Chinese Flower-Bird Paintings
Traditional Chinese Painting can be divided into figure painting, landscape and flower-bird painting in general according to the different themes of paintings.
Subjects of Chinese flower-bird paintings include plants such as flowers, melons, fruits, and animals such as birds, fish and beasts. In western art, paintings of flowers and birds are referred to as still life. Western artists draw in a realistic fashion while watching the scenery, even dead preys. In contrast, artists of Chinese flower-bird painting draw flowers and birds from their memory. Different from western painting, Chinese painting aims to represent the vitality of items of the nature. Besides, Chinese artists express rich connotations by means of birds and flowers. For instance, they often compare the natural traits of plants and animals to the social traits of man. Big pine trees, which can stand the weather, are used to stand for heroes. Thorny shrubs are used to stand for evil men. Bamboo, plum blossom and chrysanthemum, which can endure cold weather, are used to represent men of honor. Some flower-bird paintings indicate the longing for happiness while some embody artists’ sentiments and reflections about life and the world.
Flowers and birds have close relationship with human's daily life. Even since ancient times, they have been the subjects of art. In the New Stone Age some 7,000 or 8,000 years ago, the design of phoenix appeared in bone sculptures; plants and animals were often seen as decorative designs in painted pottery. In class society, flower-bird painting, as an important component of artistic creations, usually appeared in screens, utensils and decorations.
Flower-bird painting became independent from industrial art in the Three Kingdoms Period, the Jin Dynasty and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589). Artists specializing on flower-bird painting emerged. It was recorded that Gu Jingxiu and Liu Yizu in the Northern and Southern Dynasties were adept to draw cicadas and sparrows. That was the embryonic stage of flower-bird painting. During the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907), especially in the Tang Dynasty, flower-bird painting with unique aesthetic value came into being, with clear division between schools.
Since the late Tang Dynasty, flower-and-bird painting was divided into two main schools -- one headed by Huang Quan from the Later Shu's imperial painting academy, the other headed by Xu Xi from the Southern Tang State (937-975) in the south. Huang Quan entered the imperial painting academy when he was just 17 years old and soon became head of the academy and the forefather of meticulous painting (gongbi hua). Xu Xi, born into an imperial family but hating to serve the court, never thought to be an imperial painter and then formed his own simple style which mainly used ink and wash to depict flowers, bamboo, bird and fish in nature. His techniques of using ink affected future painting circles. Especially in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Shen Zhou, Chen Baiyang, Xu Qingteng and other painters inherited and developed the freehand brushwork of flower-bird painting.