The T’ang period had been the golden age of Chinese poetry. It had witnessed an extraordinary outburst of religious fervor, and the overwhelming domination of Buddhism. It had, moreover, triumphantly re-established the unity of the empire and to the pride of intellectual activity it could add the pride of might and dominion. But the same cannot be said for the Sung period. From a political standpoint its history is one of cumulative disaster. Ancient China retreated by degrees before the thrusts of the barbarians, until the great thunderbolt of Genghis Khan’s conquest, reverberating with formidable echoes throughout all Asia, announced the approaching downfall of culture in the red dawn of a new era.

The Sung culture, totally different from that of the T’ang period, was, however, swept forward to its culmination. It would seem as if, under the menace of the barbarians, the mind had set for its goal the development of ideas embryonic in earlier work, formulating them in haste and arresting them finally in perfect yet sad images, in which the heights attained were haunted by the shadow of impending ruin.

Plate XI

Sung Period. Collection of R. Petrucci.

The dynasty opened with a classical reaction against new ideas and witnessed a return to Confucian philosophy, with its conception of the State. But centuries of history had not rolled by without effect. In the tenth and eleventh centuries the ancient writings were no longer understood with their original meaning. A whole series of philosophers, of whom the last is Chu Hsi (thirteenth century), had formulated a composite doctrine resulting in what might be called an official philosophy, which has dominated to the present day. Some bold spirits, however, opposed this reactionary codification, struggling in vain to give a positive and firm structure to the doomed empire. Their influence appears to have been considerable. Just as the old heterodox philosophy was being stifled by the dry and colorless metaphysics of the conservatives, it was awakened to new life by the painters, who gave it a stirring interpretation in their work.

The period of technical research was past. At first, with care and patience, forms had been determined by drawing. Color had remained a thing apart, regarded as a work of illumination and quite distinct from drawing. Then study was extended still further. Color came to be viewed in the light of shades and tones and became one of the means for the expression of form; it became the very drawing itself,—that which reveals the basic structure.

Wang Wei represents the moment when art, emancipating itself from problems already solved, had conquered every medium of expression. Such is the tradition which he bequeathed to the Sung artists, who were destined to add thereto such supreme masterpieces.

The Sung painters were haunted by the old philosophical beliefs as to the formation of the universe. Beyond the actual surroundings they dimly perceived a magic world made up of perfect forms. Appearances were but the visible covering of the two great principles whose combination engendered life. They believed that, in painting, they did more than to reproduce the external form of things. They labored with the conviction that they were wresting the soul from objects, in order to transfer it to the painted silk. Thus they created something new, an imaginary world more beautiful than the real world, wherein the intimate relation of beings and things was disclosed,—a world pervaded by pure spirit and one which was revealed only to those whose thought was sufficiently enlightened, and whose sympathies were sufficiently broad, to understand and to be stirred.

The painters of the line of Wang Wei during the Sung period, devoted themselves chiefly to the development of painting in monochrome. They pursued the study of relations of tones and values of shading up to the limit of extreme delicacy, and if they mingled color at all with their subtle evocations, it was with a feeling of unequalled restraint. They dwelt for the most part in intimacy with Nature. Fleeing from the cares of court and city, they retired into mountain solitudes, meditating for long periods before taking up the brush to paint. Thus they portrayed those mountains enveloped in mists, wherein was revealed the harmony of the two principles which control the universe. From the depths of valleys misty vapors arose and cedars and gigantic pines reared their majestic forms, while, on the threshold of a thatched cabin upon some rocky plateau, a hermit deep in meditation contemplated the vast expanse of a landscape of august grandeur.

Plate XII

By Chao Mêng-fu. Yüan Period. Doucet Collection.

Sometimes, turning to plant forms, they painted the bamboo in black and white. A single masterly stroke sufficed to draw the cylindrical stalk from one joint to another, or the pointed leaves which are so quivering with life that we seem to hear the plaintive voice of the wind “combed,” as the Chinese writings express it, “by the reeds.” Or again, when a flower was the subject, they suggested it with a simplicity that presupposes a scientifically exact study of forms. It was by no means the splendid image which they sought to grasp but the soul itself; at one time the flower barely open in all its enchanting freshness, at another the softened petals drooping in languid fashion, revealing a splendor still present but soon to fade; at times the dew moistening the leaves, the snow shrouding them with its purity, or the slow monotonous rain beneath which they drip, motionless. These paintings are always instinct with deep poetic feeling.

At the hands of the Sung painters the school of landscape and monochrome technique attained a level which will never be exceeded. The masters of this period are numerous and are frequently represented by works of almost certain authenticity. It seems useless to assemble here names which will convey no meaning to the European reader. It will suffice to illustrate by a few great figures the three centuries of history during which Chinese landscape painting reached its culminating point.

Tung Yüan and Chü Jan are considered by the critics as having founded a special school in the great tradition of Wang Wei. Their paintings were quiet in coloring and were executed with broad strokes in an impressionist style. These works must be viewed from a distance to see their apparent violence merge into extreme elegance. They furnish a complete demonstration of the laws of atmospheric perspective, with its feeling of distance and infinite space, in which forms are immersed. Here we find evidence that these painters were the first to attempt the arrangement of lines according to rule, which led ultimately to calligraphic painting.

Among the heads of schools cited in the Chinese writings Ma Yüan and Hsia Kuei of the Sung dynasty must be placed in a class by themselves. Both of these masters lived at the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries. Their style can be described with accuracy since original examples are extant—both by themselves and by their disciples—in which their characteristics are fully revealed.

Ma Yüan is classed with the Southern School by reason of his restraint in the use of color, his greatness of conception and his technical treatment of forms. But he brings to his work a virility in which the influence of the Northern School is plainly discerned. He has a broad stroke and a masterful manner which place his works in the front rank of all Chinese painting. His mountainous backgrounds rear themselves with fierce energy. His old pines, with branches wreathed in vines, would suffice alone to define his style, so freely do they express the force of plant life and the proud defiance of the aged tree. He loved the mountain solitudes to which he gave a new imagery, so authoritative and so perfect that it served to create a school.

The influence of Ma Yüan was felt by his brother and by his son, Ma Lin. Although the death of the latter occurred under the Mongolian dynasty, he was an exponent of Sung art. The fierce energy of the old master gives way to a somewhat more melancholy and gentle quality in his son. There is the same restraint in the handling of the brush, the same reserve in the use of color, but the landscape stretches out into deep and dreamy vistas that are indescribably poetic. The melancholy of autumn, the sadness of flights of birds that circle in the evening light, the feeling of seclusion and silence, such are the things in which this poetic spirit finds its joy, true heir of the master mind whose genius found expression in the wild aspects of nature.

The school of Ma dominated the entire subsequent period and his influence extended as far as Korea, where traces of it were still to be found as late as the fifteenth century. As the history of Korean painting becomes better known, we shall be able to say with more accuracy what it owes to other Chinese masters; but in so far as those mentioned are concerned, their influence appears to have been sufficiently strong to impress a certain type on fragmentary works from Korea which have become known to us recently.

We are far from being as well informed regarding Hsia Kuei, but we have that which is worth more than written records, a few paintings preserved in Japanese collections, which it seems legitimate to attribute to him without reservation. It is readily seen why his name is always linked with that of Ma Yüan. His work shows the same energy and power and discloses an ideal which is similar to that of his confrère. He seems to have penetrated even further than Ma Yüan along the path of daring simplifications, and to have approached at times the calligraphic style. He painted both landscape and figures and was skilled in obtaining strange effects, as if of color, through his use of monochrome.

Another painter whose name dominates the history of this time and whose work serves to characterize a special aspect is Li Lung-mien. It is naturally difficult to prove that all the works attributed to him are authentic. However, collections in Japanese temples or privately owned, possess paintings which passed as his at a very early date and in which at least we can recognize his style. In reviewing the centuries of history, it is interesting to note that the work of Li Lung-mien is not without similarity, in certain of its elements, to the paintings of Ku K’ai-chih. His line is delicate and flexible and he draws his outlines with the same subtlety, the same grace and the same instinct for harmonious curves and an extraordinary rhythm.

The tradition which arose in a period antedating the T’ang epoch was therefore still unbroken in the Sung period, and I am sure that proofs of this will increase in number as our information becomes more accurate. New evidence furnished by the paintings found at Tun-huang and certain frescoes at Murtuq has recently shown that the type of Buddhist hermit—the Lohan meditating in solitude—whose inception had, until these discoveries, been attributed to Li Lung-mien, in reality dated much further back and originated in the Buddhist art of Eastern Turkestan, perhaps even in India. From those regions are derived the magnificent subjects of which Li Lung-mien made use to express meditation. Sometimes there are emaciated faces, withered bodies with protruding tendons that outline deep hollows, and again rotund and peaceful figures meditating in tranquil seclusion. From the written records as well as in his works, there is every evidence that he was one of those who revived Buddhist painting. No matter what models he chose to follow, he always gave them a stress and a peculiar distinction, while from the standpoint of pure art he had the ability to portray them with finished elegance and majestic dignity.

Li Lung-mien was not content to paint Buddhist figures only. He painted landscape also, and in his youth he had painted horses. A great critic of the Sung period said of him that “his soul entered into communion with all things, his spirit penetrated the mysteries and the secrets of nature.” This critic added that one day he saw Li Lung-mien painting a Buddhist divinity. The words of the god fairly leapt from the lines; it seemed as if the brush of the master summoned them one by one into being. Like all the masters of his time, Li Lung-mien sought to free the spirit from its outward semblance. Beyond the material, he perceived the immaterial force which animates the world. As a landscape painter his conception of Nature was broad and majestic. His graceful and harmonious line recalls the happiest moments in the history of plastic art, and he challenges comparison with a facile genius like Raphael. But he includes the whole realm of nature in his subjects, and in his work we find traces, expressed with greater breadth, but with quite as keen an insight, of an ancient and noble art, such as was found almost extinct in the work of Ku K’ai-chih.

Plate XIII

Yüan Period. Collection of R. Petrucci.

We cannot leave the Sung painters without devoting some attention to Mi Fei and his son. The two Mi’s, indeed, accomplished a far-reaching reform in Chinese technique; they enriched painting with a new imagery and founded a school which, like that of Ma, exerted an influence on later periods and was strongly felt in Korea.

In addition to being a great painter, Mi Fei was a great calligraphist. This is apparent however little one may have seen of work in his style. He possesses in the highest degree what the Chinese describe as the “handling of flowing ink.” He used the technique of monochrome almost exclusively, and so closely related tone values to the line, or rather to the brush-stroke, that it is difficult to decide whether he paints rather than draws, or draws rather than paints. Properly speaking, he does not employ the line at all but works by masses, by broad, heavily inked touches, without pausing to emphasize the deep warm blacks provided by Chinese ink. His manner recalls certain drawings by Rembrandt, also produced by strong inking, which evoke a strange and magical effect of light. Such was the spirit in which Mi Fei treated landscape. This technique marks his style and gives it an individuality that is indisputable. The vehemence with which he attacks forms, the rapidity of his brush-stroke, the way in which things spring from such energy, call to mind pictures by European masters, painted in full color, and it may be said of the paintings of Mi Fei that they are fairly colored by their tremendous vitality, if the quality of the materials he employed permits the use of such a term. Therefore Mi Fei and his son are responsible for a new technique, a strongly individual work, and the creation of a style which marks the highest achievement in monochrome. The trend which impelled them was, however, general. Carried to its extreme it led to the style of painting called calligraphic, of which there has been occasion to speak several times.

Calligraphic painting, or the literary style, has its origin in the studies of Wang Wei when, renouncing the aid of colour, he strove by harmony of shading and by tone values, to reproduce the vast reaches of space and all the shifting subtlety of atmospheric perspective. The exclusive use of Chinese ink necessitated special studies since thus calligraphy was directly approached. The different styles of writing are almost drawing in themselves. Each style of writing has its own rules for dissecting the written character and making the stroke. Now, as is known, the Chinese painters attached supreme importance to the line and to the brush-stroke. This was due in part to their equipment and in part to the fact that the amateurs of art were prepared by their classical studies to appreciate the strength or the delicacy of a line judged for itself, quite independently of the forms represented. We must also bear in mind that all of the Chinese painters were scholars, belonging to the class of the literati. [14] Writers, poets, statesmen, soldiers, Buddhist or Taoist priests, and philosophers have all furnished the greatest names in art. Under such conditions the technical relationship between the line of the painter and that of the calligraphist was closer, since painter and calligraphist were frequently united in one and the same person. Thence came the early tendency to use monochrome and to represent forms in the abstract, rendering them more and more as mere themes, thus reducing the subject to a few simple calligraphic strokes.

It is difficult for a European to follow the thought of the Chinese painters in these daring simplifications. Sometimes they are carried to such an extreme as to leave us with a feeling of perplexity. Often however they give rise to mighty conceptions and paintings whose essential character impresses us as a unique product of genius. Calligraphic painting reached its highest level during the Sung and Yüan periods. It was so closely allied to painting that the Emperor Hui Tsung, who ascended the throne in 1100, founded the Imperial Academy of Calligraphy and Painting in the first year of his reign. Hui Tsung was himself a painter. The books credit him with especial mastery in the representation of birds of prey, eagles, falcons and hawks, which seems to be sufficient reason for deliberately attributing to him every painting of a bird of prey, even when there is evidence that it was painted two or three centuries later than his time. Perhaps before long we shall find authentic paintings by Hui Tsung. A painting belonging to the Musée Guimet, which comes from the collection of Tuan Fang, is the one which by its annotations bears the greatest guaranty of authenticity, but it is a representation of a figure painting of the T’ang dynasty and gives us no information as to the manner in which Hui Tsung painted eagles. However, certain paintings from his collections have come down to us. Whether or not by the imperial hand they proclaim a virile art, an instinct for the grandiose and a majestic character which are the qualities of which the eagle is a symbol.

The foundation of the Academy of Calligraphy and Painting had results quite other than those hoped for by its founder. It became imbued with the evils of formalism. It was established in the imperial capital in court surroundings, in other words, in an atmosphere from which true artists depart with all possible speed. It suffered inevitably through the influences of a taste, refined it is true, but which already inclined toward mannerisms and preciosity. Conventions were established, subjects became stereotyped, the taste for brilliant colors developed and, even before the end of the Sung period, there was a marked division between academic and national art. Pedantry and affectation began to take the place of boldness and strength.

Doubtless this tendency would have developed still further but for a series of disasters and the menace of a new dynasty looming on the horizon of Central Asia, which was already resounding with the clash of Mongol arms.