Tuesday, July 30, 2019

A Chinese Book That Offers Inspiration to Sacred Artists

Several years ago, I was interested in learning how to paint landscapes, and I noticed that the style and composition of traditional Chinese landscape painting had influenced the best landscape painters in the West. With my curiosity piqued, I read through a manual of traditional Chinese landscape painting, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, written in the 17th century. To my surprise, I found that the method of painting instruction used by the Chinese is the same as that of the West, but also that the Daoist understanding of the created world, which has formed the style of Chinese landscape, was compatible with Christianity. I wrote about this in a post from 2014 called Chinese Baroque!

Part of my openness to looking back at Chinese art relates to an even earlier time when I was taking icon painting classes from Aidan Hart. He often spoke of the importance of line in describing form in icon painting, and how describing line beautifully is part of the skill of the iconographer. I can still remember him talking of the “calligraphic flow” of Celtic art or of a Gregory Krug icon (see below); it is precisely this aspect of the description of form that attracts me so strongly to the illuminations of the English Gothic artist Matthew Paris and the School of St Albans. I recently did a lecture for the Institute of Catholic Culture on the Book of Kells and spoke of this, which you can listen to here.

I was interested to read a recent article in the excellent Orthodox Arts Journal (run by Jonathan Pageau and Andrew Gould) that was written by Aidan Hart about The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting. Aidan’s focus is on the direct connection between the methods and the philosophy of painting used and their similarity to those of icon painting. In his article, he digs more deeply than I have done and draws out some striking similarities, and wonderfully poetic excerpts. I would recommend to everyone to read his piece, but most especially anyone interested in pursuing sacred art.

For example, he talks of the importance of method and copying with understanding in the training process, which leads to an intuitive mastery of the technique which the artist can apply in new and different situations.

Aidan writes:
Here some excerpts that have meant a lot to me over the years, followed by my own commentary:
To be without method is deplorable, but to depend entirely on method is worse.’ (page 17).
The dominant weakness of icon painting in the West is the lack of method, the lack of skill. We have no long-term icon schools, and our art schools rarely train people in the traditional skills of drawing to any depth. Inevitably, therefore, a DIY approach dominates. By contrast, icons in traditionally Orthodox countries often suffer from the opposite problem: too much dependence on skillful copying. Accurate and analytical coping of masterpieces is certainly an excellent way to learn iconography, but should remain a means to an end. To equate Tradition with copying is a return to the Law and to depart from Grace. It betrays a spirit of fear rather than humility.
You must learn first to observe the rules faithfully; afterwards, modify them according to your intelligence and capacity. The end of all method is to seem to have no method.’ (p17)
Read the full article here.

Plum and Bamboo, Wu Zhen, 13th Century
A detail from the Book of Kells

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