Reproduction, when it comes to art, is somehow considered uncreative by the Western world. If American galleries exhibit that third remove from reality which a copy of a painting of an object represents, it's only because they can't get "the real thing"--by which they mean the painting, not the object. And the reproductions will almost always be photographs; we have assumed that the camera gets closer to what it renders, somehow, than the brush does. Artistes, not artists, copy; second rate art students who don't dare make, imitate.
Fortunately the Chinese respect the copyist. Traditionally, the masters of Chinese painting practiced the craft not only before but as a part of painting. Which brings to us and brings us to at the MFA, Oct. 6-Nov 22
Han and T'ang Murals
These copies of wall paintings from ten tombs, unearthed since 1949 in the north of the People's Republic, are in themselves art works. The murals date from the 1st century (Han period) and the 8th century (T'ang dynasty); the copies were done over the last 25 years. But the two meet out of time. The copies transmit the electricity of the murals to us, perfect conductors of the spark.
The calligraphy of these paintings perserves its message over ages and oceans. Ezra Pound contended one could (almost) see poetry written in Chinese without reading it. Unquestionably, the calligraphic linear activity of the paintings expresses birdness or horseness with no need for translation into the more familiar vocabulary of realism.
In "Herding Sheep" for example, horses are reduced to their essential linguistic components: 4 legs and a mane. "Horse Ranch" goes a step further, making poetry into music in a most modernist fashion. Thework reads like a musical score, it orchestrates jotted notes of legs-and-manes moving or standing tense.
The color of the murals is part of the vocabulary used to interpret the action. (Not capture it, as in a photograph, but interpret it, as in calligraphy.) Color is laid on to create space here, not just light. The red of a coat isn't only conveying the contours of the coat or its texture and brightness, but, in a much bolder use of color, pushes into existance the space in which the coat stands, and implies the distance between this red coat and the next green robe. The Western artist who approached this use of color most closely, before the Cubists, was Paolo Uccello (of the red horses).
Line not only verbalizes but dramatizes movement in the common scenes from simple life. "Straining Vinegar" is staged with elaborate painterly choreography and blocking. The energy directed into the jars from the table in the form of flowing vinegar is channeled by all forms in the painting. "Flowing" becomes a drama.
What one notices most in this exhibit, however, isn't the effortless yet amazing technique. The total mastery of the tools of mural expression, that changes these paintings into calligraphic poetry, drama, dance, music, is only secondary.
First we identify with these strangers. The universal emerges out of the unfamiliar and sometimes bizarre particulars and communicates to us. "Guests From Afar" is recognizable as an official reception anywhere. The powdered expressions of "Court Attendants in Procession" don't mask their humanity and individual identity. The thoughts of each belong to the observer out of time, not only the Chinese of their own epoch. Most intimate of all, surprisingly, is another ritual, a formal "Procession to the Towers." In this panoply of costume, only faces speak.
They all wear the same hats, dress, bands, but it seems not to matter--transparently, they think as they please, and we hear whispers of their thoughts.
Compared to these tomb murals, everything else seems dead. But a few things out of the past move Newbury St.:
Max Beckman, at Nielsen through Oct. 14:
A retrospective of what seems very much old hat in this age of cynicism. But Beckman remains incisive, if dated.
A.L. Coburn, at Panoptican through Oct. 21:
Another retrospective--faded gravures by a photographic pioneer (dead and buried). Ghosts of forgotten cities and men ("New York in 1910," "John Galsworthy") images of unforgettable places ("Winter Shadows").