Monday, March 15, 2010

A Day on the Grand Canal

"a day on the grand canal with the emperor of china, or surface is illusion but so is depth" is a film by Philip Hass and David Hockney. Hockney explains the art of Chinese painting by examining a 72-foot long 17th century Chinese scroll by Wang Wei, depicting Emperor Kangxi's grand tour of his southern domains. In his explanation, Hockney usefully contrasts Chinese aesthetics with that of Europe, using a Canaletto painting as well as a later Chinese scroll influenced by Western perspectival theory. He also reminds the viewers that they see only what the camera is showing them, that the film too has its frame.

Unlike Western paintings, Chinese paintings have a movable frame as the viewer unrolls the scroll. The viewer, in other words, is in control of which section of the scroll he wishes to see, and is not fixed in his viewing position as when he views a Western painting. Viewing a particular section of the scroll, the viewer can also decide where to look, whether to follow the tiny people down a street, or to peer into the windows of a horizontal line of houses. The viewing experience is much more intimate than in a Western-style museum, because only one or two people are viewing the scroll at the same time.

Hockney points out the liveliness with which the people are depicted, small though they are. A group of men quarrel on the street. A beggar woman hugs a baby to her chest. A kneeling official tries to look around a horse to glimpse the Emperor. A procession of monks stroll the street from left to the right, against the main direction of the unscrolling view. There is even a group of foreign-looking men, probably Central Asian traders. Everywhere there is interest, even in the delicately shaded fish in the barrel of a shop.

A cross street is of particular interest. Unlike Western painting, in which there is only one line of sight, and what cannot be seen realistically from that point of view is hidden, the Chinese scroll deploys many lines of sight. So at the cross street the viewer can see down the street, the back of a house, into a window: the viewer is everywhere. In Western painting, the vanishing point which one can approach but never reach is symbolic of God. In Chinese painting, however, the divine is everywhere, even in the viewer.

The same ideas that undergirt perspectival painting led to the improvement of Western military arms. The Western cannon could fire more accurately and predictably. This is an important factor in the rise of the West and the decline of China.

Hockney is quietly enthusiastic as a critic and narrator. Instead of spouting jargon or theory, he asks the viewer to see what he find so interesting himself. He would have made a good companion on one's journeys round the world.

No comments: