Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Chinese Handscrolls

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A significant difference between Eastern and Western painting lies in the format. Unlike Western paintings, which are hung on walls and continuously visible to the eye, most Chinese paintings are not meant to be on constant view but are brought out to be seen only from time to time. This occasional viewing has everything to do with format.


The format of a handscroll allows for the depiction of a continuous narrative or journey: the viewing of a handscroll is a progression through time and space.

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A predominant format of Chinese painting is the handscroll, a continuous roll of paper or silk of varying length on which an image has been painted, and which, when not being viewed, remains rolled up. Ceremony and anticipation underlie the experience of looking at a handscroll. When in storage, the painting itself is several layers removed from immediate view, and the value of a scroll is reflected in part by its packaging. Scrolls are generally kept in individual wooden boxes that bear an identifying label. Removing the lid, the viewer may find the scroll wrapped in a piece of silk, and, unwrapping the silk, encounters the handscroll bound with a silken cord that is held in place with a jade or ivory toggle. After undoing the cord, one begins the careful process of unrolling the scroll from right to left, pausing to admire and study it, shoulder-width section by section, rerolling a section before proceeding to the next one.


The experience of seeing a scroll for the first time is like a revelation. As one unrolls the scroll, one has no idea what is coming next: each section presents a new surprise. Looking at a handscroll that one has seen before is like visiting an old friend whom one has not seen for a while. One remembers the general appearance, the general outlines, of the image, but not the details. In unrolling the scroll, one greets a remembered image with pleasure, but it is a pleasure that is enhanced at each viewing by the discovery of details that one has either forgotten or never noticed before.


Looking at a handscroll is an intimate experience. Its size and format preclude a large audience; viewers are usually limited to one or two. Unlike the viewer of Western painting, who maintains a certain distance from the image, the viewer of a handscroll has direct physical contact with the object, rolling and unrolling the scroll at his/her own desired pace, lingering over some passages, moving quickly through others.


The format of a handscroll allows for the depiction of a continuous narrative or journey: the viewing of a handscroll is a progression through time and space—both the narrative time and space of the image, but also the literal time and distance it takes to experience the entire painting. As the scroll unfurls, so the narrative or journey progresses. In this way, looking at a handscroll is like reading a book: just as one turns from page to page, not knowing what to expect, one proceeds from section to section; in both painting and book, there is a beginning and an end.


Indeed, this resemblance is not incidental. The handscroll format—as well as other Chinese painting formats—reveals an intimacy between word and image. Many handscrolls contain inscriptions preceding or following the image: poems composed by the painter or others that enhance the meaning of the image, or a few written lines that convey the circumstances of its creation. Many handscrolls also contain colophons, or commentary written onto additional sheets of paper or silk that follows the image itself. These may be comments written by friends of the artist or the collector; they may have been written by viewers from later generations. The colophons may comment on the quality of the painting, express the rhapsody (rarely the disenchantment) of the viewer, give a biographical sketch of the artist, place the painting within an art-historical context, or engage with the texts of earlier colophons. And as a final way of making their presence known, the painter, the collectors, the one-time viewers often "sign" the image or colophons with personal seals bearing their names, these red marks of varying size conveying pride of authorship or ownership.


Thus the handscroll is both painted image and documentary history; past and present are in continuous dialogue. Looking at a scroll with colophons and inscriptions, a viewer sees not only a pictorial representation but witnesses the history of the painting as it is passed down from generation to generation.

Dawn Delbanco
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University