Monday, July 02, 2007

François Julien's "The Impossible Nude"

It's a strange experience reading François Julien's book after Spurling's Matisse biography. After taking Beauty, its ontology, for granted, it's disorienting to find it has an epistemology.

Julien's aesthetic and philosophical investigation begins with an observation that becomes obvious once someone has stated it: literati Chinese painting does not have nudes. Naked people, yes, but no nudes like in Western paintings, like Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus," or Michelangelo's Adam. In his investigation, Julien unearths the philosophical ideas that underlie the Western nude, and the different set of ideas that lead to the absence of the nude in the Chinese tradition.

Botticelli, The Birth of Venus

Zhao Mengfu (Yuan Dynasty), Bathing Horses

Julien's argument touches on various ideas such as Being, form, essence, model, but the part that interests me most is the disquisition on the different ideas of the body:

...In the West, the notion that prevailed is that of an anatomical body consisting of a flesh-covered skeleton whose every muscle, tendon, ligament, and so forth is susceptible to analysis, deconstructions, and dissection (as evidenced by art school teaching on the nude, or painters' preparatory drawings) [Jee Leong: Spurling describes how Matisse trained himself in just that way in the art academies of his day.] However, for a very long time the internal function of circulation and exchange remained a matter of secondary importance--if it was perceived at all. But it was this anatomical analysis that enabled the meticulous imitation from which the nude derives, to the point where in Europe, even in the representation of clothed figures, these were first drawn as nudes. In China, on the other hand, the body is viewed from the standpoint of "energy," not anatomy: it is perceived in a global, organic way that preserves its life-ensuring functional capacity. The body is conceived in exact correspondence to the external world, with which it is in permanent communication. It is itself a universe that is both closed and open, permeated by breaths flowing through a system of channels or "meridians" which run through the body and circulate vitality. The body is comparable to a large bag (usually represented by an oval) inside which, as in the rest of the world, ceaseless transmutations take place. None of this constant internal renewal is manifest externally except at the orifices, with each corresponding to a particular organ. No revelations are to be expected from the outer conformation of flesh and muscle, of what broadly remains little more than a torso containing the organs (the limbs are frequently omitted altogether in medical drawings). Since the Chinese see the body as the mere concretion of the energy that animates it, it is not surprising to find that the relation between "form" and "matter" (eidos-ule), ideal form and inert matter, which brought forth the nude in Europe, is absent in China--to go back to Plotinus, in the wake of Aristotle: art is the transference of form into matter.

The reason why anatomy--which is the basis for the nude--remained so unelaborated in China, despite its extremely refined figurative art, is that there the human body did not acquire the status of an object, as is called for by the nude. The experience of the body was above all that of one's own body as sensed internally. It is the experience of the life-giving fluxes and exchanges that we regulate internally by our breathing and the practice of flowing sequences of movements (as in tai ji quan, which is quite unlike our gymnastics with its muscle-building exercise of the "naked body"). Consequently, far from any kind of representation of the nude figure, which they would consider corpselike (a reminder of the cadavers once used as models in art schools), the Chinese found it convenient to use the movement of drapery--the folds and gathers of the clothes, the sinuous windings of the belt, or the sweep of a sleeve--to express those precious vital rhythms.

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