Friday, October 09, 2009

The landscape of the bland

Ni Zan, Landscape, 1372
National Museum of Taipei (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
'Trees on the riverbank, an expanse of water, some nebulous hills, a deserted shelter.  The artist, Ni Zan (fourteenth century), painted virtually the same landscape throughout his life.  He did this not, it seems, because of any particular attachment to these motifs but, on the contrary, to better express his inner detachment regarding all particular motifs and all possible motivations.  His is the monotonous, monochromatic landscape that encompasses all landscapes - where all landscapes blend together and assimilate each other.'

This interesting description of the Ni Zan painting shown here is by François Jullien and comes from his book In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics.  'Bland' is translator Paula M. Varsaro's rendering of the French word 'fadeur', which in turn is Jullien's approximation to the Chinese term dan.  Varsaro notes that readers familiar with Chinese literature will recognise in the book the Song dynasty ideal of pingdan (the 'plain and bland'), but will 'see their understanding recast in  broader and more significant framework, as Jullien demonstrates the philosophical udnerpinnings of the label'.  It is impossible to summarise Julien's book briefly, but the following sentences from his fourth chapter may give you a flavour...
'While flavor establishes opposition and separation, the bland links the various aspects of the real, opening each to the other, putting all of them in comunication.  The bland renders perceptible their shared character and, through this, their primordial nature.  Blandness is  the color of the whole, as it appears to the eyes who look farthest into the distance; it makes us experience the world and existence itself beyond the narrow confines of the individual's point of view - in their true dimension.'

The first great poet of the bland was the subject of my previous post, Tao Yuanming (apologies for my perennial inconsistency in the Chinese translation conventions but I tend to go with whichever writer I'm currently quoting, so here it's the Pinyin system).  In the Tang dynasty, the 'canonical' bland poets were Wang Wei, Wei Yingwu and Liu Zongyuan.  Poetic blandness involves a balancing of the senses, with nothing overwhelming our attention.  Language resembles what happens when, 'in the Azure Fields beneath the warmth of the sun, a hidden piece of jade emanates a vapor: one can contemplate it, but one cannot fix it precisely with one's gaze.'

At the end of the book Jullien returns to Ni Zan, reproducing another of his 'bland' landscapes and, by way of complete contrast, the painting by Wang Meng shown below.  In the latter, 'topography reveals itself convulsively before our eyes like some mountainous mass in the process of solidifying.  Matter is at work everywhere: twists and folds push at each other; everything pierces through and retracts.  The space is saturated; the turmoil of the scene has reached an extreme.'  Despite the vast difference in their attitude to landscape, the two artists were friends and Ni Zan praised the vitality of Wang Meng's style.  During the upheavals at the end of the Mongolian occuption, Wang Meng remained involved in politics and died in prison. Ni Zan, artist of the 'bland', gave up his estates and freed himself from worldly concerns.

Wang Meng, Lin-wu Grotto at Chu-ch'u, 1378
National Museum of Taipei (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Tara Dillard said...

Incredible post. You've left me speechless.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

adieudusk said...

I am amazed with your wiring.

Here's my understanding: bland "dan" is a major aesthetic attitude in classical Chinese culture. It's a kind of natural openness toward the nature, and the world. Concerning but not forcing, detaching yet with affection.

I like your blogs.

Plinius said...

Thanks for these comments. Here's a bit more from the translator's preface: dan is the 'aesthetic embodiment of both the Confucian Mean and the Daoist Way ... the very image of flux within stability, stability within flux.'