|Tao-chai 'A man in a house'|
ink on paper nu Wa Chai Collection.
Chinese Individualists Artists, search for true meaning.
The visual impact of Tao-chi had on me some fifty years ago still remains. Here was an extraordinary artist, a creative genius who was able to use his skill to bore into the very essence of existence. Tao-chi images still have that sense of excitement for me whenever my acquiesce with them is renewed, there is a senses of visual truth. The viewer is confronted with the very act of creation. When you look at ‘A Man in a House beneath a cliff’ you realise that Tao-chi is not simply depicting rocks, rather he is presenting to our senses the forces of the earth that mould and destroy rocks. It is almost as though the artist’s fingers have clawed at the cliff face in a search for the meaning of life. I am not sure whether this ink drawing is painted solely with a brush, or whether fingers and nails have come into play. Many Chinese finger artists placed cotton wool under their nails so as to increase the ink reserve available when drawing. We can experience the movement of his hands as he searched for this spontaneous moment. I love the way the colour has been applied in random dots freely across the picture plain without regard to boundaries, pulling the viewer into the mountain by creating this extraordinary surface excitement. The lines between the rocks act as arteries and veins of a living thing. The west would have to wait another hundred and fifty years for Van Gogh to enliven a painted surface in this manner.
This is as it should be for Chinese artists, unlike their western cousins who base their imagery on Greek Humanism, placing the human figure in the foreground. Chinese painting is all about the power and dominance of nature, the healing effects of isolation were the figures are small and subservient to the natural world. These Eccentric painters or scholars as they were called [great Chinese artists were amateurs, not professional] would appear during times of crises. When what we would call now days a regime change, those periods of strife between Dynasties, Tao-chi, a descendant of Ming Emperors was searching for peace in nature away from social and political responsibilities. Like many educated men at such times Tao-chi renounced worldly affairs and sought solitude. Offering his paintings as gifts to friends. His art was not based on a literal realism, Chinese artists don't walk out into the countryside to paint what they see, rather their work is more of a memory of what they felt. Constantine Brancusi once remarked, ‘What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things. It is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its external surface.’ The Chinese have fully understood this concept and have over the centuries attempted to express this essence.
'A Man in a House beneath a cliff' detail
Ink and colour on Paper
Nu Wa Chai Collection.
Another ink hand scroll by Tao-chi, ‘The Peach Blossom Spring’, achieves almost the same intense pictorial excitement. Here a fisherman returns to his village, after discovering a hidden valley in which the descendants of refugees from the tyranny of the first Ch’in Emperor have been living in peace for centuries. Naturally the villagers sent out a search party without success. This search for peace and solitude underlines much of the Individualists and Eccentrics artists output. You can see the fisherman talking to the villagers, while the hidden valley remains under a cloudy cover on the left. There is still the same energy in the execution in this painting and random application of colour, there is no attempt at realism in a western sense.
Tao-chi 'Peach Blossom Spring' detail
Hand scroll ink and colour on paper.
Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C'
Tao-chi with the fall of the Ming took vows to become a Buddhist monk and spent many years travelling around, visiting friends before settling down in Yang-chou. All this of course is of little importance in terms of his artistic abilities. His belief in the ‘single brushstroke’ as the ‘origin of existence and the root of every phenomena’ was his guiding light. His landscapes have been identified with the second reality of Confucian thought. His visuals are universal visuals, one mountain becomes all mountains.
These are questions we all need to address and I would love to hear further comment from any readers.