What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that maybe familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. - Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols
Asian brush painting embraces symbolism on several levels. The brush strokes are swift and mindful, often reflecting more the painter’s mental state than a representation of an actual object. The brush painter/sumi-e artist seeks both to convey the essence of the object in a minimum of brush strokes while breathing into and “becoming” that object.
Brush painting is a kindred art form to Chinese calligraphy, which is an ideographic rather than phonetic language system. All Chinese characters are essentially picture characters that are graphic representations of objects, concepts, actions, etc. Through the centuries the Far Eastern cultures have endured various politically and socially repressive conditions.
Verbal and or otherwise direct expression of feelings, opinions and beliefs could result in severe social or personal consequences in these circumstances. During the course of history Asian brush painters turned to the natural world -aspects of landscapes, particular plants and animals - to express in a “coded” pictorial manner what they could not say explicitly in public. The Four Gentlemen
Since the times of Confucius the bamboo, orchid, plum, blossom and chrysanthemum have been known as the “Four Gentlemen” of Chinese brush painting. In Japan they are known as the “Four Paragons”. They symbolize the various qualities of the ideal gentleman - cultured, with good character and personality. These are the subjects of beginning students in Sumi-e. The brush strokes learned while studying the four gentlemen are the foundations of later work. Ironically, although these are the first subjects learned, they are generally the last subjects to be mastered.
Bamboo is a symbol of the virtue of modesty. Because it is evergreen it is also a symbol of longevity. There is a famous saying that an artist must become a bamboo before he can paint one. The plum tree is the first to blossom, producing buds before its leaves emerge. Since it can flower very early in the year, it is a symbol of winter; because of its purity it also symbolizes virginity. The orchid, characterized by its sweet smell, generally stands for love and beauty. The orchid is also associated with the season of spring. The chrysanthemum, with its burnished colors, is a symbol of autumn. Since it flourishes at the end of the year, it denotes longevity and duration. The Secret Life of Plants
Apart from the “Four Gentlemen” the plant world provided the Asian artist with other enduring symbols. The Chinese had these categories to signify the four seasons:
Spring - Iris and Magnolia Summer - Peony and Lotus Autumn - Chrysanthemum Winter - Plum and Bamboo
The pine tree is the favorite tree of brush painters; because it is evergreen it stands for steadfastness and longevity. Pine, bamboo and plum are the “three friends of winter”. Pines and cranes pictured together represent the last years of a long life. Because pine needles grow in pairs, the pine is also a symbol of marital bliss. In Japan, the iris is used as a decoration for the “Feast of the Boy” in May. The upright shape and strong growth are thought to symbolize the ideal of the samurai. The magnolia is a symbol of beauty in women. The Chinese word for magnolia, Mu-lan, was the name of a legendary warrior maiden. In ancient times only the emperor of China was entitled to own magnolia trees. He would occasionally give a magnolia root as an imperial favor. The peony is “the queen of flowers”, an emblem of wealth and distinction. The red peony is the most admired and valued. The white peony symbolizes young girls possessing both wit and beauty. Lotus The Lotus, also known as the “sea rose”, is unique and important because of its close association with Buddhism. The Lotus grows in the mud but rises above it regally and unsullied. It is inwardly empty and outwardly upright. It smells sweetly and stands as a symbol of purity. The Lotus is one of the “eight precious things” of Buddhism. The fruit, flower and stalk represent the past, present and future. The presence of the word “Lotus” in a man’s name indicates that he is a Buddhist or is associated with Buddhism. “Lotus” in a woman’s name expresses the wish that she will be pure and respected. The Lotus also can have sensual symbolism. Buddha’s foreskin was supposed to be like a lotus flower. In more general symbolic terms, a red lotus represents female genitalia, while the stem represents the male penis. The seedbox represents fertility. Courtesans were often called “red lotus”in old China. Conversely, a blue lotus signifies cleanliness and modesty.
Calligraphy and Abstraction
Calligraphy and Abstraction
“If I had been born Chinese, I would have been a calligrapher, not a painter.” - Pablo Picasso Brush calligraphy is a unique art form of the Asian cultures. Originating in China, calligraphy spread to Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, imbuing those cultures with pictorial expressiveness. Chinese calligraphy was developed some four to five thousand years ago, and possesses thousands of characters. There are various styles of calligraphy, ranging from highly formalized to very fluid and loose. The personality of the calligrapher is revealed in his work. In Imperial China, skill in calligraphy was an important asset for attaining executive positions in the “Imperial Court”. As evidenced by the character for “man” presented below, calligraphic images historically developed from pictographic representations, evolving over time into streamlined, more abstract figures. This abstract quality in brush calligraphy has been hugely influential in modern Western art.
Fauna Although a popular subject matter, in brush painting, animals hold somewhat less symbolic status than the more classic and traditional plants and landscapes. Cats are often associated with the spirit world. Because of its excellent eyesight, the cat is thought to be able to see spirits in the dark. In some areas of China white cats are thought to be able to steal moonbeams. It was once believed that if a cat jumped over a coffin the corpse would be revived and proceed to haunt the neighborhood. Denoting a far more benign feline aspect, a cat paired with a butterfly symbolizes a wish for a long life. In spoken Chinese the words mao die (cat and butterfly) is a pun with another meaning, “Live to be seventy or eighty”. The dog, the eleventh creature in the Chinese zodiac, symbolizes several things. The dog’s symbolic role is often that of a demon chaser, purifying the world of evil spirits. Conversely, a dead dog should not be buried because it will turn into a demon. The dog has also been heralded as the creature that brought rice to mankind among some Asian groups. The horse resides in the seventh house of the Chinese zodiac. In ancient times the horse symbolized femaleness, but in later myths horses became associated with yang (male principle). In Buddhism, a white horse stands for purity and loyalty. The traits of speed and endurance are also associated with horses. In Chinese tradition the giant panda was regarded as semi-divine, with power to prevent disease and banish evil spirits. Sadly, today the panda symbolizes endangered species.
Symbols in Landscape Painting The Chinese word for “landscape” means “mountains and water” when translated literally. Indeed, mountains and water comprise the vast majority of subject matter portrayed in landscapes in the brush painting tradition. In ancient China mountains were venerated, insuring cosmic order and permanence. There were various cults that had mountains at the core of their belief systems. Mountains, rocks and stones were generally associated with longevity. It was believed that the mountains generated clouds and rain. Clouds and rain were also believed to result when the female principle (yin) united with the male principle (yang). Rainbows were therefore viewed as symbols of marriage. The sun represented yang, and has stood as a symbol of the Emperor. As one would expect, the moon was associated with the female principle, yin, and symbolized the Empress. Water was associated with the female force, yin. According to Chinese legend, water originally united with fire (yang) to create the five elements (wood, fire, metal, water, and earth), which later engendered the “ten thousand things” (e.g.,everything).
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