A Celebration: The Year of the Boar begins Feb. 18th
The Magic Horse of Han Gan
by Chen Jian Hong
Okay, Chinese traditionalists, here is your book.
Chen trained at Beijing's Academy of Fine Arts and has dedicated his career to relating the history and traditions of his ancestral home. He even painted the illustrations directly onto silk to emulate the story's subject, a painter who lived 1,200 years ago but whose lifelike renderings of horses are still celebrated today.
Han Gan's family was too poor to indulge his love of drawing, until a wealthy artist discovered his talent and bought him paper, inks and brushes. He excelled at horses; the only humans in his art are riding or tending the magnificent steeds he creates. They may've been a little too lifelike: one day, a warrior comes to him with an unusual request.
From there, the story takes a fabulist turn, with a subtle message infused with Chinese wisdom. Chen's prose is lean and understated, giving us just enough to fuel the imagination, while the illustrations really stoke the fire.
The plain silk backgrounds and flattened perspective help us keep our focus on the important figures, with white-clad Han Gan seeming small next to the busy aristocrats hobnobbing over tea or those fine, muscular equines who prance and chomp at the bit. He's the only one in white, however, which immediately draws our eye to him.
The way inks bleed into the silk affects the way robes seem to drape and adds texture to a nighttime sky. Chen's palette is muted, with subtle grays, greens and beige, except for great streaks of angry crimson used on walls to create a sense of enclosure, or on war gear to add excitement, and even in a red sunset as the din of battle loses its allure.
As your eye follows those reds, you'll notice crimson serves a practical purpose: the compositions are off-center, with figures spreading unevenly across the picture plane. The spot use of crimson ties everything together, creating symmetry and harmony out of chaos.
Gorgeous stuff, and a great introduction to the Chinese aesthetic from a purist.