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Breath, Motion and Time: Narrative Techniques in Representational Chinese Handscroll Painting
This article examines problems of temporality in narrative theory within the specific frame of Chinese pictorial narratives in handscroll format. This particular focus on handscrolls and on the Chinese tradition of representational painting—as opposed to other media of production and other traditions of representational art—is motivated by the privileged status of Chinese painting in art history, and the invaluable insights offered by the handscroll format to the field of narrative theory. Chinese painting constitutes one of the two oldest traditions of representational painting in the world, along with the amply studied European tradition, and it significantly differs from the European tradition due to the value it places on deixis; while one of the goals of the European representational tradition has been to perfect techniques that would erase all signs of the artist’s brushwork, so that a full illusion of three-dimensional reality could be created on a two-dimensional surface, Chinese representational painting has placed great import on the preservation of the traces of the artist’s brushwork; so much so that an educated contemplation of a representational Chinese painting invariably involves two subjects: the visible subject, such as a landscape or a scene from daily life, and the subject of the artist’s hand moving over the painting’s surface at the time of its creation. In paintings rendered in the handscroll format, where viewers are allowed to experience movement both in space and in time, parallel to their own movements of rolling and unrolling the scroll, an array of problems concerning narrative time, memory, and learning through story-building could be addressed effectively. Thus, through an overview of the six principles of Chinese painting, followed by an analysis of the variations in compositional method and the prevailing genres of handscroll paintings, this article explores the intricacies of storytelling—through verbal or pictorial means alike—not as a one-way communication, but rather as a neural network where the meaning, that is, the experience of the story is continuously re-built through multi-directional interactions with the artists and their work.

Chinese painting, handscroll, deixis, narrative theory, time

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