An Interpretation of three ink Paintings by Courtney A. Hogarth
By Dr. Lv Peng
Courtney A. Hogarth (Shanhaizi – ‘Mountain Child’) is my classmate. We studied under the same supervisor while pursuing our doctoral degrees. He enrolled two years later than I did. As we had the same supervisor, there were many opportunities for dialogue. In addition, he lived in China for a long time and is quite proficient in Chinese, so we are able to communicate very efficiently about art.
Hogarth has a keen interest in the art of China’s ink painting. I often saw his paintings when I studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. These ranged from such subjects as mountains and waters, figures, flowers, birds as well as abstract compositions. He even carved seals which were sent to several of his close friends (in Classical Chinese Painting, people usually appreciate poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal, together. Seal-carving is a compulsory course in Classical Chinese Painting) and he himself also has the habit of affixing the seal to his ink paintings. The paintings of Hogarth’s can be divided into two kinds from the perspective of material and technique: Ink paintings and non-ink paintings. The ink paintings mostly feature figures and landscapes. As he obtained his Master’s and Doctoral degrees in the Central Academy of Fine Arts, he has carried out in-depth research into the art of ink painting and has very high achievements in his own work.
Classical Chinese Painting has a long history. A thousand years ago, as a result of the intervention of a few non-professional artists, most of whom were literary scholars and officials, the standard for evaluation of this subject changed dramatically. The faithful depiction of objects is put in an important position while the pursuit of artistic concept is put in a lofty place. Ni Zan, an outstanding Chinese painter in the Yuan Dynasty once said, “Rough paintings are not intended for resemblance in form but for artistic mood of the artist.” This allows for the artist to express spiritually in his artistic creation, while achieving that indescribable quality which is above and beyond depiction. Such statements are not rare in the whole history of Chinese Painting. On the one hand, it leads Chinese painting into a non-realistic and non-narrative orientation with significant symbolic artistic conception. On the other hand, it is consistent with the artistic schools emerging since the 20th Century featuring non-realistic conception, such as Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism.
By making full use of the characteristic of expressing the image of ink paintings from the perspective of a foreign artist with a foreign culture, Hogarth’s ink paintings give a very unique sense of visual beauty. Here we take the following three paintings as examples:
Figure 1, East. This composition is endowed with the concise and implicit style of Eastern art. The water, mountains and sun divide the painting into three parts, representing the close, medium and long shot. Several rhythmic curves sweep through the painting from left to right, dividing the picture into parts. The thick, black lines represent the sea; the light ink represents the distant mountains. These black and gray colors form a sharp contrast. The gray, distant mountains and the emptiness in the upper frame give the picture a sense of mystery and ease.
In ancient Chinese Painting Theory, “Calculate the white space in order to apply the black ink” or “Proper use of black and white” is an important aesthetic principle. That is to say, in order to make the white space in the painting more pleasing to the eye, try best to arrange the black (with color) so as to display the aesthetic sense of emptiness. This thoughtfully arranged emptiness can represent any object and space and bestows a sense of abstract beauty. The arrangement of emptiness in the painting is decided by the artistic perception, aesthetic interest and the general conception of the painting by the artist. Herein lies the greatest differentiation with Western traditional aesthetic theory, and is also the aesthetic method appreciated by many modern artists. This painting of Hogarth’s is very successful in the use of emptiness. In the upper part of the painting, there is lot of emptiness. Gray tones occupy the center of the painting. The natural penetration of the light ink immerses the whole painting in an Eastern artistic mystery. In artistic creation, it is very difficult to express strong visual feelings with very light color; however, in this painting by Hogarth, the light color through the use of ink is delicately combined to achieve a broad and free visual conception.
Figure 2, Dreamscape, is one in an ongoing series of such works by Hogarth. Hogarth is highly proficient in composing and dividing the picture plane. From this we may get a sense of some of his artistic characteristics. In this painting, Hogarth uses this technique and divides the painting with different lines and lumps of color. The whole picture is painted with ink on xuan paper. However, as the picture has the characteristic of part separating, the whole picture looks like a woodcut with water print. In the painting, the close shot is put in the right lower part in the shape of a long triangle. It is displayed with thick, firm, long lines with light blue and reddish-brown. Also, there is some white among these, making the mountains nearby less dull. The medium shot is composed of several irregular rectangles, trapezoids and triangles divided by the lines. The lines, with permeating effect, display the moisture of the lake, the bright feeling, forming a contrast with the lines in the close shot. In the upper left section, the painter displays the sun and its rays in a decorative way, forming a contrast with the emptiness symbolizing water. In addition, the trees and gray shadow of the sun creates natural mystery here. As the artist has full consideration of the permeating effect of the xuan paper and ink, the painting is extremely fascinating and elegant.
Compared with the first painting, it is still full of mystery but there is great difference in the way of expression of the two paintings. If we say the first painting reflects the dream of the author in a virtual way, then the second painting is in a realistic way. Here the artist tries to show the image in his mind with a clear and faithful tone. Even the wild grass on the mountain is depicted in a detailed way. The visual effect of this detailed description attracts the viewer.
Figure 2, Deep River, is a portrait which the painter created with ink on pi paper. This painting is a very peculiar one among the previous paintings of Hogarth’s and even among his portraits. Here we cannot find those explicit, delineating lines he often uses to divide the picture. The entire picture is mostly black, with the interweaving of dark and light ink. The black lines and white solar flare are scattered among the thick color, allowing one to think of the mystery of the forests in South America, as well as rivers among thick rainforests. In this painting, Hogarth fully displays his technical skill of control over the ink on pi paper. The permeation of thick and light ink is handled in a very reasonable way. The overall picture is full of in-depth elastic force, together with a mysterious color as well as the gentleness and mildness of ink paintings.
The beauty of Chinese ink paintings lies in that subtle relationship between the artist and painting materials. As a result of the combination of the special painting materials of the paper and ink, together with variation in time, method and condition of the use of the ink, water, and the pi paper by the artist in the process, the artistic effects created are completely different. Hogarth successfully uses the sense of texture created by this form of painting and changes this textural effect to the elastic force of the painting, making it profound and deep.
We try to elaborate on the artistic features of Hogarth’s with only the above three paintings. On the one hand, as a person from the West, he is familiar with all kinds of western artistic types and can proficiently employ such in his artistic creation. For instance, he is good at using explicit lines to compose the picture, creating a profound decorative effect. Artists from all eras have been trying to solve this dilemma in drawing: how to achieve depth on a flat plane while making rational division of the surface to create new visual effects is one of the achievements in solving this dilemma. This is endorsed by artists like Kandinsky, Matisse, Mondrian and Picasso, and a measure of the artistic ideas of these artists may be found reflected in Hogarth’s work. On the other hand, as an artist who has researched and studied Classical Chinese Art for many years, Hogarth has absorbed the essence of Chinese Painting, especially mastery of the technical skills of ink painting, allowing for the beauty of ink and water to be reflected to the greatest extent on Xuan paper. This he combines with modern features thus forming a unique style which is truly his own. Therefore, the mysterious beauty of the East and the Western modern aesthetics interweave into the feature of ink paintings created by Hogarth.
(Beijing - August 2011)