Taoist visions

Art - Ned Denny enters the strange, invisible world of Chinese landscape paintings

The first thing that strikes you when you look at a Chinese landscape painting is its format. Broadly speaking, the landscapes of western art are horizontal. In their easy, open sweep we view a countryside that seems available to us, and we feel like a proud landowner surveying his domains. Such scenes are a means of fixing and appropriating the natural world. Think of Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Joseph Andrews and their clearly demarcated fields, or of Rubens painting the fertile acres of his country estate. For all of the latter's gold-tinged magnificence, it still feels like a place in which one could wander or hunt or fish or pluck fruit. Like Lear, Rubens wants us to know that "all these bounds even from this line to this,/With shadowy forests and with champaigns riched/ With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads" are his. All is earthbound, supine, there for the taking. The typical Chinese landscape, on the other hand, is not horizontal but vertical, a breathtaking ascent into a milk-white void. If western landscape painting is an act of possession, the Chinese equivalent is an act of prostration.

Because of its long association with landscapes, graphic designers refer to the horizontal rectangle as "landscape" format. For similar reasons, the upright rectangle is known as "portrait". The Chinese use of the portrait format for landscapes tells us something essential about the way that they see the world. It would seem to suggest that nature is viewed less as an inert sprawl of unconnected objects and more as a living being, less as an enterable panorama and more as a sentient "face". And, looking at their landscapes, you do get this weird sense of a nature imbued with life and intelligence. For all of the cliches about snow-blurred peaks and misty indeterminateness, their compositions are powerfully architectural.

Take the omnipresent mountains, for example, whose vertical striations inevitably call to mind the uprush of Gothic cathedrals. And whereas a mountain as painted by Giotto is an immobile, isolated fact, the humped forms of these stone beasts seem somehow possessed. We are seeing the outward signs of an unpicturable force.

All this is entirely in keeping with the Taoist conception of the universe as a living, conscious entity. But rather than trying to convince us intellectually of something that can only be felt on the nerves, the Chinese painters make all those electrical energies visible. More than anywhere else, they can be seen in the conifers that crackle through the vaporous whiteness like bursts of black lightning (I read somewhere that the ancient Chinese artists show a thorough knowledge of the laws of fractals, and you can well believe it). One of the classic images of Chinese painting has a poet or scholar lost in contemplation of one of these lucid, bristling trees, its darkly tenacious branches seeming to open up a fissure in the sky. True knowledge, it seems to say, comes with vision.

More often, though, the human presence in a Chinese landscape is limited to barely discernible, antlike figures or the unexpected geometry of houses among pines. These latter contrast peculiarly with the landscape that dwarfs them, their crystalline regularity forming vantage points from which it can be viewed. As Wilhelm Worringer argued in his classic Abstraction and Empathy, the need for shelter in intelligible forms is at a premium among cultures whose sense of world mystery is highly developed and profound. Without those ghostly cubes on the mountainside, there would be no painting.

But none of this quite touches on the essence of Chinese art, which seems to me to consist in a play of appearances and disappearances, structure and erasure, epiphanies and vanishings. Everywhere we look, the forms of the landscape seem to be slipping in and out of a bareness that might be mist and cloud, but is also both the primal void and merely areas of untouched paper or canvas. And these blank areas have as much intensity and inner life as the landscape's visible features (one remembers Barnett Newman's claim: "I don't manipulate space . . . I declare it").

Western critics once said that the result of all this was unconnected forms floating in indeterminate space, but this misses the fact that unity is achieved by other means. The binding factor in these works isn't the theoretical vanishing point of western perspective but a multitude of real ones, the whiteness that corrodes and envelopes the forms of nature even as it holds them up to sight. And this is why Chinese landscapes give such a strong sense of the supernatural, straddling as they do both the visible and the invisible worlds.

"The Four Seasons: an exhibition of Chinese landscape painting" is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (01865 278000), until 25 May