Introduction: In defense of choosing to collect the reproductions


How was the topic chosen?

While being trained as a painter, a U of M student is free to wander where he will in the "museum without walls". For me, a diffused interest in Far Eastern art began to focus during three years, dollying backwards through history towards the topic of this paper. First are the blue story-telling dishes -- scattered chinoiserie. Then I moved to Japanese prints, "discovered" as admirable by the French Impressionists. The Post-Impressionist Van Gogh seems to have known Sesshu, the great 15th century Japanese painter. Marin knew the Sung paintings of the 13th century. My interest grew the way artists have introduced the Orient to the common sense by assimilating it into art and mind.

Japanese artists and art historians relate about half their art to Sesshu, the monk-painter, and to the Sung paintings imported from China in his era. In studying the 15th century, two facts stood out: (1) that Sesshu humbly claimed to be completely dependent on Sung paintings, and (2) that Sesshu's period and the Southern Sung period are the two peak periods of Zen Buddhist history. Following the great monk-painter's interest leads straight into the life of an insistently irrational religion and to seeing very controversial paintings. For some the early Zen art is the very peak and essence of all Far Eastern art. To others, it is called a mistake, forgotten. Zen is claimed by some to lead to heaven and is by others damned as meaningless. There is no Chinese art history in the technical and complete sense of the word. All the paintings attributed to the artists may be fakes. Not one of these is in an American collection. Though it is difficult to demonstrate why a fascination persists, this paper will attempt to justify an interest in the subject. It is also a plea for reproducing the paintings more widely.

For an art student, free to wander through all art, there is a need to grasp firmly a single chunk of the jumbled traditions available, especially art that accords with one's natural inclinations.

My choice is a substantial group of works attributed to Liang Kai, Mu Chi, and Yu Chien. They stand out as the first and greatest of the Zen Buddhist painters. My real interest began and has continued to be in coming to understand the small group of paintings visually. That is why I have sent away to try and get a reproduction of every painting. The research is from books available here. It was begun by feeling out some of the art historians' suggestions as to what is relevant. The traces of the vain attempt to gain an objective view point about the painters are in the bibliography, the lists of paintings, and the diversity of leads followed. Many are to dead ends for a short study.

Apology for the inclusion of the main points in this outline

The history of Zen in Section 1 provides a basis for feeling what Zen is, for abhorring its definitions, and for seeing if Zen speaks to us.

In Section 2, Zen's position on art, I attempt to relate points about the painting to characteristics of the religion. Since Zen masters trusted only immediate communication to the novice, or let the discipline speak for itself, we have no standard for what their "way" was. I have tried to see what is in the Zen paintings and how this relates to the religious positions.

Section 3 answers the question, "What can be historically determined about the Zen Buddhist paintings?" Since the approximate dates are known, the social and political scene is scanned. It provides interesting analogies with our own period. There is reference to the difficulties the art historian encounters in studying the paintings. I consider the split in the Zen sect, linked with the attitude of influential Ming Dynasty critics, the Mongol invasion, and the export of many paintings into Japan. They had great effects for the Zen paintings. There are two contemporary assessments of the Zen paintings.

The only further delays to consideration of the paintings in Section 4 are on more or less credible accounts of the painters' lives and personalities.

The next section is a list of their works, taken primarily from Siren, who is the only one that I know of that has attempted this. Section 5 lists all the reproductions of the works that I could obtain. There is no collection of its kind that I have seen.

Section 6 includes reproductions and the comments express my understanding of some of them.

Section 7 is on Shih Ko and is included to pinpoint the Zen painter's achievement. Here all the problems of studying this subject arise. Shih Ko is supposed to be an earlier painter, but his work seems to depend on Liang Kai's innovations.

Section 8 contains evidence of a great Zen transformation that is taking place in America. It is a grab-bag of sentences with Zen in them, written by famous people. Considering the traditionally intimate relation between Zen and painting, the number of sentences alone would justify seeking out the oldest and unsurpassed Zen painters. It is necessary to note how Zen is being introduced here to see how it might influence painters.

Section 9 asks if there is evidences that contemporary artists are interested in Zen. There are a few sentences which suggest that the answer is Yes. A truly Zen painter wouldn't write anything but nonsense, especially for mass media, and most of the contemporaries do just that. I did not find much evidence that contemporary painters are interested in Zen painting.

In Section 10, I compare the Zen paintings to some contemporary American work. The differences due to the radically different traditions of Eastern and Western painting cannot be considered, though I feel they are great. Neither can the similarities due to mutual stylistic influence be traced. I simply take the same visual approach as in looking at the reproductions of Zen paintings and find similar characteristics in contemporary ones. There is no attempt at a definitive comparison. I believe a painter deals with world-views in his painting, if at all.

I wish to thank Mr. Mather, Mr. Copeland, Mr. Torbert, and Mr. Thomas for their helpful suggestions in preparing this paper.

About the online edition

In 1960, I typed the original thesis on an ancient upright Underwood typewriter, with three carbon copies. The circulating library copy is WILS CLSM -- 378.7M66 OL6402, available from the U of M Wilson Library. In it, several words have special accent characters, added manually. Since these words now commonly appear in English without the accent marks, I'm omitting them online.

I choose to leave out some of the hyphens and apostrophes in names. The original is Mu-Ch'i, now Mu Chi. The original is Liang K'ai, now Liang Kai.

Where HTML formatting is available, I use it instead of the previous conventions. For example, a book title appears in italics, rather than "quotation marks". Acronyms were dotted with periods, now they are not. For example, University of Minnesota was U. of M. but now it is U of M.

I've followed the example of a recently published Zen book in many things. However, I'm not using the long-vowel accent. There are too many pronunciation issues with words from the orient and I choose the simpler presentation in plain English. The name of the patriarch Bodhidharma is spelled "Boddhidarma" in the 1959 version.

Other comments

For the web, I've added explanatory notes within braces {such as these}, to separate them from parenthetical comments (such as this) in the text. In the original text, footnotes appear at the bottom of the page; on the web, the footnote references appear in braces immediately after the item.

The original reproductions are fuzzy, poorly-lit photographs. I add URLs to web sites with better images when I find them.

I would not write this thesis today. I see much of it as the bravado of youth and inexperience. Aside from technical errors, some judgmental statements without justification are intellectual travesties. To counterbalance, see the antithesis.

My purpose in publishing the thesis after a lapse of 40 years is to:

{Back to top of page}

Send comments by clicking the ... link below:

{Wholeo Online} ~ {Trips} ~ {Art} ~ {Minnesota} ~ {MFA thesis contents}

© 1960, 2001, 2007, 2008 Caroling. All rights reserved. Last modified: 2008-11-07