A summer idyll

The fortune scholar of this long hanging scroll strolls on a low causeway by a mountain pool within sound of waterfall, with magnificent rocks beside him (those rocks the Chinese so adored) and with splendid trees giving abundant shade.A lofty master peak dominates the scene while in the distance other spectacular heights rise from encircling mist, a picture very much after the great landscape tradition of the Sung Dynasty, and the ideal setting for the scholar. Yet for the artist, T'ang Yin (1470-1523), also a scholar and a gentleman, this sort of existence could never be more than a dream, one which he had aspired to realize but had failed to grasp.

Since the early centuries of our era the Chinese have accumulated an immense body of critical literature on painting -- its aims, motives, and techniques, much of this couched in terms of great profundity and poetic feeling. Artists were listed in categories, great masterpieces minutely described. The artists themselves, however, as individuals, were largely overlooked -- the details of their lives, unless these were direcly related to painting, were ignored. Not until the Yuan and the Ming did this outlook begin gradually to change, and in the case of T'ang Yin there is some information on that crisis in his life which forced him to become a professional painter, though not nearly enough really to understand it. The snobbish Mings looked down on a man who had to earn his living by his brush, but T'ang and Yin found himself with no alternative.

His father was a small merchant, but T'ang Yin's brilliance was so marked that from his very childhood he seemed destined for a meteoric career. His charm and intelligence, together with his artistic gifts, earned him to patronage of the principal artistic family of Soochow, the Wens, who helped him to chart the course that seemed eminently suitable for him -- that of the scholar official and the artist. He had his foot on the first rung of this ladder and was already a minor official when he went up for his major civil service examinations, and it was then that disaster overtook him. In a well-aired scandal involving a number of persons he was accused of having cheated, and was never able to clear his name, though he protested his innocence. He was ruined and ostracized. He resigned from the service, found himself penniless, and took to drink. Even his wife turned against him. Incredulous, he discovered he was "the object of scorn on earth," he wrote to one of the Wens who still believed in him. His salvation was his painting; he plunged into it, became a master of all styles, and in this field at any rate had great acclaim. Eventually he ordered his life and became a devout Buddhist, convinced that our world experiences are no more than illusions.

This pictur, painted in ink and light colors on silk-satin, is signed by the artist, and carriers with it one of his poems. Done in the "literary" manner, it is patently the work of a scholar in its conscious sophistication, its stylized handling of a classic Sung theme, shown by the composition as a whole, its arrangement of peaks, the massive rocks, and the minutely delineated trees. Yet it is very different in spirit from those wonderful 10th-century pictures, which were so intent on the marvels of nature herself. Here a pattern has been deliberately superimposed on the theme, an air of elegance gives a formality to it -- the human element is reduced, in the traditional Taoist manner, to one small figure -- yet the presentation of the subject is clearly envisaged through the learning and taste of the wen jenm , the gentleman scholar.

The first great rock in the foreground, built up in a series of lozenges, far to the left in a diagonal thrust that is lengthened by the trees growing from it , holding their stance by the "dragon" grip of their long and twisted roots. The tall trees with their beautiful and varied foliage present another aspect ofthe contrasts so emphasized in this scroll -- contrasts of light and dark, of nearness and distance, of the immense with the minute. Finally, as the viewer continues to gaze upon it, he is led back, toward those high and distant peaks which rise from clouds, giving a hint of infinity in the grand, classical manner. It is an immense panorama from the disciplined brush of a man who had himself experienced so wide a range of human contrasts.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.