Thursday, February 6, 2014

18th century Chinese artist on life-force and painting

I've been reading The Grove Book of Art Writing edited by Martin Gayford and Karen Wright. It is an anthology of writings by artists, critics, writers and philosophers on topics related to the creative process, viewing art, nature and inspiration and the artist. In it I came across a gem, a text by an 18th century artist from China, Shen Tsung-ch'ien. In this short piece he talks about life-force and the act of painting. There is a lot to take from it. So here goes..
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All matter is formed of accumulated force. Thus even the undulations of the hilltops and every rock and tree are possessed by a life-force inherent in them. They are multifarious, yet orderly, perhaps they exist in small numbers, but they are never dried and dead. Each has its own shape, and together they have a related unity. All things differ in shape and manner, yet all are governed by this life-force and possess the beauty of life. This is what we call shih, force of movement. When people, speaking of the six techniques [the venerable principles of Chinese art, laid down in the fifth century AD], place first the 'lifelike tone and atmosphere', they mean exactly this. When we speak of the force of the brush (pi-shih), we mean that the life-movement of the brush brings out the body posture of the different objects. Only so can the work be called a painting. When one prepares to put ink on paper, one should feel in one's wrist a power like the universe creating life. It flows out from one generously and freely, without obstruction and without deliberation. One puts a dot here and a 
dash there and the objects take form; anything is possible for one to pick up and carry along. This is the creative moment when hand and mind and brush and ink co-operate. As Wen Cheng-ming says, seize it, capture it at once before it vanishes, for speed is essential to catch that force of movement. ... The forms of hills and forests come from the life-force (sheng-ch'i) of the universe, and the ink marks and tracings of the brush come the spiritual force of the artist's mind and hand. So where the life-force is, the force of movement is also. The life-force makes the force of movement, and the force of movement carries the life-movement. The force of movement (shih) can be seen, but the life-force (chi'i) cannot. Therefore it is necessary to have the force of movement to bring out the life of things. When life-force circulates, the force of movement goes in harmony with it. So this life-force and force of movement come from the same source. Let it pour out and it will flow naturally and in graceful movements. There is no need to work carefully and yet it all fits in beautifully. Is it life-force? Or is it force of movement? Just pour it out. The insight of a moment may be thus committed to eternity, and the artist need not be ashamed of his work. Such pleasures of creation cannot be felt by an artist who slowly builds up his structures.

The moment of inspiration comes by itself, and brushes away all doubts and hesitancies. Like an arrow shooting out from the bowstring, it cannot be stopped; it is unfathomable, like rumbling thunder coming from the earth. One has no idea where it comes from, when it starts, nor wither it goes. It comes just at the exact moment, not a second sooner or later. When this inspiration comes at the moment of painting, a true masterpiece is born. It cannot be repeated by doubled effort, it simply eludes it. For the effort to recapture that moment is born of man (artificial), not of heaven (inspired). Only those possessed of the natural expansive spirit have more of such moments; they can shut out the mental effort and let themselves go soaring in freedom to wherever the spirit may carry them. ...
- Shen Tsung-ch'ien, fl. 1781
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