Way back in 1959, when I was in 8th grade, I watched one of the early programs on the new public tv channel. It was Alan Watts discoursing on Eastern spiritual traditions. He very emphatically made the point that the Eastern vision, especially the Chinese Taoist vision, of the human being, of nature, of reality, is so radically different from the Western version of these. He illustrated it by comparing a painting from ancient China and one from the Renaissance in Europe. I found the whole thing so mesmerizing; never forgot the experience. I would like to “re-live” the experience as it were, but with two different paintings that I think are even more interesting in this illustration, and maybe they show things may be more complex and more nuanced than Watts presented. So….let us begin.
Sometimes no words are needed. All you need do is LOOK. What you see, what you think you see, and what you don’t see are all interesting. Here two different sets of artwork invite comparison and contrast. So, lets begin by just looking and pondering…..
The first painting is a prime example of German Romanticism, early 19th Century, Caspar David Friedrich.
The second one is from China: by Shih T’ao in the Ming Dynasty, 17th Century.
And just for emphasis I’ve included a third painting, another from China, something surprisingly very similar, by Shen Zhou, also in the Ming Dynasty, 16th Century.
Some notes on the Friedrich painting:
Romanticism as a movement in Western art, literature, and music is a fascinating phenomenon. One of its key aspects, but certainly not the only one, is the reaction and revolt from the classical formalism of medieval and renaissance art and the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment Period. Furthermore, the very place of nature changes radically; it is no longer merely the backdrop, the landscape, the stage on which the human drama unfolds. Here it becomes almost the protagonist which engages the human. In classical, medieval, and renaissance art, the religious and spiritual is primarily mediated through the human and its various institutions. In the Enlightenment all this crumbles (and a lot of Romantic art shows that….like ruins of old churches). One of the most striking aspects of Romanticism, then, is the mystical human-divine encounter that is now mediated by nature and no longer by the human constructs of civilization. There is more emphasis on Mystery rather than the clarity and the human-centeredness of earlier art.
However, this must also be noted: at times in Romantic art the human is “writ-large.” The human being is not a part of the Whole, but the centerpiece if you will, even if at times the human presence in the scene is minimal. And nature itself is something “out there,” something outside us, which mediates the Mystery and mysticism of reality. Romantic art “seeks to convey a subjective, emotional response to the natural world. The human focus is for all practical purposes on the ego self, human feelings, even irrationality (as opposed to rational thinking), subjectivity, etc.
An interesting note on Friedrich’s art found in Wikipedia:
“The visualization and portrayal of landscape in an entirely new manner was Friedrich’s key innovation. He sought not just to explore the blissful enjoyment of a beautiful view, as in the classic conception, but rather to examine an instant of sublimity, a reunion with the spiritual self through the contemplation of nature. Friedrich was instrumental in transforming landscape in art from a backdrop subordinated to human drama to a self-contained emotive subject.] Friedrich’s paintings commonly employed the Ruckenfigur—a person seen from behind, contemplating the view. The viewer is encouraged to place himself in the position of the Rückenfigur, by which means he experiences the sublime potential of nature, understanding that the scene is as perceived and idealised by a human. Friedrich created the notion of a landscape full of romantic feeling—die romantische Stimmungslandschaft. His art details a wide range of geographical features, such as rock coasts, forests, and mountain scenes. He often used the landscape to express religious themes. During his time, most of the best-known paintings were viewed as expressions of a religious mysticism.”
And now for something different!
A note from David Hinton on the first Chinese painting:
(David Hinton, a noted translator and student of Chinese poetry and thought, has commented on Shih Tao’s painting).
“Like countless other paintings in the Chinese tradition, this painting by Shih T’ao appears at first glance to show someone gazing into a landscape, an artist-intellectual accompanied by his attendant. But mysterious dimensions quickly reveal themselves, suggesting there is much more here than meets the eye. The poem inscribed on the painting describes a landscape that includes ruins of city walls and houses, abandoned orchards and gardens, but there is no sign of such things in the painting. The painting’s visible landscape isn’t realistic at all. It feels infused with mystery: depths of pale ink wash; black lines blurred, smeared, bleeding; mountains dissolving into faint blue haze. And there’s so much empty space in the composition, so much mist and sky. This sense of empty space is expanded dramatically by the soaring perspective: the mountain ranges appearing one beyond another suggest the gazer is standing on a mountaintop of impossible heights. And he seems a part of that emptiness, his body the same texture and color as the haze suffusing mountain valleys. Finally, there is the suggestion that the image is somehow a rendering of the gazer’s mind, an interior landscape we may possibly share when looking attentively at the painting. Or perhaps that the gazer has returned to some kind of originary place where mountains are welling up into existence for the first time, alive and writhing with primeval energy? Perhaps both at the same time: an originary place indistinguishable from the gazer’s mind, and even indistinguishable from our own minds?”
While Romantic art can look a lot like Chinese Taoist art in many cases, the differences are significant and, I think, more interesting. As defective as the Romantic vision is, the situation today sadly lacks even its stronger points, and we have succumbed to an incredible blindness . Now nature is more of a resource available for our exploitation, as a money-maker, or simply as another “toy” we play with, a stage setting for our “cultural selfies.” As for the Chinese Taoist vision, we are so far from it that it almost seems incomprehensible to most people today.