Abstraction in early art and many cultures
Much of the art of earlier cultures – signs and marks on pottery, textiles, and inscriptions and paintings on rock – used simple, geometric and linear forms which might have had a symbolic or decorative purpose. It is at this level of visual meaning that abstract art communicates. One can enjoy the beauty of Chinese calligraphy or Islamic calligraphy without being able to read it.
Immortal in splashed ink
, Liang Kai, China, 12th century
In Chinese painting, abstraction can be traced to the Tang dynasty painter Wang Mo (王墨), who is credited to have invented the splashed-ink painting style. While none of his paintings remain, this style is clearly seen in some Song Dynasty Paintings. The Chan buddhist painter Liang Kai (梁楷, c. 1140–1210) applied the style to figure painting in his "Immortal in splashed ink" in which accurate representation is sacrificed to enhance spontaneity linked to the non-rational mind of the enlightened. A late Song painter named Yu Jian, adept to Tiantai buddhism, created a series of splashed ink landscapes that eventually inspired many Japanese zen painters. His paintings show heavily misty mountains in which the shapes of the objects are barely visible and extremely simplified. This type of painting was continued by Sesshu Toyo in his later years.
Mountain market, clearing Mist
, Yu Jian, China
Another instance of abstraction in Chinese painting is seen in Zhu Derun's Cosmic Circle. On the left side of this painting is a pine tree in rocky soil, its branches laced with vines that extend in a disorderly manner to the right side of the painting in which a perfect circle (probably made with help of a compass) floats in the void. The painting is a reflection of the Daoist metaphysics in which chaos and reality are complementary stages of the regular course of nature.
In Tokugawa Japan some zen monk-painters created Enso, a circle who represents the absolute enlightenment. Usually made in one spontaneous brush stroke, it became the paradigm of the minimalist aesthetic that guided part of the zen painting.