DC sends me two Chinese works, one an ink and gouache painting on paper, and one a silk embroidery on silk. The painting depicts a lone, bearded, fur-cloaked man of the countryside in a fur wrap over baggy brown heavy trousers. He stands on a snow-filled riverside bank, under a bamboo stand speckled with snow. He holds a pole or spear to catch game. His plain ‘dǒulì’, a simple bamboo hat, is frozen over with crystalized white snow. Yet the most striking feature of this image of 12” x 22 ½” is the thick blue woolen scarf the freezing man hugs to his mouth and chest. The image effectively captures the feeling of cold; holding a warm wrap to chattering teeth, or capturing warm breaths in wool, is known to every farmer, fisherman or hunter.
The hunched posture is indicative of the poor man’s attempt to conserve body warmth. Thus, the artistry of feeling is definitely evident. This emotion in the painting is one of the clues that perhaps the painter executed the work with knowledge of the European taste for a certain type of art. This theme of the common folk in art is closer to the European tradition of Genre painting of the late 19th early 20th century. Not often in Chinese painting does the collector see a member of the common folk expressing basic simple human emotion. Yes, classic Chinese painting portrays battle scenes and sword fights and wrestling matches, but these are noble pursuits by the warrior class. Perhaps an early 20th century Chinese collector found this image of a hunter or fisherman huddled for warmth in the snowy countryside an unlikely theme for a work of art. Further indication suggests this painting was created for other than Chinese eyes, and for other than connoisseurs of classic Chinese painting.
The work is signed “Yu” in “Latin” alphabetical letters. This is not typical of the highest level of Chinese paintings, as what is considered the best Chinese paintings were painted for Chinese connoisseurs. In fact, an artist’s pictographic signature (called a chop) has pride of place in a composition. Moreover, Chinese consider the way an artist signs an art in itself. A subset of Chinese artwork features only Chinese characters; this is the fine art of calligraphy painting. A saying in Chinese states, “Calligraphy is the reflection of one’s morality and moral character.” The way an artist writes the characters of his name is his personal style disclosed to the connoisseur.
Think of the importance of writing in ancient China. Arguably, the building blocks of European plastic arts are architecture and sculpture. In Chinese art, the premier heads of the formative arts are firstly, calligraphy, and secondly, painting. One of the reasons for this preeminence is Chinese writing’s rich history: pictographic Chinese characters date back 8000 years. As far back as the Song Dynasty, (960-1279) scholars emphasized the essential element of the written word in painting. Theories of brush-handling were taught in practice that blended calligraphic skills into painting. Thus, the relationship between writing and painting is intertwined uniquely in China, in a way many Occidentals may not grasp. The style of an artist’s brush when painting or signing his/her name is therefore the soul of the painting, historically speaking.
This indicates the painting was created for the non-Chinese market, for Occidental standards of appreciation. That is not pejorative in itself, but it means DC’s painting’s style falls outside of the traditions appreciated by Chinese connoisseurs. And the art market is definitely on the side of Chinese paintings in the classic Chinese style which include certain traditions of proportion, color, perspective, and signature.
DC’s other work is a Chinese silk on silk embroidery of two kittens, gifted to her after the death of her cat. Ever see a cat sculpture with raised paw at a Chinese-owned business? Cats bring fortune. And DC’s research turned up the translation of the characters that comprise the chop: "energetic and lively-dedicated." This silk work typically comes from Suzhou, where experienced needle workers split a single silk thread to create realistic fur. Layer upon layer in various tones creates depth. DC’s work dates to before computerized machine embroiders: hand-embroiders use silk; and machines use full strands of anything but silk, which breaks easily. Yet the art market thinks of these as decorative works. The value of DC’s “Cold” painting? $300. The value of DC’s embroidery? $100.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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