‘Madman Liang’ – Liang Kai (梁楷)
(c. 1140 – c. 1210)
‘Liang Kai treasured his ink as if it were gold,
but when he got drunk, their drops could suddenly turn into a downpour.’
– Chan Monk Beijian, 1246
A master of spontaneous technique, Liang Kai, or ‘Madman Liang’, is often credited with the creation of the Chan or Zen school of painting.
Born in Dongping in China’s Shandong province, Liang Kai was taught to paint by Master Jia Shigu and served as a Painter-in-Attendance at the Imperial Painting Academy in Hangzhou in the Jia Tai era (1202-1204) of Emperor Ingzong of the Southern Song period, where he was greatly influenced by the “Big Four” of the Southern Song – Li Tang (李唐), Liu Songnian (劉松年), Ma Yuan (馬遠) and Xia Gui (夏珪).
Whilst there he was bestowed with the prestigious golden belt – ‘jindai‘ – in recognition of his mastery in painting figures, landscapes and other subjects. For some reason (which some speculate was connected with his great fondness for alcohol), he declined this honor and decided to hang the belt up in his office and leave the court to go and live in the Liutong temple, near Lin’an. A decision which appeared bizarre to his peers and earned him the nickname of ‘Madman Liang’.
Now, no longer bound by the conventions of the Academy and the Court, he went about developing his own style of painting which was very different from the ‘gōng bĭ‘ (工笔), ‘meticulous’ style of the time.
The style he developed is often described as ‘jianbi‘ (减笔), meaning ‘abbreviated brush’.
Influenced by his Chan Buddhist practice and studies with Chan Master Wuzhun (1177-1249), Liang Kai strove in his paintings to evoke the subject or atmosphere with the minimum number of brush strokes required.
However, although this style allowed for the beauty of accidental effects, it also required a mastery of painting technique to allow them to occur naturally and without force or effort.
In his ‘abbreviated’ style it is not only the fingers that move when using the brush. Their movements must also be coordinated with the movement of the wrist, elbow and shoulder, so that the brush is used with the wrist suspended. In Liang Kai’s paintings; executed predominantly in monochrome ink, we see then not just the Chan principles of simplicity and spontaneity but also those of concentration and mindfulness.
It is in his later paintings, that this Chan (Zen) style of painting is most evident, along with his total control of both ink and brush. And it is these works and those of his Sichuan based contemporary Fa Chang (法常) which were to go on and inspire later painters such as Lin Liang (林良), Xu Wei,(徐渭) and Bada Shanren amongst many others.
Unfortunately, because Chan painting (and that of the Southern Song period), has never been popular with Chinese collectors, all of the remaining works by Liang Kai are no longer in China but in Japan, where they have been rightfully prized and have had a huge influence on Japanese painting, especially ‘suibokuga‘ (水墨画) – Japanese monochrome ink painting.