Essays on Art by Hugh Moss

Riding Three Perfections to One

24 February 2021 


The shift from a product- to a process-based theory of art changes a great deal about the way we approach, understand and efficiently use art (see Introduction). It releases the full potential of the creative process as a powerful force in evolving consciousness; potential that was fully realized in China millennia ago but only belatedly, in the West.

In China, the everyday world was known as ‘The World of Dust’ or, more colourfully, ‘The World of Red Dust;’ while the trans-intellectual domain was the Dao (see The Riven Reality of Consciousness).Those who attained this transcendent, Enlightened state, were seen as Realized in the sense of stepping beyond relative reality to unify with transcendent Reality and thus able to integrate the two. As so often words take on different meanings depending upon context. The world of dust, the realm where the intellect holds sway, is seen as a world of duality, where things are separated in order to consider them, whereas the transcendent realm is considered one of non-duality and is undifferentiated.1 The educated elite, who both defined, and were the main practitioners of high art, were also its theorists who, freed of the siren-call of surface meaning, fully understood what they were doing as they were doing it. This is an important distinction arising out of a fully mature aesthetic culture. It is my contention that while our pioneering, modern western revolutionary artists were splendidly involved in comprehending disparate parts of the revolution, its various skirmishes, they lacked an overarching theoretical perspective that allowed them to clearly understand what it was the were involved in at a profound level. With revolution rather than evolution, this is often the case; those involved are too caught up in the excitement and the chaos to step back and consider the underlying purpose and meaning of what they are involved in, sacrificing theoretical clarity in the heat and confusion of violent revolution.

In China, between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries there was growing recognition of the relationship between the various brush arts – painting, calligraphy and, since calligraphy was written with a brush, poetry. The three were seen as unified in their underlying aim and were linked as the ‘Three Perfections,’ increasing aesthetic potential and efficiency. The idea seems to have its roots in an eighth century inscription added to a painting given to the emperor by Zheng Qian (d. 764); it read: ‘Zheng Qian’s three perfections.’ We may assume that the artist had inscribed some text on the painting prior to the emperor adding his brief encomium.

By including poetry, which in China had become the highest and most widespread form of literary expression, it made the arts more efficient in their underlying and well-recognized goal of self-realization. Earlier landscape paintings that had already fully expressed the Dao of nature and the abstract expressive qualities of brushwork, were usually only briefly inscribed, sometimes with nothing more than a signature. With the inclusion of lengthier texts, complementary inscriptions became standard, vastly expanding the potential for communication. In the Song dynasty there was a paradigmatic shift in the art of painting. The main focus under the Northern Song (980-1127) was outward looking, expressing the Dao of nature through the reality of the landscape. Under the Southern Song (1128-1368) it turned inwards to focus on the self, on subjectivity in response to the reality of the World of Dust.

It is this fundamental understanding of what art can achieve that lies at the heart of my own art, informing it at every level. The paintings themselves may be a part of it but they are not the goal; I do not paint to create paintings, I create paintings in order to expand self-consciousness in the belief that if what I am doing is worthy, however incrementally, it will also contribute to collective consciousness. Whether or not this is recognized, any artist is involved in a similar exercise, it just becomes far more efficient as communication of meaning once it is; particularly if understood from a global, or trans-cultural rather than local perspective.

Like my ancient Chinese predecessors, I see little fundamental distinction between our various creative means so whether I am writing, theory or other literary modes, or English with brush and ink on my own paintings, I see little distinction: all are creative, all equally absorbing, all contributing to the same overarching purpose.2 This level of self- belief as an artist is, I believe, essential even if sometimes irritating when it translates into blowing too loudly on one’s own trumpet. The artist tends to see reality at a tangent, and then believe that expressing such tangential vision actually matters.

My hope as an artist is that in responding to the entire body of works eventual consensus will recognize and benefit from some illuminating level of meaning that might be woven, if only as a weft thread or two, into the fabric of collective understanding.

In effect, that is what happens with art: in the visual arts, a single work is hardly likely to establish the credentials of the artist, we judge a body of works over time, along with the authenticity of meaning communicated, in order to assess value whether material or spiritual. My attachment to the Chinese tradition of art, and ink-painting, rests partly on a conviction that it the most efficient path to take in order to do this. The culture has long since gotten over the shallow criterion of surface novelty as a driving force in visual art, so I find the depths of its currents and vortices of meaning are enticing. It also rests on the sophistication of the media with its delightful tools and formats.
We might usefully take a brief diversion into Chinese poetry here. It is tempting to apply comfortable, binary descriptions to distinguish poetry from prose or any literary form but this sometimes falls short of the truth in Chinese culture.

There were many standard forms of classical poetry, amongst them the fu or prose poem, a rhapsodic, poetic genre between verse and prose that is for the most part rhymed and with a regular number of syllables per line, even if the lack of strict rules permitted the intermingling of unrhymed lines. But even more prosaic texts tended to respond to the combination of the importance of poetic forms of expression, and the fact that any addition to a painting should be suitably, and poetically elegant. As with all the arts, while the poem remains separable as an entity, the poetic impulse can be applied, often quite recognizably, to any other aspect of creativity, creating a good deal of overlap in modes of expression.

It is a feature of poetry in any culture to hide essential meaning between the lines. The Chinese language is ideally suited to brevity and profundity in poetry, so this was taken to an extreme. Given the understanding among the cultural elite as to the overall process of art, it became an integral part of poetics to keep meaning beneath the surface and beyond the common gaze, the process was more enlightening if the audience had to become deeply involved in order to understand it. To read Chinese poetry without understanding the centuries of established short-forms and ivory-tower allusions is to miss its depths of meaning. Because of their millennial understanding of process aesthetics, in all the arts the influential minority created not just the art, but an in-group structure of connoisseurship that united artists and audience to the point where they were entirely interdependent. Any essential distinction was lost in the process, as it should be in a fully mature aesthetic. In art, the ambiguous is always more intriguing than the explicit. In a mature aesthetic culture, part of the process of art is to become immersed in the esoteric both as artist and audience and to start, albeit at an intellectual level, to befuddle the intellect as you reach for its transcendent complement. Along this path, ambiguity and paradox, companions to esoterica, are valuable signposts, indicating that having reached the limits of your current, relative perspective, it is time to leap to another level.

For those who object to the very concept of an elite of any kind I wish you well on your journey to Utopia but the fact is that in every aspect of human endeavour, an elite is inevitable. It is the nature of the intellect to create, and in every field some create better and more efficiently than others, whether in religion, philosophy (including political philosophy) science or art. It is the 5% syndrome, where a small percentage are in the vanguard of any endeavour, while the rest follow. If you doubt that, try to imagine an army made up entirely of Field Marshals or, indeed, of privates.

Another inevitable aspect of fully mature art is the loss of distinction between the arts. As the products of art are de-emphasized the process begins to better unite all creative activity and increasingly discourages distinction. As the Three Perfections established their firm and lasting hold on Chinese art, the distinction between painting and poetry began to blur. A painting by Wang Wei (699-759), who was also one of the great wilderness poets of China (and a personal favourite), was inscribed later with a colophon by the poet, calligrapher and painter, Su Shi (1037–1101). ‘When one savours Wang Wei’s poems, there are paintings in them. When one looks at Wang Wei’s paintings, there are poems’.

The intellect prefers to distinguish between a poet and a painter, a theorist and a practitioner, a musician and a playwright. My nephew Paul Moss once wittily summed up the Chinese approach by suggesting that the literati tended to be judge, jury and executioner of their own art.

As the Three Perfections took a tenacious grip on Chinese art, at the heart of the Yuan mastery of the genre in the fourteenth century lay the concept of yi, which means, literally, an escape to freedom. Like so much in Chinese creative expression, which the language fully encourages, less is more and one cannot understand the intended meaning of a single character like this without context and precedent. But in the sense intended by fourteenth-century artists, it was a deeper exploration of the Southern Song shift from outer, to inner reality and incorporated notions of ‘reclusiveness at the conceptual level and the notion of spontaneity at the formal level.’3 For these artists spontaneity became central, and the concept of reclusiveness was perceived as much psychologically as physically. The latter, in large part, because of Han Chinese objection to the Mongol conquest of the Yuan, where many refused to serve the new masters, and retired to their retreats and into the arts, finding themselves without official duties to the emperor and turning to responsibilities to the culture. But even those who chose to serve followed the same path into reclusion, even if only psychologically. In China the syncretic mind could be a Confucian by day, performing official duties, but a Daoist by night, disappearing into another unfettered realm of existence. Out of this arose the concept of urban eremitism, where a literatus, as official or retiree, could be living in the metropolis while acting as a recluse. The extreme, of course, was to physically retire to the wilderness, and become a shanren (mountain man) or true hermit. It is worth noting that since the influential minority defined such philosophical musings, and were, of course, inherently self-serving, the third, intuitively purer option was oddly looked upon by urban hermits with one foot always in Confucian ideals, as a bit of a cop-out.

These reclusive modes also began to encourage a distinction between the professional artist who made art for a living, and art that was not made to be sold but for a purer purpose – art as spiritual self-cultivation rather than material benefit. This became a distinction that continues to some extent into the present, although it was always as much a psychological distinction as an actual one since there were many polite and acceptable ways to blur the line between commercialism and lofty indifference. Even to this day those artists who continue to work within the literati ink-painting tradition and are perceived as being indifferent to the dictates of the marketplace, even while still selling their works, enjoy an elevated cachet. It is the indifference to commercialism and the material world that is crucial, rather than the commercialism or material world as such.

Another development of the full maturity of Chinese painting rests in greater reliance on ink, with its range of tones when mixed with water, than on colours – although to the syncretic Chinese mind there was no practical distinction between the tones of ink and colours. The exception to this emphasis on ink, which accompanied the elevation of painting to high-art status, is found in the introduction of archaism. Once art is emancipated to full maturity there is little of significance left to discover at the surface - as the banality of recent western art demonstrates with generations of artists misunderstanding the nature of the recent revolution, desperately continuing to seek more of the surface novelty that was sensibly only as a defining feature of the revolution itself. Fully mature art relies not on shallow, surface meaning, but on profound depths of perception and expression. Revolutionaries still waving banners and shouting slogans on the barricades become tiresome and irrelevant once the revolution is over.

The concept of a past golden age persists in most cultures, the philosophical equivalent of the Garden-of-Eden myth. One acceptable form of ‘novelty’ was found in archaism, reaching back to just such a perceived golden age and reinterpreting its, albeit mythologized, essence. In the case of Chinese painting this was expressed in one powerful and long-lasting mode with strong colours mainly in the re-interpretation of the ancient, so-called ‘blue and green’ landscape style and a reflection of an essentialised, seemingly more naïve approach to reality. This naivety is misleading, however, as it is the pictorial equivalent of a highly sophisticated, re-acquired naivety, well understood in calligraphy, where all the skills have been mastered then pared away to reach the essence, the bones of expressive potential. Archaism from then onwards remained vital among a wide range of literati arts. It was also, in a sense, the material equivalent of allusion in poetry in that only the in-group were able to fully understand its subtle symbolism and depths of meaning.

Once past the process of discovering what art can do with new modes, new formats, new ideas, we shift to the more profound question of how it does it. Creativity shifts to a more profound, individual exploration of character and wisdom through established means of expression. Future surface novelty remains a possibility, as it always will, even if driven by no more than evolving technology, but is no longer a driving force. What becomes important is individual depth of perception and expression using the enormous potential range of available modes.
To explore the Three Perfections in the context of particular paintings, below is a selection with some further comments, including some related to my own experience of the paintings as audience.

Li Yihong, Solitary Companionship in the MountainsLi Yihong (b. 1941). Solitary Companionship in the Mountains. Inscribed with a poem by Li Bai. 1984.
97 x 180.5 cm. Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection (21.1.827).

The combination of painting, calligraphy and poetry provides the artist with text, in two forms: the inscription, including signature, dedication, poetics, or other details, and as seals. These constitute a vital formal element to the composition. Here the block of text does far more than convey information, it defines the blank space that is also so important an element of the Chinese tradition of painting. In a landscape the void is the yin of the painted yang areas;each helps to define the other. The importance of the block of text here is that by placing it vertically on the upper right, the artists is blocking off escape into the void at that point, directing the viewer to focus on the empty space left and centre, directing audience attention. The space of course, is not empty of intent, only of pigment, since it acts as clouds or concealing mists. The large, emphatic seal at the bottom left fulfils the same function of closing off the lower area of void and returning our attention to what matters - the diagonal composition of landscape in mist. The placing of that one, bright vermillion seal, demonstrated the enormous formal power of seals, both for their size and variation, and their dominating colour. The combination of white paper, ink and colours, and red seals provides powerful formal options for the artist. The large seal is particularly well placed, to exquisitely balance the two areas of landscape. If you imagine a diagonal line from top right-hand corner, to lower left, had the seal been place a little lower, precisely on that line, it would have been too obvious and created far less visual tension. Every aspect of a painting is a frozen moment in a carefully constructed dance, here the seal ‘dances’ with the nearby fading slope of land and the more emphatic tree growing from it. As audience, by becoming involved in these subtleties of communication we reach into the aesthetic depths of the painting more profoundly to reveal subtle meaning we might not have been aware of or expected. On top of that, of course, the varied meaning of seals also convey their own message – name seals, epithets, poetic sentiments, studio and retreat names are all part of the communication. A Chinse artist might have dozens, even hundreds of different seals, to denote different names (family name, given name – changed on reaching maturity – and any number of adopted artistic names). I have seven adopted art names, several studio names, and sometimes multiple versions, of different script or sizes, of the same seal text. I have more than ninety seals, but Qi Baishi (1864-1957) would have looked upon me as a beginner: he had over three hundred, but then he was a noted seal carver, whereas I have carved very few. Every seal conveys lexical meaning as well as its own formal meaning.

Nor does it matter whether or not the artist’s thought patterns in achieving all of this were anything like my own in perceiving them. A great many such subtleties come quite naturally to an artist after many years of painting and occur without the need to think them through – another indication of the importance of the creative audience in responding even to layers of meaning the artist might not have specifically intended to convey.

Fan Zeng, Portrait of Einstein to celebrate the100th anniversary of his birth
Fan Zeng (b. 1938). Portrait of Einstein to celebrate the100th anniversary of his birth.
178.5 x 96.5 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection (21.1.252).

In this portrait of Einstein by Fan Zeng the calligraphic element, not a poem but an encomium to the great scientist, is used in the traditional manner as a separate block of text set in left-over space to balance the main subject.

Fang Zhaoling, Yangzi Gorge After the Flood.Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006) Yangzi Gorge After the Flood. 1981. 96 x 180.5 cm. FranzArt collection.

I was never able to leave Fang Zhao-ling’s studio, or enjoy her paintings, without feeling an urge to paint in her wildly expressive style – and I frequently have. She has always been my doorway to freedom if I ever felt artistically enclosed, or was becoming a bit precious about anything.

In this response to flooding in the Yangzi Gorges, she has placed her uninhibited inscription along the gorge, the energy of the calligraphic brush strokes suggesting the turmoil of the roiling floodwaters. Fangs calligraphy is often more integrated with the painting than is the case with many other artists, the distinction between the brushwork delineating the gorge and that delineating the characters was not a major issue for her. She uninhibitedly wrote whatever she felt like writing at the time, which often made reference to her frame of mind, even her state of health. She was also totally unconcerned about wrong or missing characters as she wrote. Here in the inscription along the gorge, she missed out one character and in the standard method for Chinese calligraphers, simply added it as a much smaller correction off to the right – in the middle of the inscription along the gorge. Other mistakes in a text can be noted by drawing a small circle next to the error to acknowledge it. Zen wisdom has it that ‘a mistake is not a mistake if you know it is a mistake.’ Because of the nature of calligraphy where it is the dance of the brush that is the art more than the lexical meaning of the chosen text, an artist will rarely abandon a calligraphic work because of a small error of surface meaning. I once watched as Fang painted a large landscape and accidentally splashed a line of brown colour in the sky. I responded with ‘oh, what a shame’ as the painting was almost finished and powerful, and she replied that it was not a problem at all, just part of the energy involved. On another occasion she was painting a snow-scene for me as a demonstration and as a final touch she filled a brush with pale ink and just splashed it, seemingly at random and from quite a height, among the houses, to represent small depressions in the snow-covered ground. I expressed surprise at her good luck in managing to make all the markings in the snow and not on the houses. She replied ‘I wasn’t aiming at the houses.’

The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat. Homage to Fang Zhaoling.
2010. 69 x 137 cm. Collection of the artist. (AK10.71)

One of Fang Zhaoling’s many masterpieces was of her and her earlier teacher, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), climbing steps up a mountain, the surrounding rocks covered with her poetic inscription about him upon learning of his death. She would never let me buy it because of its sentimental value to her, so I responded to it instead. Completed in a bit of an inebriated state, I did not keep a transcription of the text but now recognize the Daoist poem which fills the right-hand section of the painting. It is by The Parasol-holding Gentleman of the Jade Terrace, the legendary Realized one, Guo Sichao (fl. Third century BCE), who enjoyed paddling a small boat on a pond he had constructed outside his mountain retreat. He is said to have chanted this poem while tapping out time on the side of the boat. The text has probably changed many times over the centuries but the spirit remains beyond corruption:

The clear pond comes with a miraculous cave;
The primeval forest is thick with green leeks.
Dark birds circle the dim fields,
Conversation comes out in the calm.
Drumming the oars, riding the mystic waves,
I bow my head, hoping for a morning breeze.
Having no assurance of liberation as yet,
I roam in the hills and forests.

Folding away these miraculous phoenix feathers,
I conceal my flowery dragon scales.
Transcending the world is something in the mind;
Myriad gusts are all dirt and dust.
I look with pity on the cicada hatched in the morning –
Who will complete your cycle?

Roaming in the void, I escape the high winds;
Walking in the miraculous, I have no form or place.
The experience of completeness lights the dawn haze;
Nine phoenixes sing in the morning sun.
Spreading their wings, they dwarf the Milky Way.
Flying around auspicious clouds over the lingering fog,
Ultimately reaching the abode of the Great Subtlety,
I take the gold pear broth,
And roam beyond the mystic borders,
Neither existing nor passing away.

Riding the wind, dancing in the spiritual sky,
Dressed in mist, cinched with nine suns,
Into high space I direct the dragon wheels,
Finally arriving at the North Flower Room.
The Spiritual tiger passes through the coral forest,
Wing and clouds combine into one.
Opening the door to the hidden darkness,
The spiritual transformation is mysteriously traceless.

It is followed by a fond appreciation of the stellar qualities of Fang Zhaoling’s art, and the information that it was inscribed ‘at the Garden at the Edge of the Universe,’ one of my adopted studio names.

The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat. Don’t Ask Why I Shut my Gate.
2010. 69 x 137 cm. Collection of the artist. (AK10.87)

Another of the works inspired by a visit to Fang Zhaoling’s studio is inscribed:

Don’t ask why I shut my gate. From times past, few comings and goings. The Way should rest in simplicity. The body is best suited to vacant idleness. Inscribed at the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, Summer 2010.

The ‘Way’ is an English translation of Dao which is the world of non-duality, the transcendent realm, beyond distinction being undifferentiated. In the world of duality of the intellect, however, it can also mean the path towards that ineffable state. The title is the first part of the fifth in a series of poems beginning ‘Don’t ask…’ by the Chan master, Qiji (family name Hu – 863-937).

Ho Huai-shuo
Ho Huai-shuo (b. 1941). Ode to an Ancient Tree. 1988. 128.5 x 32 cm
Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection. (21.1.1118)

Ho Huai-shuo, takes the Three Perfections to an unusual conclusion here with the text actually doubling as part of the painting. The impression is of mist and tree branches obscuring part of the inscription, but of course, he has not missed out any characters, he has simply left space for clouds and branches. As a teacher of art and an art theorist with many publications to his name, his works are characteristically carefully thought-out beforehand. As a rule he first prepares a pencil sketch in a small notebook of sketches of sequential works, then transfers the composition to the painting. Here he has made an intriguing and subtle formal choice with the inscription. Once it became part of the formal composition, instead of following the upper edge of the paper to guide the shape of the inscription, as would normally be the case, he creates an arc that is a formal balance to the tree branches rather than following the shape of the paper. It is a further indication of the integration of the Three Perfections.

Chiu Ya-tsai (1949-2013)
Chiu Ya-tsai (1949-2013). Portrait of the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat as a Celibate Monk. 1988. With colophon by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat. 2015. 142 x 90.5 cm. (21.1.1130)

In 1988 I commissioned Chiu Ya-tsai to paint a portrait of me holding a walking staff. He was an oil-painter, but I felt that regardless of his medium, his vision was very much in the Chinese tradition of capturing the spirit of his subjects rather than worrying overly about surface likeness – an intriguing challenge for a portrait painter. He visited by home in Shatin in the New Territories to make some sketches, and while chatting, I happened to mention that I would be intrigued to see what would happen if he painted with Chinese materials. Later, a package arrived at my home with not one, but two unusually large oil portraits, together with three, abbreviated and expressive portraits in brush and ink on xuan paper. Many years later, once I had become confident in writing gweilography on my own works, I added colophons to each of the ink paintings, one directly onto the left-over space and the others on separate sheets of paper mounted together with the paintings. The artists rarely added anything but his name to his oil paintings and was not a noted calligrapher, so it was left to someone other than the original artist to add the third ‘perfection’ - a long-standing option in the Chinese tradition. This version he entitled Portrait of the Master of the Water Pine and Stone Retreat as a Celibate Monk, despite my being neither, but this was in keeping with his lack of concern about surface reality. Another had me as a compassionate sage, and the third as a hermit. With the three children emphatically denying my celibacy and now adults, I thought it time to have these strange manifestations of their father who is also a manifestation of the Strange.

Huang Qiuyuan
Huang Qiuyuan (1914-1979). Mist in Autumn Mountains. 1974. 100 x 68.5 cm.
Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection. (21.1.1209)

Huang Qiuyuan was a scholar-painter who seems to have been little known during his lifetime, and even today there is very little biographical detail available. Apparently, upon his death a large number of works came to light from his studio. He seems to have embodied the lofty literatus, unconcerned with the marketplace. His distinctive and powerful style was quickly recognized. On his best, mature works, he tended to fill the picture space by adding his inscriptions to left-over areas suggesting sky, as he does here. It is well integrated in freedom of style with the brushwork of the painting, which exemplifies inner languages of form, line, colour and, above all, confidence. The use of colour to separated formal areas combined with the uninhibited brushwork helps to qualify this as the finest of his works I have so far encountered.

Wang Zhen (1867-1938). Hehe Erxian
Wang Zhen (1867-1938). Hehe Erxian. 1925. 145 x 80.5 cm.
The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection. (21.1.1272)

Wang Zhen was a pupil of the more famous Wu Changshuo (1844-1927). He followed Wu’s expressive style of bold brushwork, specializing in figure subjects, many of them Buddhist, and landscape. Here the legendary Hehe erxian (a name implying that they were two immortals who represent harmony, certainly their symbolism in later Chinese art) interacts with a bird and a bat in flight. Wang tended to treat his inscriptions in the popular traditional manner of using the block of text as a formal unit to balance the main image but here the calligraphy complements the boldness of the brushstrokes delineated the figures with his usual uninhibited confidence.

Hugh Moss
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat.


Back to main menu