Stillness and energy reconciled

The Sung Dynasty landscapist Ching Hao once said, ''Likeness can be obtained by shapes without spirit; but when truth is reached, spirit and substance are both fully expressed.'' No artist more fully expressed this ideal in his work than did the Sung painter, Mi Fei. Mi was an eccentric with the quaint habit of, among other things, wearing clothes two centuries out of fashion.

In his art, however, Mi Fei is characterized by a timeless qulaity. ''Spring Mountains and Pine Trees,'' attributed to Mi Fei, serves as an example of the timelessness of his art. The painting's qualities, as well as its appeal, are of an eternal nature.

''Spring Mountains'' is characterized by a pervasive sense of calm. Nothing moves; nothing stirs in the painting save the flowing mist. There is a stillness in the work. Quiet prevails. The softness of the work contributes to the quiet. The soft forms absorb and deaden all sound. The mist muffles the everyday sounds of nature. No sign of man exists. The sole evidence of human existence is the lonely hut in the foreground. It sits with mute promise of revealing man's place in the general scheme of things.

The general effect of ''Spring Mountains'' is that calm and stillness. Perhaps mountains have always conveyed a sense of calm, a kind of monumental imperturbability. In Mi's painting, the mountains give the initial impression of inert massiveness. It is an impression we might later be persuaded to modify, however. At first glance, the muted colors, the stilled, soft forms, the balance and unity, all contribute to the feeling of absolute stillness. The work appears to tell us of the static harmony of nature.

But all is not completely still in the painting. There is life and movement. The twisting trunks and branches, the wavelike motion of their tops, as well as that of the hills and mountains, all impart a low-keyed but insistent rhythmic energy, a rhythmic pulsing, in the flow of forms throughout the work. The outlines of the hills and mountains, being composed of short, rhythmic strokes, cause these forms to fairly bristle with a sense of energy. The hills and mountains appear to pulsate with a quiet inner life.

''Spring Mountains,'' then, tells us of nature's outward serenity and its underlying vitality. Nature is in balance, but it is a delicate balance, an active balance. The rhythms and pulsations of nature give laconic testimony to its life. All of nature's parts work smoothly and efficiently. Nature is likened to a perfectly tuned engine that purrs quietly, even inaudibly.

But what of man's position in all this? Noted earlier as the sole reminder of man was the rude hut in the foreground of the work. It is significant that the lone suggestion of man's presence is this simplest of shelters. Man, as alluded to in the hut, is implied as being in closer harmony with nature when he is in a simple condition. Clearly, a more elaborate structure would not be as appropriate in this setting. Moreover, the hut is designed to provide a minimum of shelter. The point is clear. Man does not need to be protected from nature since he is an integral and compatible part of nature, a harmonious part of the whole. The open sides of the hut offer mute but strong evidence of man's security in nature.

From the tiniest pine needle to the largest mountain, all of nature's parts work actively and in sympathetic resonance with each other to provide the outward appearance of calm and serenity. In ''Spring Mountains,'' the expression of spirit and substance is sufficient to reach the truth of being as the ancient Chinese saw it.

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