22 June 2013

The Silent Traveller - Chiang Yee in the British Isles

 'Cows in Derwentwater', 1937, ink on paper,
reproduced in 'The Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland' (1937)
A video made for a school project by a friend's granddaughter brought Chiang Yee to mind - or rather, it brought to mind a Chinese artist who visited the Lake District in the 1930s and published his drawings, which were very much in the Chinese style - of a very English scene. 

Back briefly to the video, which concerned the work of Australian landscape painter Hans Heysen (1887-1968). He is best known for his depictions of gum trees, capturing them accurately in their context and in the Australian light. Previously, painters had depicted them simply as "trees in the European tradition".
'Going to church in the rain, Wasdale Head', 1937, ink on paper,
reproduced in ‘The Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland’ (1937)
Travelling artists bring their painting traditions with them - as did Chiang Yee. His best-known book is one of the Silent Traveller series - A Chinese Artist in Lakeland; other volumes include Dublin and Edinburgh. "Silent traveller" because he found that the well-meaning talk of his hosts, pointing out history etc, distracted him from soaking up the scene. That book starts with observations on the universality of man's experience in the environment - yet every individual's way of seeing is unique - though in different parts of the world people are taught to draw/paint in a certain way, which in the oriental tradition includes doing the paintings afterwards, from memory and reflection.

The V&A had an exhibition of some of his work only last year - which I missed! - but there's an article about him in the V&A online journal, including images of his work, some of which are shown here.
 'Umbrellas under Big Ben', Chiang Yee, 1938, ink on paper,
reproduced as plate V in 'The Silent Traveller in London' (1938)
'The castle in the summer haze', Chiang Yee, 1948, ink on paper,
reproduced in 'The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh' (1948)
Fresh landscapes can be seen in deeply-ingrained ways - both seeing and representation are processes of selection and interpretation. In Art and Illusion, comparing "Cows in Derwentwater" with a similar scene painted 100 years before, EH Gombrich raised the question of how much of what we call seeing is conditioned by cultural habits and expectation.

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