2 July 2023
A thousand years ago the creative elite in China settled on a combination of poetry, calligraphy and painting as an ideal combination for the literati brush-and-ink tradition. This concept of ‘Three Perfections’ became the bedrock of the tradition.
My father was one of the leading Chinese art dealers in London, and I was raised surrounded by Chinese art and culture so when, as a teenager, I began to take a serious interest in art, my focus was on Chinese.
The more I became involved, particularly as soon as I became interested in the ink-painting tradition, I began to encounter paradox - always a good sign that there is something amiss with one’s existing perspective.
Intrigued by aspects of Chinese art that didn’t seem to make sense within conventional, western art theory, I started to explore the possibilities of a transcultural theory of art that would make sense of the art of any culture, at any point in time with equal efficiency. This resulted, eventually, in a Theory of Art and Consciousness, linking art to its primary role as a powerful meta-language for self-realization. It not only removed the obstacles to understanding the esoteric depths of Chinese aesthetics, it was useful in resolving the global confusion permeating the modern art world.
I refined the theory over many years, finally published it as The Art of Understanding Art, in 2015, but when the first edition of that sold out, instead of reprinting, I decided to rewrite it. They theory had not changed in the meantime, but my ability to express it more clearly had, resulting in the recent publication entitled Art Reboot, which set out some rather startling conclusions about the underlying meaning of the modern western artistic revolution and the millennial precociousness of Chinese art.1
This theoretical platform informs the present exploration of the sophisticated ideas behind the Three Perfections.
The painting component is easy enough to grasp at its surface, but in China the surface hasn’t been the main focus of art for millennia.
Once art is recognized for its primary role in evolving consciousness, aesthetic focus automatically shifts from art object with its surface meaning to the overall process, which includes the audience and its response indefinitely into the future.
This simple, but essential shift is illustrated by a major difference in western and eastern approaches to art. In the West, it has traditionally been the art object, with its surface meaning, that is sanctified; In China, for more than two thousand years, the overall process was sanctified. This shift from object- to process-based aesthetics not only allows the audience to endlessly add colophons, encomiums, poetic responses and seals to the art object itself, it positively encourages it as a vital part of the process. The idea of the Three Perfections is both a result, and a reflection of this.
Any original text can be whatever the artist chooses but given the literati ideal of profundity and elegance of expression, is usually couched in poetic terms. Text, calligraphy, and seals, along with the painting, refine and reveal the character of the artist as an essential aspect of literati culture and the ongoing process of art to which it gives rise.
Expressed as calligraphy, whatever is added then become part of the formal aspects of the art object, but there are many different ways to achieve this.
Fig. 1. 21.1.1344 Ho Huai-shuo 1992.
[Fig. 1] A basic standard is to balance a chosen pictorial subject with calligraphy and seals.
In this painting by Ho Huai-shuo the exquisite balance of four elements: image, title, text and seals, is apparent, and if it isn’t, just mentally remove the isolated seal in the lower right corner to see how important so small a difference can make. There are subtle additions of cinnabar-red for the claws and beaks of the two doves creating a further formal, diagonal emphasis incorporating the two seals and playing a significant role in the overall compositional balance. This shifts our attention to the inner languages of art which, in a fully mature aesthetic culture, is where the transformational magic rests, once we learn to access it.
We can analyse these inner languages, in the visual arts, line, form, colour, and texture, and underlying those of harmony, confidence and sagacity, but only up to a point. As we join the dance of art more creatively, we begin to experience a more unified appreciation beyond the analysis to discover art as a conduit between intellectual understanding and its transcendent counterpart – our two ways of knowing that are the full band-width of consciousness.
Fig 2. 21.1.1349 Liu Dan 1992.
[Fig. 2] Liu Dan’s approach to balancing the three is similar in this 1991 painting, but beyond the obvious intent of the text and its balance with the image, it also represents a hidden aspect of the literati tradition. Once we accept the potential of art as self-realization, it expresses another rung on the ladder of meaning: the profound delights of literati association.
The stone depicted is one I had in my studio in Sussex when Dan came to stay for a few weeks. I had bought it in Taiwan some months earlier and shipped it to Sussex where it remained in its crate in front of the studio fireplace, acting as a coffee table. The day before he was to leave he asked what was in the crate, so I unpacked it and he immediately fell in love with the stone, declaring it with touching enthusiasm as the ‘rock of my dream.’ Without hesitation, I cut my love for it and gave it to him, repacking it and air-freighting it to him in Hawaii. His various images of it were what got him started on his signature strange-stone images. The inscriptions on some of them, including this gift to me, reflect this emotional tie between us, such friendships being a vital aspect of literati associations. Nor are such associations governed by the Stage of Time. Literati ink art not only encourages us to step beyond its limitations, it allows us to associated with past and future aesthetes outside of time.
Fig. 3. 21.1.1294 Mai Junyao Rough Water, 1990.
[Fig. 3] An amusing painting by Mai Junyao combines image and text to satirise the meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev on a ship off Malta in 1989. Such political propaganda at the surface of art is one of the many ways in which we can so easily be diverted from its higher purpose. But art as process can comfortably multi-task. The balance of the Three Perfections is as obvious here as in the previous two paintings, while the wave, an obvious nod to Hokusai and his famous print from the series of views of Mount Fuji, suggesting that the two are playing with global consequences.
[Fig 4]21.1.1272 Wang Zhen, Hehe erxian 1925.
[Fig. 4] In this painting the balance of the two figures, one looking up towards a bat, the other down towards a bird is powerful in its own right and could have stood alone, but convention suggested to Wang Zhen that he add a signature and seals. He integrated the columns of commentary by matching the cursive script with the brushwork of the painting.
Fig. 5. 21.1.702 Fang Zhaoling Terraced Fields, 1981.
[Fig. 5] The same is true of Fang Zhaoling’s Terraced Fields of 1981, where the confident, calligraphic brushwork, characteristic of her mature paintings, is matched by columns of her equally expressive calligraphyHere the distinction between painting and calligraphy, as between reality and abstraction, blurs at the edges – once we’ve read the surface subject as terraced fields, the wildly expressive brushwork of depiction morphs into abstraction. There is no contradiction in recognizing a Chinese painting as both figurative and abstract – one indication of fully mature aesthetic understanding as the analytical mind is joined by the syncretic mind.
Fig. 6. 21.1.40 Lui Shoukwan 1972.
[Fig. 6] Lui Shoukwan in 1972 included a didactic essay on the nature of Chinese painting, no doubt with his students in mind. It demonstrates that the Chinese ink-painting tradition can be expressed entirely in lines and dots. It also integrates the separate text into the painting by taking the end of the text into the image, breaking down to some extent the distinction between painting and inscription
Fig 7. 21.1.1033 Fang Zhaoling 1984.
[Fig. 7] Fang Zhaoling sometimes took this one stage further. Her paintings are usually made up of expressive calligraphic lines, so it was natural for her to include the inscription as a functioning part of the image. Here her celebratory text following the success of China’s athletes at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, is written to double as distant mountains, further breaking down the distinction between text, calligraphy and painting.
The ultimate goal of art is to break down distinctions - between the Three Perfections, then between artist and audience, and finally between the separate self and transcendent consciousness, the explicable and the inexplicable, the material and the spiritual.
Fig 8. AK14.41 2014.
[Fig. 8] I began to paint seriously in the late 1970s and by the time I picked up the brush I had already begun to collect ink paintings. I had also spent a decade acting as agent for a growing group of ex-patriate Chinese artists, granting me a unique opportunity to study, albeit informally, under some of the most important ink-artists of the of the diaspora. I became very friendly with Fang Zhaoling, for whom I held a first exhibition in London in the early 1970s, frequently visiteing her studios, first in London and subsequently in Hong Kong where I moved in 1975. I would watch her paint, often for hours on end, and sometimes even join in.
I was strongly influenced by her art, but also by her approach to art. She had spent a lifetime studying various modes of calligraphy, writing hundreds of characters a day since she was a child. Realizing that it would take decades to master the language sufficient to become an even passable calligrapher, then another lifetime to aspire to mastery, I decided to develop my calligraphy in a language I already knew. I had come to understand the expressive purpose and means of Chinese calligraphy, so applied all the same rules and materials to writing English – I named it gweilography, a satirical jab at the derogatory term current in Hong Kong for foreigners.
In this landscape of 2014 the influence of Fang’s use of calligraphy obviously seeped into my own art, although not consciously at the time. I found myself writing the inscription to leave white space between columns to act as a continuation into the foreground of the more emphatic waterfalls in the distant mountains.
Fig.9. AK8.2 2008.
[Fig. 9] A similar thing happened earlier, in 2008, while inspired by the techniques of Chen Chikwan, another of the artists I was agent for. By then I had already acquired a substantial collection of his paintings. The lengthy text is fully integrated into the image with the longer inscription acting as the bamboo filaments of one of the blinds, and another as texturing on the table. Chen never used calligraphy in this manner, but the alum resist and quasi-batik technique and painting from both sides of the paper were inspired by him. His usage of initial resist markings with brushed alum were often intentionally calligraphic.
Fig.10. AK14.94 2014.A set of seven.
[Fig.10] On a series of seven paintings of imaginary walking staves from 2014 I used the calligraphy as part of the image again, adding it as a halo on each staff. It represents the concept I had been developing of walking staves as esoteric wands capable of mystical powers in the hands of transcendent staff-masters.
I was intrigued by these staves, ubiquitous in Chinese paintings but as works of art rather than functional support, rare in real life - as I found out when collecting them. Among the many accoutrements of the literati, walking staves stand out as having no literature or established connoisseurship, so I set about not only painting them but establishing the connoisseurship - classifying them in an imaginary taxonomy and inventing their history and usage. It was part of my own creative journey into the mystical aspects of literati culture.
Fig. 11 21.1.1524 Fang Zhaoling, Grand Canal, 1982.
[Fig. 11] At first glance we might take this Fang painting of her home scenery to be a simple filling of the blank space with the inscription, but her other works, including the one we just saw, provide the clue that she intended it to be read as distant landscape elements, suggested by the simplified mountain-like form.
Here we find another indication of the inadequacy of applying western terminology to Chinese art. Fang was sometimes referred to as the Grandma Moses of Chinese painting, but in fact her essentialization of pictorial elements is the exact opposite of what she was doing. Grandma Moses painted the way she did because of actual naivety, it was the way she saw the world, as through the eyes of a child. Any study of Fang’s earlier works, particularly those under her one-time teacher Zhao Shaoang of the Lingnan school, reveal extraordinary skills in technical drawing. What she was doing was the visual equivalent of her calligraphic training where first you learn all the skills at the surface, then you pare away the frills, the surface glitz, to get back to the bones of expression. Hers was highly sophisticated, re-acquired naivety, of the literati tradition taken to its logical conclusion.
Fig. 12 AK16.82 Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, 2016.
[Fig 12.] Fang’s use of text as both form and image reflects her understanding of the freedom from any rules governing art, allowing her to change the rules that arise out of it. This creative freedom is joyous to the artist and Fang’s use of it inspirational. It certainly inspired me over and over again. I never left her studio without an irresistible urge to reach for the brush. In one very large painting from 2016 I imagined a massive strange stone set on a stand along with a matching incense burner. I often depict incense burners as a key aspect of literati life, using expressive brushwork to depict the rising smoke, so in this case I morphed the calligraphic smoke into the inscription, further integrating the Three Perfections.
[Fig. 13] Another key aspect of literati culture is the handscroll. One of my favourite formats and one of the most sophisticated ever produced in the visual arts because of its efficiency in breaking down the distinction between artist and audience. I paint them frequently, collect them, and used to commission my artist friends to produce them for me with some extraordinarily rewarding results. Here the title panel is standard but the main text is not, as it is incorporated throughout the image itself. It is a poem referring to the trend in literati friendships for melancholy partings between friends. The departing figure turns back towards the sound of his friend playing the guqin and chanting a poem that drifts along the valley with the clouds – and the calligraphy.
To paraphrase the last four lines, I would now write:
I choose a cheerful song
To send you on your way,
But what I hear is melancholy.
A single cloud can break a man’s heart.
Fig. 14. 21.1.1318 Lui Shoukwan Sails, 1962.
[Fig. 14] In the 1960s Lui Shoukwan began to explore more fully calligraphic markings as landscape elements. In this case the results might almost seem like a real character. This creative use in combining calligraphy with painting was to lead to his Chan Buddhist paintings, the culmination of his artistic output. It represents an interesting cusp in the Three Perfections, reflecting the ancient concept of ink-play as well as further exploring the integration of calligraphic brushwork and image. It anticipates his famous, late Chan paintings, usually known by the Japanese term ‘Zen.’
Fig. 15. 21.1.1639 Lui Shoukwan, Chan Lotus, 1970.
[Fig 15] One of Lui’s masterpieces of these late more abstract paintings does not rely heavily on the use of text or calligraphy, which given his aim of reducing lotus symbolism to its essence is appropriate, but it does further illustrate the problem of importing western concepts and applying them to Chinese art. It reveals ‘abstract’ to be, what I refer to as a ‘weasel’ word. In the West it means the absence of specific subject matter of a figurative or symbolic nature; it is a binary issue - something is either abstract or not, it can’t be both. The Chinese approach is quite different, the visual arts have been abstract, and abstract expressive, for centuries in both calligraphy and painting, but without the binary impediment. To grasp this we have to know where, and how to look. Literati artists saw no point in rejecting subject matter in order to focus on the other languages of visual art – that would have been as unnecessary as deciding which leg to walk on - the focus simply shifted from the surface meaning to inner languages. Abstraction and abstract expressionism find their equivalents in brushwork and ink markings without abandoning subject matter, and have done for a thousand years or more.
Landscape in Chinese art has long since been recognized as both a profound metaphor for the fundamental cosmic force represented by the Dao, and as an entirely suitable subject for infinite interpretation and expression of individual creativity in all the languages of visual art. It remains a powerful and profound subject to the present day. I return to the landscape all the time, both in my own art and in my appreciation of the art-form. The untrained eye can easily be diverted by the seemingly similar appearance of so many literati landscape paintings, while completely missing the art and its sophisticated internal abstraction.
To apply the term ‘abstraction’ to the Chinese ink-painting tradition becomes, therefore, meaningless and confusing.
Fig 16. 21.1.966 Fang Zhaoling Bodhidharma 1986.
[Fig. 16] In this delightful small painting by Fang Zhaoling, we find a surprising use of the Three Perfections. The inscription, a prosaic record of her gift to me in 1986, is well placed, but her unexpected use of multiple seals on the robes allowed her to include calligraphy in a creative manner while also weaving pattern into the robes.
Fig. 17. 21.1.1065 Tong Yang-t’zu Eternity in the Gourd, 1986
[Fig. 17] We might even consider this apparently purely calligraphic work by Tong Yang-tz’u as a subtle example of the Three Perfections where she uses the main calligraphic image, a well-known saying about the mystical realm of the gourd, as the main ‘pictorial’ image, then adds her commentary above. It is a subtle hint at the Three Perfections even if only two are obvious.
Fig. 18. 21.1.1623 Ho Huai-shuo, Calligraphy, 2005.
[Fig. 18] In this example, Ho Huai-shuo also reaches into the pictorial realm by backing his seal script inscription with an ink-textured ground, another interpretation of a similar idea.
Fig. 19 21.1.253 Fan Zeng Qi Baishi Government Stamp Cover, prior to 1979.
[Fig. 19.] This portrait of Qi Baishi by Fan Zeng, painted at some time prior to 1979, seems to have very little original impact on the Three Perfections, other than a seal, formally brilliant, but meaningfully prosaic as all it does is identify the artist. But it is the audience response here that reflects the full expression of the three.
Fig. 20. Qi Baishi stamp, first-day cover, 1979.
[Fig 20.] When China decided to dedicate a stamp to the artist Qi Baishi, the Fan Zeng’s portrait was used as the first-day cover with the additonal calligraphy about Qi rather than about Fan Zeng. It was second nature to add the calligraphy artistically, albeit not directly onto the original in this case.
Fig. 21. 21.1.1607 Ho Huai-shuo Poetic Inspiration, 1992.
[Fig. 21] Ho Huai-shuo acquired a poem written out by Xu Beihong, inspiring him to illustrate it with a painting, mounting the two together as a single hanging scroll. Another incidence of audience response, even if, in this case Ho Huai-shuo was audience to Xu Beihong’s earlier calligraphy, so both were artist. But, to some extent, aren’t we all? Creativity is the fundamental force in the universe, and we reflect this at some level. Without approaching life creatively we would not have evolved at all, let alone to the vast benefits of intellect. At the level where our creativity is meaningful to others, in effect we become artists. At the level where it expresses timeless meaning we impact upon civilization far into the future.
Fig. 22 21.1.735 Liu Kuo-sung, White snow is white 1982.
[Fig. 22] Another aspect of poetic response transcends the text entirely. Liu Kuo-sung, the most generous of art teachers and another of the artists I both acted as agent for, and am privileged to count as a friend. His calligraphy is confined mostly to signature, seals and the date. But he includes poetry in his paintings nonetheless, but at a level that defines the inexplicable precociousness of the millennially mature tradition of ink painting. We need only look at two of his masterpieces to recognize this.
The first is from 1982. It is small, but that is no criterion of high art, as anyone who has stood in front of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night knows. The name and date, and his seal, are, of course, thoughtfully placed, but the poetry lies in how he interprets the initial markings in creating the snowy landscape. In a technique he developed to mastery, he takes a flat surface of water, then carefully adds ink to the surface swirling or feathering the pigment. The surface image is instantly transferred to the paper when it is laid on the markings and, very carefully, lifted off to dry. Then he interprets the markings with washes and more emphatic brushwork.
Fig. 23. 21.1.837 Li Kuo-sung, Distant View of Beilu River, 1981.
[Fig 23.] The much larger Distant View of Beilu River from the year before is another example of the method. Both are fundamentally poetic in nature, even if not poetic in text.
There is a well-established literati understanding that poetry is lexical painting and painting is visual poetry and the artist embodies that in these two works. Nor, as prejudiced orthodoxy has claimed in the paste, does he lack brushwork in the ink-painting tradition. He may have little calligraphy that he cares to share in the traditional way, but if there is one thing I have been able to convey to you today the western binary preference for an either/or reality misses so much that is important in Chinese art. In fact the initial brushwork that underlies so many of his is powerful paintings is inspired by thirteenth-century Chinese calligraphic paintings of Chan Buddhist expressionism, the rest follows.
And this is why our view of art theory needs to be rebooted. If we get the fundamental purpose of art right, then connect it to its main goal of evolving consciousness - rather than trying to separate art from life – the rest also follows.
A truly mature aesthetic culture tends to take the fragments, the things, the objects of our intellectual definitions less seriously than the processes involved in dealing with them. So the concept of three perfections is not confined to the three; rather, the three act as metaphor for a much broader, more esoteric, unified literati ideal.
Fig. 24 21.1.1582 Lui Shoukwan Circa 1971.
[Fig. 24] The last painting we will consider is also by Lui Shoukwan. It can be taken as the straight-forward addition of a calligraphic inscription to a landscape painting, which of course it is. But within the literati aesthetic it acts as more. It can also refer the audience to a millennial practice in literati aesthetics that must surely be the original inspiration for the Three Perfections. Long before the concept was fully incorporated into ink painting, scholars added calligraphic colophons to the landscape itself. From the last two millennia, inscriptions brushed, and subsequently carved into cliffs and boulders remain all over China as examples of the same concept. The only difference being that instead of painting the landscape, they took it as it was and simply added their poetic colophons. By inscribing a blank cliff, Lui reflects the likely origins of the Three Perfections. Whether this was Lui’s intention or not is incidental. The meta-language of art aimed at enlightening participants encourages audience interpretation, however subjective, as part of the process and, therefore, part of the art.
In conclusion, as valid, and immensely valuable, as the explicable fragments of the literati aesthetic may be, they are incidental and inherently limited while the whole purpose of art, efficiently recognized within Chinese aesthetics since the time of Confucius, is to transcend the fragments in order to grasp meaning as an undifferentiated whole, thus providing infinite perspective to finite intelligence. The implication is that while rules that arise out of art are useful as rungs on the ladder of meaning, they all exist within the intellectual realm of the rational, reasoning faculties of mind; there are no explicable rules that govern creativity.
The Three Perfections are a path, not a destination and on that path artists and audience alike are adventure tourists involved in the exploration of wonder.
Thank you for joining me in the search, and for your attention.
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat.