EVERYWHERE, always, the founts of any particular inspiration run dry and the artists feel it's all been said, it's all been done -- then new schools spring up, a few flourish, and the older modes are superseded. This process was less apparent in old China, where traditions were more honored than in many other countries; but even there the dearth of ideas was finally noticed and the general corpus of painting recognized as repetitive, dull, even decadent. That did not mean that change was welcome -- t he old is generally more popular than the new. Perhaps, too, the Romans were right to cry out O tempora! O mores! However tarnished, their ancient civilization did not appear as crude, shallow, and ugly as that which pushed it aside. In China, traditional painters have lingered on into our own times, a fact illustrated by an exhibition recently mounted in New York City (by IBM) where the work of five artists who flourished between 1886 and 1966 was shown. These men had their eyes firmly fixed on the glories of the Tang, the Sung, and the Yuan (which included all those centuries between 618 and 1368) as their guide for themes, execution, and taste. This was partly because of the wonderful achievements of those dynasties and par tly because of the miseries of the present, a very difficult period for the Celestial Empire. Even though the past had also experienced terrible times, it seemed now secure, reassuring.
The artists accepted, along with the painting of their acknowledged classic geniuses, the work of certain individualists whose scrolls had once been thought very far out and revolutionary -- men who appeared late in the Ming and on into the Ching Dynasty -- the monk painters, the Eccentrics. These individualists, who had themselves broken with tradition, became absorbed into the stream of the country's art.
Now all this has changed as China has become acquainted with the rest of the world and its artistic history. But no matter what new ideas have presented themselves, the traditional painters continued on their course, concentrating on the orthodox themes of landscapes, rocks, trees, flowers, and birds and inscribing their scrolls with apposite poems. This time-honored practice allowed them to display their calligraphy, while heightening the antique mood of their compositions. They chose lines from the T ang, the Golden Age of Chinese poetry, more often than not; verses full of melancholy and nostalgia.
The Chinese for centuries embraced a classification of painters that allowed them four important categories: the divine, the sublime, the marvelous, and the skillful. Though compiled about a thousand years ago, the following summary is still perfectly clear and correct: ``In the class of the divine, there appears no trace of human effort; hands spontaneously reproduce natural forms. In the sublime, an artist first fathoms the universe and the nature and circumstances of all things. Then in a style appropriate to the subject, the forms flow spontaneously from his brush. In the marvelous, there is an unusual and unexpected representation which may be contrary to the real scenery or object, and yet possess the truth. This is owing to the mastery of the brush without thought. By skillful is meant an artist who cuts out and pieces together fragments of beauty and welds them into the pr etense of a masterpiece. His style is forced, and the spirit and form are highly exaggerated. This is owing to the poverty of inner reality and to the excess of outward form.''
One of the pictures shown in the New York exhibition was ``Crane and Frost Plum Together at Year's End,'' painted in 1961 by Pan Tianshou, who 10 years later was a victim of the Cultural Revolution. An art historian and teacher of painting who liked the technique of finger painting, he was a prolific artist of landscapes, flowers, and birds, calling himself an Independent.
This morose, disheveled crane reflects the influence of the Eccentrics, both in the use of a loose, wet brush and very dark ink, and in general 'elan. It is a strange, striking bird, not attractive, but vital, which makes one somehow feel it is a portrait of oneself in certain moods.
The viewer must decide for himself into which category he would place the artist; in this, as in everything else, no doubt there would be many variations of opinion. Even tradition itself is not always very easy to define.