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The plum blossom is a favorite motif in Chinese painting. Since the tree blooms at the end of winter it has long been a symbol of winter and the endurance of life. Similarly, because ancient gnarled plum trees could bear elegant new blossoms, the plum evoked thoughts of long life. Plums were also indirectly connected to Lao Tzu who was allegedly born under a plum tree. For more than 3000 years plums have been a favorite food in China and a favorite food for thought for Chinese artists and poets.
These paintings are all paintings of plum blossoms by Ming dynasty master Chen Lu. He was born in the early Ming dynasty in Huiji (which is today Shaoxing in Zhejiang province) and was one of the all-time greatest painters of bamboo, pine, orchids, and especially plum blossoms, but no one knows the exact dates of his birth and death. The spare calligraphic lines of these monumental scrolls are interspersed with sections of wild chaos and with internal empty spaces. The effect is not dissimilar from abstract expressionism—the plum boughs become an abstract internal voyage which the viewer embarks on through form & lack of form; from darkness to light and back. This internal voyage element of his work was highlighted by the fact that the long horizontal work is a handscroll—the viewer is meant to spool through it and thus appreciate the modality of discovery and change (if you click on the horizontal scroll at the top of this post you will get some of this effect, although the image is smaller than one might hope). Additionally plum blossoms opened in winter and so they are frequently interspersed with white snow and ice—an even more trenchant juxtaposition of life and non-life.
I’m extremely excited that Chinese New Year is here at last! A dozen times I have started to blog about Chinese snake paintings and stopped because I was waiting for the year of the snake—but that finally arrives on Sunday. To celebrate the advent of year 4710—the year of the water snake–next week is devoted to snakes and serpents of all kind (a longstanding favorite topic here at Ferrebeekeeper). Because they are one of the twelve zodiac animals, snakes have long been celebrated in Chinese art. Additionally their sinuous form adapts beautifully to Chinese-style brush and calligraphy work (as is evident in the art works below).
People born in snake years are said to be graceful and reserved. Although they are successful at romance and have an innate intelligence they are also reputed to be materialists with a dark mysterious side. The snake does not suffer the same stigma in China as in the West and the benevolent creator goddess Nuwa was a serpent goddess. Hopefully the year of the water snake will bring you every sort of happiness and success. Tune in next week as we break in the new year with a variety or remarkable snakes and snake-related topics!
Here are three Chinese paintings of mallard ducks from 3 different eras. Coincidentally, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is one of the quintessential success stories of animals alive today. It lives throughout Asia, Europe, North America, and North Africa (in addition to places where it has been introduced) and it was the ancestor to most domestic ducks. However we will leave an in-depth wild duck essay for later this year (seriously, they really are magnificent & fascinating animals) in order to appreciate these three watercolor on silk paintings.
The first (and greatest) comes from the Song dynasty which ruled China from 960 AD to 1279 AD. As mentioned earlier, the Song is regarded as a glorious apogee of Chinese art and poetry and the simple court painting of a duckling makes the reasons self-evident. The animal is foreshortened and painted with effortless naturalism.
The Second painting comes from the Yuan dynasty—the era of Mongol occupation. Although the duck is presented from the side as though diagramed, it still has a charming naturalism. Additionally the bird has an amusingly insouciant look. His magnificently rendered plumage and feet also serve to give him character while the autumn vines in the background further serve to give the painting piquancy.
Finally we have a lovingly rendered contemporary painting. Even though it is separated from the others by nearly a millennium, the brushwork is similar. The feathers have been painted with swift sure strokes. The background though vibrantly colored has been sketched in to suggest a landscape (rather then rendered in detail. Although and there is a touch more photorealism in the duck’s plumage there is also a touch less charisma and personality in the ducks’ faces.
Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters. Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty. He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.
Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting. Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him. He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.
The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus. Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom. The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains. The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes. Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless. The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.
It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting. On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center. Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute. The tiny people seem excited for spring to come. They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.
The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too. But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident. The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.
I wrote earlier about sepia ink, the beautiful drawing and writing medium used in the Mediterranean for thousands of years which was obtained from the ink sacks of cuttlefish. Was sepia ink also used by the great northern masters for their sketches? Not at all: there was an altogether different source of the beautiful smoky brown inks used by Brueghel, Durer, Lorraine, and Rembrandt (as well as most other German, French, Flemish, Dutch, and English artists) when they sketched from life. The name of the transparent shadowy brown pigment with yellow undertones was bistre and its source was not a mollusk but rather a tree. Bistre was made with the soot left over from burning beechwood. The beechwood ash was boiled with water to produce a cheap and superior drawing pigment. Although steel and copper nibs certainly existed, most masters probably sketched with simple reed pens or goose quills (waterfowl were generally agreed to provide the best drawing quills and geese were most readily available).
Since I have a great fondness for both beech trees, reeds, and geese, it cheers me to think that the great drawings of the old masters were produced with such humble materials. Unfortunately there is no way to set out any sort of comprehensive collection of bistre drawings: the medium was more universally used then anything other than carbon black. Even a little sampler would involve a wildly eclectic mixture of works from all sorts of drafstmen from wildly different ages and schools. So, instead I am showing three little Rembrandt drawings to represent bistre. I don’t write as much about Rembrandt as I do about other lesser artists (i.e. the rest) because my feelings about his ineffable works are hard to characterize. The “Lines and Color” blogs summarizes the scope of Rembrandt’s drawings:
Over 1,400 of his drawings survive, conservatively estimated at less than half of what he produced. (For most great artists we’re lucky to have a few dozen. For Vermeer and Franz Hals we have none.) Also unlike most of the great masters, the majority of Rembrandt’s drawings were not done as preparation for paintings, and very few were signed as pieces to be presented to friends or patrons. Most of his enormous outpouring of drawings were apparently done for himself, as visual record of his life and experience or simply for the joy in the act of drawing.
The multitude of subjects encompassed in 1,400 drawings provides a comprehensive overview of life in seventeenth century Holland (which was one of the focal points of the first wave of true globalism). Out of the murky brown ink washes emerge an endless parade of long-vanished people, places, and things. The figures work, play, and struggle in cities manufactured of hasty brown lines under brown clouds beside an ink wash ocean (over which inky ships carried the spices of the old world and the furs from the new). Magicians scheme, children squall, and captive lions recline. It is my favorite alchemy. Rembrandt gives us an entire world crafted out of water and beechwood ash.
When I was a child, my family went to the invertebrate house in Washington, DC. Upon entering the building, there was a very beautiful aquarium which contained the most alien creature I have ever encountered. It was a beautiful glistening red…and then it instantly changed color to bright white with pale dun spots. Next the strange being sank through the water column and changed color and texture. Its smooth skin knotted up into ropey bumps. The speckled white tuned to wavy deep brown lines. Intelligent eyes with W-shaped pupils regarded me from what suddenly seemed to be a hunk of rock. I had encountered my first live cuttlefish. In fact there were two in the tank, as I discovered when a patch of unremarkable sand changed shape and color and jetted to the surface while flashing rainbow colors. They were worked up because they were about to be fed and, when eating their suppers, the cuttlefish put on a particularly good show. They changed color like digital screens and waved their eight arms about and then ZAP! elongated feeding tentacles shot out from under their mantles to grab the anchovies from across the length of the tank. Then they rocketed around with uncanny torpedo speed.
Cuttlefish are cephalopods like octopuses, argonauts, squid, and nautiluses. Across the long ages they have descended from those magnificent nautiloids and othocones who ruled the world during the Ordovician era. Cuttlefish are one of the most intelligent invertebrates: their brains make up a substantial portion of their body mass, and their behavior when hunting, hiding, and courting is complex. The unusually shaped eyes of the cuttlefish are among the finest in the animal kingdom. Their blood makes use of copper rather than iron to fix oxygen so it runs green. All cuttlefish possess poisons in their saliva. In fact the Pfeffer’s Flamboyant Cuttlefish is as toxic as the Blue-ringed octopus.
But why am I talking about these extraordinary mollusks during a week devoted to blogging about color? First of all cuttlefish are “the chameleons of the sea.” As I observed at the zoo, they can change color with a speed and facility unrivaled by any other creature. They use their mastery of color to camouflage themselves, to hunt, and to communicate with each other. The animal’s existence literally hinges around the color-changing chromatophores in their skin. But the association of cuttlefish and color doesn’t stop there. Cuttlefish produce a dense ink which they squirt into the ocean to disguise their movements when frightened. This sepia ink, collected from the ink-sacks of common cuttlefish destined for the table, was prized for writing and for drawing during the classical era. Many of the great histories and literary masterpieces of Greco-Roman thought were first penned in sepia ink. Although other inks took the place of sepia for writing, it maintained its place in the artist’s studio up until the late nineteenth century when it was supplanted by synthetic pigments.
This means that many of the masterpieces of draftsmanship were also created with sepia ink. A particularly effective and pleasing style was to sketch something in watered down sepia washes and finish the details with black india ink. Like chartreuse, magenta, and vermilion, the name sepia itself has become synonymous with a color. This reddish brown is famous in old masters pen-and-ink drawings, antique photos, and memory-hazed movie flashbacks. Not only has this ink provided some of the most beautiful drawings in history, recent studies have shown that cephalopod ink is toxic to certain cells—particularly tumor cells, so we may not have written the last concerning sepia ink.
Among the Potawatomi nation, one of the most important clans was the fish clan. Fish clan members were thought most likely to be teachers, medicine people, and diplomats. They carefully observed the natural world, interpreted their experiences and passed this information on. The fish clan constituted the intellectuals of Potawatomi society. Two of the most important fish clan families were the Wawaazisiigs and the Maanamegwugs, named after the Bullhead catfish and the channel catfish respectively. Their ideas provided the philosophical underpinnings of the tribes understanding of life. The catfish was a respected spirit guide.
That introduction, however, is a bit of a red herring for today’s post, which features tattoos of catfish. I wonder if the individuals who decided to get permanent images of catfishes etched in their skin with needles were thinking along the same lines as the Potawatomi elders. Did they hope for the deep thinking of the Wawaazisiigs and the Maanamegwugs? Were they just enchanted by the charisma and personality of the Siluriformes? Or were they just intoxicated or hopelessly young? Unfortunately we have no context other than the images.
Whatever the case, here is a gallery of catfish tattoos which I found around the web. Enjoy!