An Artist's Perspective: How Art Works

187 to facilitate this process, and the very epitome of this is the handscroll. Originally a convenient means of storing the written word, it became a format for painting from at latest the Han dynasty, and was well established by the Tang. The handscroll is a personal format that is designed specifically to involve the audience in the creative process: it was not intended to be displayed in its entirety as a single image; indeed, the display of entire handscrolls is a recent phenomenon, used mainly for public exhibition. The exchange between viewer and handscroll is intensely personal, a private journey into the painting and into the process intended to encourage total immersion and a meditative state, a sense of timelessness, in the knowledge that this state was the ultimate goal of art. The painting is unrolled at the left while it is rolled up at the right (the image almost invariably proceeds from right to left, like Chinese calligraphy) as the revealed section is slid across the table surface to keep it in front of the viewer. It is the viewer who chooses direction (once into the handscroll, one can move in either direction), speed and extent viewed. The viewer is also involved to a considerable extent in composition as the selection and size of the revealed segment is constantly changing, creating a series of mini-paintings of the viewer’s own composition. To hand during the experience will be scroll weights, allowing a particular segment to be fixed for a while, the rolled ends at bay, while the audience settles in meditatively. The first impulse upon encountering a landscape handscroll – the commonest, but far from sole, subject-matter of the genre – may be to go through it sequentially to read the surface language of subject-matter in order to ‘see where it goes’. But the exchange between artist, medium and audience is intentionally so intense that one is soon drawn into the subtler languages of visual art, the languages of form, line, colour and texture. We might reverse the direction of our journey moving back along the scroll follow the language of line, so highly developed in China through the art of calligraphy. Instead of seeing the detail depicted with line, one reads line itself as a language and a wholly different experience delights the senses. We can then approach the language of form, following how the artist used the various shapes of boulders, cliffs, dwellings and trees in an abstract exercise, creating a careful and satisfying balance, which was, for the Chinese artist, of far greater concern than mere depiction. Only occasionally does a Chinese landscape painter depict a specific place; more often, the exercise of landscape painting is simply a way to facilitate the dance of the other languages. The same exercise can be followed with colour (even in a painting made up entirely of ink, since ink and water create an infinite range of tones, which are considered ‘colours’ in Chinese art). Texture is harder to isolate, since the paper or silk provides an initial texture, which is then added to with every brush-stroke. Underlying all of these are even more subtle languages of commitment, command of the various aspects of the medium, wisdom and confidence. By the time every aspect of the handscroll has been enjoyed, what might to the uninitiated have seemed yet another boringly similar landscape, with yet another scholar strolling clutching a walking staff, has been transformed into a stage of wonders where the intensely sophisticated languages of Chinese art ‘sing’ in harmony an immensely subtle song and the audience is drawn into the performance as full partner. A framed painting hanging on the wall becomes functionally invisible with familiarity, and passing guests might not recall the following day what they saw in someone else’s home. But get someone involved in a handscroll and they will not only remember it the next day, they’ll remember it indefinitely. It is a highly efficient format. In China, this was recognized centuries ago, and while certain decorative or seasonally symbolic paintings were hung in the common areas of a home, high art was kept on scrolls or in albums, to be brought out and enjoyed for a while, then put away so they never lost their vitality to familiarity. The handscroll allowed – indeed encouraged – the absence of fixed perspective in the mainstream of Chinese painting, as did the attenuated format of a long, thin hanging scroll.

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