Letters to the Editor
Upright creatures like us have been waIking the earth for close to two million years and yet it was in the last ten thousand years that we began to refine and beautify our tools and made earthenware pots. We call this period of our development the neolithic age.
A few years ago, archaeologists digging at a 15,000-year-old site found an animal tooth with a hole drilled in it. They were thrilled! Was this tooth for wearing around the neck? Was this find an indication of early mans interest in decorating himself?
But in fact, the oldest known painting on a stone wall done by Australian Aborigines is said to be 80,000 years old. Then there have been a number of findings of paintings in caves in France and Spain said to be 15,000 to 25,000 years old. These paintings are of hunting scenes and of animals, and are astoundingly high in artistic standard, full of vitality and movement and with brilliant use of colours. The purpose of the cave paintings aro not known and the artists are not identified.
Human history, even stretching the imagination, is no more than 5,000 years. The Egyptians, Greeks and Chinese were among the first to paint, often on the walls of temples or tombs to remember the dead or to honour the Gods and great Kings and beautiful Queens.
We in the East, especially the Chinese, think of paintings as of 2 types, Chinese brush painting and Western painting. Chinese brush paintings are the products of scholarly pursuit, being related to calligraphy. Chinese writing is expected to look beautiful and is itself an art form. By the time a scholar has been writing for 15 to 20 years, he is half-way to being an artist, since he paints with the same brushes as he writes, and his medium is ink, with colouring a secondary concern.
Historically many emperors have been painters and in recent times, Mdm Chiang Kai Shek is quite a presentable painter. In Europe however, painters and musicians only gained respectability in the last 150 years. They were considered servants by the nobility, and had their meals with the servants.
Artists require patronage. In China, while artists of the imperial academies were dependent on the court and sometimes on the emperor himself, most artists were scholars for whom painting was a scholarly pursuit and were independent of patronage. Indeed, scholar-painters did not sell paintings for a living until in the last century.
European painters for many years depended on the Church and the nobility for support, and that explained the great sacred paintings and the paintings of Kings, Queens, Noblemen and Ladies until the last 150 years.
With the advent of trade and with the industrial revolution in Europe, the patrons of art were now the rich merchants and manufacturers, and as a result, painting became more personal, creative and varied.
At first, Western paintings, like those elsewhere, were representational, ie. the artist reproduces in paint what he sees around him. As he became freed from the bondage of a conservative patronage, he allowed his imagination more and more latitude. The impressionists at the end of the last century, misinterpreting the nature of light, painted objects they saw with small patches of complimentary colours, giving an attractive shimmering appearance to the objects they depicted. The critics of the time condemned these paintings, as they did subsequent styles of paintings that were changing rapidly. Why? Criticism is comparison and analysis and when something is unfamiliar, there is no way to compare them with what we already know and accept. After impressionism which was the last stronghold of representational art, representational art became unfashionable that is, unfashionable until in recent years, when the circle has made its full turn and artists became representational once more. To mention some schools, post impressionism, cubism, surrealism, expressionism, pop art etc. came and went. If we judge historically and if we judge by the way a child draws, artists will still be inspired by nature. Even if not fully representational, art is influenced by the environment and aIso by the ideas of the most persuasive thinkers. For instance, violent colour and instant gratification so typical of modern paintings is inspired by advertising where neon-lit signs light up the night sky and where every second an TV advertising costs money. As for the influence of thinkers, Freuds theory of the unconscious (and aIso of dreams) gave rise to surrealist painting and to the stream of consciousness style of writing.
It is not rewarding to go into details of the various - isms. Basically the artist can choose to express his outer world or his inner world. Chinese artists who tend to be community orientated, tend to take the outer world as his basis for communications, while the western artist being more individualistic is more prone to emphasize art through his private world.
For the same reason the Chinese artist emphasises technique and brushwork, while the western artist is more proud of his ideas than of his technique. This also explains why Chinese artists are at their best when old, and Western artists are at their best when at a much younger age.
Inspite of this difference, artists share similar thoughts about art. For instance, St. Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as that which pleases the sight and that it is characterised by unity, harmony and brightness. The Chinese artist in the 6th Century already spoke of a superior painting having an appearance of being alive, of having a life rhythm, and that a good painting has weight, has immensity and has eccentricity. These aesthetic thoughts are universal and go beyond the boundaries of east or west.
In the end, what matters about a painting is not the history, the style, the medium or the country of origin. What matters is whether it is good. Most of all a painting is not judged by the name of the artist or by its price in the market place but by its degree of excellence as a work of art. Knowing what is excellent takes experience and it takes learning time.
Above all paintings must be judged with the eyes, not the ears.
DR EARL LU
CHAIRMAN, SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM