Images of the Mind

Images of the Mind: Selections from the Edward L. Elliott Family and the John B. Elliott Collections of Chinese Calligraphy and Painting, with a catalogue by Wen C. Fong

At the Sackler Museum, Harvard University

(originally broadcast on WBUR, May 1986)

Chinese painters were often scholars and poets, who spent years copying the work of older masters before finding their own styles.  Then they worked swiftly, using brushes and black ink to create an astonishing range of marks and tones.  They did not seek to create the illusion of a real landscape, but used landscape to express the artist’s inner vision.  They called both painting and calligraphy “images of the mind“.

Chao Meng-fu was a Sung prince who served at the court of the Yuan  Mongols after they defeated the Sung dynasty in the thirteenth century.  He painted a “mind landscape” — the inner world to which he retreated while serving at court and living in the world.  In the “mind landscape”, a wise man sits alone on a tiger skin at the edge of a river, amid cloudy, pale green rocks and clusters of dark pines.  The rhythms of rocks and trees echo his state of contemplation and inner peace, as the poem, trickles down the page like water – or music.

Tao Chi was a prince who became a wandering Buddhist monk after the fall of the Ming dynasty in the seventeenth century.  His “Melancholy Thoughts on the Hsiao and Hsiang Rivers” captures the mood of the end of autumn.  A lonely fishing hut is half-hidden by a few sparse trees.  A flock of wild geese flies over a river filled with reeds.  The calligraphy echoes the flight of the birds and the quiver of the leaves.  Without understanding a word, we can feel the poetry.

Almost a thousand years ago, Ching Hao described the six essentials of landscape painting:  ink wash, brushwork, scenery, thought, elegance, and life breath.  He wrote:

“As the heart responds and the brush moves forward, forms are seized without hesitation.”

The breath of life still moves through these landscapes and letters on old silk scrolls.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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