THE T’ANG PERIOD—SEVENTH TO TENTH CENTURIES

The T’ang dynasty was the really vital period of Chinese Buddhism. Among the painters who gave it its highest expression Wu Tao-tzŭ holds first place. His memory dwells in history as that of one of the greatest masters in China and legend has still further enhanced the might of his genius. It is highly probable that his work is entirely destroyed, but by the aid of copies, incised stones and wood engravings of the twelfth century, an idea of the painter’s conception can be formed. He seems to have been the creator of a Chinese type of Kwanyin, the Buddhist incarnation of mercy and charity. Drapery covers the high drawn hair. She is attired in the harmonious folds of a plain and ample garment and expresses supreme authority, the sublimity of divine love.

If to these fragments of an immense plastic production is added the analysis furnished by the written records, we can define with some degree of certitude the place occupied by Wu Tao-tzŭ in the history of Chinese painting. The books state that the lines from his brush fairly vibrated; all united in marvelling at the spirituality emanating from forms thus defined. He adhered almost exclusively to the use of powerful ink-lines and denied himself the use of any color, whether scattered or prominent, which would have robbed his painting of the austerity which was the source of its surpassing feeling. But in order to appreciate the full value of the new ideas introduced by Wu into Chinese painting, it is necessary to understand the exact nature of the technique that was in practice up to the seventh and eighth centuries, at the opening of the T’ang dynasty.

Plate VIII

PLATE VIII. WHITE EAGLE. SUNG PERIOD
Collection of R. Petrucci.

At that time there prevailed the analytic, painstaking, detailed and very considered drawing that is common to all periods preceding great constructive work. This technique admitted the use of two fundamental methods: one called double contour, the other contour or single contour. The method of double contour was applied chiefly to the drawing of plant life in landscape. It consisted in outlining leaves or branches by means of two lines of ink placed in apposition. The space thus enclosed was filled with color. Any peculiarities of formation, knots in wood and veins in leaves were added subsequently. The name of single contour was applied to drawings wherein a single ink line outlined the object, the space enclosed being then filled with color.

If the application of these analytic methods was sometimes carried to the extreme of delicacy it never became labored. Throughout its entire evolution the art of the T’ang period is characterized by a sense of the magnificent. Once the study of forms was exhausted, this type of work was bound to be superceded. Wu Tao-tzŭ profited by the work of his predecessors. Combining in a single stroke of the brush, vigor and an eclectic character of line, with values and fluidity of tone, he brought to a supreme unity the two great principles by which things are made manifest in all the magic of their essential structure. But it must be understood that this patient investigation of forms was not limited to preparing the way for a single master. The logical outcome was an independent movement to which the origin of modern Chinese painting can be traced.

“Painting has two branches,” the books say, “that of the North and that of the South; the separation occurred in the T’ang period.” These terms Northern School and Southern School must not be taken literally. They serve merely to characterize styles which, in the eighth century, liberated themselves from methods demanding such close study and exact definition of forms. The style of the Northern School is strong, vehement and bold; the style of the Southern School is melancholy and dreamy. The ideal of Northern China, impregnated with barbarian elements, is brought into contrast with that of Southern China, heir to an already ancient civilization, and under the spell of Taoist legends and the bewildered dreams of its philosophers. [11]

Plate IX

PLATE IX. HORSEMAN FOLLOWED BY TWO ATTENDANTS
Sung Period. Collection of A. Stoclet.

Li Ssu-hsün and his son Li Chao-tao (eighth century) are considered to be the founders of the Northern School. The paintings attributed to them show the character which the Northern style preserved up to the Ming period and which was to be emphasized to the point of brutality at the hands of certain masters in the Yüan period. At the outset, in its brilliancy and precision, the Northern style held to a certain refinement of line; later the line is drawn with a firm and powerful brush and strong colors are applied almost pure.