In the foreground a wood-gatherer and a fisherman pause to talk on the riverside path. Houses border the river above while two boats sail past. Beyond is a village beneath trees, and mountains rising in the distance then complete the painting. Expressed in words the painting seems distinctly unworthy of note, but the work itself is visually quite interesting and satisfactory on account of the technique: painted by means of the artist’s fingers and fingernails.
The technique of finger-painting was held to have begun with Chang Ts’ao of the T’ang dynasty who ‘used only a worn brush or sometimes his hand to rub ink on to the silk.' The technique appears to have been used sporadically during succeeding dynasties—some works by Chang Hung, 1577-1652 or later, for example, manifest the short curling strokes seen here—but it was not until the early Ch’ing that it became a clearly defined and established technique, primarily through the talent and the paintings of Kao Ch’i- p’ei (1660-1734). His grandson recorded the circumstances under which Kao began to paint with his fingers: ‘When Kao was seven years old he studied painting. Coming on a painter’s manual he at once clasped it to his bosom. More than ten years later he had filled two boxes (with his copies). When a young man of around twenty, he was vexed at not having been able to form his own style. Becoming weary one day he lay down on a bed and slept. In a dream an old man led him into a chamber with earthen walls. The four walls were covered with paintings and all the right models were present, but within the chamber there were no writing implements, so he could not copy them. Fortunately there was a basin of water, so dipped in his finger and practiced. On awakening he was at first very happy, but what the mind had imagined proved impossible for the hand to do. Weary and depressed once again, he suddenly remembered the way he had used water while in the chamber; he thus dipped his fingers in ink and, following the general outlines of the remembered images, captured all of their spirit. Trusting his hand and moving his fingers was the very best path for him to take; having decided that, he dispensed with the brush.’
The same awareness of the creative function of the unconscious mind is revealed in the legend of another of Kao’s seals: ‘Paintings are given by dreams, dreams are formed in the mind.’ The above quotation suggests that Kao’s use of the finger painting technique was determined in part by his desire to develop a distinctive style of painting for which he could become famous. A second reason was likely an aesthetic preference for the special qualities of finger painting, which was spontaneous, lively, and decidedly unconventional in effect. As the legend of another of his seals has it: ‘Because a brush leaves traces, I thus set it aside.’
The present painting was done with the fingers but also, one suspects, with a bit of help at times from a brush. The result is lively, distinctive, and unconventional, which likely describes the aesthetic goal of the present artist.
Wu Chun, tzu Chu-p’u (‘Bamboo Garden’), was from Ch’ang-chou, the modern Suchou in Kiangsu province. He is remembered especially for his finger paintings of landscapes in ‘broken ink’ style, just what we see in the present work.
1. For this and following quotations, see the biography of Kao Ch’i-p’ei in Howard Rogers: Masterworks of Ming and Qing Painting from the Forbidden City, Lansdale, 1988, cat. 62, p. 191.