Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Chinese Art and the Artist General Horse

Basically, the TV program was about a day in the life of a successful artist making tall wall scrolls in the Chinese style. His day started quite early with a simple cup of tea. With the discipline of a lifetime, the general was very much a morning person. There followed a lot of technical preparation for painting a wall scroll. The best paper had to be selected and properly laid out on a long and low wooden table. Inks, red and black, had to be persuaded out, hand rubbed from blocks upon stone. Several brushes were minutely examined, approved and laid by the inks.
But, carefully done as all this was, these were only the material things. The general had to properly prepare himself. He changed into a loose but paradoxically formal robe, obviously intended just for the coming task. Arranging himself carefully on a special cushion, the general kneeled facing the waiting empty paper, prayed a bit and then motionless, soundlessly meditated for perhaps twenty minutes. Quietly rousing, he gathered his tools and faced the paper like a cat preparing to pounce. Suddenly, all became a wild blur of highly purposed motion. A brush in each hand, the general hurled himself toward the paper, storming about, perhaps as would a hawk dispatching some dangerous viper.
Then, it was all over; it had taken five perhaps ten minutes at most. The now quite small man sagged back against his cushions, visibly exhausted by his concentrated efforts. After some minutes of quiet breathing, he slowly arose and pulled the paper upright. Now vertical, an angry black stallion reared back, mane wildly swirling about the powerful neck. There was no appearance of the plodding, drayage effort of the Medieval European warhorse, almost ox-like, too freighted with thick padding and iron armor. By contrast, this was simply a sentient dark power with purpose, more the wild caballo rampante of the Italian Renaissance. (Used today as the corporate icon of Ferrari automobiles.) This was not a servant, not a domesticated draft animal. If you were worthy, this might be your equine partner.
How did this frail old man accomplish this? And in only a few minutes! I had seen the brushes whirling about, had seen the black ink fly. But whence came this raging, fiery horse spirit bursting off the paper? From hell? From heaven? From both? How could he have done this? Unquestionably, a large part of the answer must be, because he had done it all before. Many times before. This latest time, the brushes had flown almost by themselves, as if by so-called muscle memory; as you and I might have ridden a bicycle. The general had pictured a horse in mind; his hands had painted it for him.
Per the TV, the rest of the general's day was really banal in its ordinariness. He put his tools away, took a quick shower, dressed smartly, coat and tie with a black homburg atop his white hair, and stepped out to lunch modestly with friends in a neighborhood cafe.
The general took little part in the disposition of his work. The narrator said yes, there was an agent, but the sales were astoundingly easy. The old soldier had become General Horse. His horses were snapped up as they became available, fetching as much as $10,000 in 1990, and often, through obscuring intermediaries, surprisingly even sought by some on the then tightly closed mainland. But, good art is good art.
What should I take away from this story? I believe it illustrates the value of focus, both tactically and strategically. (Or, maybe locally and globally.) On the one hand, the general brought his entire attention sharply to the horse just before setting brush and ink to paper. It had his full attention. Meditating, he concentrated deeply about his subjects. I imagine he pictured himself, eyes shut, standing close under the raised hooves, upheld hand wetted by flying saliva and near deafened by the shrieking stallion. He could see every taut muscle and every flying hair on the generous mane and exuberant tail. He had to work at blinding speed, to capture and tame the beast before he was trampled under those deadly weapons. On the other hand, he was General Horse. Just horse. Not also Colonel Tiger, Sergeant Rooster, and Admiral Shark. He did horses, focused on just horses. And so he had mastered them. Finally, General Horse seems not to be most interested in becoming an artist or being an artist. Not even General Artist. Instead he thought only of doing art, albeit focused fixedly on painting his horses. This freed him to be simply General Horse.