Winter is coming. The silent season is almost here. It is forever with us in Western literature whether it be in “woods lovely, dark and deep” or in “the sinking mercury in the mouth of the dying day.“ And in the East a rush-cloaked fisherman in a lone skiff plies a river thick with cold through the poetry of the masters. What better way to greet the silent season as it approaches than with a gathering of visual images produced under its spell.
The Chinese and Japanese paintings assembled here embody winter’s spirit, capturing its beauty along with its bleakness, a time of dormancy with its promise of life, spreading a blanket of snow to muffle the voice of the storm. Winter’s schizophrenia is inevitable as it straddles the old year and the new, the landscape in a straitjacket of snow and ice with pine and bamboo struggling to be seen and plum blossoms opening to the future. Characteristically, the Chinese artist will reserve the last leaf in an album of landscapes for an image of winter, whereas an entire album in the present exhibition is most unusually devoted entirely to the silent season.
While the humans memorialized by Chinese painters in the grip of winter visibly struggle to cope with hardships in the physical world, their plight suggests broader challenges in realms more abstract and transcendent. Poetic visualizations of the season are one special province of Japanese artists whose lyrical images contrast to harsher visions of the silent season, effected in a painting in this exhibition by unusual means: the Chinese painter used the balls of his fingers and the split end of a fingernail in place of a brush to create shrapnel-like fragments of ice and frozen banks of snow in black ink against white paper.
The contemporary Chinese paintings shown here are each firmly rooted in the “Great Tradition,” even if the artist was deeply inspired by the environment and events of his adopted home in producing his work. Three of the artists reside outside of China–but the seductive image of a chilly Thames River with the city stretching from its banks is a most appropriate contribution to the present exhibition, held on Old Bond Street in London.