Cultural Sources of Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting: Chinese Brush Painting and Poetry

 

What is the Relationship Between Ink and Wash Painting / Sumi-e and Poetry?

A famous quote by the great painter Guo Xi of the Northern Song Dynasty is often mentioned when it comes to painting and poetry: “Poetry is painting without form, painting is poetry with form”, he stated, alluding to the close relation of the two arts. Paintings of the Southern Song Dynasty in particular are often called “lyrical”, relating to their romantic or melancholic atmospheres evoked by the use of misty areas and light washes. In ancient times, most of the painters who produced famous works were also poets and calligraphers; highly educated men who were trained in the “Three Perfections” – painting, poetry and calligraphy.

Combining Poetry and Literature in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

Firstly, it is of course the technical element that the arts have in common: painting and poetry, written down in calligraphic form, share the same tools – brush, ink and paper. Secondly, both forms are an expression of the inner feelings if the artist; a direct translation of the painter’s emotions, either in written or in pictorial form. And thirdly, since the scholars in ancient times were familiar with classic poems, they often felt inspired by those and translated them into graphic works of art. A famous example is Su Dongpo’s “Ode to the Red Cliff”, in which he described a cliff in Chibi, Hubei province, where a famous naval battle had taken place in 208 CE. Many paintings have been produced about the Red Cliff itself, which were certainly inspired by Su Dongpo’s poem

A further step in the relationship between painting and poetry was taken when artists not only took over thematic elements from poetry, but started to add inscriptions to their works. This happened in the Ming Dynasty, particularly when a painter had the feeling that the picture itself did not fully convey what he wanted to express. It can be therefore understood that this innovation underlined and deepened the connection between painting, calligraphy and poetry.