Realism in Chinese art

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The return to realism, which today sweeps the Western world as an approach to art, reminds me of the unswerving dedication to realism on the part of countless Chinese landscape artists over countless centuries.

The Chinese landscape artist has never left ''realism.'' From the Tang dynasty (618-906), when the landscape painting had its beginnings at the hands of the revered Ku Kai-chih, to the present time, Chinese landscape painting has been ''realistic.''

It has varied, from stark and vertical, in the ''northern Sung'' dynasty (960 -1127), as reflective of the mountain regions of north China, to the gentler and more intimate studies of ''southern Sung'' (1127-1279), which were reflective of the softer and less dramatic landscape of the south. Subsequent years, through the Ming and Ching dynasties, and even to the present time, have witnessed endless variations on the ancient themes.

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I think the reason the Chinese landscape artist has stayed so close to nature is the fact that the totality of his psyche, of his inherited tradition, has been nature-dominated, nature-directed, and nature-involved. His landscape painting became the showcase of his conviction, the visual translation of the philosophic teachings of Lao-tse, Confucius, and the Buddha - all of whom exalt nature and point up its relationship with humanity.

Also, the name for landscape painting, in Chinese, is ''shan-shui,'' which means ''mountain-water.'' And ''mountain-water,'' which is as close to nature as one can get, not only supports ''realism'' but also represents the ''yang and yin,'' or ''strong and weak,'' an ancient theory of oppositional interplay through which individuals can view themselves afresh.

At Kweilin in southern China, I picked up a couple of contemporary Chinese landscape paintings. They incorporate the tradition of ''mountain-water.'' They are ''traditional.'' And yet they also incorporate certain modern details in color, which give them an aura of the 20th century, rather than seeming a replay of ancient times.

Kweilin has been for centuries a famous Chinese art center of rare charm, with uniquely shaped extraordinary mountains reflecting in the slow, meandering waters of the River Li. In Kweilin, the ''mountain-water'' painting (or ''shan-shui'') comes dramatically to life.

A major New York art critic has discussed the ''moral tone'' as of radical importance in the world of painting. Could there be any greater ''moral tone'' than that which energizes Chinese landscape painting, than that which - through ''realism'' - conveys to the onlooker an expanded comprehension of human life itself?

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