Artists: Notes on Art Making

I am grateful for the privilege extended to me to come and meet the members of this Fine Art Society and exchange views on questions of common interest to the artists of China and to the artists of India. You may well ask what qualification I have for this responsible task of discussing the vital problems which confront and the artists of the Eastern countries of and of India to-day. I have come here to lecture at the Chinese National Universities with the pretentions of a scholar, with the ambition of an historian to trace and expose the evolution of the history of Buddhist Art through the many stages of its development. But is an historian, with his gaze fixed on the past and his head immersed in the dusty and faded documents of bygone ages, qualified to deal with the is of today or to advise on the happenings of tomorrow ? And, again, an historian is primarily busy with dates and dynasties and counting the ages of old monuments. How can he be trusted to cast the horoscope future life of Art? What has an historian with the art-practitioner of today with his new hopes and his new fears, with his novel plans and newer ambitions?

I may, at once, allay your fears and answer your questionings by making a frank admission that I have not come here under any false pretences. I know full well that a professor's robe is not a proper passport for an entry in an assembly of artists. I am perfectly aware that artists belong to a new kingdom of culture is far away from the culture of the learned men - many thousand miles away from books and cyclopedias. Indeed, Art begins to speak when all the arrogance of words and book-learning have silenced there voice. Artists speak in the dumb and silent language of form and colour, and can say more, and in a more eloquent tongue, than the tongue borrowed from our dictionaries; they can, and, they do, indeed, express thoughts and ideas which are too deep for the spoken and the printed words. As our Chinese proverb says:

"A Picture worth more than ten thousand ken words."

Indeed, artists should be proud to claim that they to the University of the Illiterates and the word illiterates", inscribed on their brow, is the most, shining banner of challenge to the tyranny of the spoken and printed words-a challenge to the claims of the apostles of book-learning to represent, and interpret the whole of human culture. And when some of our learned men in the proud arrogance of their bookish learning looks down upon the artist, the humble wielder of the brush, from the lofty pedestals of their piles of books. I always love to point out that the words of the learned men's dictionary are quite inadequate to fathom all the treasures which are hidden within the bosom of the human soul. There are many thoughts, many ideas, many emotions, many philosophies, which push their heads out of the still waters or the agitated depths of the human mind, which cannot be put into the forms of our spoken vocabulary, and they have to seek the aid of the visual artist to express and interpret ideas which are inexpressible in terms of the words of our dictionary. In this way more than half of human culture has been expressed and recorded in the illiterate words of the painter, the sculptor, and the builder of temples.

And he who is under the delusion that books are the only repository of knowledge will deprive himself of more than half of the richest treasures of the human mind, of the most valuable expression of human culture, of human knowledge.

Indeed, from my personal experience, I humbly claim that the little bits of knowledge that I may have been able to gather, have come to me through the study of pictures, of images and of temples, rather than through books and cyclopaedias. And I am proud to claim that I am still a humble student in the great and populous University of the Illiterates, seeking my education and edification through the illiterate pages of paintings, through the hieroglyphics of drawings, through the lights and shadows of statuary, through the mysterious dynamics of architecture.

I may also confess that during my school and college days, I have frequently strayed from the lessons of the printed books, and dabbled in brushes and colours, to express my thoughts and to interpret, my experiences of life. And I have occasionally ventured to send my experiments with colours to picture exhibitions and sometimes earned the praise of connoisseurs and prizes and certificates of honour.

And, since false humility is genuine arrogance, I should make another admission. I have been intimately connected with the modern movement in Indian Art, a movement which while it began by gathering threads of the traditions of ancient schools of painting and of sculpture, have attempted to develop the old traditions on novel lines in a truly eclectic spirit not disdaining to benefit, by the lessons derived from a study of the Western schools of painting, but at the same time refusing to imitate slavishly the conventions and manners of European artists. The idea has been to assimilate the new points of view and to adapt such methods, technique, and conventions which could be harmonized with the traditions and the national genius and character of Indian painting evolved during' the course of more than two thousand years.

Yet, when the new ways of painting pictures, of treating forms were introduced into India by contact with examples of European painting, executed in realistic and naturalistic style, a very sad and tragic thing happened in India. About the middle of the nineteenth century, Indian artists, particularly those who were separated by long distances, had lost contact with the old traditions of Indian painting. The Mughal Emperors of Delhi and Agra were great patrons of Indian painting and the best master-painters gathered from all parts of India were assembled in the Imperial studio at Delhi, and the practice of painting and the connected arts were centralized and developed through frequent criticism by trained connoisseurs in sympathy with the artists. The Emperors of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had made large collections of paintings by the best masters which were available for study and the art of judging productions of art was maintained at a high level of standard. But with the fall of the Mughal Emperors of Delhi, the imperial studio was broken up, the collections of masterpieces were dispersed and the practice of art was disintegrated, and, the patronage of the Emperors having ceased, the practice of the artists became detached from valuable traditions and Art descended on a downward and decadent slope. In the nineteenth century, Art lost its moorings, lost its direction, and wandered aimlessly, like a ship without a rudder. It was at this juncture that the Western schools of painting, very tempting in their new way of using colours and the attractive manners of realistic renderings of lights andshadows, attracted the attention of the artists in India, who had forgotten the glorious traditions of the ancestors, and, the Indian artists of the early nineteenth century succumbed to the temptations of accepting and copying the manners and mannerisms of the realistic methods of the West. Having lost touch with their own Indian standards they had no standards by which to judge, critically examine and appraise the new methods of painting introduced from the West. In such places where there were artists still in touch with the traditional Indian methods, there arose the inevitable conflict between the Old and the New, and many of them succumbed to the temptations of the New. Abandoning the old language of Indian pictorial art some of the Indian artists of the late nineteenth century adopted in lobo the realistic language of the pictorial art of the West. The impact of the culture-forms of the West was too much for them. They were too weak to resist the onslaught of the West. They were not prepared for the attack which came all of a sudden and swept them off their feet. Like the unexpected force of an inundation or a flood, the deep surging waves of Western culture carried away the small trees and plants which had no deep roots driven below the earth. It is only a few intellectuals of experienced wisdom-the tall big trees-who kept their heads over the waters of the flood, because these wise thinking men had their root-ideas deeply imbedded in the solid foundations of their own old, well-tried, native cultural traditions. There is an old Chinese proverb which says:

"No matter how high the rain and the flood, sit tight on the fishing stone."

Well, following the wise principle of this proverb, a few wise men of India, in the latter part of the nineteenth century 'sat tight on their high fishing stones', and were not carried away by the impetuous impact of the culture and civilization which invaded India and threatened to submerge and conquer the national culture. When the flood comes it overflows the banks of the river and, drowns the crops of the plants on the banks, everything appears to be obliterated for the time being. The water subsides, presently, revealing a few strong plants which have survived the onslaught of the flood the. And the receding tide leaves on the river bank valuable deposits of mud which richly fertilise the land over-run by the flood.

The culture and the civilization of the West have likewise left on the barren parts of the Indian soil very useful fertilizing seeds to yield a new variety of crops never raised on Indian earth, in the past ages. In this way, modern Indian Art, Literature, and Drama have been richly fertilized by the inundations of culture imported from the West, and many news forms of art have cropped up during the early part of this century which have revealed new colours, new flavours, new tastes, in which the best elements of Western culture have been assimilated and made parts of Indian cultural expressions without the undesirable features of a crude, clumsy, slavish or mechanical imitation of Western forms. In this assimilation of the healthy and useful items of Western art-forms, the fundamental principles of Indian traditions have not been sacrificed or neglected. New ways have been discovered to present old eternal ideals, solidly standing on the bed-rock of their own foundations, for as another Chinese pro reminds us:

"Mountains do not turn, but roads do."

Principles of beauty are eternal and unchangeable but the ways and methods of presenting it differ from age to age, from place to place. Yet exotic manners, foreign methods, alien conventions, can be usefully borrowed from extra-national sources, if we know the art of using and adopting new ideas, new conventions, new manners without injuring the basic principles one's traditional art. A hybrid form is a monstrosity; an assimilated form is a unity. So that in any field of art, it is no use gulping down one's throat any that come in our way, without properly chewing, munching, and digesting the materials one wants to absorb. So that, in receiving any new ideas in the realm of art, one must carefully and critically study the same, analyse and dissect the elements, discriminate between all that is good and useful in them, and reject and eliminate all that is useless, or inimical to the spirit of one's own ideas, antagonistic to one's racial temperament. We are at liberty, of course, to welcome with open arms, any guest that knocks at our door, before we can give him a warm corner in our heart, and elevate him to the position of an intimate friend we have to test him and probe him to find out if he possesses genuine and sterling qualities of head and heart. In this way, the clash between the Old and New, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the known and the unknown, confronts us not only in the domain of the intercourse and exchange in the practices of art but in all the avenues of life. Then again inside the orbit of life, there is a further conflict between Age and Youth, the Old and the New. Old age, with its accumulated wisdom, with its sweet as well as the bitter experiences of life and with its spent-out energy inclined to be conservative, pessimistic and lazy, unwilling to make any new experiments, or to tread on any new path. Youth, on the other hand, is impetuous, energetic, liberal, anxious to undertake new adventure, and gain his experience of life through mistakes, and `risk his life in order to know the unknown, to progress and to make new discoveries.

The wisdom and the experience of life, the advice of the old and the mature is as much necessary as the energy, the adventure, and the new discoveries of youth. The fears and the pessimism of age are as much necessary as the hopes and aspirations and the optimism of youth. The two should be allied and linked together, so that the current of human culture may run in an uninterrupted course in one uniform unity. This is very well expressed in a verse of Rabindranath Tagore:

Tomar halo suru, amar bolo sara,

Tomay amay mile emni ba'be dhara.*

The old man addresses the young man: "My dear boy, you have started the career of your life whereas I have brought my life to its termination, our united and combined efforts, you and I, taken together, shall augment the current of existence and keep alive the eternal flow of life. The truth that emerges from this discussion is this: that there is really and there should be no real conflict between the Old and the New. We need both, to realize, to fulfil, to perfect the culture of life, the wisdom of age and the dreams of youth. Now let us see how these generalities can be made, to apply to the problems of modern art, to the dilemmas of the modern artists.

Your problems and the state and conditions of art in China have been somewhat better than those prevailing in India about the middle of the nineteenth century.Whereas Indian artists have been cut off from their old traditions of art, and forgotten their national language of expression, the artists of China have not lost contact with their own valuable artistic heritage. Ever since Hsie Ho formulated in the sixth century the six fundamental principles or limbs of pictorial art, the artists of China have upheld in practice, throughout the centuries, the excellent principles enshrined in theory.

We, Indians, had also our six principles, canons, or limbs of painting, known as Sadanga, but practitioners of Indian art had forgotten these principles, which were re-discovered by research scholar about twenty years ago.

Now, in the 'present predicament we have to consider if the manners and methods, the techniques and conventions of Chinese painting have become too Old, effete, and worn out or lost their energy. It must be remembered that principles are universal and eternal, they never change, but their application and practice may change under new conditions, under new demands, under new environments. The physical and the material paraphernalia of life get worn out, decay, and die. And in such cases you have to abandon them, and replace them by new ones. Thus, our clothes frequently .get dirty and are torn into tatters. Sometimes, if the piece of drapery is of a valuable fabric or is a valuable heirloom-gift of parents or friends on happy occasions, we do not readily discard it, we repair it, and restore and innovate it, and still cherish it as a valuable possession. But if it becomes too much 'damaged, too much torn in tatters, and too much dirty, we have to discard it.

Such is also the rule with many of our social and family customs and manners, many of them change with changing times except, those which are imbedded ill principles of universal morality, the fundamental codes of human and spiritual life.

In the realm of Art, methods and techniques are sometimes abandoned even when they are fundamentally sound and based on right philosophical principles, and even if they have not lost their energy and wearing qualities. Because, owing to changing social conditions, and psychological states of the human mind, old but sound principles of Art lose their uses, their meanings and significance.

When the dawn of Renaissance lighted the art of Italy in the fourteenth century, the methods of the old Byzantine paintings and of the Italian primitives of Duccio and Margaritone were discarded in favour of the newer methods of Giotto, Uccello, Cimabue, Raphael and Botticelli, of Michael Angelo and Da Vinci.

Some of the change was inevitable owing to the change of psychology of the Christian devotees. The strange, 'fantastic, and exaggerated forms of the Italo-Byzantine primitive Frescoes of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, and the mosaic pictures of Ravenna and other centres, overpowered and held in chain, more through fears than of hopes, the illiterate, uncultivated and primitive minds of the simple devotees and peasant pilgrims of the pre-Renaissance periods. But present rationalism and intellectual questionings enlarged the boundaries of the outlook of the simple folk and the primitive paintings had no more any charm lot them. The Italian primitives, therefore, lost their significance, and survived their usefulness and were replaced by the new kind of pictures with correct anatomy, with rules of perspective, and the use of chiaroscuro, that is, the realistic use of high lights and Shadows, yet our modern critics are insisting that it was wrong to abandon the sound method and manners of Italo-Byzantine primitives pulsating with the ring of simplicity and rich in the expressive powers of their lines and the inventive and imaginative treatment of form, unhampered by false and scientific notions of correct anatomy and so-called accurate representation of human form.

Our modern critics after a thorough analysis of Renaissance paintings, assert that the application of the scientific principles of perspective and of the optical rules of light and shade, was a matter of greatest tragedy to the fundamental principles of pictorial art considered as art., that is to say, art as trey conceived as imaginative use of form.

Yet, we, oriental artists, have fallen victims to these two fascinating temptations of Western painting of the Renaissance period, namely, the use of scientific perspective and optical application of lights and shadows, and are anxious to import these scientific appanages which are strictly speaking not applicable in the domain of art.

Having found out the fallacy of applications of 'these scientific principles to the practices of pictorial art, the ultra-modernists of the Western studios have gone to the other extreme of banishing all principles of perspective and of chiaroscuro-in fact. all the apparatus of realistic and naturalistic paintings-and are going back to the methods and manners of the primitives, imitating the technique of El Greco of Duccio, and other anonymous artists of the school of Avignon. And from this point of view, Asiatic artists are attempting to drape and dress their art with the discarded and cast-off clothings of European studios.

It is useful to remember that the fundamental difference between Western and Eastern painting lies in the emphasis given by Eastern artists on the value of lines, and in the imaginative, as opposed to the scientific use of form. These principles are very sound and universal and we find 'the study of Far Eastern painting by European artists has led to the artists of the West borrowing and adopting sound pictorial principles practised by Chinese, Japanese and Indian artists.

Thus it will not be wise for our modern Chinese artists to abandon sound and eternal principles, which lie imbedded in their traditional inheritances of art. They should not be discarded because they are old. I firmly believe that these old Chinese pictorial traditions have not yet lost their uses, nor their vitality or energy. If they were dead and decaying carcasses, I cannot advise you to stick to them or to revive them, for dead things cannot be brought back to life. As a Chinese sage has said:

"You cannot, set free a salted fish."

But I firmly believe that, the traditions of Chinese pictorial art have not survived their uses, they have not certainly reached the futile state of the ‘salted fish' or the 'dead mutton', Chinese art tradition is still a living dragon yet to impart the dynamic energy and spiritual inspiration to the art-practices of to-day and to-morrow. Even if I am wrong in my assertion that the traditions of old Chinese art are still a living force, and not a spent-out fire, if the forms and conventions of artistic productions have grown too old and have become dead carcasses, still the ruins of old traditions confer valuable riches. To cite a Chinese proverb, again:

“A worn out boat has still 3,000 nails in it.”

Andif it is necessary to abandon the old boat we must not forget to collect the bags of nails, as they may help us to build a new boat for our new adventures, across he uncharted seas to the new ports, to the new continents of Art.

In India, we have a similar proverb which says:

“A dead elephant is worth a million dollars.”

For, if it can no longer carry you on your path of progress, its shining tusks will provide for the prizes for the ransom of princes. As a. matter of fact, the tusks of elephants have been turned and carved into wonderful works of art.

To the young artists of China with ambition to produce works of art to surpass the old masterpieces, I will remind them of the saying, "One has to grow his eye-brows before he grows his beard' and that "the eye-brows of youth cannot compare with the beard of age."

But, by this, I do not mean to discourage his ambition, or discount the value of his new and youthful experiments. All I wish to suggest is that the future cannot he built, by despising the past, or neglecting the present. And 'if there are three roads it is best to keep in the middle one', for, it is risky to incline towards the extreme edges.

If we critically study the trends of modern art in modern Europe, we find that, in the admiration and worship of the art of the primitives, the modernists of the West are coming back to the point from which they had originally started. The curve has turned a full circle; the serpent is biting its tail: And nothing is so out of date as the moderns.

For the history of human culture in all its details has always demonstrated that.

The New is in the Old contained,

The Old is in the New fulfilled.

Being a lecture delivered on the 2nd December, 1945 for the China Fine Art Association of Szechwan at Chengtu, under the presidency of the Commissioner of Education, Chengtu.
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