Sunday, June 01, 2008

How to Read Chinese Paintings

In this exhibition, the curatorial explanations and enlarged photographic details illuminated many fine points of style, influence and history. What intrigued me was the manner in which the viewer of the work of art responded to it. As Maxwell K. Hearn explains in the introductory essay of the catalogue:

Integrating calligraphy, poetry, and painting, scholar-artists for the first time combined the "three perfections" in a single work. . . . In such paintings, poetic and pictorial imagery and energized calligraphic lines work in tandem to express the mind and emotions of the artist. . . . Once poetic inscriptions had become an integral part of a composition, the recipient of the painting or a later appreciator would often add an inscription as his own "response." Thus, a painting was not finalized when an artist set down his brush, but it would continue to evolve as later owners and admirers appended their own inscriptions or seals. Most such inscriptions take the form of colophons placed on the borders of a painting or on the end-papers of a handscroll or album; others might be added directly onto the painting. In this way Night-Shining White . . . was embellished with a record of its transmision that spans more than a thousand years.

Han Gan (act. 742–56)
Night-Shining White
Handscroll; ink on paper; 12 1/8 x 13 3/8 in. (30.8 x 34 cm)

My favorite painting in this exhibition is Two Pines, Level Distance, by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). The rocks and the trees are rendered in different calligraphic styles in order to express their different essences.

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