One cannot “read” (读) a Chinese painting (画) without understanding its purpose: to capture not only its subject’s physical appearance, but also its essence — “its energy, life force, spirit.” Traditionally, educated Chinese artists had a background in calligraphy; they employed this experience in their painting, trying to convey both appearance and essence in simple, elegant, permanent ink brush strokes without the distraction of garish color. These scholar-artists would sometimes reference historical events, people, or even artwork to engage in subtle cultural criticism via their own art.1
Besides the materials used, what differentiates this painting by previously featured artist Shen Dawei from the landscape art we are familiar with? Unlike most traditional Western painting, which emphasizes a single focal point to draw the viewer’s eye, traditional Chinese paintings — especially landscapes — lead the viewer on a journey across the entire breadth of the work. To accomplish this, they employ multiple focal points. Similarly, the artist, not the physical limitation of human perspective, determines which sections of the painting to detail and which to paint in broad strokes: if the painter wants it to be inspected, an object in the distance may be just as detailed as an object in the foreground.
Artists painting in the traditional style have always held an immense respect for the past, often proving their technical mastery and paying their respects to a previous artists by imitating his style. Even the subject and content of famous paintings would often be imitated, with significant or even very minor alterations to signify the new artist’s own emotions, his own take on the subject, or even his views on the politics and society of the day. For example, “Wide Eyes (This Is Happiness [幸福]),” a series by our previously featured artist Yan Yi, is in part a response to the question, “What is happiness?” The question was widely debated in Chinese society in 2012 after the state-owned China Network Television (CNTV) broadcast a series of ordinary citizens’ answers to a simple question: “Are you happy?” (你幸福吗?)
Hearn, Maxwell. Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Chinese Painting.” https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chin/hd_chin.htm