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Agreement through contrast

By Mary Tanenbaum / January 11, 1982



''Fisherman's Flute heard over the Lake'' insinuates music into landscape painting in a provocative blending of two arts.

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When the Chinese think of ''fishermen'' they think of the famous ''Fisherman's Song,'' known and well beloved since childhood. The song is always accopanied by the flute and is an ancient Taoist classic. Essentially slow, moody, and evocative, it includes dramatic contrast, both in tone and in pace, as does all Chinese music.

The ''Fisherman's Song'' describes the mountains and the water, contrasts which are also basic to Chinese landscape painting. It describes the mountain-water complex as the scholars' meeting place. It comments on ''fishing'' in the lake within view of a commanding mountain. It projects in music what Taoism and the ''mountain-water'' theory convey in Chinese landscape painting. (And it may well have been the inspiration for the Ch'iu Ying painting.)

When the Chinese think of ''fisherman,'' they think also of their historic and philosophic concept of ''fisherman.'' The ''fisherman,'' to the Chinese, is not merely a man out to catch fish. He is not an intellectual mediocrity; he is a profound scholar, deeply committed to poetry and philosophy, and to the Taoist concept of contrast - as is the Chinese landscape artist.

And finally, when the Chinese think of ''fisherman,'' they think also of the flute, which is the accompaniment to his eternal song. Made of bamboo, the Chinese flute presents one of the major symbols of Chinese literature, with its admonition of resiliency - bend like the bamboo with the winds of life and do fot break.

The fisherman and his flute take their place quite naturally in the painting by Ch'iu Ying (1494-1552) which very much duplicates the content of the song. The entire painting is full of contrast. We start with the overall composition, which is that of a ''shan-shui'' or ''mountain-water'' painting. We observe the strong delineation of the mountain in the foreground, together with the shadowed contour of its consort to the rear. We observe the fisherman, almost obscured by surrounding clumps of bamboo, in his open craft; and we note an audience of one in the foreground, sheltered by the overhanging roof of his gazebo.

This scene is a composition of diverse elements and finds its echo in the music which lilts over the lake. The scene which the scholar overlooks from his gazebo finds its parallel in the fisherman EQUALS scholar's world of sound - now soft, now strong, now high, now low. It is as though the sound of music underscores the scene.

I think that the Chinese arts of music and of landscape painting are rooted in the same ancient Taoist theories of nature and the complementary character of the opposites. They stem from the same source. The two scholars in the painting - one in the gazebo, the other in his boat - are both enjoying and praising the natural world: the former, in the visual sense; the latter, in the aural.

The two figures further coexist as illustrative of the Chinese penchant for pairs. One is performing; the other is appreciating. They applaud each other. But, though dynamically interrelated, it is the fisherman, more than the other scholar, who becomes the important figure in the painting and the one from whom the work derives its title. Without the fisherman, the picture would be another Chinese landscape painting. With it, it becomes an extraordinary work of art.

But it is not only the two scholars who combine to make a pair. It is also the two arts which are a pair. ''Fisherman's Flute heard over the Lake'' blends the art of music with the art of painting; and the two arts flower, even more fruitfully, in tandem.