A Comparative Look at
Green on Blue
By Briana Headley
Asian Art History
Roiling clouds, meandering paths, small figures living out small stories. These are fairly typical images that come to mind when imagining the mystique of the Chinese painting. They are demure in execution, cultured in their breadth, and extraordinarily recognizable as seeded Confucian or Buddhist philosophical painted passages. Mu Qi’s Six Persimmons is the pinnacle example of the Chan Buddhist application of Chinese painting. Chan Buddhism (Jpn: Zen) is the branch of Mahayana Buddhism (meaning, the “great vehicle”) that emphasizes meditation of the moment. It is plain, unadorned, and somehow exact. This “accuracy” is most likely a product of the moment being so fully felt, that the clear vision is not lost upon the painter. Six Persimmons is really nothing more than six persimmons, albeit placed very, very appropriately in relationship to one another. The viewer should not miss this fact. A Chan Buddhist painting does not have much room for meaning. If it did, it would be dictating too much; the intent is personal contemplation, what is seen is up to the viewer’s interpretation.
Postwar America. The United States art population was under the influence of immigrant Surrealists, and the psychoanalysis of Karl Jung. After the recent events, America had to take a good look at itself. The “collective unconscious” mind was at the heart of this, and so was Mark Rothko, along with other abstract expressionists. It was now acceptable to consider non-western art and the more primitive side of the human mind, as exhibited by contemporary Jackson Pollack’s spatter and pour technique in his famous One: No. 31, 1950. Rothko maintained that color was not his subject, but a tool for a message even greater. This theme of greater representation can also be found as one of the hallmarks of Chan Buddhism’s leading of the spontaneous mode, centuries before Rothko came into being.
Mu Qi represents the most extreme during the Song Dynasty’s spontaneous mode. Six Persimmons encapsulates the brusqueness and refinement that Chan Buddhism focuses so heavily upon. In this way, Rothko exhibits a surprisingly similar style. Although they arrive with disparate flavors, Rothko and Mu Qi meet in their belief of the exceedingly abbreviated to shed light on the theme’s natural complexity. In the New York Times, the abstract impressionist Rothko declared, “[I] favor the simple expression of the complex thought.”
The tenth century in China marked a shift in theme for wen ren, or the scholarly painters. They wished to transmit their calligraphic discipline into painted form. Out of this, an unreserved writer’s brushwork developed; it championed monochrome ink and detail. This change was a harmonious and rather logical match to Chan Buddhism’s stress on the intuitive response to nature. For this, Six Persimmons serves as a paradigm to echo Rothko’s sense of contemplation. Green on Blue’s nebulous blending of the navy blue to chalk-white is very much a mental pause. Both minimal and meditative, Persimmons and Green appeal to the viewer’s deeper reflective instincts. When Rothko was engaged in his most recognizable work starting in the late 1940s, he mostly abstained from titling and explaining his works, fearing that people would attach ideas limited to them – “Silence is so accurate,” he would say. Mu Qi would agree with this notion of silence, because his work resembled visual gong ans, Chan Buddhist illogical puzzles that are meant to encourage further meditation.
Mu Qi channels the Chan inspired sense of intuition to address composition. It can be readily seen by the arrangement and brush treatment of the six persimmons. Each shape is rather stout, in truth to the persimmon’s nature – it is a deceptively simple picture to behold. As noted translator and Asian Studies scholar Arthur Waley puts it, “passion…congealed into a stupendous calm.” The way in which the ink lays on the paper is visceral. Mu Qi’s style is immediate and intense, but incredibly reserved. This can be detected by the curves and thickness of the persimmons’ roundness. While each persimmon varies in tone and weight, they hold each other together. Lee points to take, “…note the subtle placement of these ‘inanimate’ objects: the two at the left overlap slightly, the heavy one in the center has a wide and narrow margin, the two at the right overlap greatly, the single fruit below the others stands separate from all of them.” The skill of hand is uncanny, and yet it is obvious that the work did not take long to complete. The austerity of the monochrome ink on paper is crisp in its appearance and further symbolizes the virtue of brevity in Chan.
Not unlike this, Green on Blue’s composition is quite curious in how restrained it is. The more one blurs their vision, the more the colors blend and distinguish themselves, simultaneously ordering the piece, as well as lending a, “here and nowness.” The brushstrokes in Green on Blue’s are cloudy with a enough scratchiness for definition. The eyes wander from one patch of hue to another, but the painting does well to keep them roving. The black greenness is void-like, yet comforting because it establishes a balance amidst the lake of blue framing the smaller shapes. Rothko’s composition wanders more, while Mu Qi’s is mostly static, but they both promote rumination.
Contrastingly, Mu Qi and Rothko feel very different about the dominance of line and color in how it relates to the work’s language. Clearly, Rothko favors color as the primary element speaking to the viewer. Other than the transitional shades between the green, blue, and white, there are no traditional “lines” to speak of in Green on Blue. Rothko’s attention to hue and texture eclipses one’s sensibility of line. The viewer forgets that there are no real lines to separate the colors. Line defines things and makes them discrete. Six Persimmons is the opposite; Chan Buddhist monochromatic paintings are essentially pictorial brushwork. Instead of allowing shape to blend, the shapes are already set in their field of space.
But again, the two artists agree because they are both not at all focused on the actual line or color, but the thought (Mu Qi) and emotion (Rothko) beyond them, which they help to evoke. “…The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point, “ Rothko insisted. Rothko’s Green on Blue transfers the spirituality of humanity; it tells of “tragedy,” and even “destiny.” The Six Persimmons is not a simple form-study of fruit on a table, or even about the way the stem strokes darken. The larger thought inspired, is the “vault of sky” that opens with consideration of the instant. This allowance for uninhibited personal exploration is due to how intuitive (even abstract) Six Persimmons feels. Lee points out, “…we owe our appreciation to the hindsight made possible by Modernism, especially Expressionism and its later manifestations.”
Lee, in saying this, ultimately pushes forward the true difference between the aims of Rothko and Mu Qi: individualism versus the relationships promoted by Chan Buddhism. Rothko is a part of that Expressionism that Lee describes as giving people the connection of abstract art in Chinese Buddhist paintings. The application is completely different, though. Mu Qi is minimal, and therefore, Six Persimmons reminds the viewer of abstract art in how they are similarly executed; that is, intuitively. Mark Rothko is an intuitive painter, because his aim is to tap into each viewer’s emotion. Green on Blue disengages the mind and emotion is free to wander. Rothko said, “The progression of a painter’s work as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity…toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea…and the painter and the observer…” Green on Blue says nothing explicitly, and neither does Six Persimmons, because they do well to quickly place the viewer and leave them to explore.
Mu Qi. Six Persimmons. Daitoku-ji, Kyoto, Japan.
c. Early 13th century. Ink on Paper.
Rothko, Mark. Green on Blue. University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona.
1956. Oil on Canvas.
Marquardt, Janet. Frames of Reference: Art, History, and the World.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. 138. 304-305.
Chave, Anne. Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective. New Haven: Yale University
Lee, Sherman. A History of Far Eastern Art. 5th Ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,
Prentice-Hall, 1994. 378-382.