I ended my last blog by stating that I didn’t want to know the story behind the Chinese painting entitled, Three Hermits Laughing at Tiger Stream. It has set me thinking about how great visual artworks have to survive the meanings, describable in language, that may have been vital to their creation. I remember wondering a long time ago why there was the decapitated head of an ass in the foreground of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Eventually, I came across the explanation, which I have since forgotten. But it makes no difference whatsoever to my love and appreciation of the work.

I am old enough to remember Edgar Wind’s Reith Lectures Art and Anarchy. In the fourth lecture, entitled The Fear of Knowledge, he claimed that we get a profounder understanding of a work of visual art if we know the background ideas.  ‘The eye,’ he states, ‘focuses differently when it is intellectually guided. At the time, I wanted to believe him.  In the expanded, published version of the lectures, I see I have underlined his sentence ‘Masterpieces are not so secure in their immorality as Croce imagined.’ I would argue now, at least where visual art is concerned, that it is almost the definition of a masterpiece that it is not dependant on its original message.  My favourite work on the Virgin and Child theme is the one by Mantegna in the Ehemals Staatliche Museum, Berlin. It is very obviously a young mother with her baby. I do not need to believe any nonsense about virgin births to appreciate it. The best art on religious themes will survive in a secular age. Two works that I admire greatly, illustrate the lives of two Christian saints, but I have no particular interest in these historical figures. Masaccio’s St. Peter Distributing Alms I regard as one of the best Social Realist paintings ever, Raphael’s tapestry cartoon of St Paul Preaching, as a supreme example of figures composed in an architectural setting. Those works that require allowance for religious belief, counter-reformation propaganda for example (see my blog Theology versus Art) or are there to force us to our knees, do not interest me and indeed bore me. Which is not to say that I cannot ignore a halo or two or some other convention or stipulation of the day in a work of real merit.

What holds for religious work is also true of that other great literary source for Renaissance artists, the Greek myths. Mantegna’s complex composition Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, is a great favourite of mine. It is self-evident that the figures fleeing in terror from the armoured goddess are meant to be evil but I don’t read them like that. I prefer to think of them as unfortunates, perhaps underclass figures, and only need to think of any narrative vaguely. What draws me to this painting is the complexity of the imagery, controlled in a composition of complete clarity, which can lend itself to multiple explanations.

No painting can be rescued by iconographic interpretation, if it does not please in the first place. I have a great love of the work of Poussin and enjoyed Panofsky’s essay where he points out that the master’s title Et in Arcadio Ego, is usually mistranslated: it doesn’t mean ‘I too lived in Arcadia.’ He illustrates by reference to other paintings with the same title (one of them by Poussin himself) showing a death head on the tomb, that it is death who speaks, saying, ‘Even in Arcadia, I am present.’ Not being expert in Latin grammar, and accepting the mis-translation, I admit that the work was a bit of a puzzle.  Yet, despite enlightenment, the painting remains, for me, one of Poussin’s dullest works, with none of his usual compositional inspiration.


I am not a dedicated traveller. The few journeys I have made beyond the cultural centres of Europe have been connected with my children. When my son taught in Beijing about fifteen years ago I visited him on two occasions. I have recently spent a month in Shanghai where he is currently working.

The only other city built relentlessly into the clouds, that I have any familiarity with, is New York, and it is tempting to compare the two. Whereas New York is crowded and dirty, Shanghai is spacious and – apart from the smog – clean. To help with the pollution, trees and shrubs have been planted everywhere, kept in immaculate condition by armies of gardeners. The Chinese city, of course, was developed much later than America’s celebrated intellectual centre, and the difference in modernism and efficiency shows. Where New York scores is in the quality of art on public view. One wouldn’t go to Shanghai to see the best of Chinese art. Beijing is certainly a better bet and I believe a great many of the nation’s treasures were looted to Taiwan.

But Shanghai does have its museums with a selection of bronzes, paintings and ceramics, if not comparable to those in the Palace Museum, Beijing. I came away from the city with a greater understanding and love of Chinese painting thanks largely to a bookshop devoted to Chinese art situated in Fuzhou Road next to the Foreign Language Bookstore.

The difficulty that I have had with Chinese painting hitherto, arose from what are often unsympathetic proportions to the Western eye. Landscapes in the hanging scroll format might be something like 114cm high by 24cm broad. Represented in these dimensions were mountain structures that seemed incredible, appropriate only to fairy stories. Reproduced in normal book size, the detail was barely decipherable. Much more sympathetic were the hand scrolls, akin to the Greek frieze type of composition still being adopted by Picasso, in works like Guernica, and even Jackson Pollock. The Palace Museum in Beijing has three great works in this format. I already had a memento of one of these. Zhang Zaduan’s River Scene on the Eve of the Spring Festival, which makes any Brueghel seem under-populated, and in Shanghai I was able to get an inexpensive book almost in magazine format that gave enlarged details. It is always possible to see some sort of illustrations of Gu Hongzhog’s The Night Revels of Han Xizai and the Five Buffaloes by Han Huang, but to pick up for a few yuan reproductions of both, made up of attached postcards that gave the experience of unrolling a hand scroll, was luck indeed. The Night Revels is the only one of these that I have never actually seen: it wasn’t on show during either of my visits to Beijing. For me, it is the greatest of all Chinese paintings with large figures – large that is in relation to the work’s dimensions. The scroll is only 28.7cm high.

I gorged myself on the magazine-like books mentioned above, each with a particular theme: horses, genre figures, women, social events, monks and Arhats (Buddhist saints). This last category seemed to specialise in extreme characterisation. I have been able to establish that one of the works is by a monk Guan Xiu and another two by Shi Ke, both active in the 10th century. Shi’s work, with its incredibly free and economical brushwork, would look like late Goya if it wasn’t for the obvious Chinese features of his figures.

And I also bought a couple of books on masters of the landscape, one with English text, and overcame my prejudices. There are as many hand scrolls as long upright pieces, and I now know that the improbable-looking mountains are real not fantasies. Among the intricately rendered features, botanical and geological, you find tiny figures that could be overlooked on an initial viewing - a mule train negotiating a treacherous mountain path, people on the terrace of a perilously perched dwelling. There are wonderfully pantheistic moments: a couple of  gowned men lounge on a flat, projecting rock enjoying the view from a height nearer the clouds than any one of Shanghai’s iconic buildings, a single figure staff in hand entranced by a mountain torrent  that seems to fall from the heavens. More often than not, the works connect man and nature.  A painting by an unknown artist is titled, Three Hermits Laughing at Tiger Stream. There is probably some story behind it but I don’t want to know it. It is a splendid title.