Beyond the ample texts produced over the span of Chinese history, paintings that narrate the history and were initiated by the court,have become a major part of historical records. These artworks with the functions of ‘perfecting the civilising teachings (of the Sages) and helping (to maintain) the social relationships’contributed to the continuation and development of social relations, morals and cultures. Since as early as the Warring States, a historical perspective in Chinese painting and painting as a method for recording history have been prevalent. It could be found in places for rituals and civilising such as ancestral shrines and imperial temples as well as in tombs. The pervasive historical images are tributes paid to ancestors and the past. It is also a distinct way through which Chinese culture has been handed down. Therefore, other than the written magnificence and admonitions and before the emergence of photography, painting was the only option left for expressing the past, history, technologies and arts. It has been an essential method other than written records. This is also why, among paintings that have survived to this day many reenact past histories or honour the illustrious dead.
History painting has persisted to be an art form until the 20th century when a further change took place. After 1949, paintings narrating history were needed by the society and thus became the main division within thematic paintings in China. Many influential works were produced during this time. Without a doubt, this rise of history painting sprang from society’s need for restoring and creating histories at the time. It could be compared with the way in which the Monument to the People’s Heroes stands at the centre of Tiananmen Square. The relief sculptures wrapping the pedestal telling the history of the Chinese revolution has become the template for narrating histories pictorially.
In the history of art in new China, many painters rose to fame by creating historical paintings. And more than often the canonical works have historical themes. So, a phenomenon special to the history of art in new China surfaced; during every historical stage, histories that were needed await to be painted out. Painting history challenges the painters and trains their abilities. Some got made and some got buried.
But not every painter is capable of history paintings. It requires specialised training and skills. A talent and a historical perspective are also indispensable. Gao Yun is a painter with a very strong historical perspective made up of two aspects; the first is an attraction towards history which isn’t common to every painter. Some painters are more concerned with the actualities while the others may be especially fond of the past. Other possible sources include learning handed down in the family, an acquired interest in history and researching and etc. The other aspect is a historical responsibility. Gao Yun is very serious about painting every single piece of his work and holds it accountable for the future. Neither is a historical perspective that holds itself responsible for the future common. Therefore, for painters, a futuristic orientation is pivotal when it comes to making good paintings. Without an attitude that wills a responsibility for the future and a historical perspective as such, being a good painter is utterly impossible.
To further elaborate on the first aspect, Gao Yun’s historical perspective is clearly seen in his early work Luo Lun to Take the Imperial Exam which brought him fame. Luo Lun to Take the Imperial Exam, as a historical subject, reflects contemporary features through its expressive style and method. In 1983, not long after Gao Yun left school, being able to present a work of such significance was a hard— won achievement for him. It first won the first prize at Jiangsu Province Picture Storybooks Prize and the gold prize at the 6th National Art Exhibition. Later, The Palace of Eternal Life won a bronze prize at the 7th National Art Exhibition. It could be said that he was already successful at a young age. Forty years later, Luo Lun to Take the Imperial Exam still emanates the canonical brilliance, and so is The Palace of Eternal Life.
Following Luo Lun to Take the Imperial Exam and The Palace of Eternal Life, the creation of The Making of the Great Canon of the Yongle Reign (abbreviated as The Making of the Great Canon) was extremely different. As Gao Yun’s practice moved from an individual practice to an organised group practice, from personal endeavours to national projects, the society also underwent tremendous change. His practice of art during this period evolved characteristics of the new age. Of course, time is no longer the same. Since society needs change, the creative method also shifts. But for Gao Yun, his historical perspective hasn’t changed. He is still exploring historical subjects and themes within the field of his interests. Thus, being given the opportunity to such a national creative project like The Making of the Great Canon only seemed natural. Moreover, the city Nanjing, where countless historical remains from the founding of Ming dynasty lie, is where Gao Yun has lived for 60 years. Therefore, his understanding of the Ming events can also be different from the other painters, which was a differentiating starting point. And his previous practice certainly made a sequential impact on such a significant subject bearing special meaning to the Chinese civilisation. The historical perspective of Gao Yun isn’t only about the many aspects that the painting should reflect on, or the story and the character design, but also a deeper reflection of the main theme and a possible matching expressive style. Navigating through the multifarious and branching relations that the subject matter involves, Gao Yun had always endeavoured to seek the breakthrough.
As for painting historical subjects, from the past to present, domestic or abroad, painters from any epoch could be facing plenty historical questions. If the painting of a historical subject becomes an illustration, a pictorial explanation on the side or visual aids hanging in museums, like botanical illustrations, then the work would lack the depth of both history and art. It follows that the difficulty of painting a historical subject lies exactly in not making illustrative pictures, in the need for an in — depth grasp of the theme and history paintings, in thinking farther through and researching the materials comprehensively. In the end, a style that belongs only to the artist stems from a contemporary approach.
The Making of the Great Canon of the Yongle Reign was a National Art Creation Project for Major Historical Themes of the Chinese Civilisation led by Gao Yun. The structural style cannot be orthodox since it had to present every aspect of the ambitious historical project that produced the Great Canon of the Yongle Reign (abbreviated as the Great Canon) in one painting. The Great Canon of the Yongle Reign was the first Chinese encyclopaedic compilation and comprises
of 22,877 juan (sections), bound in 11,095 volumes and amounting to about 370 million characters. It preserved about 8,000 texts, presenting the brilliance and density of the arts and technology in ancient China. The project began in 1403, the first year of the Yongle reign when Zhu Di announced the project and appointed Xie Jin as the director. 147 people took part in it. A year later, Yao Guangxiao was appointed as the editor. 2,196 people who specialised in Confucius, Buddhist, and Taoist studies were appointed. The compiling staff was augmented, taking in up to 3,000 people. The first draft was set in 1407 (the fifth year of the Yongle reign). In 1408, the transcribing work was completed followed by carving, printing, binding and packing. Every step of this process could possibly become a scene to be painted, yet none of it could in itself cover the grand scale and complexity of the project. To represent this great historical cultural project in any particular way would be challenging and rather limited. Conflicts arise in the tensions between a one — man’s honour of the emperor and the literati’s efforts, the project’s scale and its intricate structure as well as the span of time and how the procedure had unfolded spatially. The possibilities were plenty except for a style of the picture storybooks.
The greatness, as well as the problematics in compiling the Great Canon, can be seen by its grand scale and the detailed workflow cleanly depicted. The painting accommodates both the emperor’s success shown by an overriding stature of the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di, an air of the court’s and the literati’s hard work through day and night. It lays out each step, affirming the complex procedures that had led to the unprecedented canon at the same time emphasising distilled moments thus indicating the span of time. The tension between a one —man’s accomplishment and thousands of others’ efforts form the internal structure when painting about this subject matter. The painting’s composition is centripetal highlighting the emperor’s achievement. The centre is surrounded by scenes of hardworking literati and craftsmen who compile, carve, print, bind and pack, which demonstrate a level of complication and concreteness that commensurate with the grand scale. Moreover, the central part endorsing the emperor’s achievement is in colour while the rest a baimiao (linear drawing) style, exhibiting a unique expressive style. This leads to a delay in viewing, since the viewers won’t be able to take in everything in one glance and would be compelled to appreciate the details in the content and the form. Consequently, the overall ecology of the project is enriched.
The Making of the Great Canon depicts the emperor’s achievement on one hand and the magnitude of the project on the other. By altering the standard expressive style, the two parts are depicted on different sections of the painting with different artist languages, thus accentuating their differences. Within such a centripetal structure, the main subject is picked out as if under a spotlight. It echoes the subject matter and constructs a history painting roll that commensurates with the greatness of the Great Canon.
Without a doubt, as a praising hymn sung to the Chinese civilisation, The Making of the Great Canon shows a distinctive achievement in a world context. If there isn’t a long — lasting work that is capable of representing the great project, then the later generations’ knowledge of it will only follow the fate of the Great Canon itself, dispersed about the world and lost in our view. The efforts made by Gao Yun through this project are precisely a manifestation of the second aspect of his historical perspective.
May 12, 2019 in Shenzhen