NEW YORK, NY.-
A loan exhibition devoted entirely to Chinese calligraphy including masterpieces by some of the most renowned practitioners in Chinese historyopened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
on April 29. Featuring more than 40 works, from towering scrolls designed to fill reception halls to intimate works meant to be enjoyed by lone scholars in their studios, Out of Character: Decoding Chinese CalligraphySelections from the Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang introduce viewers to the art of the written word that was prized above all other visual art forms in traditional China. The selection of works and their interpretation in the galleries are intended to speak to beginners and specialists alike, using artworks of the highest quality to introduce key concepts of format, script type, and style. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the 16th-century album by Wen Peng (1497-1573) called The 1000-Character Classic; consisting of 85 leaves, it will fill a 25-foot-long wall.
Some of the most notable works on view are: a standard script transcription of the Buddhist text The Lotus Sutra (Miaofa lianhua jing) by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322); a scroll of poems written in powerful cursive script by Xiong Tingbi (1569-1625), a Ming general charged with defending the Great Wall; a cluster of works by 17th-century Ming loyalists; and an important group of 19th-century pieces by the masters of the Epigraphic School, who based their calligraphy on the archaic scripts found on bronze vessels and monumental stone steles.
Chinese calligraphy was born more than three thousand years ago. The earliest forms of writing were laborious to create, and over time different ways of writing, known as script types, evolved, in some cases for the sake of efficiency, and in others for the sake of legibility.
There are five major script types—seal, clerical, cursive, semicursive, and standard—and each has its own special characteristics.
Calligraphy and Social Networks
Brush-written calligraphy played a central role in the social networks of pre- modern China: friends exchanged letters, transcribed poems for one another, and wrote commemorative inscriptions. These calligraphic traces allow us to reconstruct networks that spanned the entire breadth of the empire.
The artworks highlight calligraphy’s social role. The exhibition includes letters written by various calligraphers of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). While the primary job of letters was to communicate information, they were also valued aesthetic objects, exchanged as works of art to help solidify the relationship between sender and receiver. On view in the exhibition is a handscroll that preserves a group of texts written to celebrate the retirement of a certain Dr. Qian. Judging by the fame of the calligraphers represented, Dr. Qian was part of a very exclusive social group.
Calligraphy has long been considered the most expressive visual art in China—it is not just handwriting, but a visual expression of the writer’s spirit. This has made calligraphy very powerful as a social art, because in giving a work of calligraphy, one gives a piece of oneself.
Ming Dynasty Suzhou and the World of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559)
During the sixteenth century, the city of Suzhou was home to many of the empire’s greatest poets, calligraphers, painters, and art collectors. At the center of this vibrant scene was Wen Zhengming, a multitalented artist and tastemaker whose skills extended to poetry, calligraphy, painting, and more. Wen Zhengming helped set the tone for this period, and his many followers, including his sons and grandsons, continued his legacy.
As a calligrapher, Wen Zhengming tended toward an understated elegance and respect for tradition. Even his powerful, large-character writing—represented in this room by a poem transcribed in his eighty-fourth year—is marked by fluidity and balance. Wen Zhengming’s son Wen Peng shared his father’s penchant for elegance—as can be seen in his cursive-script album—but he was also interested in the monumentality of ancient writings on stone. The exhibition presents two works by Wen Zhengming’s student Wang Chong, a calligrapher of great versatility who played an important role in the Suzhou cultural scene prior to his early death.
The Seventeenth-Century Pursuit of the “Big and Rough”
The calligraphy in room four of the exhibition was made to look bold, powerful—even strange. All these works were made during the seventeenth century, when many turned away from the pursuit of elegance and instead sought the fantastic, bizarre, and grotesque. This was also a moment when calligraphy began to be used for different purposes: where once it had been primarily viewed in intimate settings like the scholar’s studio, in the seventeenth century calligraphy began increasingly to adorn reception halls, the largest, most public residential spaces. For that reason, many of the great calligraphers of the day worked in large formats, as seen in the three oversized hanging scrolls in this gallery.
Look closely at the surfaces of these works. Whereas the calligraphers in the previous gallery were careful to control the wetness of their ink to create a consistent appearance, the calligraphers in this room embrace extreme contrasts of wet and dry, soaking the silk in some places and letting the brush dry out almost completely in others. In doing so, they were deliberately rejecting existing standards of beauty. Wang Duo, one of the leading figures of this movement, wrote, “As much as possible, I reject the quiet and fine for the big and rough.”
Eccentricity versus Elegance in Seventeenth- Century Calligraphy
Passion for eccentricity was a major current in seventeenth-century calligraphy, but many accomplished calligraphers continued to work in the classical tradition defined by balance and smoothness. Among these, the greatest was Dong Qichang, the leading painter, calligrapher, and theorist of his time. At a moment when many were turning their backs on tradition, Dong was leaning into it, taking historically informed elegance to new heights.
This gallery juxtaposes these two currents of seventeenth-century calligraphy— eccentricity and elegance—with the rough individuality of Wang Duo, Zhang Ruitu, and Huang Hui displayed opposite the supreme smoothness of Dong Qichang.
Yangzhou Calligraphers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
In the late seventeenth century, the city of Yangzhou rose to prominence on China’s cultural scene. Yangzhou was well-situated: it lay at the intersection of the Grand Canal and the Yangzi River, the major north-south and west-east shipping routes, respectively, and it was also home to the government’s administrative offices for the salt trade. Many wealthy merchants made their homes in Yangzhou, and artists soon followed in search of patronage.
Yangzhou in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had a spirit of openness, and artists found that innovation was not only tolerated but encouraged by their patrons. In this environment, Shitao mixed elements of clerical script into his standard script writing, creating a charmingly quirky hand; Jin Nong forged a bold way of writing based on old stone inscriptions; and Zheng Xie combined multiple script types into a new way of writing that he called “six-and-a-half script.” By adopting elements of ancient calligraphy into their work, these Yangzhou artists foreshadow the nineteenth-century Epigraphic School, to which the final gallery of this exhibition is devoted.
Finding Inspiration in Stone and Metal: The Epigraphic School of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a new movement arose in calligraphy. Variously called the Stele School, School of Stone and Metal, or Epigraphic School, this movement valued types of calligraphy that previously had been ignored or looked down on, such as inscriptions in stone and bronze by unknown writers, especially from the Han dynasty (206 b.c.–a.d. 220) and earlier. To the Epigraphic School, these ancient traces were the missing links to an untold history of calligraphy.
In the distant past the Epigraphic School found calligraphy that looked very different from the canonical models their teachers had studied and taught. They discovered script types that had fallen out of regular use over the millennia, written in styles that were bold and unadorned, especially when compared to the suave sophistication of recent masters such as Zhao Mengfu and Dong Qichang. It was this raw power, along with a sense of historical importance, that drew the Epigraphic School scholars to these long-for