languages. Here it developed in an almost unbreathable atmosphere of formulas, of rules and canons which were written down in twenty thousand works, codes, histories, lists of practitioners, titles of pictures, and technical treatises that transformed the art of painting into a kind of exact science and engendered thousands of imitators and plagiarists of an ability beyond belief. And so Chinese painting returned to its origins as a graphic art; it created enormous quantities of models to which the artist could resort for forms drawn in all their details and all their aspects, leaving him only the work of grouping them. The capital vice of Chinese calligraphy, which arrests the development of the mind by blocking the exchange of ideas and which carries abstraction into puerile sophistry, reappeared in the last expression of the art which it had endowed with its first technical tool. It is the form of revenge which the objective world takes when it is forgotten too quickly. That intoxication of the spirit known to men who have rid themselves of all shackles is denied to him who has lost the right to seek other forms for his equilibrium than those in which his ancestor found peace.

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