Friday, March 14, 2008

Art and Writing, Images and Contemplation

An article in this morning's New York Times, after new snow fell during the night, has put me in a contemplative mood.

The article is a review of "'Anatomy of a Masterpiece: How to Read Chinese Paintings,' a spare, studious show that offers, along with many stimulations, a retreat from worldly tumult — the religious fervor, the courtly pomp, the expressive self-promotion — that fills much of the museum." What struck my eye, as so often, is the intersection of visual and written images.

With a few lines and a little color, the artist depicts a man standing in a pavilion looking out over a quiet landscape. I wonder what is in his mind, and imagine there is pleasure and peace. With a different set of lines, this time drawn according to calligraphic conventions, he creates written characters, windows into his mind. Over the years since the painting was created, various scholars and artists have added their seals to the work, stamping the painting with their approval.

The article cites a15th-century Chinese writer's wish list: “A nice cottage. A clean table. A clear sky with a beautiful moon. A vase of flowers. No cares of the world.” And this drawing reflects that clarity, that simplicity, that focus. Here the characters and the landscape are so visually intimate that written text and drawn trees feel like the same species.

I return to the work by Zarko Radakovic and Nina Pops (their response to a text by Peter Handke featured in the previous post) and feel again the textual beauty of a painting and the painterly quality of text.

And then I remember an exhibition Zarko and I saw twenty-five years ago in Cologne, Germany, and my accompanying thoughts:

Driving rain in the night. This morning delicate clouds veiling the mountains remind me of Tao Yuanming’s poem “Return Home”: The clouds rise aimlessly out of the mountains, / The birds, tired of flight, contemplate their return home, and of Li Zai’s 15th-century drawing after those lines.

For the rest of the Times article, see: