I have a fairly decent knowledge of different time periods in western art history, and some familiarity with many forms in which it is produced. I’ve worked with oils, acrylics, watercolors, done etching, stone lithography, and other forms of printmaking. Being familiar with techniques gives an appreciation of the process the artist goes through to create a work. I’ve also studied art history a bit, and know what occurred in what time and place, understand the evolution of styles, and can recognize a fair number of renown western artists.
Studying Chinese painting is very different because there is not the cultural context of brush and ink, nor a sense of the symbology of many of the subjects. To the western eye, it has been written, much of the painting and ink art of Asia is not understood. I’m inclined to agree, because although I love the elegance and simplicity of sumi ink painting, my cultural background and training can make the art of Japan and China at times difficult to appreciate.
The Weng Collection – “Treasures Through Six Generations – at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, was eye-opening. Spanning about 900 years in time, from the 1200s to present day, calligraphy and paintings, large (a 53′ scroll) and small, filled a couple of rooms. There wasn’t so much that it was overwhelming, but enough to appreciate a sense of time and history in Chinese painting. It was through this continuum of paintings that I got a sense of history and development, as well as an appreciation for the symbolism, the individuality expressed within traditional subject matter, and, I think, a sense of Chinese cultural time. I was able to look at a painting and recognize how it was done – the movement of brush and ink, the addition of color. Brushwork and style was recognizable, as both fine line and more spontaneous styles were shown. The calligraphy was beautiful, ranging from “letters home” to loved ones, to a large, magnificant scroll of “hu” – tiger.
Newly completed in 2008, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance is nearby the exhibit. After leaving the exhibit, we wandered down the hill, and into a grove of pine trees – so like the ones depicted in the scrolls in the exhibit, and so like the ones shown as samples in The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting. From there, a setting of young black bamboo.
The grove leads to the ponds and streams which have numerous koi, trees (willows and native oak), pavilions, and bridges. The eye is led here and there. Details small and large wait to be noticed. Architecture, plants, and water create a living handscroll.
The Weng Collection, the Chinese garden, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, and my monthly Chinese painting class have conjoined into a single experience. Somehow, I understand the history of Chinese painting better – nearly a millenia of tradition has been seen (and who has touched these paintings? who made them? who unrolled them in lantern light to enjoy them?) – a garden of trees and flowers, an earthly aesthetic – a “how to” book that is about 500 years old, and still being printed – and finally, doing the brushwork myself, as generations have before.
The catalog which accompanies this exhibit is well worth the 25.00 price – I know I will continue to enjoy this exhibit long after it leaves the Huntington. It gives the history of the collection, and detailed information about the work displayed. These pictures will give a sense of the contents.
If you ever have the opportunity to see this exhibit, go! And if you are in the Los Angeles area, visit the Huntington Library. The grounds are incredible. The gardens are beautifully laid out, one leading to another. We went on a Friday, had a picnic on the lawn (you cannot bring food into the gardens), and wandered through galleries, gardens, and had a peaceful time. In four hours we could not see enough. We shall return!