Section 6: Comments on the reproductions


The reproductions are arranged more or less in order of authenticity, chronology, technical development stage, and interest {as listed by #s in Section 5}. The comments follow in the same order. {The following list of characteristics of Zen painting parallels the description of Zen monks lives in Section 2.}

Negative Characteristics:

  1. No human affairs, social commentaries, historical narratives or secular portraits.
  2. No traditional Buddhist iconography.
  3. No imitation of appearances, or detailed realism.

    Subject Matter:

  4. Any visible thing.
  5. Spiritual portraits of monks.

    Stress On:

  6. Non-relativity or individuality of the living thing. Concentration on foreground against infinite.
  7. Inventive images and original compositions to evoke the lively thing.
  8. Attempt to seize the fugitive aspects of things.
  9. The infinite, or emptiness.
  10. The ordinary, typical, undistorted thing.
  11. Suggestion.

    Technically, these Characteristics Lead to:

  12. Over-all painting. The treatment of the whole is more important than the individual parts (strokes are interrelated rather than varying to imitate material appearance).
  13. The invention of the mass stroke which implies not only the edge but the inner mass or contour of a form.
  14. Form is projected forward. There is an internal space development which is not drawn to the edge of the picture.

Liang Kai, the innovator

The first picture has been called, "Sakyamuni leaving his mountain retreat", or, "Sakyamuni on his way to the Bodhi-Tree", and the book on Liang Kai from Japan calls it, "Sakyamuni after asceticism in the mountains" (#1, see reproduction). {Online note: For a better reproduction, see}According to the inscription, it was painted in the presence of the Emperor. It is the only authentic picture from Liang Kai's early period, which is supposedly in the Academy style. However, it is a highly original picture and has almost all of the nascent characteristics of Zen Buddhist painting.

Though the subject is the historic Buddha, he is portrayed in such a personal way that it might be called profane. In Liang Kai's time, the Buddha was thought to be the first teacher of Zen Buddhism, which accounts for the way he is changed from the traditional Buddha to look like a monk or a Zen master. Traditionally, the Buddha before enlightenment is a bejeweled prince and does not have the fresh psychological probing of this intent realistic portrait. Liang Kai was fascinated by portraiture. It seems as if his style changes to cope with this great interest.

The fugitive aspect of the moment is seen here in the concentration on seizing the particular tensions involved in being before, but about to obtain, enlightenment. This is very different from the traditional effort towards representing a rocklike human past the possibility of death, with an eternal soothing message. Perhaps the mental struggle Liang Kai portrays here reflected his own spiritual state.

To get at the highly inventive concept of this picture, the composition must be examined. A tree grows out of the foreground embankment. Sakyamuni stands on a light rising plain behind. It extends to a line with brushy shading. The flat background plane behind the Buddha would extend infinitely, if it were not for the similar plane behind the tree. Some say this is the outside wall of a cave, but the appearance is so little imitated it is not recognizable. They are joined by and defined by the same line. The three lines or planes are knit arbitrarily behind Sakyamuni's torso. It has its own plastic logic, invented to carry the meaning of the picture, which exceeds my vocabulary. The solution is unique to this picture. It is not one to be used as a stock device by competent artists. It has been called overly intellectual. Its arbitrary quality lifts Sakyamuni into an extraordinary setting, proper to his being. The composition opens from the right, is checked somewhat by the facing of the figure, is finally closed behind him. The center of the great circle implied by the left hand tree is outside the picture at the right; perhaps it is the object of Sakyamuni's gaze.

Nothing is included in the picture that does not serve the representation of the man. The landscape reflects his personality. The picture takes place in the foreground, almost in front of the paper, if one concentrates on the flat knit of the background definitions. The intent of this painting is to portray the individual thing, apart from its environment, in its essential non-relative state. Its focus takes knowledge of a general view for granted. In this way it may be considered a special refinement within a strong painting tradition. Emptiness is suggested by the gradual shading off at the top of the picture: it is not just left, in the way it is in the later pictures.

The color in "Sakyamuni" must be a binding traditional feature. It sticks flatly to the outlines. It is muted and reserved, rather than bright, setting an over-all tone, not relishing hues. The background is an austerely warm gray. The garment is dull red. The flesh is pallid.

The brush strokes in this picture are inconsistent. They are not done quickly, nor all-at-once. But all of them tend to look more like written characters than referents to the physical qualities of things. Thus differentiations are due to various suggestive rhythms of brushing, sometimes called using the qualities "inherent in the medium". This tendency towards over-all painting, where the effect of the whole is more important than the delineation of parts, is not very developed in this picture. Liang Kai has used the mass stroke very tentatively here. It is seen only in the foreground leaves and in Sakyamuni's hair. The twiggy leaves are simply lines that stand not for the contour but for the mass. Otherwise, the outlining in the figure, trees, and grounds, are in the conservative Academy style.

Before going on to Liang Kai's favorite people, his landscapes are included in the following discussion (#2-#8, see reproductions). All the landscapes reproduced are close-ups of clumps of trees and a little animal life against near banks. There is little concern with the realistic details or with the traditional composition in stacked layers representing distance. Characteristically, Liang Kai was not interested in obliterating mist. The most outstanding quality in these pictures is their block-like unity rather than a harmony of many discrete perspectives. They reveal the interest in the foreground, the intimate focus on the individual unrelated thing. The soft, gradual value changes, Siren says, are new in painting, and are in the sentiment of Zen.

The 16 Lo-han (#9, see reproduction) are the original disciples of Sakyamuni. Here they are quite naturalistic, almost caricatures. It is supposed to be a Ming picture, perhaps modeled on a picture by Kao Seng who lived before Liang Kai. Nevertheless it seems Kai might have painted subject something like this.

"Wang Hsi-chih writing on a fan" (#10, see reproduction) seems to be an earlier painting because of its technique and its rather narrative character. It is part of the transition from "Sakyamuni" to "Li Po". It is a portrait of the very famous Chin Dynasty calligrapher. It seems Liang Kai thought of monks more as fine men than as members of an order. In representing the man, Liang Kai, typically inventive, concentrates more on the calligraphic lines than in any other picture. There is nothing shocking about Wang. An extremely refined personality is evoked.

None of the draperies flow in the same wind as Wang's hat string. They flow languidly for the sake of their own delicate movement. The fine variation is quite exceptional and lovely. The relish for the effete art of calligraphy may be what made this the best known of Liang's pictures in his time. It is the only one covered with seals of the owners: we are fortunate that the others were not so popular. Another unusual fact is that the inscription is in the picture, which may be justified by the subject being a writer. The tree trunk is very interesting here as the first clear example of the mass stroke. It opposes the figure group in its direction, space, and soft mass quality. Later Liang Kai makes the tree echo the main focus in lesser degree, and finally leaves it out altogether.

The picture of Hui-neng chopping the bamboo stalk (#11, see reproduction) has added meaning if one reflects about the history of Zen, but it is part and parcel pictorially self-sufficient. The book on Liang Kai calls this subject simply, "A patriarch". At this time the Sung monks looked back over 500 years to Hui-neng as their patriarch, their wise man. To show a man of his stature as a plain round little monk laboring, reminds us of the common ordinary life, an insistence in Zen. Van Gogh's laborers are not free to work, they are pitied though admired; they suffer. Hui-neng turns his back, going about his business. His enlightenment is "mu shih", which means "nothing special", "no fuss". {Watts: Square Zen, Beat Zen, and Chan, p. 75.} But this is easy to know. It is the picture that counts.

Hui-neng's knife is measured against the stalk, poised as if the man were inhaling prior to the active chop. The knife is the only perfectly upright element. The bamboo leaves shiver, lightly reflecting the swift brief "ax-cleave" strokes rendering Hui-neng's garments. They are descriptive of the tense bulk that occupies about 1/16th of the area, yet seems to account for the whole -- the picture doesn't seem empty. The point about overall painting is especially clear here. The bamboo stalk and the background tree are on parallel axes tipped to the left from the knife. The foreground line slips to almost a horizontal, making a right angle to the axis of the figure's action, pointed by Hui-neng's left arm; this is typical of Liang Kai's angular line and composition. Hui-neng's feet and the bamboo base rest on the same level against the slanting ground planes. The tree slopes passively along with the ground to the left but several parallel axes to Hui-neng's gesture point towards the blank space. Yet all of these rather separate strokes are delivered by quick changing movements of the same hand and are not too different. It looks as if it were painted all over at once.

"Hui-neng tearing up the sutras" (#12, see reproduction) may also be looked on as a forceful exposition of Zen ideas. In fact, as far as the picture goes, he looks like a fiend loosed, which he is, in a way. It is supposed to be a Japanese copy but its style seems to be as fine as the other Hui-neng picture.

"Pu-tai carrying a sack" (#13, see reproduction) reveals another facet of Liang Kai's interest. There is a great deal of information on him in the Yung-ho-kung {Lessing: Yung-ho-kung, Volume I, pp. 28-31}. Pu-tai lived in the province of Chekiang in the first half of the tenth century. He was a common type of wandering monk, who helped to popularize Buddhism but adhered to no sect. Besides Pu-tai, which means cloth bag or glutton, he called himself (in Zen fashion) "Congruent With This". He begged or bartered for a living, needed no residence and lived from his bag. When asked how old he was he said, "My bag here is as old as space."

Miraculous legends grew up around him as he was popular in spite of being an outcast. They claimed that he was a preincarnation of Maitreya, the coming Buddha. He was always jolly, even when children attacked him. They said he could lie on the snow and sleep and that he had an eye in the middle of his back. He wrote poems which survive. The last words he uttered were: "The God, the true God! He dwells in the hearts of billions of souls. But man knoweth it not." Such a type, with his grotesque features and his ragged, dirty garb, appealed to the Chinese taste for the bizarre. The portraits of him supposedly worshiped in his lifetime are gone. In China he is still one of the most favorite figures of popular religion, known affectionately everywhere and to everyone. Outside China he is taken for a buffoon: he is the little wooden man with raised arms that is sold by the thousands in all sizes in our own Chinatowns.

In "Pu-tai", as in "Li Po" {#14}, no background is needed to make the figure come alive on the paper. The drapery shows the advance of the mass stroke. Before, it had only been used for tree trunks and ground planes. Its texture rounds out the figure from the empty space, drawing it in freshly. This is a fine example of the use of negative space. The strokes are calligraphic, yet highly narrative. The rounded forms emphasize the point about how technical means are subordinate to the desired expression.

Along with "Li Po", this work is one of Liang Kai's finest and most original pictures. Why is it not reproduced at all in the West? Is it because the personality revealed is popular but not refined? Is it because aristocratic values have dominated the taste of our art historians?

I have seen more written on the picture of the great Tang Dynasty poet "Li Po" (#14, see reproduction) than any of Liang Kai's others. It is popularly considered to be his masterpiece, and his simplest work.

A poem by Li Po, himself:

Alone on the Ching-ting hills
The birds have flown away on pinions high,
A cloud in heedless mood goes floating by,
The two that never change their fixed regard
Are ye, fair Ching-ting hills, and I, your bard."

{Soame Jenyns, ed: T'ang Dynasty Poems (Wisdom of the East), Grove Press, New York, NY}

{Online note: there is no discussion of #15 (see reproduction). However, I think it is the "Immortal", discussed under #17. It is a wonderful portrait of a monk, isn't it?}

"The two monks" (#16, see reproduction), shows two bent monks in a dull outline, routinely contoured. They have neither the faces nor activity of Liang Kai's men. It is an example of Zen painting at a low level of inspiration.

The "Immortal", "The monk with a shrimp" and "The monk eating a pig's head" (all #17, see reproduction) are also of the Liang Kai school of painting. {Online note: I believe the "Immortal" is #15, see reproduction.} The mass stroke is a fully developed mannerism, especially in the "Immortal" where only a few outlines are used in the body and the head. The mass stroke was not used alone. In combination with the technical usage (technique) of outlining, it is used to imply different textures or kinds of bulk. Aside from the sophisticated use of the mass stroke, there are other differences from the previously discussed paintings. They are less personal portraits, they are less developed plastically (not strong in originality or inventive composition). They depend on a knowledge of Zen ideas. Surely the portrait would not be missed if the edges were used, if the emblems were superbly placed or there were a meaningful composition. These monks are just on the paper.

Although all of Liang Kai's portraits were painted of past men he never met, they are almost like caricatures in their feeling of being real, certain persons at a certain time. These paintings of the Liang Kai school seem more like types or emblems. Their kinds of stance consist of heads sunken deeply into their sloppy robes, their feet flat on the ground, and they do not bend. Somehow, they have lost their uniqueness in becoming symbols.

To interpret these men as anything but slobs, one must know about Zen no-do, no-think, and the philosophy that makes them look as they do. They look as if they couldn't set their minds in order, no matter by what desperate measures, as if they joined the monastery so they could do less work. The "Immortal" (#15, see reproduction) is a good satire on monks -- a poor funny little man, all bum. But if one knows something about Zen, as one magazine writer indicates, this man "is a symbol of man's frankness and freedom from worldly desires." {Time Magazine, May 6, 1957, p. 61.}

"The drunken old man" (#19, see reproduction) can be described with the same comments as the three previous pictures, except the brushwork is more deftly, more ascetically, touched in and the placement of the figure is better related to the whole.

"Han-shan and Shih-te" (#18, see reproduction) fits awkwardly into the collection of paintings attributed to Liang Kai. Or so it seems from the faint reproduction in the Kokka. The mass stroke is used for the monks and rocks, the monks being outlined in a strong stroke reminiscent of Liang Kai's. The whole bottom half of the picture is full with drawn forms, which doesn't accord with the usual blankness of Zen paintings. It is painted with many drawn-out geometrical relations.

The subjects are two famous monks. By some they are called "hsien", Taoist immortal spirits that inhabit the mountains, wander forever, and sometimes come down to steal a living from the towns. But some say the monks were real. Han-shan means "cool hill". Shih-te means "picking-up"). According to the story, they lived in a grotto near a monastery in Che-chiang. Han-shan was a poet. He often is shown explaining a scroll to his friend Shih-te who holds a broom and is occupied with material well-being. Supposedly they conversed in their own language, nonsense to anyone else, and so were considered madmen.

The composition of the picture is in the Zen spirit of plastic invention. The ground and cliff make an angle enclosing a cone of empty space in a diagonal across the picture, strongly playing against the reach of Han-shan, writing on the cliff. It serves to link him with the sky and chink Shih-te down in the earth, appropriately.

{Online note: The thesis does not discuss #20, see reproduction, and #23-24, see reproduction.}

Mu Chi, the type

Mu Chi's differences from Liang Kai are that he paints many individual things in landscapes, animals, and still-lives. The lines are softer, more relaxed. The tone is grayer and the value changes more continuous. He uses circles, arcs, arabesques, whereas Liang uses angles and straight lines. Mu Chi develops the technique of making forms project out from the paper, rather than imply depth. His things are generally more intimate.

"Priest Chien-tzu playing with a shrimp" (#28, see reproduction) is painted from a point of view close to Liang Kai's and is the only authentic painting with the same subject matter. He is placed similarly to Pu-tai: about the same distance from the bottom of the picture, and the figure is cantilevered from the left edge by his pole, the inscription riding above. The mass stroke is used to wash in the robe. To get at the difference let us compare the bamboo pole with that in Hui-neng. Mu's is done with an even smooth stroke held at the beginning and the end to form a soft larger darkening at the joints, whereas Liang's breaks are accentuated by black hooked strokes. Mu's jolly little man is quite different form the noble personalities of Liang Kai's paintings. He is completely unselfconscious. He is modestly but happily occupied with catching shrimp.

Mu Chi painted landscapes, too. The five horizontal reproductions we have, have been cut from two scrolls illustrating the eight views of the Hsiao and Hsiang rivers. This is an imaginary theme popular with painters in the Sung and Southern Sung periods. The first two reproduced belong to a small scroll (#37, #38, see reproduction). The next three belong to a larger scroll (#40, #41, #42).

Mu Chi's landscapes are quite similar to those of Liang Kai but he is less interested in material representations, leaves more of the picture blank, and brings one small lively force into focus. They are very convincing patterns of fog. Of the five reproductions, only two show solid ground, both appearing in the lower left-hand corner. The fog opens the space to aspects of tree tops, single boats or birds flying. These aspects are ones not usually noticed in a panoramic scene. The characters for landscape are "shan-shui", meaning "mountain and water" but Mu obliterated the conventional landscape using these elements. They are soft and calm as is the mood in many of Mu Chi's paintings.

The "Arhat encircled with a snake" and the "Kuan-yin" (#46, #47a, see reproduction) are also conventional subjects, treated originally, due to the Zen point of view. They seem to be early works, groping toward the later style. The composition of the arhat picture is especially interesting. The rocks are bounded by darks that are like the tree trunk, so that they serve both as edges and as creases in a billowed space. This ambiguity of positive and negative helps, with the snake, to emphasize the stolidity of the concentrated arhat.

The "Kuan-yin" (#47a, see reproduction), "Monkey with her baby" (#47b, see reproduction) and the "Crane in a bamboo grove" (#47c, see reproduction), are an artificial triptych. The "Kuan-yin" is an earlier, more conventional, work, due to its inclusive detail, completed outline, and traditional Buddhist subject matter. The Kuan-yin is a goddess of mercy, the most popular Boddhisattva in China, derived from the Indian Avalokitesvara. Siren says, "This picture holds a supreme position within the whole range of Buddhist painting of the Far East." (Siren: Chinese Painting, p. 140.} Perhaps if it were better reproduced it would be also apparent as a fine painting. The monkey and crane are not Buddhist subjects, and are used religiously for the first time by Mu Chi.

The "Monkey and her baby" (#47b, see reproduction) is one of Mu's finest works. It is a peak example of the points used to characterize Zen painting. It is beautifully composed around the alert moon-face of the mother which lies roughly at the cross of the golden sections. Her limbs extend to form a strong horizontal with the small cross-branches of the tree trunk. It enters precariously from the right side of the picture and leans across the picture. It is counterbalanced by the pendulous leafy branch to the lower left, and its parallels, the three verticals of the vine branches. The tiny monkey's face dominates the whole scene. The undefined white space seems to be gathered into the face of the mother monkey as though it were the tiny gathered inflation-tube end of a huge balloon. It is a wonderful painting.

Siren questions the authenticity of the rest of Mu Chi's pictures. "The Crane" (#47c, see reproduction) walks out of the two lines of thicket along the slanting path running out of the picture. Since the foreground is very low on the page and the background is the paper, the picture seems to extend in front. This formal tendency is similar to many contemporary paintings, as will be discussed later. Here it is found in a rather labored work. It is not strong in over-all painting.

Both "The Peonies" (#56, see reproduction) and the "Chestnuts" (#55) twirl in a round endless space. It is hard to find their relation to the square. In the latter {Chestnuts}, three leaves point out parallel diagonal axes, the other two leaves, and stem, fall on axes at right angles to the first three. Four blossoms cluster around the geometric center of the paper. Their round shapes are echoed by implied circles, each with a point on the center, echoing area. The undrawn geometry presenting the "Chestnuts" is too complex to be analyzed verbally. The flowers expand from the center in no given direction. It is a picture of chestnut blossoms by themselves, in relation to nothing but -- you.

"The Peonies" (see reproduction) is less powerful and less frequently reproduced in the West. The foreground leaves seem to point at a core stem which is receding. But the flowers are built up from soft gray which advances the black centers. Compared with the "Chestnuts", the central composition is loosened. The stem grows from behind the bottom of the picture, keeping the plant behind the picture plane.

The two pictures currently the most popular in the West, Siren classes as, "possibly of the period". They are similar to the "Monkey and her baby" and the "Chestnuts", in the style that has been so revered in Japan since the days of the Ashikaga Shogunate.

Comparing the "Mynah" (#58, see reproduction) with the "Persimmons" (#71, see reproduction) is like comparing "Hui-neng" with "Li Po" in category of energy. The first is active, the other, withheld, potential energy.

In the "Mynah" (see reproduction), the branch type of rendering is similar to that in the mother monkey. It curves over the lower left hand corner. Only the dark tense body of the humped bird tells against the empty space. The placement of things is fine. The darks are put rhythmically near the various edges leading to eye over and over the emptiness of the center. The curve of the bough and the three small arcs of the vines repeat the round bird's back which is countered lightly by the branch swinging down at the top, weighted with the dark blob. Note the over-all similarity of brush strokes. It is a superb synthesis, which might be called "illustrative", or "calligraphic", where neither term could exclude the other.

The Kokka describes the "Persimmons" (see reproduction) as having a "super-mundane atmosphere". Perhaps it is greatly revered because of the "passion congealed in a stupendous calm" that Waley describes. Certainly, it is typical of the points made about Zen painting. The depth is implied by such short distances it is rather an openness than depth! It is like looking straight up into the sky where there is no dimension.

It is concerned with placement, with the "abstract dispositions" but every stroke delineates physical reality. The shapes are fruit bulks and the lines are stems. Their interaction is wonderful to watch. This is probably the most popular painting in the West of all those mentioned in this paper.

Following are the remainder of the reproductions attributed to Mu Chi. {#s 30, 31, 33a, 33b, 33c, 34. #s 45, 49, 53, 54, 59. #s 63, 64, 66, 68. #s 72, 73, 74b, 78. #77.} Generally, they are less realistic, more stylized, less unique and more concerned with types, both in subject matter selection, and in the type of brushwork.

Yu Chien, the wonderful follower

Yu Chien's fame is based on one picture, the "Mountain town in clearing mist" (#79, see reproduction). It has been admired since it was acquired by the Ashikaga Shogun in Japan. {Online note: For a better reproduction, see }

It is part of a scroll illustrating the eight views of the Hsiao and Hsiang rivers, which has been cut up and dispersed. The poem contains a paraphrase on the motif, mentioning a sandy beach, a rainbow and a sign of a wine shop. These details may only be seen by the poet.

The "Harvest moon" picture (#80, see reproduction) is part of the same scroll. It is similarly inscribed, saying, in part, "The Lo-yang tower commands a serene view .... suddenly the sound of a flute is heard: it sinks into the heart and reminds us of the difficult journey of life."

Yu Chien is called a follower in the best sense of the word. He paints in the spirit of Zen and extends the technique of painting. It is legitimate to say, the spirit is Zen. Though the painting is related to the tradition of landscape painting, the tradition has been transformed.

Comparing the "Mountain village" (#79, see reproduction) to Mu Chi's landscapes, we see that Liang Kai's monks have invaded the scene, standing out as clearly as Mu's wild geese. They stand on nothing and yet are stable, of themselves, the relation to the ground is understood. They are small yet they come to the fore. There is less emphasis on depicting fugitive things -- but it feels like a glimpse or a rare chance to see this sight. The dynamic ink bends the emptiness to itself in a fine use of the mass stroke. No stroke in the painting is an enclosure. They are either edges or fronts. Compared with Mu Chi, the over-all painting is much more pronounced. The edges and masses are placed rhythmically, hardly varying to imitate material appearances. By doubling, the trees are created, by dragging come the rocks; the brush and eye are directed to the painting of the village. But the village does not direct the painting. The development of space is set up from the center of the picture, between the "ink remains" that do not extend to the edges. There is an old saying that modern painters look at the ink, whereas the ancient ones concentrated on where there was no ink. Yu Chien is a wonderful ancient painter. In Mu Chi's painting the horizon is obliterated: in Yu Chien's, there is no difference, no horizon.

The view of "Lu Shen in the mist" (#84, see reproduction) is by the "other" Yu Chien. It is a strange singular use of the well-developed mass stroke. It looks like a technical exercise illustrating the use of the dragged mass stroke for mountains.

{Online note: The thesis does not discuss the last reproduction in this section, #83.}

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