The exhibition features a selection of artists' seals from the sixty-one carved for Xie Zhiliu between 1972 and 1997. Together, they constitute a valuable anthology of the art of seal carving by many of the leading practitioners of the late twentieth century.
Seals, which combine the arts of calligraphy and carving, have been used in China to sign documents for more than two millennia. Originally, seals were stamped into clay, functioning in a manner similar to Western wax seals, but for most of their history, they have been coated with a red paste made from cinnabar and then impressed onto a document, leaving a red stamp. Whether cast from metal or carved from stone or other materials, seals use archaic forms of Chinese script to record a person's name, a government title, the name of a hall or studio, or even a line of poetry or a famous proverb. This script is either incised into the seal's surface, rendering the stamped legend as white lines on a red background, or the script is left in relief and the background is cut away, leaving a red text.
Artists use seals not only to sign their works but to embellish their compositions with a touch of red. Typically, seals accompany a signature or appear at the corners of a composition. Artists use seals of different sizes and designs depending on the scale of their compositions and the desired aesthetic impact. Often, a pair of seals might be impressed together, with one seal giving the artist's proper name and the other providing his sobriquet or studio name. Older paintings frequently will have many seals added to their margins, impressed by later collectors as marks of ownership.
Seal-carving connoisseurship focuses on four aspects of the art form: the stone, the ornamentation of the top surface, the calligraphic style of the text (or legend), and the style of carving. Xie's collection features seals carved from several notable kinds of soapstone, including those known as "chicken blood" (jixue) and "hibiscus" (furong), as well as stones from Qingtian (in Zhejiang), Shoushan (in Fujian), and Balin (in Inner Mongolia). Several have finely ornamented surfaces, among them a fantastic griffin-like creature, a tortoise, and a curved roof tile. The calligraphy derives from archaic forms of Chinese writing dating from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) or earlier, now referred to as seal script. The character designs of seal script constitute one of the most innovative and important forms of Chinese calligraphy to be practiced in the last four hundred years.
During the twenty-five years represented in this collection, Xie acquired seals by fifteen different seal carvers. Most of his seals give his name or the name of his studio, Zhuangmu Tang ("Hall of a Spirited Old Man") or Yuyinxi Tang ("Hall of Fish Drinking from a Brook").