Posts Tagged ‘semiotics’
YAN SOU’S PLUM BLOSSOMS & ZOU FULEI’S A BREATH OF SPRING
Yan Sou’s 巖叟 Plum Blossoms 梅花诗意圖 is a rather extraordinary work of art (top, above). Currently in the collection of the Freer Gallery, it is mounted on a long, horizontal silk scroll measuring forty-five inches, or nearly four feet, across. Both the exact identity of the painter and the precise date of the painting remain something of a mystery. Although authorship has traditionally been ascribed to Wang Yan Sou 王巖叟, a calligrapher and court official who lived during the Northern Song dynasty, his dates – ca. 1041 to 1091 – are now believed to rule out that possibility. (1) Hin-cheung Lovell, writing on Yan Sou, opines that the artist’s use of the ‘reverse-saturation’ method 倒暈法 places his work in the late Southern Song or early Yuan periods.(2) As such, operating on the supposition that Yan Sou was a style name 子 rather than a given one 名, and in keeping with the chronology established by stylistic considerations, Lovell proposes a tentative identification of one He Menggui 何夢桂 as the author. He (ca. 1240s – 1330s?) was an official who retreated into retirement after the ascendency of the Mongols, and thereafter produced a number of prose works under the pen name of Yan Sou.(3) However, no extant paintings are attributed to him, nor is there any record of interest in painting on his part. Yan’s true identity, then, is still very much an open question.
Plum Blossoms is commonly referred to as one of a pair of parallel momei paintings owned by the Freer, the other being A Breath of Spring 春消息圖 by Zou Fulei 鄒復雷 (bottom, above). The correspondences between the two works are striking: they depict similar subject matter (a cross-sectional ‘close-up’ – such as it were – of a flowering plum tree) in comparable formats (extending lengthwise across a horizontally-oriented scroll). Yet such markedly different techniques and visual effects are displayed that they seem almost to represent deliberately oppositional modes of formal description. The practice of juxtaposing them follows a somewhat identical trajectory of ownership and documentation for both; almost four centuries after their production, they seem to have entered the collection of the Qianlong Emperor around the same time. Zou’s painting is recorded in the imperial catalogue, Treasures of the Stone Canal 石渠寶笈, of 1745 (4), and Yan’s seems to have narrowly missed being included there, appearing instead in the supplement 石渠寶笈續編 of 1793.(5) Later, the scrolls passed out of the imperial collection into the hands of the 20th century collector and connoisseur Guo Baochang 郭葆昌. A Breath of Spring features an extended colophon of his, where he records how he came into possession of the piece. It was sold to him by Miao Suyun 繆素筠 in 1914 (6); he also then owned Yan’s Plum Blossoms (though perhaps not acquired from the same seller). It is in his colophon that, for the first time, Zou’s work is explicitly compared to Yan’s, though not in any formal sense: “I searched through all the old painting catalogues, and there are no other extant works by Fu-lei apart from this one … Both the Plum Blossoms handscroll by Wang Yen-sou of Northern Sung which I obtained and this painting are ku-pen.”(7) The two paintings were shown in Tokyo in 1929 as part of a massive exhibition of Chinese and Japanese works of art, after which they may not have returned to China (or so Lovell speculates) – subsequently, in 1931, the Freer Gallery purchased them from the Fukushima Company in New York.
The iconography of Plum Blossoms is very much embedded in what Bickford refers to as the gumei 古梅, or old plum, tradition (8): images of twisted, battered old plum trees, with broken boughs, misshapen roots and lichen-encrusted trunks, that developed out of a broader convention of depicting such flora in general. The gumei as an expressive image really comes into its own, Bickford remarks, during the Yuan, when it becomes associated with the figure of the scholar-recluse, the yimin 移民 alienated from foreign rule and reduced to voluntary exile. The old, deformed tree, blasted by the elements yet tenaciously enduring, becomes a poetic emblem of the isolation and survival of these ‘leftover subjects’. The specific technique that Yan utilizes here likewise builds on traditional means: the reverse-saturation method, which entails applying an ink-wash over a composition except for certain areas in reserve, thus arriving at a design of negative space, first appears in writing in Zhu Xi’s 朱熹 collected colophons during the Southern Song period, where he mentions the daoyun fa in connection with the painter Tang Zhengzhong 湯正仲. (9) Lovell’s reconstruction of Yan’s working process is probably worth quoting at some length here:
… the artist probably sketched in very lightly the plum blossoms only and then applied a very light wash over all the silk except the blossoms, leaving them in reserve. The trunk, branches, and cylax were applied then, not before, as evidenced by the light areas in the trunk and the occasional slivers of space on the branches left by the split hairs of the brush. The last step was probably drawing in the thin outlines of the petals, thus accentuating them and making them appear pale against the background. (10)
As Lovell points out here, Yan does not only utilize reverse saturation, but also the style known as quanban fa, or the circled-petal method 圈瓣法 – a practice of creating flower-forms, through the outlining of clusters of petal shapes, made famous in the celebrated paintings of Wang Mian. The significance of Yan’s gestures at the generic conventions of ink plum tradition, both iconographic and technical, becomes clear when we consider the specific pictorial innovations that are manifest in his work, or the ways in which he departs from, or expands upon, such conventional praxis. The format of Plum Blossoms – a limited, horizontal view of the middle section of a plum tree, with myriad flowering boughs extending upwards from the bottom margin and length-wise across the expanse of the scroll, in effect producing a cropped perspective – is part of a “strong tradition in compositional selection beginning in the late Sung” (11), or what perhaps may be looked upon as a sub-genre of the larger momei tradition. Lovell refers to this sort of compositional selection as a “close-up”(12), and indeed, in Yan’s hands, it approximates the same visual impact as the cinematic zoom. While his blossoms are delineated in the more customary circled-petal and reverse-saturation techniques, their pellucid, stylized elegance of form only serves to bring into sharp relief the rough, scaly and weather-beaten texture of the bark of the trunk and boughs, almost as if the viewer were being brought up close for a detailed look. This is by way of broaching Peirce’s idea of the iconic, and its implications of likeness or resemblance. The reduced perspective and illusionistic naturalism of the image, its most salient features, can be said to shift interpretive focus away from Bickford’s connotations of the scholar-recluse, under Yuan domination, towards issues of visual representation. The concern with articulating even the most humble nuances of surface texture is quite unique to Yan – or, rather, the extent to which he seems to want to conjure up the physical existence of the tree itself, in all its tactile complexity and visual reality, suggests a kind of verisimilitude missing from other ink plum depictions (whose creators may nonetheless see themselves doing precisely that – practicing pictorial naturalism). Among momei masters and practitioners generally, only Yang Wujiu’s 楊無咎 Four Views of Flowering Plum 四梅圖 comes close to expressing a similar sense of the textural possibilities of representation. Even Yang, however, falls quite short of the dazzling, almost plastic naturalism of surface that Yan Sou achieves in his portrayal.
An icon, in the Peircean sense (13), need not necessarily be predicated on realism: Yan’s painting of a plum tree, after all, may not be of a specific plum tree, but a demonstration of how plum trees on the whole may be depicted two-dimensionally. However, what the iconic does allow us to do is to read an image in terms of its perceived degree of likeness within a certain, self-contained interpretive structure – or, to put it another way, to judge standards of verisimilitude in a systematic, comparative fashion. One can plausibly imagine any number of old plum trees, weathered, battered and twisted, which would permit us to claim that, indeed, Yan’s evocation of just those qualities of gumei brings his painting closer to experiential reality in ways that, say, Zou Fulei’s far more stylized depiction of the same subject does not. While there certainly exists other means of conveying a sense of naturalism than a scrupulous representation of surface detail, it is Yan’s somewhat uneasy position within the ink plum tradition – with his embrace of particular momei conventions on the one hand, and his departure from the accepted standards of pictorial lifelikeness on the other, imbuing his art with a textural, even tactile, sophistication – that offers scope for reading his work as an exemplar of the iconic, in relation to other ink plum paintings that perhaps do not approach those same naturalistic qualities. To apply the ‘icon’ label to Plum Blossoms is to make a claim for its specific visual traits, its mode of graphic description, vis-à-vis the genre as a whole – i.e. using the Peirce-an trichotomy as a means of sorting and categorizing, to see where specific paintings may fit under those pre-determined rubrics, or whether they may reasonably be read as corresponding to more than just a single semiotic modality. What the application of Peirce’s terminology in this case implies is that by looking at the painting as approaching the state of being iconic (rather than indexical or symbolic), we can explicate it both in light of what it accomplishes, and what it does not. A simple, straightforward understanding of Yan’s work as merely naturalistic or lifelike would probably prevent us from appreciating that those aspects of his vision should be acknowledged as relational, or relative, rather than absolute.
Lovell observed of Plum Blossoms that “So consummate was the artist’s skill that nowhere in the painting can any evidence of the first two steps [the reverse saturation and circled-petal techniques] be detected.”(14) The concept of the icon perhaps suggests that the invisible hand of the artist – the deliberate suppression of the painterly gesture – is a contributing factor to the semblance of illusionism; its reverse, the conspicuously calligraphic brushstroke (in the case of East Asian painting), brings us then to the indexical. One of the ways in which the index functions is via the phenomenon of cause and effect: that category of expressive marks which alludes to the maker’s hand does so by being interpreted as the material result of a physical, bodily process of sign- or image-production, as in the case of Pollock’s paint-flinging or dripping to arrive at his ‘allover’ canvases. In particular, the idea of the indexical has much in common with the art of calligraphy, and calligraphic forms of painting. When understood as the manifestation of the artist’s state of mind in the gestural motion of the hand, both arts reveal their common foundation in the basic building block of the line: “Inner peace is the starting point for the externalization of personality in the execution of the actual calligraphy. The forceful brush stroke in one uninterrupted sweep, excluding any possibility of subsequent correction, is indeed the seal impression of the soul.”(15)
In this sense, Zou’s A Breath of Spring, which embodies – literally – the ‘forceful brush stroke in one uninterrupted sweep’, presents itself as an illustration of the indexical. The so-called companion piece to Yan Sou’s Plum Blossoms, it is by far the more famous of the pair. Like Yan, too, Zou remains a shadowy figure in the annals of Chinese painting. The inscriptions on this scroll, his only recorded, extant work (a ku-pen 孤本), provide the chief source of information – however scanty – that we have of his life. A poem inscribed by the artist himself dates the piece to 1360 (or earlier); another poem, dating to 1361, by his fellow painter and calligrapher Yang Weizhen 楊維楨, tells us that both Zou and his elder brother were accomplished masters, one in the art of painting plums like Zhongren; the other, bamboo like Wen Tong.(16) Apart from his inclination for momei painting, the younger Zou was apparently also a Taoist doctor, as evidenced by his title of lianshi 煉師, and by the home in which he dwelt with his sibling, which they dubbed the Dong Xuandan Fang 洞玄丹房.(17) Yang Weizhen also includes an account of a visit he paid to the two, in which he was shown A Breath of Spring, and asked for the gift of an inscription. Another lengthy colophon, by a certain Shixian Guyan 時顯顧晏 who remains unidentified, discusses the “cosmogonal”(18) implications of Zou’s painting in relation to the concepts of purity and impurity.
Admittedly, to read Zou’s work as an example of indexicality is a matter for debate, rather than a given. The artist himself was an admirer of the momei style of the monk Zhongren, otherwise known as Huaguang 華光 for the monastery with which he was associated. In his accompanying poem, Zou writes:
Where’er my straw-roofed hut may be, I long for the return of Spring.
And so I bid the autumn moon to linger on the old plum tree.
Though the silken wisps of smoke die out and the empty room be cold,
My daubs of ink may keep for me its shadow on the window.(19)
The allusions here – specifically the references to the moonlit night and the silhouettes on the window – recall the oft-repeated legend of how Zhongren founded the tradition of ink plum painting, and his discovery of the ‘shadow-blossom’ or ‘ink-saturation’ method, the moyun fa 墨暈法, in particular. The Plum Manual of Huaguang 華光梅譜 records:
The painting of plum trees in ink was begun by Hua Kuang. Old Jên [Zhongren] loved them very much and planted many plum trees at his monastery. Each time the flowers bloomed he hastened to move his cushion beneath them and stayed there all day intoning his prayers. Still he did not grasp their true meaning. By chance one moonlight night before he went to bed, he watched on the window the latticework of their crisscross shadows, wonderfully beautiful. Then he took his brush and drew their forms, and in the cool of the morning he saw that verily here was a reflection of the moonlight.(20)
As the quote demonstrates, the observation of nature as the basis of ink plum painting is very much foregrounded in momei discourse, finding a privileged position in the originary myth of the tradition. Apropos of which, A. G. Wenley notes of the great masters that they “undertook to study [their] … subject under all conditions and in all its moods, and not until he really knew it did he paint it.”(21) Pictorial naturalism, as a corollary of this act of observational fidelity, also loomed large in contemporary reception of Zou’s painting. Yang Weizhen, for one, wrote in his verse that “Hua-kuang [meaning Zou] retains the breath of Spring”, a line which Wenley parses as calling attention to “the verisimilitude of the artist’s work, which seems to catch and hold the feeling of springtime.”(22) Shixian Guyan comments of Zou’s momei that “Famous are these bizarre forms, wind-tossed branches and snowy buds, revealing his skill in all details.”(23)
In this regard, A Breath of Spring certainly seems to exemplify one of the central tenets of iconicity: visual likeness. However, as we shall see, the artist’s own conception of his work is not quite so unambiguous as has been assumed, and, in fact, the mode of pictorial description that he adopts here incorporates both generic norms and personal innovation, the latter lending itself to a reading of indexicality instead. While Zou may have seen himself as a follower of the Zhongren school, grounded in a respect for natural forms, his painting and its companion poem reveals a disjuncture between the artist’s present reality and an idealized future moment. He asks “the autumn moon” to linger on the plum tree, and mourns the dying candles and cold, barren room. What the quatrain opens with, though, is an unabashed yearning for springtime, and its warmth and connotations of renewed hope no doubt. This, the optimism of the spring season and the new year, is what is expressed in the visual image as well: the bent old tree trunk (or what little we can see of it) may seem melancholic in its twisted, misshapen deformity, but the aggressive thrust of the single bough, extending across half the length of the long scroll in one powerful, unbroken, sweeping gesture as testament to the vigor of new growth and of hope – the incipient breath of spring – indicates the message that Zou intended to convey. Like Yan Sou, Zou’s flowers are indebted to tradition: he channels Zhongren’s shadow blossoms by applying a wet brush to the paper, and allowing the ink to seep and spread, thus producing a shadowy form free of outline, and capturing the poetic, tenebrous mood of the moment in which the ink plum is said to have first arisen. His twigs and branches, however, are delineated in rather different styles: the slender branchlets are comprised of a single, short, continuous brushstroke that tapers out towards the tip, while the thicker boughs are characterized by an effect not unlike the ax-cut stroke 斧劈皴, where holding the brush at an angle results in a sort of ‘split-hairs’ texture, as if the hairs of the brush were clumped together in separate skeins instead of coming together at a pointed tip. The stamens of the flowers are indicated by numerous tiny dots of ink, which bring to mind the raindrop stroke 雨點皴 popularized by Fan Kuan.
Zou shares this aspect of Yan Sou’s artistic vision: they owe a debt to the momei masters who preceded them, yet both also depart from traditional praxis in very conspicuous – even ostentatious – ways. In Zou’s case, far more so than the various effects he deploys for the blossoms, branchlets and boughs, it is the dynamic, irresistible thrust of that singular brushstroke, streaking across the paper in one fluid motion, that compels the viewer’s notice, and allows us to speak of his brushwork here as calligraphic. Another painter of flowers, who was active somewhat later during the Ming era, recounts the corporeal process that underpins both painting and calligraphy:
From the moment I grasp the brush until calligraphy is achieved, that is my hand; from the point at which calligraphy results until the calligraphy works its magic, that is my heart/mind. … The heart/mind is superior, the hands follow it … [Calligraphy] is not the shapes of the dots and strokes, but moving the brush … A wall dividing the road, shadows in a courtyard, a broken hairpin, a seal impressed into paste, an awl piercing patterns in the sand – these are the shapes of the dots and strokes. They are not as marvelous as the movement of the hand; furthermore, they do not approach its utmost magnificence. From this, I know that calligraphy is perfected in the heart/mind and the hand.(24)
The hierarchy here is clear: the ‘dots and strokes’ that go towards building up recognizable forms on a two-dimensional surface may perform their task admirably – if one can identify objects like awls and hairpins – but they simply do not compare with the ‘magnificence’ of the calligraphic stroke, which assumes priority because it is ultimately the expression, through the agency of the hand, of the heart/mind complex 心. The calligraphic mark is very much the material document of the painter’s gesture that produced it – it is, in other words, indexical in nature. It functions not simply to limn clearly discernible shapes on a canvas (the province of iconicity), but is a graphic record of the artistic hand, and the personality behind it. Zou’s stunning brushwork in A Breath of Spring situates it firmly within the discursive framework of the index, despite what his peers like Yang Weizhen, or the enigmatic Shixian Guyan, may aver. To quote the fourteenth-century connoisseur Tang Hou 湯垕 on the ideational character of the best plum painting:
Painting plum (hua mei) is called “sketching plum” (lit. “writing plum”, xie mei) … Why? Because of the utter purity of [these] flowers, the one who paints [them] ought to employ ideas to sketch them (yi yi xie zhi), not dwell on formal likeness (xingsi). Chen Qufei’s (Yuyi) poem says, “If the idea is adequate, don’t pursue color and likeness …”(25)
1. Details from Hin-cheung Lovell, “Yen-sou’s Plum Blossoms: Speculations on Style, Date, and Artist’s Identity”, Archives of Asian Art, vol. 24 (1975), 59 – 79.
2. Lovell, 61.
3. Lovell, 71.
4. A. G. Wenley, “A Breath of Spring,” by Tsou Fu-Lei”, Ars Orientalis 2 (1957), 459 – 469. See p. 460. Wenley’s article is a thorough look at the inscriptions on the painting, and, like Lovell on Yan Sou, is one of the few comprehensive scholarly considerations of Zou Fulei’s work.
5. Lovell, 70.
6. Lovell, 70. Miao was in the service of the Cixi Dowager. Wenley describes her thus: “ … 繆嘉蕙 Miao Chia-hui(‘s) … courtesy title was Su-yün. On account of her proficiency in calligraphy and painting she was called to court in the latter part of the reign of the Kuang Hsü Emperor (1875 – 1908) to aid the Empress Dowager Tz’û Hsi whose “ghost” calligraphist and painter she became. … We gather … that this painting [Breath of Spring] was given to Miao Su-yün by the Empress Dowager during this period …” See Wenley, 462.
7. Qtd. in Lovell, 70 – 1.
8. See Maggie Bickford, Ink Plum: the Making of a Chinese Scholar-Painting Genre (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 60 – 2.
9. Lovell, 60 – 1.
10. Lovell, 60.
11. See footnote no.6 in Lovell, 73.
12. Footnote no.6 in Lovell, 73.
13. An icon, in the sense of a sign that approximates, with more or less verisimilitude, its real-life referent. See C. Pierce, “What is a Sign?”, The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, 1893-1913 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).
14. Lovell, 60.
15. Heinz Götze, “Chinese and Japanese Calligraphy” in Heinz Götze, ed., Chinese and Japanese Calligraphy Spanning Two Thousand Years: the Heinz Götze Collection, Heidelberg (Munich: Prestel, 1989), 9 – 33. See p. 11.
16. Wenley, 464. The relevant lines from Yang’s poem read (in the original): “小復解畫華光梅, 大復解畫文同竹”.
17. Wenley, 459.
18. Wenley, 468.
19. Qtd. in Wenley, 464.
20. Qtd. in Wenley, 459 – 60.
21. Wenley, 460.
22. See Wenley, 464 – 5.
23. Qtd. in Wenley, 466.
24. The painter in question being the (in)famous Xu Wei 徐渭. Qtd. in Kathleen M. Ryor, “Fleshly Desires and Bodily Deprivations: the Somatic Dimensions of Xu Wei’s Flower Paintings” in Hung Wu & K. R. Tsiang, eds, Body and Face in Chinese Visual Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center [distributed by Harvard University Press], 2005), 121 – 45. See p. 125.
25. Qtd. in Bickford, 180.