In one of his books, the French sinologist François Jullien asks, ‘what does Chinese theory have to say about painting?’ No rhetorical question this, he goes on to answer by quoting Qian Wenshi: ‘It is easy to paint the mountain in the rain or the mountain under clear skies. But when fine weather is turning to rain, or when the sun begins to shine again through the rain; to take shelter one evening surrounded by mist and fog … when all the landscape is lost in confusion, emerging — immerging between what there is and what there is not: that is what is difficult to paint.’ That these sentences immediately brought to mind the writings of John Ruskin is perhaps unsurprising; given my long fascination with his extraordinary descriptive passages on both the weather and mountains, and of their painting by J.M.W. Turner as well. It was in this shared, but rather nebulous moment that I began to wonder whether it might be interesting to consider the work of Ruskin and Turner in the light of traditional Chinese painting theory. This video is the first work from what I hope will be an ongoing exploration of the subject.
The invitation to respond to Ruskin’s work on the Elements of Drawing website, with the riches of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology and the broader University also at my disposal, seemed a perfect opportunity at which to begin my enquiries. If Ruskin’s Elements of Drawing was less an exercise in draughtsmanship and more a universal invitation to look more closely upon the beauty of the natural world, how might it relate to an aesthetic tradition which is at once far removed from it and yet seems to share certain preoccupations, or even subject matter? The person most suited to addressing this question was Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art at Oxford and a respected sinologist. I selected a drawing from Ruskin’s Reference Series in the Ashmolean’s collection — the magnificent, troubled Study of gneiss rock, Glenfinlas (1853) — and asked Clunas to talk about it in relation to traditional Chinese aesthetic theory. And in Chinese too. Ruskin’s drawing is only glimpsed at the beginning and end of the film, which otherwise consists of the museum’s beautiful displays of Chinese art. Ruskin’s art and thinking is considered not only for what it is, but also for what it is not. As Jullien might well say, it is an approach by way of a detour.