Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)
The founding of the Sui dynasty (581–618) reunited China after more than 300 years of fragmentation. The second Sui emperor engaged in unsuccessful wars and vast public works, such as the Grand Canal linking the north and south, that exhausted the people and caused them to revolt. The succeeding Tang dynasty (618–907) built a more enduring state on the foundations the Sui rulers had laid, and the first 130 years of the Tang was one of the most prosperous and brilliant periods in the history of Chinese civilization. The empire at the time extended so far across Central Asia that for a while Bukhara and Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan) were under Chinese control, the Central Asian kingdoms paid China tribute, and Chinese cultural influence reached Korea and Japan. Chang’an became the greatest city in the world; its streets were filled with foreigners, and foreign religions—including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—flourished. This confident cosmopolitanism is reflected in all the arts of this period.
The patronage of the Sui and Tang courts attracted painters from all over the empire. Yan Liben (閻立本, ca.601–673), who rose to high office as an administrator, finally becoming a minister of state, was also a noted 7th-century figure painter. His duties included painting historical scrolls, notable events past and present, and portraits, including those of foreigners and strange creatures brought to court as tribute, to the delight of his patron, Taizong. Yan Liben painted in a conservative style with a delicate, scarcely modulated line. Part of a scroll depicting 13 emperors from Han to Sui (in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is attributed to him. His brother Yan Lide was also a painter. Features of their style may possibly be preserved in wall paintings in recently discovered 7th- and early 8th-century tombs in northern China, notably that of Princess Yongtai (reburied 706) near Xi’an.
The greatest brush master of Tang painting was the 8th-century artist Wu Daozi (吳道子, ca.680–759), who not only enjoyed a career at court but had sufficient creative energy to execute, according to Tang records, some 300 wall paintings in the temples of Luoyang and Chang’an. His brushwork, in contrast to that of Yan Liben, was full of such sweeping power that crowds would gather to watch him as he worked. He painted chiefly in ink, leaving the coloring to his assistants, and he was famous for the three-dimensional, sculptural effect he achieved with the ink line alone.
Figure painters who depicted court life in a careful manner derived from Yan Liben rather than from Wu Daozi included Zhang Xuan (張萱, 713–755) and Zhou Fang (周昉, ca.730–800). The former’s Ladies Preparing Silk survives in a Song dynasty copy (in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), while later versions of several compositions attributed to Zhou Fang exist. Eighth-century royal tomb murals and Dunhuang Buddhist paintings demonstrate the early appearance and widespread appeal of styles that these court artists helped later to canonize, with individual figures (especially women) of monumental, sculpturesque proportion arranged upon a blank background with classic simplicity and balance.
Horses played an important role in Tang military expansion and in the life of the court; riding was a popular recreation, and even the court ladies played polo. Horses also had become a popular subject for painting, and one of the emperor Xuanzong’s favorite court artists was the horse painter Han Gan (韓幹, 706–783). A damaged and much restored 8th-century painting of the emperor’s favorite charger, Zhaoyebai (Night Shining White, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), attributed to Han Gan, gives a hint of that artist’s vital talent. The other great horse-painting master was Han Gan’s early teacher and the army general Cao Ba (曹霸, ca.704–770), said by the poet Du Fu to have captured better the inner character of his subjects and not just the flesh. Most later horse painters claimed to follow Han Gan or Cao Ba, but the actual stylistic contrast between them was already reported in Northern Song times as no longer distinguishable and today is hardly understood.
The more than three centuries of the Sui and Tang were a period of progress and change in landscape painting. The early 7th- and 8th-century masters Zhan Ziqian (展子虔, fl. late 6th c.), Li Sixun (李思訓, 651-716), and the latter’s son Li Zhaodao (李昭道, early 8th c.) developed a style of landscape painting known as qinglü shanshui (“blue-green landscape”) or jinbi shanshui (“gold-blue-green landscape”), in which mineral colors were applied to a composition carefully executed in fine line to produce a richly colored effect. Probably related to Central Asian painting styles of the Six Dynasties period and associated with the jeweled-paradise landscapes of the Daoist immortals, this “blue-and-green” type readily appealed to the Tang court’s taste for international exotica, religious fantasy, and boldly decorative art. This style gradually crystallized as a courtly and professional tradition, in contrast to the more informal calligraphic ink painting of the literati.
The generally accepted founder of the school of scholarly landscape painting is Wang Wei (王維, 701-761), an 8th-century scholar and poet who divided his time between the court at Chang’an, where he held official posts, and his country estate of Wang Chuan, of which he painted a panoramic composition preserved in later copies and engraved on stone. Among his Buddhist paintings, the most famous was a rendering of the Indian sage Vimalakīrti, who became, as it were, the “patron saint” of Chinese Buddhist intellectuals. Wang Wei sometimes painted landscapes in color, but his later reputation was based on the belief that he was the first to paint landscape in monochrome ink. He was said to have obtained a subtle atmosphere by “breaking the ink” (pomo, 破墨) into varied tones. The belief in his founding role, fostered by later critics, became the cornerstone of the philosophy of the wenrenhua (literati painting), which held that a man could not be a great painter unless he was also a scholar and gentleman.
More adventurous in technique was the somewhat eccentric late 8th-century painter Zhang Zao (張璪), who produced dramatic tonal and textural contrasts, as when he painted simultaneously, with one brush in each hand, two branches of a tree, one moist and flourishing, the other desiccated and dead. This new freedom with the brush was carried to extremes by such painters of the middle to late Tang as Wang Qia (王洽, also known as Wang Mo) and Gu Kuang (顧況), southern Chinese Daoists who “splashed ink” (also transliterated as pomo 潑墨 but written with different characters than “broken ink”) onto the silk in a manner suggestive of 20th-century “Action painters” such as Jackson Pollock. The intention of these ink-splashers was philosophical and religious as well as artistic: it was written at the time that their spontaneous process was designed to imitate the divine process of creation. Their semifinished products, in which the artistic process was fully revealed and the subject matter had to be discerned by the viewer, suggested a Daoist philosophical skepticism. These techniques marked the emergence of a trend toward eccentricity in brushwork that had free rein in periods of political and social chaos. They were subsequently employed by painters of the southern “Sudden” school of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, which held that enlightenment was a spontaneous, irrational experience that could be suggested in painting only by a comparable spontaneity in the brushwork. Chan painting flourished particularly in Chengdu, the capital of the petty state of Shu, to which many artists went as refugees from the chaotic north in the last years before the Tang dynasty fell. Among them was Guanxiu (貫休), an eccentric who painted Buddhist saints with a weird air and exaggerated features that had a strong appeal to members of the Chan sect. The element of the deliberately grotesque in Guanxiu’s art was further developed during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period by Shi Ke (石恪), who was active in Chengdu in the mid-10th century. In his paintings, chiefly of Buddhist and Daoist subjects, he set out in the Chan manner to shock the viewer by distortion and roughness of execution.