Calligraphy and Painting – The Sister Arts of the Chinese Literati
In China, traditional painting and calligraphy may be taken together as the defining visual arts of the historical elites. These two art forms, sharing the very same materials, have for centuries defined the aesthetic sensibilities of the lettered classes. In the West, we often think of words and images to be entirely different modes of communication. In China, this stark separation has not been created. Here, we’ll attempt to decipher some of the ways in which Calligraphy and Painting influenced each other in the Chinese tradition so that we can understand each discipline a little more fully.
Painting in China has a long and colorful history which can be traced back as far as 3000 BC, although practically no paintings of this time still exist. It was not until the Han Dynasty (210 – 220 BCE) that painting was accepted as an independent art form, but archaeological discoveries from a tomb in Changsha, Hunan province, from the Chu culture included a piece painting on silk, showing the deceased riding on a dragon. This is an evidence of early Chinese painting, and proves that silk as a painting material was used as early as in the 7th century BC. By the 1st century CE, silk was slowly substituted by the more durable and cheaper paper, although it never completely vanished.
Confucianism is not a religion, but a philosophy which was and still is immensely important for the political and ethical system of China. It is rooted in the teachings of Confucius and is together with Daoism and Buddhism one of the three great philosophies of China. It was developed around 500 BCE and influences Chinese society and culture until today.
Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting and its Place in History
Ink and wash painting in China is truly a living art with a long tradition.From its very beginnings in the Han Dynasty until very recent currents in the 21st century, ink and wash painting is an art which has been continuously and actively pursued. Starting off from a rather humble background as a derivative of calligraphy, painting was technically refined, went through highs and lows, sometimes stagnated in techniques and motifs, until being revived and modernized, while being continuously supplied and fed by philosophic and religious influences. Ink and wash painting developed into an art which is more than any other art form a subjective reflection of the painter’s inner world. This subjectivity may be the reason why painting never lost its independent character, even in times of political and social turmoil.
The Impact of Secular Developments on Chinese Painting: The Han Dynasty
Until the Han Dynasty (210 – 220 BCE) painting were mostly of religious nature and showed either Daoist scenes, rituals connected to ancestor worship, or illustrations of Confucian moral themes. These religious or philosophic motifs were not abandoned in the Han Dynasty – mural paintings in particular include depictions of higher beings such as guardian spirits. These pictures are often executed on tiles or bricks; contemporary documents also state that the walls of palaces, halls and houses were covered with paintings. The growing economical expansion and contacts to foreign travelers through the Silk Road caused artists to depict scenes from daily life in this flourishing period merchants, artisans, even slaves and soldiers were illustrated in figure paintings. This variety in themes and motifs was not only limited to painting, but other kind of art as well, such as pottery or lacquerware.