So this is the difference in interpretation of space between Western paintings and Eastern paintings.
In western paintings, artists create space using perspectives and light source etc. to create illusion of convincing 3 dimensional space on 2 dimensional plain. It all started as a religious painting to create convincing illustration of important religious events or perhaps even fictions to make audience believe what’s in the illustration actually happened, so it had to be convincing as if it was real. People have tendency of mixing up what’s convincing and what’s real, but lies are purposefully designed to be convincing while facts are facts regardless of how unconvincing they are, so being convincing and being real is two separate concepts. However western painting is basically using space taking advantage of this tendency of people mixing up concepts of being convincing and being realistic.
Meanwhile in eastern paintings, official line says that Chinese paintings in particular are trying to depict meaning or essence of the subject matter instead of how they physically appear to be, so artists stopped depicting non-essentials, therefore empty space was created. There are some theories and interpretations which sounds very abstract and vague, sometimes even pretentious to give audience impression of how mystified Chinese art is. just like Chinese philosophies like Taoism and Confucianism which barely make sense to clever Asian elders with a lot of experience, so it is difficult for young western art student to actually understand. But I started as a western figurative artist from observation then began painting Chinese art, so I have my own interpretation of space in Chinese art in probably an understandable context for young western art students.
After 7 years of painting Chinese mountains and birds and flowers, I started realizing that Chinese art is very paradoxical both technologically and conceptually. In short, Chinese painting is what it is not about or what it is least about. They are mimicking to be what it is not. Chinese master paintings look like those were painted effortlessly with relatively short period of time, so it gives audience misconception of Chinese painting being easier than western painting. I had this same misconception when I began Chinese painting. I consider myself pretty good at wet on wet figurative painting with oil from observation which is technologically one of the hardest subject in Western painting, so I thought Chinese art would be easy for me given western art is historically considered to be more advanced than Chinese art.
Then I struggled so hard. It was so hard to even master copy my Chinese teacher’s simple painting for beginners. My Chinese teacher even told me that I need at least 40 years to become decent Chinese artist. Then I started feeling like Chinese painting is not how it appears to be. I could appreciate technological side of Chinese art alone for quite a while, but the concept of Chinese art seemed a bit too simple and weird like that it is lacking depth in meaning or messages unlike western painting.
Chinese painting is obviously not for dummies technologically, but how can so many classic Chinese master paintings are about mountains, birds and flowers which seems almost purely ornamental and apolitical as it can be considering how political average Chinese people are, and I started investigating Chinese people, culture and history visiting Shanghai every other month to understand the secret of Chinese art.
I started imagining how smartest people in China appear to be. Are they politicians? Business owners or even artists? I read the Art of War written by Sun Tzu. And somehow the most striking paragraphs to me back then were, “those who are really strong win naturally as if there were no fight, so they were never talked about in history.” This notion was interesting to me. When you think about it, ancient wars Chinese people like to talk a lot about are upset of huge number of soldiers with much fewer number of soldiers. People talk about how generals who made this upset possible were so cunning and smart, but they never talk about fights which was one sided and don’t involve actual physical fight. However those fights are actually more advanced and cunning yet nobody talk about in history.
Here’s this Chinese old saying. “Losers are always in the wrong.” It was common throughout Chinese history when dynasty falls, all the promoted elite families were executed or at least punished. The longest lasting unified Chinese dynasty in history was Tang dynasty which lasted about 289 years. However most dynasties fell before lasting 200 years, so people knew that dynasty comes and goes. People become political believing doing so would make them thrive well, but if someone wants to pursue success in his one generation while others stay low profile on purpose to pursue offspring’s survival over generations, which one is considered to be more political?
I thought this question interesting. There are so many war heroes whose offsprings didn’t survive till this day, but ordinary people like us survive till now. If those war heroes were as political as one can get, how political are we to actually survive till this day?
Very political people were always in the right, but they also didn’t wish to be promoted too much to avoid being executed or punished after some political struggle, so naturally they stayed low profile. Therefore they appear to be apolitical as possible and pretend like they don’t notice any political struggle happening at all, but somehow they are always on the right side of history when the right time comes.
It’s hard to talk about how smartest people appear to be in theory because their intelligence is beyond ours therefore they manifest themselves in front of us in the least expected way possible, but I have this theory that very perceptive people are at least diligently mimicking to look average and low profile while not very perceptive people pretend to look smarter than they actually are. We can tell the difference when not very perceptive people being pretentious because their deception is not thorough enough. However when spotting very perceptive people mimicking to be average, it’s hard because perceptive people are so perceptive that their deception is so well designed to the extent that ordinary mind like us are unable to spot them. And it’s doubly impossible to prove non-existence of super intelligence who’s diligently hiding among us. There’s a reason why it’s called devil’s proof. Do you see how it is more likely that we are already surrounded by super intelligent people pretending to look average? They look average not because they actually are, but because of the fact that we cannot see through their deception.
So I personally became more interested in average looking people with subtle difference than obvious signs of intelligence when appreciating Chinese people and art.
I also found that there’s not much political symbols and signs except for generic and passable symbols like Dragons and Phoenix. Dragon represents masculinity and Phoenix represents femininity. Why there’s no political secret codes in Chinese art? I think this way. When someone is hanging scrolls on the wall, it is wiser not to reveal the owner’s political orientation until right time comes, or he/she will be on the wrong side of history. I think there were certainly political painting in China, but they simply didn’t survive political events like cultural revolution where all the inappropriate literature and pieces of art were destroyed. When you assume the reason why someone would be political, the answer would be to thrive better. But when political painting didn’t survive political events yet ornamental paintings of mountains, birds and flowers which look almost effortless, you gotta wonder which one is actually more political. Chinese art is apolitical, but being apolitical is actually a symptom of being highly political, and to see the real beauty of Chinese art, you gotta really pay attention to what it is not about. And if you have the right context, you can see the trace of political struggle over political struggle in such apolitical paintings.
So in this context, the empty space in Chinese art is important. Because this empty space is literally defining outline of Chinese painting. It is what it is not about when it comes to Chinese art. As someone says, speech is silver, silence is golden. This is what makes Chinese art so paradoxical to me. After all those years of political struggles, all that’s left is the most apolitical paintings which look effortless. And the fact they survived till this day makes them the most political paintings in practice, but they don’t seem like one. I hope that this makes sense to young western art students. It is hard to explain what’s not there because sometimes you can only explain absence of something through paradox. It’s like how violet is absence of yellow. It’s explaining violet using context of what it’s least about. Violet is not about yellow at all but it’s also about yellow at the same time.