Art of the Day

17 Mar

ming flask

Porcelain flask with decoration painted in underglaze cobalt blue. Made during Ming Dynasty, 1426-1435. In the Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Notes from Stokstad & Cothren’s Art History, 4th edition:
Dragons have featured prominently in Chinese folklore from earliest times—Neolithic examples have been found painted on pottery and carved in jade. In Bronze Age China, dragons came to be associated with powerful and sudden manifestations of nature, such as wind, thunder, and lightning. At the same time, dragons became associated with superior beings such as virtuous rulers and sages. With the emergence of China’s first firmly established empire during the Han dynasty, the dragon was appropriated as an imperial symbol, and it remained so throughout Chinese history. Dragon sightings were duly recorded and considered auspicious. Yet even the Son of Heaven could not monopolize the dragon. During the Tang and Song dynasties the practice arose of painting pictures of dragons to pray for rain, and for Chan (Zen) Buddhists, the dragon was a symbol of sudden enlightenment.

My comments:
It’s interesting that dragons are considered an auspicious sight in Chinese culture, since in Western culture they often serve as the fearsome beast that young warriors defeat to save their kingdom. Eastern versus Western culture contrasts with each other in countless aspects, and their differences in interpretation extend into art.
As some of the Impressionists and Postimpressionists like Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh discovered and became fascinated about, Asian artists had very different ideas about how one realistically depicts space and the relationship between foreground and background compared to their Western counterparts. In the flask above, we can see a manifestation of their ideas on how space is portrayed in artistic mediums. Normally white is associated with negative space, the space that an object or figure does not occupy in a painting, while darker colors often take up the positive space, that which an object actually occupies with its own substance. But on this flask, these roles are reversed, and the white becomes a prominent color that actually appears on top of the blue waves behind it; it has become the positive space on this flask. This is surprising and actually ingenious, in my opinion, because according to its caption it was painted in cobalt blue, which must mean that the artist painted the negative space around the dragon until the figure of a dragon had formed. This method of drawing runs counter-intuitive to how the non-artist, like me, would approach it. It seems like it would make more sense to draw a tree on a piece of paper rather than draw the space around the tree. But what I learned early on in my studio art class was that it often results in a better drawing if one focuses on drawing the shapes made by the negative space around the figure that one is trying to draw and the frame around the whole composition rather than focusing on drawing the figure, or the positive space, itself. The artist of the flask above applied the very same principle, resulting in a compelling white image. Combined with the symbolic associations that Chinese culture possesses, this dragon flask must have had incredible expressive power.

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One Response to “Art of the Day”

  1. tara March 17, 2013 at 8:43 pm #

    This reminds me of the conversation Jessica had with you on your drawing , in which she said that there are no hard lines around the shape of an elbow or a chair, the color just changes ( I am paraphrasing). Its kind of the same thing as your comment above about positive and negative space.

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