Monday, 7 October 2013

On Chinese Landscape Painting and Japanese Gardens. Part 3/5

Technique and its application

‘Correspondence with the object’ in painting, was not interpreted by the painters as a call for absolute realism, that is, for landscapes to be reproduced in rigid exactitude. Rather as the painting tradition developed in China the tendency was to move toward placing spiritual values above realistic expression. The way of recreating landscape in a painting was to find a way of allowing the landscape to unfold itself in a manner that to allowed the viewer to participate in the process. In a single picture we can be presented with a multiple of viewpoints as there is no adherence to a rigid system of a singular point of view with a corresponding vanishing point as one would find in Western perspective. The painting unfolds before us because we are moving about within that landscape seeing it first from one position and then from another. This movement, the shifting of perspective, is what allows us to participate in a journey amidst the landscape being presented. The landscape we experience is created layer upon layer, each layer superimposing experience over experience, until we are saturated in the landscape. At that point we then belong to the landscape and the landscape belongs to us

Joei-ji, designed by Sesshu.
Both painters and garden creators are concerned with the representation of depth in a composition.  Garden creators have an advantage in that they are working in three dimensions, whereas painters have a flat, two dimensional, space to work in. Depth is the key to allow the eye and mind of the viewer to roam, to move about in a composition. For the garden creator this may be physical as well as purely visually.

Guo Xi - Level Distance
With the garden our experience is nuanced and layered, and because the garden is a three-dimensional creation its relationship to the viewer becomes spatially more complex. If in a painting the ability of the viewer to ‘move’ through the landscape is an interiorized capacity, in the garden it becomes exteriorized and interiorized by body and mind as a whole. Even with those gardens that are viewed from a building the viewer is able to register depth in a garden composition in a more visceral manner.

Guo Xi - 'observing from above'
When we look at the paintings it is clear that there is a strong underlying organisation of the constituent parts of a composition. The most obvious manner in which this is done is by the use of triadic, asymmetrical, composition. That is, through the organisation of the principal elements according to triangular relationships between them. Very often in a painting the particular components elements of the painting are broken down into groups of three. Within the group of three, one element stands out as being the primary and the other two parts play a supportive role. This relationship is often expressed as ‘Host and Guest”. Li Cheng 李成 (919–967) a Sung dynasty painter puts it this way: “In painting landscapes, one should decide first upon the positions of the host and guest mountains and then on the relative distance of objects. After that he (the painter) can mark out the scenery and the objects, and arrange the high and low.”
In East Asian art perspective is not expressed in the linear (straight line) manner in which it is normally expressed in Western art., where perspective lines extend towards a notional horizon where they are swallowed by a vanishing point. In nature, in wildness, there are no straight lines. Rivers meander and forests are not composed of trees growing in regimented order equidistant from one another. There is a more subtle, flexible organisation, which speaks a language of interrelation and interaction between elements. It is an organisation that is organic, dynamic, ever shifting and developing according to constantly varying environmental conditions; the path of the sun, the shape of the landscape itself. Chinese painting reflects this quality very well.

Looking Up From Below.
Observing Landscape From Above.
Painters used what has been called the ‘three perspectives’[1]. This was first formulated by the painter Guo Xi 郭熙 (1020-1090), and he referred to it as ‘floating perspective’. In his method the viewer is looking at the landscape from three different places: in the first he/she is looking up into the landscape from below. In the second the viewer observes the landscape as if floating some way above it all. In the third view (‘level distance’) the viewer regards the landscape from a high vantage point with the landscape stretching away into the far distance. These perspective effects can be found in the rock composition of the Daisen-in garden. In most cases the painters would evoke one or two of these forms of perspective, though in some cases all three were used in the same painting. In the paintings and gardens vertical lines suggest the relative position of forms and imply a sense of depth.  Horizontal lines establish stability and give balance to the composition, while transitions and connections in the various elements of the composition are indicated by diagonal movement. Outlines soften with increasing distance from the source, detail is lost, and shape begins to dissolve in air and space. Both painter and garden creator practice the arts of illusion, as both seek to capture and express the mystery of essence.
Level Distance.
Sen-no-Rikyu (千利休 1522 - 1591) the great tea master was also a builder of gardens. He taught a system of composition (‘Distance-lowering style’ saki sagari) in gardens in which larger trees were planted in the foreground, and lower ones in the background, thus assisting the effect of perspective distance, a particularly desirable advantage in small gardens. Also he utilised larger leaved planting in foreground areas, and smaller, finer, leaved planting in the background  On the same principle, he also taught that more distant hills should be made lower than the nearer ones, and the level of artificial water made higher in the background than in the foreground. Furuta Oribe (古田 重然, 1544 - 1615) used just the opposite notion (‘Distance Raising style’, saki agari) in his tea gardens to create a sense of depth, though this would not work quite so well in small spaces.


Allied to the three perspectival views a painting was also divided into quite distinct sections representing foreground, middle-ground and background. Again this is a way to order the space, creating and representing the internal logic of the landscape being rendered. It addresses the way a landscape unfolds in relationship to the viewer, the eye being lead on from one plane on towards the next. This is evident in looking at a garden such as at the Tenryu-ji Hõjõ. The scenery unfolds sympathetically in respect of the position of the viewer, enhancing the inclusion of the viewer as being part of the scenery itself, not divorced from it. Looking at a painting or garden we can then subliminally recognise ourselves as being part of the landscape, it (the landscape) becomes an extension of our self. As landscape we stand surrounded by all that is landscape.
Tenryu-ji, Kyoto

We can deal with shakkei (借景) or ‘borrowed scenery’ here too. Shakkei is the incorporation of elements of the landscape beyond the garden perimeter into part of the overall composition which the garden represents. It is a device that the garden creators would have seen used in paintings as a means of rendering far distance and depth. All kinds of landscape features can be captured by some means of framing them; the most frequently used ways are with architectural features such as posts, with hedges, tree trunks or canopies pruned to allow specific views through, or even the sky itself as used in Shugaku-in Rikyu. What is ‘borrowed’ will depend upon the specific location, it may be a single detail, such as a temple roof, a mountain, or hillside or even a range of mountains. Shakkei extends the boundaries of the garden potentially far beyond its physical limitations, it also binds the garden with the surrounding landscape, thereby enhancing the illusion of the garden scenery being an element of the natural landscape itself.
Shugaku-in Rikyu, Kyoto

Miegakure,  or ‘hide and reveal’ is another compositional technique that has been in long use in painting, and can also be found to be employed in Far Eastern architecture. This can be seen in the paintings where paths and rivers for example, appear and disappear in amongst the landscape scenery. Miegakure contributes to creating rhythm as well as enhancing the layering effect in a composition too. It is yet another means by which the viewer is drawn into and so can become engaged with the totality of the experience. In Japanese gardens this is usually used in the setting out of paths. Paths do not have a direct line, but will meander, opening and closing views to the viewer, offering glimpses of scenery, then withdrawing the view, before representing a view from a different perspective. The nature of the path itself will influence how a view is revealed, for example by the use of stepping stones which tend to draw the eyes downwards (so ‘closing’ a view), and then at some point the tension will be relieved bt introducing a broad slab of stone as a resting point from where a view is presented. Most often, miegakure is created by screening with planting, but land shaping can be involved, as can walls or other architectural features. The use of suggestion is a cornerstone of Japanese aesthetics, and miegakure fits with this way of thinking, it is well illustrated in the writings of the Buddhist monk Kenkõ Yoshida (吉田 兼好 1283? – 1350?) who wrote “In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth.”[2] The point is that the whole is better revealed incrementally to the viewer, and in so doing the whole experience becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Okichi Sanso, Arashiyama

[1]Themes, Scenes and Taste in the History of Japanese Garden Art’. Wybe Kuitert, 1988
[2] Kenko Yoshida. ‘In Praise of Idleness’ (Tsurezuregusa). Translated by Donald Keene. Columbia University Press 1967

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