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4. Mi Fu paying homage to a rock November 26, 2007

Posted by kentneo in Art.

Mi Fu (1051-1107) is the name of a famous artist that invented the way of using ink dots to paint Chinese paintings (landscapes). Dian signifies someone crazy, abnormal.


In the past articles, I briefly mentioned about dots, in Chinese paintings when one talks about dots, one has to talk about the “Mi family method”. Many people have asked me about the “Mi family”, I usually give them a quick answer, the other day in my pile of old photographs, I found a painting titled “paying homage to a rock” in particular it is of “Mi Dian worshipping a rock”. I could not stop thinking about Mi Dian, why was he such a great man? Why was he paying homage to a rock? And why was he called crazy and so out of this world?


Mi Fu’s original name is Fu, when he was around 40 years old, he started using the name Fu, his other name is Yuanzhang and he is originally from Tai Yuan and later lived in Xiang Yang. He had yet another name Manshi from Xiang Yang, from this name “Manshi”, we can tell that he was the type of man that was not easily influenced. For his time, he was considered a modern thinker. He wanted to revolutionalize the way Chinese painting was done/taught and thought that the old ways of learning by endlessly copying the old masters was not the best way.


In one of his autobiography’s “Hua Shi” (history of art), he writes,”… Especially in landscapes, by continuously copying the old masters, there has been no development in newer styles, what dominates are still lots of mountains and lots of fog” (both signifying fog in paintings and implying that the artists have not innovated). We can see that the “Mi method” was a new method of painting Chinese landscapes, originated by him. In creating this method, he wasn’t doing it haphazardly or blindly, again according to his “Hua Shi” [we see that he has done his research as] he writes, “Yu Jiadong’s landscapes depict mist like waves, the mountains are represented by the basics of its skeleton, one can only see the tree tops, but the style is still “Gao Gu” [very old school?]”. We see that although he wanted to not use the “Gao Gu”, he didn’t go to opposite extremes and used “Ching Fou” (or light and floaty) method. Because Mi Fu actually had a deep understanding and solid foundation in painting, Su Dongbo once said of Mi Fu’s painting methods, “Li Zhenghang’s calligraphy are like swift horses galloping with his use of big strong strokes; Zhong (artist who lived in Wei dynasty, 220-265) and Wang (artist that lived in the Jin dynasty, 265-420, Wang Xizhi, 307-365), are all on par with Mi in level and style”.


Mi Fu was also a poet and a writer, but he is still most famous for his art. He not only invented “Mi family method”, he also was known for the “clouds in landscape method”. He also did human figures and lived in the same period as the famous human figure artist, Li Gongling who was a student of Wu Daozhi. Although Wu Daozhi was an excellent artist, Mi still didn’t consider him “Gao Gu” enough. (On this point, the topic being of calligraphy, some people consider Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy as more mysterious and in the same category as Zhao Jiang, a topic that is debated as to why not learn the Han dynasty, 206 BCE – 220 CE, style as it is far superior). So in Mi’s opinion, it was better to learn Gu Kaizhi’s (344 – 406 CE) style. To this he said, “Li Gongling had been ill and could not use his left hand to paint for 3 years and although Li was a student of Wu, Li was still not able to learn or adopt Wu’s style nor achieve “Gao Gu”, nor be on Wu’s level”. But Li was serious and diligent in learning painting and was very disciplined in his execution of every stroke, just as it is important in making the right type of friends. If there is the slightest mistake, it is easy to get off the right path but extremely difficult to revert back without a lot of effort and sacrifice. Thus the process of becoming an artist is important, you have to know what you are doing and you can’t be frivolous about it. (Chinese paintings, you can’t go back and correct a mistake?? vs oils where one can…)


Mi Fu however had a funny habit, he was obsessed with cleanliness [lost plot of how his cleanliness can be considered cute in the comparison with San Siau Ying Yuan] but very honest. He lived in the same times as Huang Tingjian (artist and poet and one of the 24 Siau), the one that was famous for being afraid of his wife, who was also a good swordsman along with Chen Siuchang (from the book Fang Shan Zi). The Prime Minister of their time, Wang Anshi, also had a funny habit, he was the opposite to Mi Fu, he didn’t bathe, nor change his attire, nor combed his hair and he didn’t really care what others thought and can be compared to the hippies of the 1960s. Some peoples habits are just not expressable in words with no logic to explain.


Mi Fu belonged the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), but liked to wear Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) clothes, modernising the style. He liked to wear a type of tall hat, but he owned a carriage that was flatter than normal, if he passed his hat to the footman, he was afraid that it would get dirty, so he took the roof off his carriage and rode around town with his tall hat sticking out. In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE), these type of roofless carriages were used to transport prisoners that were to be executed. Mi Fu was not only not concerned about people laughing behind his back, he thought himself cool and unique, this was one of his crazy and abnormal traits.


Another time, as he was on his way to work (he was a government official of quite senior level). At one of the horse stops, he saw a very uniquely shaped and ugly rock. He was moved to immense happiness and forgot where he was, he asked his servants for his “hui ban” (used only to bow in front of the Emperor), facing the rock he knelt before it and bowed and happily mumbled to himself, “this glorious rock, I am your slave”. It is more common to see men stoop to that level for a beautiful woman but for a rock? Later every time Mi Fu came upon a unique and ugly rock, he would do the same, kneeling and bowing and even exalting the rock to “Shi Zhang”, (like a respectful way to address an older person). As he is able to respect a rock like respecting an elder, it is as if he didn’t lose his childlike innocence of being amazed at the world around him. This was how a second example of his abnormal traits came about.


Mi Fu really loved these uniquely shaped rocks that he started collecting them as precious items (on par with precious paintings). He was then in An Hui province, Ling Pi district as a government official. But he had no heart for work and was always admiring his rock collection. (In eastern art on the subject matter of rocks, the ones that are ugly, skinny, and transparent like are valued the highest). So, from a perspective of beauty, natural beauty is not necessarily the best, raw beauty in its own way is beautiful, like an extreme feature (Barbara Streisand’s nose?), like Yang Liuching’s “nian hua”, or the Emperor Yong Le’s (1403 – 1424 CE of the Ming dynasty) wall paintings, or the drafts of the Dun Huang caves or the prehistoric paintings on caves that were large and red and raw. That’s why Picasso said, why learn art in Paris? Go instead to Africa, the art forms are as powerful, this is the similar logic to why ugly stones are beautiful in their own way. It is an undescribable type of beauty, one is drawn to its ugliness and somehow the skinnyness and the transparentness of the rock match each other and becomes inspirational. There were a lot of old masters that only painted rocks. Small rocks were painted as stones in a garden setting, large rocks became mountains. When one paints landscapes, one has to examine, study and understand the fundamental make up of a rock first.


Later, even An Jishi (Mi Fu’s colleague and government official) came to warn and to advise Mi Fu about his tardy attitude at work. Mi Fu drew out from his sleeve (Chinese sleeves in those days were like pockets) a piece of rock. It had a light but clean color and was small and ugly but adorable. Mi Fu put the rock up to An Jishi’s face where he could not help but to appreciate the rock and said, “look at this rock, how can you not love it?” An Jishi, mesmerized by the rock, didn’t realize that he grabbed it and left! But not before saying, “it is not only beautiful, I am in love…”. Mi Fu’s name since that episode, started to spread not only in his lifetime but throughout the centuries.


Once in Yang Zhou, the famous artist Su Dongbo (1037 – 1101 CE), had a party in which he invited more than 10 famous people. Mi Fu arrived with gifts but was also visibly a bit drunk with a look that was “dian”, though he thought he looked cool in making his entrance. He even made an announcement to the group, “everyone thinks I am crazy, but I am only behaving like Dongbo” (who although as an artist was eccentric, was not yet “dian”) To which Dongbo unexpectedly replied, “I don’t think so, I behave like normal people do”. To which, Mi Fu’s “dian” was now firmly established.


Another time, the Song dynasty emperor, Huizong (1082-1135, who was also an artist), he was in his twenty’s in his early years of reign, loved the arts (he was famous for his calligraphic technique of “Sou Jing Ti” and his “gong bi” of birds and flowers, unfortunately he was a failure at being a ruler). He highly regarded Mi Fu and invited him to his “Yau Ling” Palace. On his imperial table, he had an ink pad made of a type of red precious stone (Ma Nau), the brush was made from elephant tusk, the ink was made by the famous Li Tingwa, the ink pad box was made from gold and the paper weights were made of jade. There was also exquisite food and wine prepared. The large scrolls of rice paper were also rolled out with Mi Fu facing the Emperor.


As Mi Fu rolled up his sleeves, he was already unaware of the Emperor in his presence, he took the brush, dipped it in ink, tapping his feet (which rude to do infront of an Emperor!) and deep in thought, suddenly with a stroke of inspiration, his brush flew across the paper, the ink was like rain, the qi of the stroke was like a passing cloud, like a cloak of fog, a river flowing. When the rice paper was entirely wet, the Emperor was so mesmerized he was in another state of mind. Mi Fu was still lost in himself and his environment, he suddenly realized the Emperor was in front of him and he blurted, “your majesty, how wonderful!!” (how unhumble of a subject?).


The Emperor was not only not angry at this outburst which was considered a lack of respect, he was actually moved by the experience and gave Mi Shi the four scholarly items (paper, brush, ink and ink pad) as a gift and also gave him the title of Professor of Art. Strangely, Mi Fu took the exquisite ink pad, before wiping it dry, he placed it into his suit pocket and soiled his entire outfit and it didn’t matter to him too much. Like a child in a candy store, he felt very happy and went home. One could say Mi Shi was “dian”? or was he a genius? No matter what your opinion, the successful artist is one that is true to himself as you can’t fake who you are and you can’t lose the innocence of a child for the child’s innocent heart is the purest form of character. From purity of character can you then only derive the best in paintings which will comparable to none.


Another time, the Emperor asked Mi Fu to come to his “Zhong Zheng” Palace to discuss art, Mi Fu, brought along a note book and the Emperor asked him to put it down, Mi Fu then said, “but your highness, that is on your day bed!”, this caused the Emperor to be embarrassed for a moment and the court officials at the scene all thought that Mi Fu was wrong to embarrass the Emperor and should be punished. The Emperor instead said, “hmmm, you can’t curb a genius”, and with that all was forgiven and the Emperor took Mi Fu to his treasure trove of paintings (in those days without books or mass copies, only the Emperor had a rare collection of art that was not publicly available thus not available to people interested in improving their techniques), with that access, Mi Fu’s art improved tremendously leading him to one day invent the “Mi method”. The Emperor also promoted Mi Fu to become the President of the National Art Academy. From government official to Professor and a few other official titles, a country can exalt the status of cultural pursuits and on the other hand, an artist’s life is one that is quite difficult. Resulting in a situation where parents, rather guide their children to medicine or commercial pursuits, thus in the process, losing a lot of artistic talent from lack of nurture. I have to stop here, for thinking about this makes me sad, that others such as the Japanese that protect and develop their cultural arts (which were originally Chinese); and while we see others valuing our culture so much, should we not remind ourselves that we should be doing that too?




What is Gao Gu???

How did the Mi part of his name come along? Is it because of the dots of the painting?



Gu Kaizhi and the Beginning of Scroll Painting  Chinese painting came a long way during the 300-year period that saw the rise and fall of the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), the Jin Dynasty (265-420) and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-581). Although there was the chaos of wars and many dynastic changes during this period, active intellectual life of different schools provided a great impetus to artistic development. Well known grotto murals, tomb paintings, stone carvings, brick carvings and lacquer paintings were produced during that period, and a number of virtuosos emerged in Chinese calligraphy and painting. Certain painting theories, such as the Graphic Theory and the Six Rule Theory that form the theoretical basis for present-day Chinese painting, were also put forward during this time. Gu Kaizhi, known as the founder of traditional Chinese painting, and his scroll paintings, represented the painting style of the period. Gu Kaizhi was born into an official family in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province. He served as a government officer when he was young, and toured many beautiful places. He had a sense of humor, and was also adept at writing poems and essays. Chinese art history abounds in anecdotes about him. Once a temple was planned for Jiankang (present-day Nanjing), but the monks and the abbot could not collect enough money for the construction. While they were worrying about the funds to build the temple, a young man came and said he would donate a large amount of money. The abbot did not believe him, thinking that he was boasting. The young man suggested drawing a picture of the Buddha on a wall and collecting money from those who came to see him at work. For three consecutive days, thousands of people crowded the place to see the young man painting the Buddha. When he finally added the eye lines, the Buddha seemed to come alive, and the viewers cheered and applauded the young man’s artistry. The money needed for the consummate construction of the temple was raised. The young man was Gu Kaizhi. Gu Kaizhi paid great attention to details that revealed the characteristics of the figures he drew. Once he was asked to paint the portrait of a man called Pei Kai, who had three long fine hairs on his face that had been ignored by other painters. Gu laid great emphasis on the three hairs, and Pei was very satisfied. Another time, he portrayed the man Xie Kun standing in the midst of mountains and rocks. When asked about the reason, he explained that Xie loved to travel to see beautiful mountains and rivers. This story demonstrates that Gu was skillful at drawing surroundings that enhanced the characteristics of the painted figures. Gu also made great advances in summarizing painting theories. His theoretical works included Painting Thesis and Notes on Painting the Yuntai Mountain. He paid considerable attention to the vivid expressions of the figures to show their spirit. His Graphic Theory later became a basic theory for traditional Chinese painting. According to historical records, Gu created more than 70 paintings based on historical stories, Buddhas, human figures, birds, animals, mountains and rivers. His three existing scroll paintings are Nushi Zhen Painting, Luoshen Appraisal Painting and Lienu Renzhi Painting; these are the earliest examples of scroll paintings. 

The theme of the Luoshen Appraisal Painting was drawn fromthe article, Luoshen Appraisal, written by Cao Zhi, son of the Wei Emperor Cao Cao. It depicts the meeting of Cao Zhi and Goddess Luoshen at the Luoshui River. The picture vividly portrays the moods when they first met each other and when they were finally forced to separate. Gu emphasized the expressions of the figures; the stones, mountains and trees in the picture are for ornamental purposes. Gu’s paintings are similar in style to the Dunhuang murals, and had a big influence on later traditional Chinese paintings.



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