Being in the midst of life: symbols

Chinese landscape painting is full of symbols that stand for man. Even if there is no figure in the painting, the man is there, by implication. Sometimes the symbol for man may be a house. Or a boat. Or a bench. Or a brridge . . . a pavilion . . . a pagoda.

One cannot conceive of a house or a boat or a bench without at the same time thinking of a man. It is man who has made these objects. And so the inclusion of the structures in the painting suggests the presence of man, just as much as if he actually were there.

I think of how true this is, also, in my scenic wandering in suburdia, not far from my own home. There is a lake with a lone bench at its shore, a river with a rustic bridge, an inlet overlooked by strangely Chinese-styled pavilions. And the bench, the bridge, and the pavilions suggest man.

Often, as I view these favorite spots of countryside tranquility, I am reminded of the kinship of these spots with Chinese landscape painting. They all lure man, whose presence is implied by various symbols, to nature and with it, to peace and to repose, in a concept as ancient and as prophetic as the fifth-century B.C. writings of the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu.

Sometimes I sit upon a bench, look out from a pavilion, walk across a bridge. And I feel myself moving into a Chinese landscape painting, even though the locale happens to be American -- not only because the field of Chinese landscape painting is my bias, but because it was the Chinese artist who a thousand years ago coordinated man to nature by symbol as well as by actuality.

I remember, on my recent trip to China, photographing a bench that looked out on a splendid scene in Yue Hsi Park in Canton. Purple flowering trees framed the insinuating view of a calm lake. A distant island played host to an airy building with columns in fire red. I felt that the bench, at a low, inconspicuous overlook, at once stood for man and invited man to share in the compelling vista.

"Evening in the Spring Hills," a painting from the Southern Sung dynasty ( 1127-1279), shows a pavilion nestled in the hills as focal point. The pavilion by itself would serve as a representative of human life, even if the two almost imperceptible figures inside it were not there.

Apart from the pavilion, "Evening in the Spring Hills" correlates a wealth of provocative design. Low, pale gradations to the left contrast pleasing with the twisting high tree to the right. Horizontality contrasts with verticality. Soft uniformity contrasts with tortured sharpness. The light contrasts with the dark. And man, in the symbol of the pavilion, finds himself between the two extremes: of gentleness and softness on the one hand; of drama and excitement on the other. A design of human life?

Sometimes I am reminded of modern Chinese artists who say they "write" their paintings. If they "write" their paintings, through their dexterous use of the brush, do we not "read" their paintings through some slight comprehension of their symbolism, their meaning, their universality?

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