Issue Number: 89
Western art history has long ignored the beauty and sophistication of Chinese painted scrolls. But, in fact, argues artist David Hockney RA, they are more like films than paintings and offer viewers the thrill of participating in the picture
I first came across Chinese Scrolls in about 1983. It was my interest in the camera and perspective that led me to them, because they use a different kind of perspective from the one we know in Western art. I looked at them first at the British Museum and then at the Metroplitan Museum in New York. They were very exciting discoveries. In 1983 Mike Hearn, a curator of Chinese painting at the Met, showed me a scroll made at the same time as the ones shown in this RA exhibition*. We spent three and a half hours on our knees looking at the 23m scroll; it was one of the most memorable afternoons of my life. On the same afternoon, we entered the galleries of the Met to see a diorama of Versailles, painted in the eighteenth century. There was a platform in the middle of the room and one could turn round on it and see Versailles from a 360-degree angle, indeed all around you. I mention this only because it was in great contrast with the scroll we had seen earlier.
Late eighteenth century replica of 'The Kangxi Emperor's Sixtieth Birthday Celebration: Scroll One', 1712-1717. detail, by Wang Yuanqi and others. The original scrolls were lost, possibly in a fire. This detail shows Beijing's Gate of Western Tranquility (Xi'an men), which marked the entrance to the Imperial City, where members of the Manchu ruling elite lived.
In the Chinese scroll we had moved through an entire city and seen all kinds of life going on there – shops and what they sold, buildings, houses and boats, people at a theatre and finally, a very grand reception for the Emperor with young and old lined up to receive him.
We were never stood in on spot. It was not Albert’s window of single-point perspective, perhaps neither was the diorama, but there all you could do was stand in one spot and turn round 360 degrees. Pinhole stuff by comparison with the scroll, even though it took up a whole large room.
The scroll could not be reproduced in a book (because the page turns over itself) and that is why I realised not many people knew them, including art historians, even the ones specialising in the seventeenth century.
The fact that the scroll cannot be reproduced in a book should tell us it has modern relatives – the more recent kind of ‘scroll art’ that we see in movies and video.
But the ancient scroll, which is unfurled by the viewer, offers more possibilities for viewer participation than a film, in which the cameraman decides what we se. Since it cannot really be opened fully – that is not the way they were intended to be seen – you scrolled along it from right to left. So, as you turned the scroll, you constantly adjusted the edges of the picture and decided where they were. The image can expand and contract at the viewer’s will, so its edges are not dominant at tall.
This is so very different from Alberti’s concept of the window, where the world is shown in perspective outside the window, but where are you, the viewer? In order to appreciate Alberti’s perspective, viewers have to stand still and look through the window whereas, in reality, we are rarely static and our eyes move all over the place.
Chinese scrolls also have something else very different from European paintings of the same period. They contain no shadows, European art of this time was full of shadows, many deep and dark. Why was it only in Europe that shadows arrived in the seventeenth century and nowhere else?
I suggest that what we refer to as ‘chiaroscuro’ came about from the European discovery of camera mechanisms showing the optical projection of the three-dimensional world. The optical projection of nature through a pinhole or a lens (for example in the camera lucida), creates the illusion of reality, including its shadows, seen in perspective from a fixed point.
The Chinese never looked at the world this way, so they never had a vanishing point. They used isometric perspective, where lines always remain parallel to show space (in contrast to the European concept in which parallel lines meet in a picture to create perspective) – and a very sophisticated method it is. It is in no way ‘primitive’ or ‘wrong’. If a vanishing point was used anywhere on the scroll, what would it do? What would it mean?
David Hockney unfurls his reproduction of a Qing painted scroll in his studio. It would stop you moving and therefore make you, the viewer, not there. You would be a pinpoint in front of the picture instead of a physical participant in the viewing of the scroll. This never happens.
The Chinese method of painting is more narrative, more attuned to the movements of the viewer’s eye and body and their psychological engagement with the story they are unfurling before their eyes; the European is more architectural and geometrical.
In the RA exhibition, the scrolls are displayed opened out. Nevertheless, walking past them slowly, you will realise how much space they show and how many people and marvellously animated crowds there are. A thrill is in store for the visually curious.
After looking at them, compare European paintings of the same period: Vermeer’s View of Delft, Canaletto’s Venice and London and Belloto’s view of Venice, Warsaw and Dresden. The scrolls are more like films than European paintings, even though lens projections of nature (used in mechanisms from the camera lucida to the modern camera) played a part in European painting. And, of course, films use the optical projection of nature.
As art history is rewritten, which it will be in the twenty-first century, many new elements from the past will be revealed that connect to our day far more than people think at the moment.
* 'China: The Three Emperors, 1662—1795' at the Royal Academy of Arts, 12 November 2005 — 17 April 2006. Find out more about the exhibition here.