The shared origin of painting and calligraphy: II 書畫同源(二): 線條流轉的人物造像

Sat, Sep 30, 2017 - Page 14

The peculiar structure of the Chinese brush, with its supple hairs arranged in an inverted cone, means a single brush is incredibly versatile, and can produce points, lines and planes. This characteristic makes the brush equally useful for painting and calligraphy, with painting techniques largely being an extension of calligraphic brush techniques. This is the basis for Zhang Yanyuan’s idea of the shared origin of painting and calligraphy.

In last month’s Bilingual Arts we introduced the cunfa (texture stoke) technique used for depicting the surface texture of boulders. We now turn to how continuous lines were used in figurative mural painting, as an additional expression of the shared origin of painting and calligraphy.

The detail of the mural Vimalakirti debating Manjusri shown here, dating to around the High Tang period (mid 8th century AD), is located in Dunhuang Mogao Cave 103. Scholars believe this painting to be stylistically very similar to works attributable to Wu Daozi. During his lifetime, Wu painted countless numbers of Buddhist and Taoist murals, and was given the name “painting sage.” Unfortunately, extant works attributable to his hand are few and far between.

Wu Daozi excelled in the control of the brush tip. He was known for his ability to depict variations in thickness of line over the twists and turns of the folds of clothing, enabling him to represent clothes and lengths of material flapping and billowing in the wind. This technique was accorded its own term — wudai dangfeng— “Wu’s ribbons billowing in the wind.” Zhang Yanyu declared that Wu was skilled in all six painting principles.

In the mural, Vimalakirti, in ill health, is leaning forward in his canopy, listening attentively to the discoursing Manjusri. The painting shows a mature brush technique in depicting line, the artist employing variation to describe details of Vimalakirti’s facial features and clothing. The brushwork on the forehead, brow and corners of the eyes perfectly render his animated expression, even as his eyelids droop, a result of his ill health. With the use of variation in line, now languid, now urgent, the artist has been able to accurately depict the muscular structure and juxtaposition of light and shadow with line.

(Translated by Paul Cooper)