I've been spending some quiet time recently on my lanai studio with my brushes and ink, and studying some Chinese painting manuals. I picked up a couple of interesting volumes in a bookshop in the Beijing airport on my way home last month: very fine "How To" manuals of landscape, and bird and flower painting, the two major genres in Chinese painting, along with figure painting, which I don't do or have much interest in other than looking at. Although, one of my favorite paintings, the figure of a herbalist, at right, probably a copy of some classic, hangs in the window in a Chinese pharmacy in Chinatown, and I own a similar scroll of a literati guy with some ducks. But the style I am most attracted to is shan shui (mountain and water) landscape. My teacher is bird and flower painter, but she is tolerant of my interest and more than proficient to teach the techniques of landscape.
Though a teacher is essential, manuals are an interesting element in Chinese culture studies. Wuxia stories often involve the search for some esoteric lost martial arts manual that has the final secret to some ultimate power. Likewise painting manuals describe technique and offer background into the philosophy and techniques, very interesting once one has had the foundational guidance of a teacher. Similarly qigong videos and books are useful and informative to someone once they have been initiated into the basic techniques. You can't reliably learn these any of things just from a book, but once you have been taught, the books are of value.
In this frame of mind, I scrolled through an article in the New Yorker about the purchase of a painting we all surely know (if you studied English literature in high school--I thought the artwork was called "Thanantopsis"; it always illustrated the poem) and its recent destination in a new art gallery in Arkansas. Kindred Spirits, to which I alluded in reference to my own painting exercise not so long ago, was acquired in 2005 for some $35 million by Alice Walton, the middle daughter of Sam Walton (as in Wal-Mart, not that depression-era TV series), and something like the second or third wealthiest woman in the world. She's been buying lot of American art (not infrequently by cell phone while riding a horse) to display in a museum in her home town in Arkansas which boasts a bigger endowment than the Whitney. The dynasty's outlet --or at least its related philanthropic foundation --where I got a photo for my last Chinese visa is financing a major collection of American art. She is apparently not a shabby collector, but it is something of an affront--or surprise-- to the art establishment that her acquisitions will find a home in an obscure town in the Ozarks, as an economic boon to a heartland community.
Justifying her purchase of Kindred Spirits, she said of the previous owner, "They needed the money." I'd be glad to have her give me $350...even $35...for my little "kindred spirits" echo. Why not? It's in the Chinese style, but by an American. Sort of a reverse Wal-Mart tradition.