Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Chinese Brush Painting

Not only were PE and Music well planned and taught according to a syllabus, Art was also a wonder.

The book wasn’t thick but I would pore over the pages over and over again. Truth be told, the teacher did not go over all of the material. For instance, there was a chapter on cartooning that I awaited eagerly but was skipped over. Whatever we did cover, I loved it.

charcoal busts

There were a few sessions on charcoal portraiture. The teacher brought a Roman or Greek bust and we all drew it. At the end, she held up three different drawings — and I’m proud to say, mine was one of them — and explained how although they were of different styles, they were all good. The other two were a “slabby” style, where every slope and corner was exaggerated into slabs; and a “soft” style where all shades of black and grey were carefully mixed and smoothed so no sudden changes along the meeting edges.

Another month, we studied Chinese brush painting. Now I discovered how to paint those dreamy landscapes I was trying to duplicate back in Paris. Chinese painting is a bit like Montessori education. Each little part is very specific and must be practiced at length in order for one to master it. Yet the artist is totally free to decide what to do with those parts. The real art and skill are in the design of the entire painting, and in the ability to infuse this painting with “chi/qi” or spirit. One might wonder whether such highly stylized paintings are not like stencilling. No, not at all. Stencil art is very dead looking, no life in it at all. On the other hand, a well-done Chinese painting should burst with vitality.

A stenciled image (left) is unable to convey ardent Qi because each element is pre-drawn. A brush painting (right) can show vital force because it is executed on the spot, with the hand and wrist moving in one direction. Perfection of stroke is secondary to movement.

A stenciled image (left) is unable to convey ardent Qi because each element is pre-drawn. A brush painting (right) can show vital force because it is executed on the spot, with the hand and wrist moving in one direction. Perfection of stroke is secondary to movement.

That year, we were slated to learn landscape elements such as rocks and trees. I was totally enthralled by it. Just by using black ink, and various dilutions of grey, old and gnarled pines would shape up three-dimensionally, and rocks would pop out of the paper. I practiced night and day the different types of pine needle formations, as well as straight trunks, tortured and bent trunks, roots pushing out of the earth, and squirrel holes. I delighted in slowly pulling out leaves of the grass orchid across the paper, in graceful curves thinning into a line where it bent.

The Ancient Palace Museum, in the suburbs of Taipei, exhibits relics from past dynasties saved and carried to Taiwan during the Nationalist Forces' retreat in 1949.

The Ancient Palace Museum, in the suburbs of Taipei, exhibits relics from past dynasties saved and carried to Taiwan during the Nationalist Forces’ retreat in 1949.

how to paint rocks

Maybe that year, or maybe the next, Papa saw a tiny announcement for a lecture at the Ancient Palace Museum in the suburbs of Taipei. “Hey, Fawzia,” he said, “There is a lecture on the comparison of Classical Chinese brush art versus Classical European art. Want to come and listen to it together?” So it was that one fine twilight, the two of us took the bus to the magnificent Ancient Palace Museum. The speaker was a French person whose job I cannot remember. But it had nothing to do with art, more with science or possibly engineering. Nor can I recall his name, so I apologize for not crediting his work properly. But his presentation made a profound impression on me. He had a collection of slides — and this was in the time of real photographic slides, not power point ones. You had to place them in order in a tray that was loaded into a slide projector.  He started with an introduction about how he had become interested in Chinese art and a disclaimer about not being a specialist. Then to the meat of the matter.

He showed a typical Western oil painting of flowers; and another; and another. They were all of cut flowers in vases; some were even cut flowers placed on a table, waiting to die. Then he showed slides of Chinese flowers: orchids, wisterias, chrysanthemums, all vibrant with life and in a natural habitat. Similarly, he went on contrasting Western classical paintings of animals: horses as cavalry, dogs in a hunt, hunted animals, butchered animals, fish on a plate, you get the idea. Then the Chinese animals, wild horses galloping, koi fish and shrimps in a pond, peacocks strutting among rocks, all alive and well, and enjoying their day.

Plants and flowers, Chinese classical style

Plants and flowers, Chinese classical style

flowers, Western style

Flowers, Western classical/impressionist style. They are usually cut flowers, displayed in a vase.

I cannot quote him exactly, and maybe my memory of his exact meaning is fuzzy. But I have often repeated to my students his presentation, or a version of it, now on a power point slide . Man reflects his attitude to life in his paintings. In the Europe of the Classical period, the European man sought to conquer and control his surroundings and other forms of life while the Chinese man tended to observe nature, admire it, preserve it, and learn from it. 

I cannot pinpoint when it started happening, but slowly, very slowly, and very surely, a growing pride in being Chinese germinated in my heart.

Animals, in the Chinese classical style, are alive and well, doing their own thing in a natural habitat.

Animals, in the Chinese classical style, are alive and well, doing their own thing in a natural habitat.

 

Animals, in the Western classical style, are usually, if alive, subjugated to human willpower.

Animals, in the Western classical style, are usually, if alive, subjugated to human willpower.

Chinese horses frolicking vs European horses glorifying humans.

Chinese horses frolicking vs European horses glorifying humans.

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