This is an undated hanging scroll painting by Cao Kejia 曹克家 (1907-79) and the older and more famous brush-and-ink painter Yu Fei’an 于非闇 (1888-1959). The painting’s composition is awkward. On the left two rootless stems of tiger lilies curve together in a heart shape. The flowers face each other. Yu claims in his inscription that they are after Qian Xuan 錢選 (c. 1235-before 1307), the Yuan-dynasty painter of pear and peach blossoms, autumnal grasses, and lotus leaves. But the painting belies Yu’s claim for the kind of meticulous pictures that made Qian famous: thick black contour lines and unmodulated oranges and greens flatten the lilies against the bare paper ground. These lilies are designed, not sketched from life.
In studied contrast, below the lilies, and looking up respectfully at them (a possible analogy for the relationship of the two painters), is Cao Kejia’s scientific-realist cat. It sits on its haunches, turned slightly away from the viewer (ignoring the butterfly floating above as well), thereby exposing the markings on its fur. It is a fuzzy, tactile fur, a fur rendered so that each brush stroke seems as if it is a combed on. The fur slides over the cat’s shoulder and rolls under its chin, and imparts a softness to the rounded line of its tail wrapped around its feet.
Cao was famous for painting cats -- so famous that in 1959 he wrote a painting manual entitled How to paint a cat (Zenyang hua mao 怎樣畫貓).The first picture in it, featured in this exhibition, would be unexpected if it weren’t for the tangible immediacy of Cao’s painting style: it is a cat’s skeleton. Here “scientific realism” is revealed as deep knowledge of what can and can’t be seen with the naked eye when painting a cat. In the manual Cao connects the skeletal structure to special movements of cats, like capturing rats. Further, he says, to paint a cat depends first on getting its eyes right, and on knowing, even when painting the cat from behind, where its eyes would be looking and their position in the head.
If the skeleton points towards anatomical study that is required of zoologists, another of Cao’s innovations that makes the cats look really real in his pictures becomes clear through a comparison of it with a kitten painted on silk, dating to the Song dynasty. The kitten is a striped dark gray colour, painted with washes and the thinnest of brushstrokes. As if about to pounce, its knobby white paws clench and its pupils contract. The delicacy and carefulness of the brushwork translate as skilled technique as much as softness of fur. Cao’s cat, in contrast, is painted with what he calls a “worn brush” (pobi 破筆), so that the textured surface of the fur composing the brush is translated into the textured fur of the cat on the paper ground. The hand making the mark disappears. Absenting his hand from his own brushwork is his innovation.
Cao Kejia 曹克家. Zenyang huamao 怎样画猫 (How to paint a cat). Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1980.