Ancient Chinese art that dates back from before the 1900’s has always been of great interest, not only to me, but also to the wider, general populace all over the world. Their unique style, graceful charm and masterful use of traditional brush techniques have captivated the world generation after generation, and will likely continues to do so for many generations to come. Their timeless beauty is, to me personally, especially highlighted in the ancient hanging wall scrolls and handscrolls; these are ancient works of Chinese mastery that range in imagery from a view of a mountain on a clear day to a narrative of love illustrated over a large silk scroll. Many of these works have been found to be centuries old, and some have even been duplicated so that many versions of a single work are known to exist.
Ink on Silk, hanging scroll, 158 x 108 cm
Often these scrolls are described as being intricately captured moments in time; some pieces illustrate an unseen narrative, while others depict a landscape through a keen use of brush strokes and blurred outlines. However the purpose of these works was not to act as a photograph, or an exact recreation of an environment that has been visited or viewed, but rather to capture the spiritual element of man or nature. To illustrate a more emotional side of a piece of work was the goal of many painters, however this ideal was not always shared by everyone and many early painters strove for a more realistic look to their work rather than something that reflected a feeling of spirit.
Chinese painting was always closely regarded with the art of Calligraphy, and the use of beautiful, natural lines that reflect motion that are often attributed to this art. The range of brush techniques used in many pieces of work is what captivates, whereas one piece may be minimalistic in content and technique, another could be complex and intricate. Sharp brushstrokes mixed with lighter more varied lines are what gives these pieces depth and atmosphere, with the use of a blurred, or ‘tapering’ image to better illustrate a great distance going beyond the borders of the material itself. With each piece the artists style is clearly reflected through these unique techniques, along with the idea of viewing the artists spirit in every work.
Ink paintings were originally always produced on silk using a traditional brush pen, however silk was soon replaced with paper after it was invented as it was more economical. Stories were often painted on one large piece of silk, and were illustrated in a way that is almost like a timeline, however many of these pieces have been cut and sections have been lost over time. These works were known as ‘Handscrolls,’ large pieces of illustrated narrative. The characters of these stories move across the silk, going from one event to the next until the story comes to its ultimate conclusion and the scroll is finished. These works were often painted in black ink with dashes of color to add more depth. The various different owners of such works would occasionally add calligraphy, poems or even short pieces of narrative that would compliment the story of these pieces, and often ‘seals’ were also added.
One of the most well known artists of these handscrolls was a man named Gu Kaizhi, who is famous for his large silk works and is most well known for three specific pieces. One of these three famous works is a handscroll known as ‘Nymph of the Luo River,’ this particular work dates back to the Song Dynasty, however there are known to be eight different versions of this particular piece in museums across the world, two of which reside in the Palace Museum in Beijing.
The scroll illustrates a popular prose poem of the time. The story itself is of a doomed romance between the Nymph of the Luo River and the writer, a poet as well as a prince, named Cao Zhi. The romance develops subtly over the course of the scroll, never is it outright and obvious, but instead is subtly hinted at in the beginning of the piece through gracefully illustrated glances between both characters, and the use of carefully placed visuals, such as the paired horses and birds in the background. However the romance was never meant to be and the Nymph rides off in a carriage pulled by dragons. The figures float through the settings, too big to actually fit into the backgrounds themselves, instead they serve to set the scene, almost like that of a theatre play, rather than the characters being overwhelmed by the setting and overshadowed they are the main focus of attention.
To create an image that is emotionally appealing, or touching in some way is what every artist, regardless of what discipline you come from, wishes to achieve. Perhaps that is why these ancient pieces are so inspiring to many across all genres of art. To create something that looks so refined and beautiful while preserving a feeling of uniqueness is something that is rare and can take a lifetime of diligence and practice to achieve. These refined techniques, the storytelling and the carefully crafted figures are something that you can find continuous inspiration in, without ever feeling that you’ve seen enough. These scrolls have stood the test of time, and though the world continues to turn and art forms continue to evolve and change, these ancient handscrolls and ink paintings remain to be one of China’s most beautiful and appealing subjects.