SYMMETRY WITH NATURE: THE CONCEPT OF
1 RESEMBLANCE OR REVIVAL?
According to an old Chinese chronicle, a painter called Lie Yi (around the 2nd century BC) always left out the pupils of the dragons and phoenixes he painted, because if he had completed them, they could come to life and fly away (Miklós, 1973). This legend sounds very similar to the Western anecdote about the painter of Alexander the Great, who could paint such realistic bunch of grapes that he even deceived the birds themselves who wanted to eat them...
But the seemingly similar stories show two really different approaches to art. For the European painters and their audience the artistic perfection was delivered by the resemblance of the depicted models, while for their Chinese counterparts the revival of the art object was considered the – unachievable – aim of their art. In the story of the Greek painter we can find that concept which until the beginning of the 20th century was paramount in European art, which we can call illusionist concept.
The story about the Chinese painter shows the artistic principles of
East Asian painting, which we can call the concept of perception of the
artistic values ontologically. However, this concept is also present in
modern Western art. We can summarize this perception of painting not as
an imitation, but a creation.
2 THE MIRROR-COMPARISON
Imitation, or in other words - representation of the visible nature - had a great role in judging artistic value in Western art. If we look at the majority of art theories, which still have a great influence on our approach to art objects in the West, we can see that resemblance has a great role in elucidating pictorial representation in Western tradition. On the other hand, later on when we examine Chinese art, we will see that the concept of resemblance had also an important role, but it did not influence art theory as much as in the West. There was a clear distinction between depicting nature and representing non-visible objects. This distinction can be seen in the language as well, which we will examine later.
In the West there was no clear distinction in language between painting
of the objects depicted from nature and painting non-visible, imaginary
objects. The perception of art objects as reflecting reality, in other
words, understanding an art object as a "mirror" is the basis for many
art theories and quarrels in the West. One of the most common approaches
to this question was the acknowledgement of the reflection of reality.
As Leon Battista Alberti said that the painter tries to represent what
is visible and achieve the nearest likeness to the object itself (Marosi,
1976, p. 23). Leonardo da Vinci also thought in a similar way. He aimed
that "the spirit of the painter must be like a mirror, which always changes
according to the object in front of it." This idea for reflecting the reality
mostly comes from the ancient Greek art theories, where we can find the
origins of the later theory of the evolution of art. Resting on the theory
of Aristotle on the evolution of the drama, Xenocrates (lived in the beginning
of the 3rd century BC) states that the optical knowledge and
the reflection of the visible reality is very important for depictive arts,
and this is the basis for the further developments. However, there were
others in ancient Greece who did not share this concept whose main aim
is the imitation of reality. Plato (429-347 BC) doubted the grounds of
the imitation of nature, because in his view this only can reflect the
ideas themselves from second-hand.
3 HSIANG OR CHEN?
What for Plato and his contemporaries and later their followers and heirs caused the dissension, was for the ancient Chinese a more clearly distinguishable task. (But even though full of controversies and difficulties.) We know from the sources about art that in ancient China there were different words - or pictorial characters - used for the different types of images (Foulk and Sharf).
The Chinese used the term hsiang for "to resemble", "portrait", "figure", "form", "image", "representation", etc. For the Chinese, the act of representing or reflecting reality was closely associated with the ability to distinguish and iconically manipulate the structures or patterns underlying manifest phenomena (Wen Fong, 1984). In a discussion of the "great tradition" of Chinese painting, Wen Fong comments that "the painter’s goal was to participate in the dynamic energies and transformations of creation, rather than to fashion a mere counterfeit of nature. Painting must invoke and capture reality."
There is another word in Chinese for portrait, it is called
The etymological associations of this word, similarly allude to the gnostic
element involved in representation. The literal meaning of chen
is "true", "real", or "genuine". This term was used for portraiture as
early as the Six dynasties period, because the task of the portraitist
was to accurately capture the "living spirit" (shen) of the subject,
rather than his mere outward appearance (Shi Lan, 1988). According to mediaeval
theory-writers, once the artist succeeds in capturing "spirit resonance",
formal likeness will follow naturally. (Bush and Shih, 1985, p. 54; Acker
1954). It would appear that the use of the term chen
emerged in conjunction with this understanding of the artist’s task: traditional
sources agree that the chen or "truth" of the portrait lay not in
surface realism, but rather in the ability of the portrait to capture the
sitter’s innermost being.
As we saw, in China, the approach for a depicted reality is mostly concerned
with the invisible, the "inner" essence of the subject, and it moves from
"inside" towards "outside", while the classical Western view considers
that to achieve the outer resemblance with the inorganic media is the first
step to make the image to be reliable and appreciated.
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