The Enlightening Remarks on Painting by Shih-T'ao

In eighteen pithy essays, Shih-t'ao presents a unique and systematic theory of painting. Several chapters offer concrete advice on the craft of landscape painting, but most are highly philosophical in tone as they interweave key concepts whose meanings resonate through cosmological, historical, and technical dimensions. These concepts redefine a holistic foundation for painting in order to recover the transparency of Nature, art, and mind described by earlier literati theorists. Both thematically and in rhetorical style, the Enlightening Remarks reveals a profound debt to Taoism, particularly the Lao-tzu and the Chuang-tzu. And, like these early texts, it is frequently constructed of bipolar linguistic patterns which thematically resonate between the spiritual and the mundane.

Shih-t'ao proposes his own strategy

The Enlightening Remarks unfolds in a double movement. On the one hand, it is a stinging critique of Orthodox "methods" for which Shih-t'ao proposes his own strategy of "no-method." Concurrently, Shih-t'ao grounds the aesthetics and practice of painting in a new, transcending element, the Holistic Brushstroke. Both of these highly original concepts are means of realizing the spiritual goal of transformation, an experience which is rooted in the consciousness of the artist's authentic self. It is this self, understood as both mind and body, which employs holistic brushstrokes to attain synchronicity with the universe while using "no-method" to assert a personal vision against the limitations of Orthodox historicism. Despite its philosophical tone, Shih-t'ao's theory is closely related to his actual practice so that in cases where his concepts seem elusive, they frequently can be clarified by reference to some of his paintings.

The Holistic Brushstrok

The opening chapter of the Enlightening Remarks begins with an allusion to the Taoist myth of the age of the Uncarved Block from the Lao-tzu. The Uncarved Block symbolizes a primitive mode of existence unburdened by complex institutions, social distinctions, and dualistic thinking. It is used by Shih-t'ao here to signify an innocent state of aesthetic consciousness. In contrast to this is the history of art with its canonization of "methods," its rival ideologies, and its disunity, all of which arose when the age of the Uncarved Block degenerated into civilization. However, while the Lao-tzu advocates a return to communal life and the abandonment of knowledge, Shih- t'ao's theory seeks to recover this innocence from within the "Great Tradition" of Chinese painting. In his work, this desire to return to a pure origin is often expressed in the conscious primitivism of his style and the quality of "cho" or "artlessness" so highly prized in literati culture. He addresses the problem of historical "methods" by asserting the transcendent reality of the Holistic Brushstroke whose mysterious character has hitherto prevented artists from recognizing its fundamental existence.

The Book of Changes

In the broadest cosmological sense, the Holistic Brushstroke is later described as even beyond the dimensions of artistic practice. It has a metaphysical status which preexists painting and calligraphy and is likened to the generative role of an ancestor. The process of bringing the world into being by the marking of a single line is an early myth related to the cosmology of The Book of Changes. The legendary Sage- King Fu-hsi was often credited with drawing the first stroke from which the elements of reality emerged through a sequence of parturitions. Shih Junchang (1618-1683), a writer who was a friend of Shih-t'ao, restated this view:

The numbers all begin with one. When "one" is obtained, then the Two Primal Forces, the Four Images, and the Eight Trigrams become set. Altogether, the three-hundred and eightyfour commentaries on the lines of the Hexagrams all derive from this "one." Thus, ever since Fu-hsi drew the first line, and revealed the Changes to mankind, there was nothing more that needed to be said. This is what is meant by "in obtaining one, the ten thousand things are completed.

Primordial Confusion

Described by Shih-t'ao as containing the potential to delineate all things, the Holistic Brushstroke in painting is capable of creating a landscape as a microcosm of the universe. The blank paper can be regarded as an original, undefined cosmic state which Shih-t'ao calls "Primordial Confusion ," after a Taoist creation myth. Applying the first stroke to the surface recapitulates the decisive moment of bringing things into being and setting into motion the forms of Nature.

primal mark

The Holistic Brushstroke is thus a primal mark which functions both to unify and to generate. As a unifier, each Holistic Brushstroke stands forth to signify the idea of "Oneness" as the instantaneous and totalizing beat of the Tao. One can see a possible origin of this ideal in chapter 39 of the Lao-tzu where "grasping Oneness 'I enables things to achieve their full potential; without it, everything becomes subject to decay. The artist, likewise, is urged to grasp the Oneness of the Holistic Brushstroke throughout the act of painting so as to endow his work with the spiritual coherence of the universe. The Holistic Brushstroke also unifies by creating wholeness. It brings aesthetic complementarities together into a state of energized interaction which Shih-t'ao terms "fusion ," a term borrowed from The Book of Changes. For example, in the act of making a brushstroke, the duality of brush and ink interpenetrate and together unleash their power to represent form.

As a generative source, the Holistic Brushstroke may be regarded as the initial brushstroke in a sequence which ends with the completion of the painting. Here, the rhythmic element is of highest importance, for the first stroke sets into motion a series of other Holistic Brushstrokes, a dance of kinesthetic signifiers which is the movement of life. This concept of a sustained quality of a single line running throughout the work was discussed in earlier painting theory. Both the Tang critic Chang Yen-yuan (ca. 815-after 875) and the Sung critic Kuo Jo-hsü (active last half of eleventh century) praised Wang Hsien-chih for his "single-stroke calligraphy -- " and Lu Tan-wei for his "single-stroke painting ," by which they meant such a continuous rhythm in their brushwork .Shih-t'ao specifically urges that the artist be highly aware of the first stroke, inasmuch as it has a determinative effect on all those that follow.

A single brushstroke can define even that which lies beyond the borders of the universe. An infinity of brushstrokes all begin with it and are completed by it. It all depends on the artist to take control." (chap. 1)

a link between man and cosmos

The Holistic Brushstroke is a link between man and cosmos, for it exists hidden within the human mind, discovered by Shih-t'ao himself and now revealed to the world like the result of a religious enlightenment. This connection between a primal line and higher consciousness is indebted to Ch'an Buddhism. In Tang and Sung yü-lu, texts of "enlightening remarks," images are employed which represent the paradox of totality by a line and questions are posed by the Ch'an master to induce a mental breakthrough. Shih-t'ao's own teacher, Lü-an Pen-yueh, is recorded as having replied to the following dialogue:

One day, Hsiu-wen of the Pao-en Temple asked, "What is the character composed of a single line to which no other strokes have been added?" Lü-an answered, "Its design is already fully manifest." Hsiu-wen nodded.

the apprehension of the wholeness

In his theory, Shih-t'ao implies that the artist's recognition of the subjective mental existence of the Holistic Brushstroke is related to the apprehension of the wholeness and sufficiency of his own self apart from the distorting masks of the ancient masters. It is this discovery which is the true basis of artistic enlightenment. It becomes the means by which insignificant man, dwarfed by the magnitude of the world, can find his place in it and derive spiritual sustenance:

From a narrow point of view, even a flying Transcendent could not circumnavigate it all. But if the Holistic Brushstroke is employed to survey it, then man can participate in the nourishing transformations of Heaven and Earth. (chap. 8)

Ten-Thousand Ugly Ink Blots

The individual brushstroke is often forefronted in Shih-t'ao's work. Some paintings, like Ten-Thousand Ugly Ink Blots, resonate between representation and a pure pattern of dots and lines on the border of abstraction. In other works, a single brushstroke in a form may be given unusually strong definition so that it stands out and becomes on its own, a highly self-referential motive. Shih-t'ao's brushwork is, in general, emphatic and impulsive, especially in his calligraphy. The viewer readily senses its unique musicality. From this temporally charged perspective, the overlay of patterns of holistic brushstrokes functions to convey the activity of universal transformation which is at the core of Shih-t'ao's goal of self-cultivation and artistic expression.

Ref: Richard E. Strassberg - Pacific Asia Museum Monographs Number 1 1989