Baroque Landscape: Chinese Baroque!

26 05 2010

This is the second in the series about baroque landscape…and its not about baroque landscape, but bear with me. It is relevant to the topic. I am fascinated by the beauty of Chinese landscape. Once I started to learn about the baroque style I noticed that the same basic features are present in the form of Chinese art too. Further investigation revealed that the traditional Doaist understanding of the natural world and man’s relation to it, as manifested in Chinese art, are in accord in many ways with the Catholic worldview.

Considering form first: if we look at any of the paintings shown here we see these features. There are a limited number of principle foci of interest which are more detailed and more coloured. The areas in between these are muted in colour and rendered in monochrome, usually black and grey ink washes. In fact in Chinese painting the contrast in the treatment of the focal points and background areas is even more pronounced. The areas between the foci are often no more than a hazy mist. However, there is always a unity to the painting. It looks like a single scene not painting containing three unconnected scenes.

I began to investigate a bit and read a book called The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting. This was written in China in the 1600s (which, coincidentally, is the baroque period in the West). What struck me is that their understanding of the natural world and how man relates to it is in accordance with the Christian worldview. The Daoist worldview does not include God, but it does recognize heaven, a place that is non-material. The natural world reflects a heavenly order and the task of man and his work is to act in harmony with it. Therefore, just like the Christian painters of the same period, they saw the beauty of the natural world as something that pointed to a place beyond it that was non-material. When we apprehend the beauty of nature, we perceive intuitively the harmonious relationships that exist between the parts; and the harmonious relationship of the whole to God (for the Christian), and to heaven (for the Daoist). As a Catholic I say that all harmony is derived from the harmonious relationships that are intrinsic to God, between the persons of the Trinity.

Compare, for example, two quotes that follow. The first by St Thomas Aquinas and the second by the Chinese sage, Lao Tzu:

‘The order of the parts of the universe to each other exists in virtue of the order of the whole universe to God’ St Thomas Aquinas (Questiones disputatae de veritate, 7,9)

‘Man’s standards are conditioned by those of Earth, the standard of Earth by those of Heaven, the standard of Heaven by that of the Way [Tao] and the standard of the Way is that of its own intrinsic nature.’ Lao Tzu, (from Tao Te Ching, XXV, 6th century BC)

It seems strange to me, that with their view of an ‘empty’ heaven they did not, historically at least, welcome the revelation of a God. It is though they had already deduced the existence of heaven but with an empty throne, and Christianity could provide the only King who is worthy to sit on it. Christ even told us that he is ‘the Way’ (John 14:6)

So, coming back to painting, when they painted a landscape they sought to capture its beauty by mimicking the way that man observes nature. Again, this is just like the baroque method.

The landscape tradition is much older in the China than in Europe, and I would say that this representation of the balance between the particular and the whole was at a much more mature in Chinese art than in the baroque landscapes of this period. Part of the training of any artist should be the study of the work of Masters in their tradition. Any artist wishing to specialize in landscape could benefit from the study of Chinese landscapes, I suggest, even if the ultimate aim is a Western form.

This has happened in the past. There has always been an easy crossover between Chinese and Western naturalistic landscape painting. Nineteenth century French landscape artists, especially the Impressionists, were fascinated by Chinese and Japanese landscape and incorporated many compositional elements into their own work.

It works the other way too. To demonstrate the point, I should now come clean and explain that not all the paintings in this article were painted by a traditional Chinese artist. The second is, but the first and third are by a classically trained Italian artist, who was also a Jesuit missionary to China in the mid-eighteenth century, called Giuseppe Castiglione. He was admired in China for his work and was patronized by the Emperor. I first came across his work at an exhibition at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago.

The first painting below is by Castiglione again. The others are by a contemporary artist, Henry Wo Yue-Kee, based in Alexandria, Virginia. He was sitting in a shop front working one day when I walked past and noticed him. He told me that he had moved here from Hong Kong where he was trained.

I found this link through to short description of Castiglione’s life and 40 images of his work (as reproduced on the stamps of China, Taiwan and Korea!)




6 responses

28 05 2010

After many years of studying ancient China, I am not sure I can agree with your views on Daoism. The “heaven” discussed here refers more to what we would call “the heavens,” e.g. astrological movements. And the Dao is very clearly impersonal, having no love for any part of creation but wantonly creating and destroying without reason. I would call Daoism closer to Romanticism than the Baroque.

In any event, I hope that you know of the Chinese painter, Catholic convert, and later Jesuit priest Wu Li. My undergraduate advisor, Jonathon Chaves, has written a book translating his poetry. ( It is well worth a read.

2 06 2010

Dear Adam, Thank you for your comment. I have been away for the weekend and only just got around to responding. These are my thoughts on what you say. As I read it, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual talks a great deal about the beauty of nature and how the artist should aim to capture the order that runs through all of it and with a view to revealing the Tao. It points to it, as it were. So this is seeking to direct the viewer to the something beyond it. The Tao, as you say, is impersonal and so is clearly not God, but the visual vocabularies used in each painting tradition to achieve this goal of capturing the beauty in order to point to something greater are very similar. It is striking, I would say how the methods of the baroque are, for example, to the ‘six essentials’ principles that underpin Chinese painting. They could as easily be applied to an academic landscape painting training.

If I give a longer version of the quote I gave in the article this metaphysical aspect comes out I think: ‘The Tao is formless yet complete, it existed before heaven and earth. It may be thought of as the mother of all things. Man’s standards are conditioned by those of earth, the standard of earth by those of heaven, the standard of heaven by that of Tao, and the standard of Tao is that of its own intrinsic nature’ (From the Tao Te Ching; Lao Tzu).

This Chinese manual of painting even specifies that there should be areas in every painting that are ‘voids’ these are distinguished from physical space (the misty areas etc) and in the painting should contrast with it (usually these are the flat areas that are left just as plain paper or those parts with the calligraphy on them). They represent to the metaphysical domain (and in this respect play a similar role to the framing of paintings, or the flat areas in iconographic art which represent the Divine order (which is outside time and space).

In regard to your comparison with the Romantic ideals, this seems to me to be different from the Romantic idea in some respects, but similar in others: the desire to reveal an objective standard that exists beyond that which is being painted in both the baroque and Chinese method is different from the Romantic ideal, which is concerned with the personal subjective feeling of the artist far more. This opened the way to ‘self-expression’ in art which dominates today and is contrary to the ideals of the two other traditions. However, when those subjective feelings coincide with what is objectively true, then the Romantic and the baroque overlap. This happens in landscape painting, in many respects (as I will write about in my next posting) because the Romantics did see nature as something beautiful.

In my reading, the Tao itself is referred to as a metaphysical ideal quite separate from the earth (or heavens with a lower case ‘h’, and the skies, certainly impersonal, as you say, but similar to Heaven in that it is a form of existence that is not physical. My reference to an empty Heaven was in regard to this. I was suggesting that one might consider that they had deduced the Divine Order, though not the Divine persons in whom, for the Christian, it rests.

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