The art of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) began to explore new possibilities in materials and styles with landscape painting and ceramics, in particular, coming to the fore. New techniques, a wider range of colours and an increase in connoisseurship and literature on art are all typical of the period. Not only produced by local artists, many fine works were created by foreigners from across East Asia and the increasing contact between China and the wider world led to new ideas and motifs being adopted and adapted. The Tang dynasty was one of the golden eras of Chinese history and the brash confidence and wealth of the day are reflected in the bright and innovative art it produced.
The Purpose of Art
The period of the Tang dynasty saw several significant developments in art from ceramics to brushwork and one of these, perhaps the most important, was an increase in the very appreciation of it as a worthy human endeavour. There was a dedicated official at court, the Imperial Commissioner for the Searching out of Writings and Paintings; schools to train artists such as the famous Hanlin Academy; and the first history of art was written by Zhang Yanyuan in 847 CE, titled Record of Famous Paintings of Successive Dynasties. The book has this to say on the purpose of painting:
Painting perfects the process of civilization and brings support to human relationships. It penetrates the divine permutations of Nature and fathoms the mysterious and subtle. Its achievement is the equal of any of the Six Arts and it moves in unison with the four seasons. It proceeds from Nature itself and not from human artifice.
It is worth noting that many Tang artists were also scholars, especially of Confucian principles, and they were frequently men of literature. Art was, for them and their audience, a means to capture and present the philosophical approach to life which they valued. For this reason the art they produced is usually minimal and without artifice, perhaps sometimes even a little austere to western eyes. Tang art was meant to express the artist’s good character and not merely be an exposition of his practical artistic skills. Still, as we shall see, the arrival of new technical possibilities to use more colours and more dynamism would be embraced by professional Tang artists in many media, a tradition which has remained present in Chinese art ever since.
While the tombs of emperors and important people sometimes had large figure statues set outside them most Tang sculpture was of Buddhist subjects. The Buddhist monasteries of China had gradually and relentlessly been gathering wealth largely thanks to their land ownership and exemption from taxes and, by the time of the Tang dynasty, this wealth permitted a great production of religious art. The most popular subjects, as ever, were the Buddha and bodhisattvas and ranged from miniature figurines to life-size statues. Unlike in previous periods, figures became much less static, their suggested flowing movement even drawing criticism from some that serious religious figures, on occasion, now looked more like court dancers. An excellent example of Tang sculpture on the grandest scale can be seen in the rock-cut sculptures at the Longmen Caves, Fengxian temple near Luoyang. Dating to 675 CE the 17.4 metre high figures represent a Buddhist Heavenly King and demon guardians.
The art of calligraphy, and for the ancient Chinese it certainly was an art, aimed to demonstrate superior control and skill using brush and ink. Calligraphy, already well-established as one of the major art forms during the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), would influence painting where critics looked for the artist’s forceful use of brush strokes and their variation to produce the illusion of depth. Another influence of calligraphy skills on painting was the importance given to composition. Finally, calligraphy remained so important that it even appeared on paintings to describe and explain what the viewer was seeing. Eventually, such notes became an integral part of the overall composition and a part of the painting itself. It is no coincidence that many of the great Tang painters were also great poets.
Chinese painting on walls and silk had two main objectives: to capture people and landscapes. By the Tang dynasty the latter had finally overtaken the former as the most popular subject. As with sculpture, many Tang paintings had Buddhist themes but, unfortunately, many have been lost, destroyed during the persecution of Buddhists and monasteries during the reign of Wuzong of Tang (840-846 CE). One excellent source of Tang paintings (and many other eras besides) is the Dunhuang caves in northern China. The cave wall paintings show scenes from the life of Buddha with many portraits of bodhisattvas and landscape scenes. Other notable tombs include that of the Tang prince Li Zhongrun (682-701 CE) which has an unfinished wall painting revealing the techniques involved. First, an outline sketch was made on the plaster which was then covered in a white paint and sealed using a mixture of lime and glue. Finally, the desired colours were added and the black outlines repeated.
The historian M. Tregear describes the progress made in Tang Buddhist paintings as follows:
After the still richness of the Sui compositions, the Tang paintings erupt into activity. The huge paradise scenes beloved of the Amitabha sect, which was now dominant, are complex compositions showing palace and temple compounds in which crowds of mortals and immortals are disporting in a pleasure garden, with singing, dancing, discussion and preaching, and magical happenings. These compositions consist of an isometric projection of the buildings seen from above, in which the figures are shown at eye level and usually out of scale. The colour is brilliant and decorative rather than atmospheric. The total effect is, once again, an amalgam of the real and the supernatural which sparks the scene into life. These large compositions, whether pure landscapes or religious subjects, are the start of a long tradition in Chinese painting.
Non-religious paintings, like Buddhist works, have not survived in any great quantity either. For example, no work is available of the famous portrait painter Wu Daozi (680-740 CE) who also adorned many court- and religious buildings with his murals. Daozi was said to have painted with such passion and verve that he attracted crowds to watch him wherever he painted. Fortunately, some Tang tombs have provided portrait paintings of their occupants, including court women, as well as animals such as lions.
There are, too, surviving paintings by the most celebrated court scene painter Yan Liben (c. 600-673 CE) who famously painted a huge scroll depicting 13 emperors but, alas, none by the leading landscape artist Wang Wei (aka Mojie, 699-759 CE). The latter artist is credited with inventing the horizontal picture scroll (vertical pictures being the convention until then) and with creating the pomo or “broken ink” technique where washes of ink are painted in layers to create the effect of a solid, textured surface. He also pioneered the use of a single colour throughout a painting. Fortunately, some of his major works do survive as later copies and they are testimony to his influence on Chinese art in general and his success at achieving his objective of capturing both distance and emptiness.
Portraits in Chinese art were traditionally rendered with great restraint, usually because the subject was a great scholar or court official and so should, by definition, have a good moral character which should be portrayed with respect by the artists. There were, however, instances of more realistic portraits. One example is the two paintings of generals commissioned by Emperor Daizong which he hung outside his bedroom to act as guardians, such was the fearsome aspect of their portraits. The paintings would convince people in later times that the subjects were, in fact, door gods.
In landscapes, Tang artists became much more concerned with humanity’s place in nature. Small human figures guide the viewer through a panoramic landscape of mountains and rivers in Tang paintings whereas later periods would see more intimate and abstract scenes of nature. Painting the scene with several different viewpoints and multiple perspectives is another common characteristic. One of the most famous of all Chinese landscape paintings is the 8th century CE painted silk panorama known as 'The Emperor Ming Huang Travelling in Shu’. It is a sprawling and detailed masterpiece of mountain scenery in the typical Tang style using only blues and greens. The original is lost but a later copy can be seen at the Palace Museum of Taipei.
Ceramics & Minor Arts
Gold and silver vessels were made, usually by casting, for use by the elite and these very often show signs of Persian influence in their shape and the motifs used to decorate them. The designs were likely carried by Persians in person, fleeing the Islamic invasion and settling in China. Potters then applied these ideas to their own medium (as did painters) and they included leaf patterns, grapevines, floral chains, and the squat pilgrim bottle. Even human figures on such vessels - especially musicians, merchants and soldiers - are directly taken from Persian tradition. Textile patterns were another inspiration for Tang potters and other popular motifs included lotuses and flowers.
Tang potters were now more technically proficient than any of their predecessors. New colour glazes were developed in the period and include blues, greens, yellows and browns which were produced from cobalt, iron and copper. Colours were mixed, too, producing the three-coloured wares the Tang period has become famous for. Rich inlays of gold and silver were also sometimes used to decorate Tang ceramics.
In the northern areas of China there was a tradition for placing figurines in tombs and these were made of ceramic. Common forms are human figures, horses and camels, with parts made from moulds and then assembled, all with brightly painted details which are in marked contrast to the predominantly monochrome paintings of the period. Another source of colour was glassware - most often made in yellow-browns and bright blues. Other minor arts created decorative objects in carved precious and semi-precious stones, lacquer, inlaid wood, amber, and woven, died, printed and embroidered silk.