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

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

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.

In direct contrast the Southern style is made up of half-tints, with a feeling of reserve and intentional restraint, which gives it, with equal power, at times a more appealing charm. The lines are pliant, immersed in shading, color is suggested in a subtle fashion and, in contrast to the almost brutal emphasis of the North, it finds expression in chiaroscuro and concealed harmonies.

The foundation of the Southern School is attributed to a great landscape painter of the eighth century, Wang Wei. Nothing could better determine his tendencies than monochrome [12] painting in Chinese ink. According to the records, this was first practiced by him. It constitutes what in China, as well as in Japan, is called the literary man’s painting and is, in reality, quite closely related to calligraphy. The variety of shadings and relative colors of objects depend entirely upon the tones of ink washes. Wang Wei seems to have treated monochrome mainly from the standpoint of chiaroscuro, in his search for an atmospheric perspective which should be both fluid and ethereal. It appears that the accentuation of lines according to rule that is seen later on, where forms are synthetized—sometimes to an excessive degree—was only a derivation of the work of Wang Wei and caused by the intrusion of calligraphic virtuosity into the domain of painting.

When we arrive at Wang Wei, landscape is treated as a special subject and with its own resources. It was he who discovered the principles which govern the fading of colors and forms in the distance, and who formulated the laws of atmospheric perspective. Paintings in his style are all executed in a predominating color which the Chinese call luo-ts’ing, a mineral color of varying shades ranging from a malachite green to a lapis-lazuli blue. It will be seen why luo-ts’ing gave its name to the style of Wang Wei.

By means of bluish tints he painted the distant expanse of landscape. Mountains forming screens in the backgrounds and masses of trees lost in the distance, are all indicated by the azure tints which intervening layers of air give to remote objects. But as the foreground is approached, rightful colors begin to prevail and the azure tints are subtly graded, passing into a fresh and brilliant green amongst wooded declivities, and into the natural hue in the foliage of trees. Often heavy mists, spreading at the foot of high mountains, veil the outlines and still further emphasize the feeling of limitless space.[13]

Plate X

Sung Period. Collection of Martin White.

But when a master has carried his study of the fading of colors and of their relative values thus far, he must have considered not only the element of color itself, but also the collective tones which color is capable of expressing. From this to monochrome painting in Chinese ink is but a step; historical testimony shows that Wang Wei took this step. By the simple opposition of black and white, and through tone values and gradations of shades, he endeavored to create the same feeling of atmosphere and space which he had been able to express with luo-ts’ing. No original picture remains to inform us to what extent he succeeded, but by means of monochrome paintings of the Sung period which owe their inspiration to him, the importance of the reform accomplished, and the tendencies manifested in those lost works of art may be divined.

Another master whose work can be defined with sufficient accuracy to cite as an illustration of a different aspect of the history of painting during the T’ang period, is Han Kan, who lived in the middle of the eighth century and who is celebrated as a painter of horses.

The sculptured stones of the Han dynasty, especially the admirable bas-reliefs of the tomb of Chao-ling, representing the favorite coursers of the emperor T’ai-tsung, show the manner in which artists, from the third to the seventh centuries, were capable of studying and delineating the postures of the horse. It is therefore not surprising to find a great animal painter in the eighth century. Beyond question he was not the first. The written records have preserved the names of several of his predecessors and while the honor of having been the great founder of a school was attributed to him, it is possible that this refers only to an artistic movement bearing his name, of which he was not the sole representative.

But the work of Han Kan and the unknown artists grouped around him, proclaims a powerful tradition, a well grounded school of animal painters which had attained the highest eminence. It was destined to exert a strong influence upon painters of horses in the Yüan epoch and even when, later on, this great tradition is seen disappearing, cloying and insipid, amidst the mannerisms of the Ming period, it will still retain sufficient power to carry thus far a reflection of the vigor and vitality attained in the great periods.

The painting of Flowers and Birds, and Plants and Insects appears to have been already established at this time. The flowers and plants are drawn according to the methods of double contour and single contour, worked over and brought out with that intensity of analysis to which allusion has been made. The bird is caught in its most subtle movement, the insect studied in its essential structure.

Thus we see that Chinese painting had extended its investigations in every direction and had solved the problems found along its path. It had absorbed foreign influences, altered its conception of the divine and found a new type of figure. It had endowed landscape painting with all the resources of atmospheric perspective and had established the two essential styles of the North and the South. The painter was master of the visible; his thought dominated form and was able to express itself with freedom.