Flowers of the Four Seasons

Comparing two artworks from Qing dynasty, both of which were of flower-and-bird painting, it was interesting how similar and yet different the two works were. They were similar in that both forms of art were symbolic expression, which means that the paintings are more than just representative of an object. For instance, a whole plant was never painted but rather only parts of it, which represents the whole. Also in both paintings, unlike western art, no background was ever needed.

While brush painting has a history of six thousand years, Tiehua only derived from brush painting three hundred years ago. Since it is harder to make an iron art than doing a brush painting, it is rare to find a long paragraph of writings or poems on iron art while there are usually some poems written on brush paintings. Furthermore, unlike a flat brush painting, tiehua is 3-deminsional and more texture. However, while artists can use different colors to draw brush painting, tiehua can only be made from simple lines of iron.

Like other art works, however, tiehua reflected on its own culture. It was common to find iron pictures of the birds-and-flowers, landscape, and portraits of people. All of which would be painted in a style that signifies a Chinese brush painting tradition, their virtues and beliefs, or personal expression. Traditionally, it was common to find four-piece of brush drawing on paper or silk. The four-piece could be rounded up to make a square Chinese lantern.

The production of iron picture also inherited this tradition. Four seasons and four professions were usually represented in four pieces of tiehua. Take the motif of four seasons for example, four types of flowers such as plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, are conventionally used and produced for tiehua. Each plant represents one season: orchid represented spring; bamboo, summer; chrysanthemum, fall; and plum, winter. Together, the four plants signified a year.

The motif of four flowers can be understood in terms of “four gentlemen (si junzi),” which indicates political integrity reinforced by Confucianism ideology since the Han Dynasty.

In some cases, we also see that four professions such as “scholars, farmers, fishermen, and woodcutter” also presented in tiehua. By ignoring two other professions such as artisans and merchants, these tiehua artwork reinforced Confucianism despise on those who “only traded and did not produce.”

In contrast to large sum of seals and inscription on brush paintings, most tiehua pieces do not have seals and inscription to indicate authorship. However, the piece, “Four Seasons” in the Palace Museum of China, has a sea of Tang Peng on it.

Tang Peng was a blacksmith that invented tiehua during the Kangxi period of the Qing Dynasty. This iron picture is a four-piece picture of the four seasons. It is 118 cm in height and 36 cm width per each leaf. It is now stored in the Palace Museum in Beijing, China. Since this is a set of piece collected in Palace Museum, this might be a gift to imperial family.

The four flowers on this tiehua piece are peony, lotus, chrysanthemum and plum, which represents spring, summer, fall, and winter subsequently. Furthermore, each also signifies other symbolic meanings. For instance, peony is called “flower of wealth and honor,” which symbolizes longevity, loyalty, happiness and eternal beauty. Lotus has the hidden meaning of “continuous harmony,” and it represents purity and detachment from worldly cares. Because the Buddha is often depicted as seated on a lotus, the flower is also considered to be a sacred Buddhist symbol. Chrysanthemum means “longevity,” and it symbolizes people who maintain their virtue despite adversity and temptation.  Plum symbolizes courage, and when it is drawn with bamboo they meant friendship.

Comparing two artworks from Qing dynasty, both of which were of flower-and-bird painting, it was interesting how similar and yet different the two works were. They were similar in that both forms of art were symbolic expression, which means that the paintings are more than just representative of an object. For instance, a whole plant was never painted but rather only parts of it, which represents the whole. Also in both paintings, unlike western art, no background was ever needed.

While brush painting has a history of six thousand years, Tiehua only derived from brush painting three hundred years ago. Since it is harder to make an iron art than doing a brush painting, it is rare to find a long paragraph of inscription on iron pictures while it is common to read poems and long inscription on a brush painting. In addition, tiehua is 3-deminsional and more texture vas a flat brush painting.  Brush painter tend to use different colors for brush painting while tiehua artists tend to use black and white and simple line for artistic expression.

It was interesting to learn from the discussion how closely related and yet different tiehua was with other forms of Chinese art and how the art was shaped because of the culture. Despite the exception of some cases, authorship can always be found on most of the artworks such as on Chinese brush paintings, western oil paintings, pencil drawings, etc. However, it was rare to find signature or seals of the author on iron pictures. This mainly comes from the fact that there are more than one person involved in the production of iron pictures. Before blacksmith hammered iron in pictures, they had to depend on brush painters to draft the pictures for them. Tiehua was the collaboration between blacksmith and brush painter, which made it hard to read the authorship from the pictures.

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