2001年5月1日 星期二

The Aesthetic Sense of the Continuous Line—An Essay on the Creative Thought Behind Lin Chi-fong’s Painting

By Chia Chi Jason Wang (art critic)

    The 2001 solo-exhibition of Lin Chi-fong is a collection of works that the young painter has been creating during the last decade. It includes compositions from his college years, fine-line style-flower and bird paintings that witness of his advanced studies with miss Du Manhua at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and – what is more - a series of fine-line delineations modeled after ancient paintings and completed during the past few years. The strong retrospective quality of the current exhibition enables the viewer to better comprehend his past and present artistic concepts. The exhibition is also an impulse for the painter himself to reflect upon his artistic development and think about the possible way to thread upon into the future.
    Lin Chi-fong’s oeuvre maybe divided into two distinct groups. In the first group, Lin Chi-fong bases himself on masterpieces that deal with Taoist and Buddhist material as handed down from age to age by the ancients. In the second group, he paints flowers and birds from life. These two different paths bear a striking parallel to the “read tan thousand books, travel ten thousand miles”-theory by the late Ming (1368-1644) artist Dong Qichang (1555-1636). In his essay Hua Zhi (The Meaning of Painting) Dong Qichang states his central ideas at outset: “the painter has to take into account six principles. The first principle is the movement of the spirit resonance. One cannot study the spirit resonance. It comes with birth. It is a nature gift. But some things—however—can be learned. Read ten thousand books, travel ten thousand miles, and remove the dust world from within your innersole. Accumulate nature and gully within yourself, establish the outlines, and paint at hand. Only then the landscapes will be able to transmit their spirit.” Although Dong Qichang’s theory is related to landscape painting, but as a whole it may clarify how painters since the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368)—especially those who belonged to the literati class—considered both general education  and the accumulation of creative capability to be part of the basic artistic creation.
    Spirit resonance cannot be taught because it is innate and natural. In the third century Cao Pi (187-226) or Emperor Wen from Wei state (220-239) had already made clear references to a similar theory: “the resonance is the most important of a composition. The purity and muddiness of the resonance have a body. It cannot be obtained forcedly.” Thus what can be learned in order to obtain the capability of artistic expressivity is the knowledge acquired through one’s study from the ancients and their history or the actual perception of or copying from the nature and culture in one’s immediate vicinity. In Dong Qichang’s simile, the first is “reading ten thousand books” as where the latter equals “travelingten thousand miles”. Both similes distinctly stress the accumulation of experience and practice. In this respect, Lin Chi-fong’s creative method undoubtedly originates in his continuance of the work of Chinese traditional painting.
    In terms of spirit resonance Lin Chi-fong’s creative thought is imbued with a touch of meticulousness and prudence. His brushwork, coloring and copying of formal appearances all reach the fullest extent of detailedness within every single extreme small part without exception. This extreme care for detail, however, sometimes causes his works to look somewhat over-prudent. It goes without saying that artistic prudence is a kind of virtue and a sort of sincere expression, but too much prudence may also become an obstacle for the creative process. His most meticulous handling of the brush during his post-natal study process and training maybe considered as a reflection of his highest esteem for the tradition of Chinese ink painting. His combination of individual spirit resonance with post-natal practice and a meticulous style with a prudent one results in a Sramana-like devoutness. This devoutness happens to be exactly the origin of the touching qualities in his paintings.
    Lin Chi-fong applies an elaborate style technique to paint flower and bird compositions. As Lin Chi-fong recently has been able to completely master the genre, he stresses sketching from life without consulting photographs. Such persistence does not only reflect his aesthetic attitude, but also is a big challenge in technical terms. How to efficiently depict the birds and their habits within the transience of time and by means of quick brushwork whilst not disturbing the rhythm of nature and applying a meticulous and prudent painting style? The answer can be found in his practice of realistic drawing during a long period of study; Lin Chi-fong perfectly knows how seize the substantial form and manner of every single movement of joyful birds.
    When we compare the flower and bird paintings from Lin Chi-fong’s early period in 1987 with some more recent work, it is not very hard to find out that after 1996his pieces start to become thorough natural sketches from life. Before 1996 Lin had based himself upon the models set forth by ancient masters; the flower and bird paintings from the Song, for example, have long acted as the foundation of his own flower and bid compositions. As he was copying from the ancients it was impossible for the viewer to set Lin’s work apart from the model it used. Although he had applied a meticulous brush technique, but it did not seem to possess an authentic atmosphere or spatial aura; the painted lacked the miraculous brightness of nature and originality. Lin Chi-fong still uses the traditional moon-shaped fan in his recent work. Different from the works he painted two or three years ago, however, we now may discover some of his own ideas and innovative designs through an individualized composition, brushwork and coloration. In the representation of the formal appearances, for example, he adds a three-dimensional touch, but abstains from falling into the style of western classical realism. As for the coloration he sees to it that the colors also express the susceptibility of time; he especially uses such a technique to suggest the minute changes that take place between dusk and morning. It may be deducted from the above that Lin Chi-fong’s flower and bird paintings more and more start to have their own particular outlook and viewpoint.
    Compared with his flower and bird painting, Lin Chi-fong’s handling of Taoist or Buddhist matter in figure painting is still somewhat limited to imitating forebears due to his strong spiritual attraction to the ancients. Dong Qichang’s phrase “reading ten thousand books” implies that artist must take the ancients as their teachers in order to improve their technique, attain erudition, increase historical awareness, and develop a dialogue with the ancients. Such an approach, however, unavoidably may cause the artist to become entangled in the discourses set forth by the same ancients. In some cases he may even turn into a captive of the ancients and the past. Lin Chi-fong applies a meticulous and prudent brush technique to express his personal interpretation of some masterpieces among Buddhist and Taoist figure painting. Some are based on the mural painting from the Dunhuang grottoes. Others are inspired by ancient painters (e.g. Lu Gonglin and Zhao Mengfu), Qing court painters who employed a western technique (e.g. Yan Hongzi) or even by modern masters (e.g. Pu Xinyu).
    Lin Chi-fong clearly does not show the same kind of Dong Quchang’s ardent ambition to establish an orthodox school of painting when it comes to the choice of his models. Every time Lin Chi-fong has to decide upon a specific model for imitation he shows the greatest esteem and respect for his predecessors, but factors such as the school or politics do not seem particularly important for making up his mind. He chooses both paintings by professionalpainters and works known as paintings by literati amateurs. It may even be started that he does not really mind whether the models are genuine or fake.
    But such a respectful devoutness towards the ancients does not seem to wholly exclude the expression of his individual taste. Firstly, Lin Chi-fong intentionally reduces the spectrum of his subject matter to fine-line drawing. Secondly, he particularly pays attention to the way in which traditional painters have expressed themselves by means of Buddhist materials because he himself has a preference for that genre. Furthermore, Lin Chi-fong selects only outstanding fine-line drawings of which the copying requires explicit dexterity. Imitation thus becomes a challenge and a way to sharpen his skills in the art of fine-line drawing.
    Lin Chi-fong openly his inclination towards Tang and Song aesthetics. Hi imitation as a method to accumulate his experience his experience in fine-line drawing combined with this inclination gives people the impression they have seen the Buddhist and Taoist figures somewhere before. As he takes Tang and Song aesthetics as the norm, his art unavoidably become concealed within the art history of two dynasties. But that does not seem to bother Lin Chi-fong. On the contrary, he even appears to take great pleasure in his intoxication with the ancient sense of beauty.
    To follow the example of Tang and Song figure painting is undoubtedly Lin Chi-fong’s own aesthetic choice. This choice does not only reflect a subjective aesthetic attitude, but also seems to imply a concrete art historical viewpoint. When one takes a closer look at the history of Chinese figure ink painting, it becomes clear that as early as the later period of the Northern Song –that is in the later period of the eleventh century – the artistic world started to realize the Golden Age of Buddhist and Taoist figure painting was already waning. The art of landscapes, forests and rocks and flowers, bamboo, birds and fish begin instead to dominate the artistic scene. In his Experiences in Painting, for example, the art historian Guo Ruoxu pointed out: “The depiction of Taoist and Buddhist figures, beauties, oxen and horses is inferior to early times.” Lin Chi-fong thus takes the flower and bird paintings as his model and imbues his Taoist and Buddhist figures with the Tang and Song sense of beauty. These two choices clearly reflect his creative thought of looking up to the Golden Age of the Chinese painting history as his main model.
    Lin Chi-fong’s following of the creative aesthetics set forth in the Golden Age reflects his expectation of a new Renaissance. Fundamentally spoken such a pretension reveals his esteem for the glorious past and its tradition. In our modern epoch in which opposition and breaking are considered to be the propulsive forces of artistic creation, such a yearning for revival undoubtedly appears to be solitary, seldom seen, nostalgic and against the grain. When reconsidering his works from the viewpoint of pure tradition, however, such a solitude and nostalgia may still be able to emit the aesthetic sense of the distant and faraway continuous line provided the intensity and dynamics of the aura in the art pieces remain sufficient.
    Different from the majority of contemporary artists who tend to overthrow tradition, break with tradition or even go beyond tradition, Lin Chi-fong has chosen to work within the boundaries of tradition. He does not only base himself upom the tradition of the Golden Age, but also carries out a kind of self-practice by means of a training that is typical for ancient painters. That such training implies a long process may be seen from his Taoist and Buddhist figure paintings. It seems that Lin Chi-fong is still in the process of remolding and transforming the ancient models. The core of the matter remains whether the future Lin Chi-fong will be able to develop a personal creative thought while imitating. Only then Lin Chi-fong may attain Dong Qichang’s ideal state in which the artist transmits spirit through drawing at hand.
    Looking at Lin Chi-fong’s imitations superficially, they truly seem to be more or less the same as the ancient originals. But upon careful comparison, however, the attentive viewer may discover that apart from the outlook of form and structure of the composition which complies more or less with the original, other details such as the appearance of the Taoist and Buddhist figures, the necklaces, the pleats of the Buddhist icons and the details of the brushlines that make up the scenery are all traces of Lin Chi-fong’s reconstruction and re-creation. Although the overall appearance of the ancient painting is still vaguely present, the atmosphere and spatial dimension witness an innovative—though familiar—style because of these minute changes. The painstaking effort to change and revise the images of most Taoist and Buddhist figures, for example, even makes the sense of reality and suggestion of three-dimensional space more manifest.
    In ancient times copying old paintings was believed to be a way of preserving the traces of the ancients and their history; original paintings were preserved through making copies or duplicates. In the case of Lin Chi-fong, however, it is more apt to say the artist has blown new life into the original paintings of his forebears. The works have acquired a new life force through graftage or transplantation of artificial limbs. What is more, Lin Chi-fong does not merely create a duplicate of the original, but has re-created the original with a specific intention. He not only transforms, but even alienates and reproduces the original in order to make it useful and manageable for his own brushwork. Maybe this is the ultimate of Lin Chi-fong’s painting.
    Furthermore, it also seems unsuitable to analyze Lin Chi-fong’s replicas the background of traditional copying techniques. The traditional copyist would place the original next to him in order to make a copy while looking at it. Others would put the original below their sheet of paper or silk in order to copy it every detail. Lin Chi-fong did not have any original paintings handy, but reconstructs them by relying on modern prints in a reduced format or facsimiles. Due to inaccuracy, smallness, and vagueness of the printed materials, Lin Chi-fong cannot but suffuse his imitations with subjective—or even free—representation and reinterpretations. Occasionally the artist even resorts to real models to rearrange the figures in the old paintings. It is important to understand that creating is the primal intention of the artist. As such he needs not to be restricted by or faithful to every single detail in the original.
    Looked at in this way imitation is a tool of re-creation. Expressing oneself through the ancients, on the other side, is a way to modify. Imitating then becomes but a semantic pretext or excuse. The process of imitation is, in other words, also a procedure to dispel imitation. Its original meaning is to absorb the experiences of the ancients and exchange it for creative ability. Once we have understood the possibility of re-creation implied within Lin Chi-fong’s fine-line figure drawings, it may become somewhat easier for us to discover the original contributions in his works. We would then be able to look at his works without limiting one’s appraisal and trying to find out whether his work and the original do not resemble each other too much or not.
    Among the ancients maturity and creativity were considered as part of a traditional and very long road in which the artist needed to be equipped with tremendous stamina and endurance. His creation had to join history, but he also had to develop a personal style that was rooted in tradition. After more than ten years of cultivation and practice Lin Chi-fong has already quietly arrived at this kind of watershed. Using a meticulous and careful brushwork and a sense of beauty typical for the Tang and Song dynasties, how will it be possible for Lin Chi-fong to transform the ancient style into his own style by means of a kind of renaissance spirit and skill and acquire the individualist qualities that Qing painter Shitao (1642-1708) once mentioned in his saying “I am what I am because I have an existence of my own”? As for this, we earnestly place hope on Lin Chi-fong, but all depends on his future developments.