Following up on my earlier post on Pamuk's 'The Black Book', it appears the story about the competition between the two painters was inspired by a poem by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. Not entirely surprising, as his work plays such a large role in 'The Black Book'. In Rumi's version (13th century) the competition is between Chinese and Greek artists, and it is used as a parable to illustrate the Sufi way.
Here's the poem, called 'Chinese Art and Greek Art', quoted in full:
The Prophet said, "There are some who see me
By the same light in which I am seeing them.
Our natures are one.
Without reference to any strands
Of lineage, without reference to texts or traditions,
We drink the life-water together."
Here's a story
About that hidden mystery:
The Chinese and the Greeks
Were arguing as to who were the better artists.
The king said,
"We'll settle this matter with a debate."
The Chinese began talking,
But the Greeks wouldn't say anything.
The Chinese suggested then
That they each be given a room to work on
With their artistry, two rooms facing each other
And divided by a curtain.
The Chinese asked the king
For a few hundred colors, all the variations,
And each morning they came to where
The dyes were kept and took them all.
The Greeks took no colors.
"They're not part of our work."
They went to their room
And began cleaning and polishing the walls. All day
Every day they made those walls as pure and clear
As an open sky.
There is a way that leads from all-colors
To colorlessness. Know that the magnificent variety
Of clouds and the weather comes from
The total simplicity of the sun and the moon.
The Chinese finished, and were so happy.
They beat the drums in the joy of completion.
The king entered their room,
Astonished by the gorgeous color and detail.
The Greeks then pulled the curtain dividing the rooms.
The Chinese figures and images shimmeringly reflected
On the clear Greek walls. They lived there,
Even more beautifully, and always
Changing in the light.
The Greek Art is the sufi way.
They don't study books of philosophical thought.
They make their loving clearer and clearer.
No wantings, no anger. In that purity
They receive and reflect the images of every moment,
From here, from the stars, from the void.
They take them in
As though they were seeing
With the lighted clarity
That sees them.
From: 'The Essential Rumi', translated by Coleman Barks.