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The Tao of Painting

Mai-Mai Sze, with Zao Wou-Ti, is probably one of the two best living Chinese painters working in anything resembling contemporary Western idiom. Miss Sze is, in addition, a writer of great fluency, charm and intelligence. It is impossible to think of a person better fitted to edit, translate and comment on the classic Chinese artists’ manual, The Mustard Seed Garden. In fact, her edition of The Tao of Painting is one of the happiest inspirations ever to strike Paul Mellon, the committee of the Bollingen Foundation and the editors of the publications program. Furthermore, it is singularly free of quotations from the great Swiss mahatma and there is not a single picture of a snake swallowing its tail. I am all for the elaborate Jung program of the Bollingen people, at its worst it still makes entertaining lenitive reading — but it must be admitted it has been getting a little excessive here of late. Miss Sze’s introduction is a most judicious and even-handed exposition of the philosophical principles underlying, and the esthetics of, Chinese ink painting. Any resemblance to “The Secret of the Golden Flower” is purely fortuitous and due to the nature of the subject matter.

This is a book every American artist and art critic should buy and study — every night for several years. Nothing could be a better answer to the problems and dilemmas of modern abstract expressionism. Nothing could be a better antidote to the enervating poisons which have debilitated modern painting. This is a lucid, profound and exhaustive explanation of what you think you are doing, but aren’t; what you would like to do, but can’t. Furthermore, the larger second volume consists of more than two hundred detailed pictures, with complete explanation, of how it was done, long ago, by far better men than you. It is all there — a complete alphabet of expression — men, flowers, insects, rocks, water, mountains, artifacts, birds and animals. In important subjects the brush strokes of the major Sung masters are classified and analyzed. To those totally ignorant of Far Eastern art this may seem a flagrant, even absolute, contradiction of Miss Sze’s introductory volume. Perhaps it does require a little explanation. In fact, perhaps that explanation touches on the very heart of the dilemma of modern American painting.

Miss Sze, and everybody else who has ever written about Chinese painting, has dwelt at length on the special Chinese creative response, the rising of spontaneity out of passivity — the creative act which flashes out of inaction. There is, on the other hand, nothing whatever spontaneous about the memorizing of formulae for reproducing the aspects of nature — and a very limited armamentarium of aspects at that. Furthermore, all these little stereotypes are based on the brush strokes, on the actual details of construction, of the Chinese written character, and in the final painting, after they have been learned seriatim, they are assembled like so many minute bits of a puzzle, even a crossword puzzle, with certain traditionally divided areas occupied, and others left blank. The answer is obvious. The technique of painting has been reduced to a bare minimum necessary to provide a self-governing discipline which will permit spontaneity. You cannot transcend a medium until you have so mastered it that you are unaware of it. Chinese art is motivated by a kind of empirical mysticism, a non-religious (at least by Western terms) suffusion of the whole being of the artist with an abiding realization of the self and the other, passing beyond such categories as the ego and the world, let alone the soul and God. To support such insight the technology of expression must be sufficiently complex so that revelation does not lapse into platitude, and it must have sufficient technical interest to attract and satisfy the first superficial interests of the spectator. Beyond that it need not go. The elements of Chinese painting could be mastered by any gentleman who could “write a good hand,” and were by most before modern times. The majority of the great painters of China, as well as most of her great poets, were men occupying positions analogous to those filled by Engine Charlie Wilson and even Joe McCarthy. Ponder that for a while and you will readily grasp the difference between the American Way of Life and the traditional Chinese. To have something to say in the arts the Chinese believed one must come with determinative experience, of the world, not art — whether acquired through meditation or through the mastery of affairs; one must have come to profoundly rooted conclusions — wisdom; one must have the automatic facility of the chess prodigy or the master pianist. I am afraid that none of these qualities is very apparent at a Carnegie International or a Venice Biennale.

Over and above its pedagogic value, which is obviously limited, this is a book of great beauty to anybody. The pages of The Mustard Seed Garden have a simple charm which is approached only by certain eighteenth-century French masters of drawing, themselves of course greatly influenced by the Chinese, even by this very book. Miss Sze has chosen to illustrate her introduction with some of the most splendid examples of Chinese painting and they are perfectly reproduced. It is certainly one of the loveliest books ever put out by the Bollingen Foundation, and although $25 may seem expensive reading, with the actual book in hand it looks very cheap indeed. I would hate to guess what it cost to produce. Certainly it could not be sold at that price without the subvention of the Mellon millions.


This review of Mai-Mai Sze’s The Tao of Painting (Pantheon, 1956) originally appeared in The Nation (11 May 1957) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1957. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

The original two-volume edition of The Tao of Painting is now a rather pricy collector’s item, but the main text was reissued in an inexpensive paperback entitled The Way of Chinese Painting: Its Ideas and Techniques.

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