Immortal in Splashed Ink

Peter Zhang
Peter Zhang
In the middle and late years of Tang Dynasty, a group of artists began to experiment more adventurous brush techniques such as splashing ink.

Peter Zhang
Peter Zhang
Immortal in Splashed Ink

Liang Kai did not use lines, just a few swift strokes to define the details of the most part of the Immortal in Splash Ink.

Pomo Xianren, or Immortal in Splashed Ink, has long been revered as a masterpiece in traditional Chinese painting and one of the best examples of the so-called xieyi or sketchy and impressionistic style.

In earlier years, Chinese painters used mainly the line drawing technique to create their artworks and invented a number of special lineation idioms, such as floating silk line, lute chord line, iron wire line and orchid leaf line for various subjects in a painting. This is partly because traditionally Chinese painters tend to apply the calligraphic principles to painting.

However, in the middle and late years of Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), a group of artists began to experiment more adventurous brush techniques such as splashing ink, a rather spontaneous or even irrational process that gives painters the free rein in expressing their inner feelings and passion.

Actually, development of the new painting style was not only artistic, but also philosophical and religious.

In early Tang, Huineng (AD 638-717) founded the “Sudden Enlightenment” Southern Chan School of Buddhism and propounded the idea that everyone possesses “the Buddha nature.”

According to the Chan School, “awakening is not a meditation but a sudden, instantaneous process.” So, one doesn’t need to chant Buddhist sutras or observe various rituals, for he or she might reach the “absolute spirit” or “truth” while walking, carrying firewood or doing house chores.

Huineng later became the Sixth (and last) Patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. His Chan School ideas became the orthodox Buddhism in China.

In the following decades, many Chinese painters also became followers of his Chan School, which had greatly influenced their aesthetic concepts and painting styles.

Among those painters was Liang Kai (c. 1140-1210), a top artist of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) who painted the famous Immortal in Splashed Ink. Liang was born in Shandong Province but worked as the Painter-in-Attendance in the imperial court in Lin’an, today’s Hangzhou in east China’s Zhejiang Province.

He was known for his figure and landscape paintings and exquisitely refined brushwork. He was even awarded a “Gold Belt,” the highest service honor from the emperor. But, reputed as a “madman,” the free-spirited Liang couldn’t take all the red tapes in the court very well. Eventually, he quitted his imperial court job to practice Chan Buddhism.

Immortal in Splashed Ink

“Sixth Patriarch Chopping Bamboo” is a typical work of Liang Kai’s abbreviated brushstrokes.

Later, Liang also invented the so-called jianbi renwuhua, or figure painting with abbreviated brushstrokes. In such paintings, the artist uses the least possible brushwork to create vivid images and bring out their inner spirit.

Immortal in Splash Ink, a 48.7 x 27.7 cm, ink on paper hanging scroll, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, can best demonstrate Liang’s painting style and techniques during this period.

It is said that Liang painted this artwork when he was drinking. And the immortal in the painting appears to be inebriated, too. His puckered face beams with a mysterious smile and his protruding forehead, rounded belly and unkempt robe work together to create a humorous atmosphere.

The artist used no lines but only a few swift strokes to define the details of the most part of the immortal. He first sketched the figure with light washes of ink and then applied darker ink when the washes were half dried to accentuate the couture.

Despite the brevity of his brushwork, Liang successfully portrays a both humorous and mysterious figure and evokes the beauty of spontaneity and accidental effects of Chinese ink-wash painting. Today, nearly all art critics and historians in China agree that Liang’s figure painting with abbreviated brushstrokes opened a new horizon in traditional Chinese painting more than 800 years ago.

Immortal in Splashed Ink

Artist: Liang Kai

Year: Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279)

Type: Ink on paper

Dimensions: 48.7cm × 27.7cm

Location: National Palace Museum in Taipei

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