不可无此味，不可有此色 —— 读画
朱纯深 译 读画
The Reading of a Painting
Yuan Mei has this to say in his Suiyuan Notes on Poetry: “Artists believe in the reading of a painting, yet I can find nothing to be read in a painting – What one reads is the poetry it bears.” The old gentleman was making a good point here. Reading means reciting, or chanting aloud the words to appreciate the meaning, so one must have the words, the text, before one can do the reading. As such, how can you read a painting? The so-called reading of a painting, therefore, should be reading the poetry it carries.
诗与画是两个类型，在对象、工具、手法，各方面均不相同。但是类型的混淆，古已有之。在西洋，所谓Ut pictura poesis，“诗既如此，画亦同然”，早已成为艺术批评上的一句名言。我们中国也特别称道王摩诘的“画中有诗，诗中有画”。究竟诗与画是各有领域的。我们读一首诗，可以欣赏其中的景物的描写，所谓“历历如绘”。如诗之极致究竟别有所在，其着重点在于人的概念与情感。所谓诗意、诗趣、诗境，虽然多少有些抽象，究竟是以语言文字来表达最为适宜。我们看一幅画，可以欣赏其中所蕴藏的诗的情趣，但是并非所有的画都有诗的情趣，而且画的主要的功用是在描绘一个意象。我们说读画，实在是在画里寻诗。
Poetry and painting fall under two different categories, different in every aspect including aesthetic interest, medium and technique. But confusions over the two genres have a long history. in the West, there is a saying Ut picture poesis, “As in painting, so in poetry”, which has long been regarded as an established observation in art criticism. In China, we too have a particular liking in his poetry”. Having said that, however, we should draw a line between poetry and painting. In reading a poem, we may appreciate its description of scenery to a degree of “pictorial vividness”. Yet the essence of poetry lies somewhere else. That is, it has its ultimate aesthetic interest in human conceptions and emotions. What is called “poetic meaning”, “poetic taste”, or “poetic world”, abstract and elusive as these terms may sound, can after all be best captured in words. When viewing a painting, we may be drawn to it for its poetic inclination, yet not every picture has an inbuilt poetic inclination. More importantly, the primary function of painting is to depict an image. So, what we mean by reading a painting is in reality seeking poetry in its pictorial composition.
Mona Lisa smiles, but no more than a smile. Beautiful, sweet, and profound her smile is, we are in no position to quest why she smiles, or what she smiles about. A lot of people have tried to find out what was behind such a smile, yet this is indeed a misuse of one’s time or talent. Someone thought that she smiled because she had found herself pregnant, so the smile stands for maternal pride and satisfaction. Yet someone else would argue back, “How can you tell that she smiled because she was pregnant then? Perhaps it was because she had found out that she was not pregnant?” Such readings will get will get one nowhere. A smile from a heat can only be realized, it allows no words in between. Apart from works such as Mona Lisa, which anyway have some profound subtlety for one to speculate upon, Hope by Watts, where a woman is seen perched askew o the planet playing a harp that has only one string left, for instance, may have a touch of symbolism for our reflections too. But of Sorolla’s The Two Sisters, what poetry can one read out except the brightness of sunshine? And in Sully’s painting of a boy wearing a shabby hat, can you perceive any poetry apart from the subtleties of light and shade on an innocent face? As for a Still Life painted by Chase, you simply don’t have much to say when you see two dead fish lying on a plate with their pale bellies facing you.
Perhaps there is more poetry in traditional Chinese painting. Landscape painting teems with works such as Spring Mountains in a Misty Rain, Hazy Woods Along the River, A Journey Through a Cloud-Enwrapped Forest, and Returning Sails from a Spring-Hued River. The titles are already infused with poetic suggestiveness. Those intelligentsia artists in particular, who had too much grievance and resentment to stomach, have found in landscape painting a ready outlet for their otherworldly moods. The worlds created in landscape paintings are thus a perfect mirror for the spiritual being of Chinese artists. Even in a small piece of flower-and-plant painting, such as those by Li Futang or Xu Qingteng, one would feel the throbbing of a brave, unchainted heart.
Already there is poetry in a painting. Yet to secure a more straightforward voice for their poetic minds, some painters have taken the trouble to inscribe their works with poems of various lengths. Being a time-honored practice since the Song Dynasty, it is so widely accepted as an artistic form that one would feel something missing if viewing a painting that bears no words. The formation of a Chinese character is an art in its own right, and those characters wouldn’t look out of place if appropriately inscribed on the painting. Western-style paintings do not have such advantage though. Can you imagine The Gleaners being inked in with some poem? With inscriptions on Chinese paintings, the belief at least becomes manifest, that the poetic of work of visual art need some verbal explication. When a painting of two heads of cabbage, its merry and mellow splashed-ink style of brushwork already bringing out the painter’s artistry to the full, is topped up in a corner with a glaring line: “Get the flavor, but not the color”, becomes something else – from a pure work of art to a didactic illustration of certain moral values. There is an ink painting of a blooming plum tree by Jin Dongxin, where the twigs and blossoms are projected though fine yet firm brushwork with an imposing clarity and dignity, and graced by a noble array of stamps and calligraphy in ancient styles. Then in the middle of the picture, you come across the following words:
My inkslab is thawed at the sunny window,
good for painting a few branches of a plum
tree that blossoms in winter, a better company
than the kitty-and-doggie stuff…
Immediately your attention is diverted from the hardy petals to a lofty painter. As a painting by itself should be an adequate vehicle for what the artist wishes to convey, there’s not much point enlisting the assistance of verbalization. With inscriptions a painting sometimes ceases to be a pure work of pictorial art.
To my mind, the best of painting is not to be read so as to be understood. Reading entails words and texts. It is possible only through the processes of thinking, while what is beautiful and unique about a painting appeals, by way of visualization, direct to the heart. The pleasure it offers is meant for the heart, not for the lips, as words from the lips would miss it.