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date: 14 October 2019

Shen Gua or Shen Kualocked

Extract

Chinese, 11th century, male.

Born 1031; died 1095.

Art lover, art critic.

After a brilliant career as an official, diplomat and soldier, Shen Gua wrote a monumental work of scholarship, the Address of the Stream of Dreams ( Mengqi Bitan), a veritable Summa of human knowledge encompassing fields as varied as history, politics, music, astrology and astronomy, arts and letters, mathematics, technology and archaeology. This work of genius is not merely a compilation of the works of others but the fruit of original creative thought by an observer, inventor and philosopher. Book 17 is devoted to painting and calligraphy and contains a famous passage in which Sheng Gua comes to the defence of pictorial creation as an autonomous art free from all vulgar concerns of likeness or verisimilitude. ‘The wonderful parts (or the mystery) of calligraphy and painting must be realised by the soul; they can hardly be discovered in mere forms,’ says Sirén. ‘Those who look at paintings are always able to point out faults of form, of likeness, of design and colouring, but I have seldom found people who have penetrated into the mysterious reason and depth of creative activity.... This is because his (the artist Wang Wei’s) creative activity and his reason resided in the spiritual part of his nature and because he grasped to the highest degree the idea (inspiration of Heaven). But this is hard to explain to common people.’...

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