Monday, November 1, 2010

Chinese Wall Scrolls - History, Practice and Artistry

The span of Chinese culture traverses 6,000 years, and the history of Chinese art is almost as long. The art of Chinese painting can be thought to begin with the Chinese written language, because Chinese characters began as simple pictures (or pictographs) thousands of years ago. These have evolved into the Chinese characters seen today. The technique of 'painting' those original pictographs naturally flowed into more detailed depictions of landscapes. The same utensils, round pointed brushes made from either goat hair or wolf hair are still used in traditional Chinese painting today. Painting and calligraphy were the two most highly prized arts in the courts of the nobles in ancient China, with calligraphy considered the purest form of art. Writings of famous calligraphers were mounted on scrolls and hung on walls.

The hand painted scroll is one example of how art was used to communicate in ancient China. The format used for Chinese paintings varied widely over time. Massive wall paintings, free-standing screens, horizontal and vertical scrolls, were some of the formats used. The horizontal hand scroll unrolled from right to left, giving the viewer a chance to look at one segment at a time. The horizontal hand scroll was like a picture story book, and lead to the shorter vertical hanging scroll.

Silk was usually used to make scrolls until the invention of paper, traditionally thought to have been invented in China in the first century A..D. Silk is not very absorbent, which led to the practice of slow and deliberate application of paint and ink. Early paper was made from a variety of substances such as rice straw, bark, reeds, bamboo, etc. These early papers were more absorbent and led to more spontaneously created paintings. Most modern wall scrolls are painted on Xuan paper, also known as rice paper. A wooden dowel is attached to the bottom of the scroll to prevent it from rolling up, and a thin piece of wood with a cord is placed at the top to hang the scroll from. Some scrolls have silk backing or edges on them, but few are actually painted on silk.

Vertical hanging scrolls were suspended on walls and gave the viewer an opportunity to get close up and examine the details of the painting, and to back up and take in the entire picture. Scrolls were taken down periodically, with different scrolls replacing them. The Chinese have long thought of a magical link between mankind and the landscape, so many of the early hanging scrolls were landscapes, with other subjects added over the years.

A Chinese painting is judged on how the theme of the painting balances with the rest of the picture, and the feelings it evokes. The subject matter itself is sometimes secondary. Chinese scroll paintings are wondrous creations of art, full of meaning, and give joy to the eye and soul. When you view a hand painted Chinese scroll you view thousands of years of history, practice, and artistry.


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Worked in a steel mill for 30 years. Amateur chef, piano player, book reader, letter writer, gardener, peace advocate.