The Three Perfections: Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy

 

 

Chinese paintings have writing on them.  Sometimes it is the artist’s name and personal seal.  But the writing can be a philosophical treatise or a kind of journal entry about the painting – the style, the occasion, the artist’s feelings at the time, or relationships with friends or patrons.  Michael Sullivan, in his book, The Three Perfections:  Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy, says that “…the idea that writing and painting belong together is a very ancient one in China.”

The inscriptions may be distinguished as follows:  those written by the painter, those written by friends, and later comments by collectors or connoisseurs.    Sullivan says, “Needless to say, no one would, or should, dare to write on a painting unless his handwriting were accomplished, and the sentiments, however conventional, were elegantly expressed.” 

Friends might add a bit of social history about the painter and the painting, but comments by great critics or connoisseurs would add to the value of the painting.  The Chinese do not see the painting as a complete artistic statement, but “…as a living body, an accretion of qualities, imaginative, literary, historical, personal, that grows with time, putting on an ever-richer dress of meaning, commentary and association with the years.”  Of course, imperial inscriptions were in a class by themselves, sometimes commonplace and sometimes beautiful poems.

Sullivan writes about the interplay between poetry and painting.  A Sung poet wrote that the writings of a famous poet are paintings without form; and a famous painter’s work is a poem without words.  According to Sullivan, “Painting was often called ‘silent poetry,’…and thought of as a way of release of feelings that need not, or sometimes could not, be put into words.” 

During periods of political repression, a painter/poet could not express his opposition in words.  Sullivan sites an example of a painter who expressed his feelings about the Mongol invasion by painting uprooted orchids and adding a very neutral sounding inscription.  Later, scholars added inscriptions interpreting the painting more explicitly than the painter could express himself.

When they could express themselves, painters felt that a landscape without a poem would be without interest.  The painting must be “…developed as it were, like a photographic image, by the poems, before the viewer can become aware of it,” Sullivan writes.  “When painting and poem appear together, the one reinforces the other, taking the idea far beyond the visual or verbal images, and meaning and feeling vibrate in some mysterious way between the two.”

A philosopher may write about truth that is obtained through his experience of the world and especially nature.  A painting, by evoking the images he experienced, is a symbol of his spiritual journey.

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