The Three Perfections: Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy

Chinese painting is often seen with calligraphy directly on the picture. Typically after an artist has finished a painting, he will make an inscription. The simplest inscription will contain his name followed by his seal or seals. The artist may add a date, something about the person for whom the picture was painted, a note on the occasion or the style he has chosen to paint. Beyond this the artist may include a poem or some prose that explores virtually any topic, from literature or painting to metaphysics or philosophy. Lengthy inscriptions often provide great insight into the painter’s process and personal life. It is the combination of all three creative processes – poetry, painting and calligraphy – that is considered the ultimate in artistic achievement. Very rarely does a single artist have talent in all three.

As the story goes, during the eighth century the Chinese poet, painter and calligrapher Zheng Qian (d. 764) presented a gift of his work to the emperor. Delighted, the emperor inscribed the words “Zheng Qian’s Three Perfections” (Zheng Qian sanjue). Since that time, these three – painting, poetry and calligraphy – have been connected and appreciated as the ultimate in the visual arts, known simply as the “Three Perfections.”

The richness of visual information in the combination of words and images makes for lively interchange and interaction in the mind. Cognitive psychology has taught us that both words and images are taken into the brain through the same passageway, but once in the brain, the information travels to different regions for processing and understanding. The Chinese understood that there is a play back and forth between words and images. Often one asks: Which came first, the poem or the painting? Was the artist inspired by the poem, or did he paint the picture and suddenly remember an appropriate poem? Perhaps both were inspired by natural scenery. We may never know, but in the end it does not matter. Just the fact that the mind raises the question means that the method is a success. The tension between them makes one think, understand and appreciate. In Zha Shibiao’s (1615-98, cat. 16) landscape painting, we do not know which came first, the poem or the painting. The simple poem in the top right corner may be translated:

A clear stream at the gully’s mouth,

On the stone path I enter the cold forest.

It is late as I approach the front of the mountain,

The stream flows off into the distance.

The poem brings the scene down to the perspective of the figure in the bottom right corner, while the painting expands the scene vertically. How did Zha Shibiao decide where to put the poem? Obviously, an artist must consciously leave room for an inscription. How does the artist decide how much space to leave? For Yun Shouping (1633-90, cat. 19), the inscription is given much visual weight in the overall composition. For Li Shan’s (1686-1756, cat. 25) “Orchids,” the inscription is given more than half the visual weight. In the case of Wen Zhengming’s (1470-1559, cat. 4) painting of “Traveling to Tianping Mountain” (cat. 4), the artist has inscribed four successive poems in a way that does not interfere with the painting and does not seem crowded. How does the artist decide where to place the calligraphy? And how does one appreciate the calligraphy itself?

Calligraphy is considered the highest form of expression in the visual arts of East Asia and can be appreciated on many levels. Fundamentally, it may be viewed as words, as each character signifies a meaning. That meaning can be elevated through the medium of a poem, correct in rhyme and meter and conveying concepts through content and form. At still another level, calligraphy represents a visual, aesthetic expression of brushwork, in rhythms and relationships of space created by ink and paper.

To a Western audience, the appreciation and comprehension of Chinese calligraphy may seem daunting. There is the perception that if the meaning of the actual characters is not understood, then something essential to the work will be missed. But this is not necessarily the case, as more fundamental and universal elements can be realized. The spatial tensions and movement of the brush in calligraphy should be viewed as a presentation of forms in a particular time and space – an art with infinite possibilities. To distinguish style, one looks for the different ways elements may be combined in search of a new effect. A calligrapher demonstrates his virtuosity with the brush by expanding the known visual vocabulary of a character.

In terms of form, each stroke is traditionally observed for itself and how it relates to connecting strokes when combined in a specific order that composes each character and in turn, each line of prose or poetry. This prescribed order should in fact imitate some of the fundamental aspects of nature and create a natural balance in the character. Every stroke may be seen as an extension of nature’s forces. There can be no hesitation in the brushwork, as in a unique moment of creation, the artist is caught up in the emotion and not consciously thinking of the calligraphy. As the presentation of forms in a specific time and space, calligraphy is a kind of performance art. The written characters are the visible traces that the brush has taken over the path of the paper or silk. A viewer can recreate every movement of the brush and mentally follow the actual process of creation in all its consecutive phases. One has the sense of actually watching the calligrapher performing. In this way it is said that the personality of the calligrapher is revealed through his calligraphy.

In China there have been many discussions of the aesthetics of calligraphy and painting over time. The processes of painting and calligraphy are often considered interchangeable, inseparable and codependent. It was said in the ninth century that “painting and writing (calligraphy) have different names but a common body.” A thirteenth-century critic wrote about the great calligraphers Wang Xianzhi (303-79) and Mi Fu (1051-1107) “being good calligraphers they were inevitably able painters and being good painters they were inevitably able calligraphers: calligraphy and painting are essentially the same thing.” Painting has also been called silent poetry (wusheng shi), as a painter is said to write out his feelings in silent words. Thus, the appreciation of Chinese painting is understood to be a complex interplay, and we now recognize the achievement of the “Three Perfections” as a rare accomplishment indeed.