The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change

August 21, 2010–January 9, 2011

Zhao Mengfu: "Calligraphy and Painting are Basically the Same"

The artist who most forcefully articulated a new approach to painting and calligraphy was Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), the principal architect of the Yuan renaissance. His transformation of these two art forms was the result of personal struggle: epitomizing the plight of Chinese scholars living through dynastic change, Zhao agonized over whether to retire out of loyalty to the fallen Song or to help shape policy through service under the conquering Yuan. He thereafter espoused the ideal of "reclusion at court," becoming a government official but detaching himself from political intrigue and maintaining the moral purity of a hermit. This tension between participation and reclusion defined Zhao's career and would find its clearest expression in his artistic pursuits, through which he sought to make known his state of mind and lofty moral purpose.

Zhao identified with the scholar-officials of the Northern Song and their intertwined traditions of poetry, painting, and calligraphy, and he sought to incorporate into his own work the orthodox canon of the literati artists. His most calligraphic works, of rocks, orchids, and bamboo, emulate the "ink plays" of the poet-statesman Su Shi (1037–1101). Seeking to convey a "spirit of antiquity" (guyi) yet mindful of Su Shi's condemnation of "form-likeness," Zhao did not merely imitate past models but reinterpreted them, distilling and abstracting their imagery while asserting the equivalence of painting and calligraphy through calligraphic brushwork and the placement of inscriptions on the picture surface. By these means, Zhao transformed his archaic sources, turning both style and content into vehicles for self-expression.