Exhibitions/ Mastering the Art of Chinese Painting

Mastering the Art of Chinese Painting: Xie Zhiliu (1910–1997)

February 6–August 1, 2010
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This exhibition includes a selection of around one hundred and fifty works by Xie Zhiliu (pronounced "shay jer-leo"), one of modern China's leading traditional artists and a preeminent connoisseur of painting and calligraphy. The rare trove of material on view demonstrates how studying and copying earlier models were as much a part of Chinese artistic tradition as learning from nature. Drawn from a recent gift of sketches, calligraphic works, manuscripts, and seals presented to the Museum by the artist's daughter, Sarah Shay, the installation commemorates the one-hundredth anniversary of Xie Zhiliu's birth.

Xie Zhiliu received a traditional Chinese artistic education, which combined the two disciplines of copying the work of earlier masters and drawing directly from life. His finished paintings, like those of many other Chinese artists, appear to be freehand creations—the work of a master draftsman who handled his brush with a confidence borne of years of practice. However, unlike many artists, Xie preserved numerous copies and sketches he made throughout his career, not only building a unique record of his creative process but also revealing how a seemingly spontaneous composition could be preceded by one or more sketches and drafts. These preparatory works could also serve as templates, thus liberating Xie from the need to visualize a completed composition in advance and allowing him to concentrate instead on making each of his brushstrokes as dynamic and fluid as possible. Juxtaposing Xie’s preparatory sketches with images of earlier models and with his own finished works, this exhibition seeks to demonstrate not only how traditional Chinese masters developed their personal styles through a combination of careful imitation and creative adaptation but also how they often relied on preparatory drawings to practice their craft—in a manner not dissimilar to that of Western painters.

More About the Artist

Xie Zhiliu was a native of Changzhou, a city with a strong tradition of bird-and-flower painting, a genre in which Xie excelled. Moving to Chongqing to escape the Japanese occupation in 1937, he became a close friend of a renowned painter Zhang Daqian (1899–1983), who introduced him to the Buddhist cave murals of the Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang. After the war, he became an advisor and preeminent connoisseur on painting and calligraphy for the Shanghai Museum as well as a professor of painting. Thanks to his access to the rich holdings of the museum, Xie expanded his style through the study of Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasty painting, a topic on which he published. Between 1983 and 1990 he led a team of scholars in evaluating the collections of China’s leading cultural institutions, which resulted in a twenty-four-volume illustrated index of more than seventy thousand paintings and calligraphies.

About the Installation

The installation is organized thematically. The first two galleries, entitled "Tracing the Past," present Xie’s early studies of figures, narratives, and bird-and-flower paintings of the Song dynasty (960–1279). His sketches of Buddhist figures based on his study of the Dunhuang murals are also included here. The artist's admiration for the master painter Chen Hongshou (1599–1652) and other bird-and-flower specialists is highlighted in the subsequent two galleries with a number of precise copies of these artists' paintings. How Xie also learned directly from nature is illustrated in the fifth gallery. Featured are a number of studies of flowers and fruit as well as two albums of landscape sketches, capturing naturalistic compositions defined largely by contour lines with little interior modeling. Also on view in this section is a pencil sketch of narcissus visualized from different angles that show how his lines were slowly formed with numerous adjustments and corrections. Xie's appreciation for cursive calligraphy is the focus of the next section. A manuscript called Poems of Inner Mongolia (1961) as well as several copies including Select Characters from Huaisu's Autobiography (1969) and Notes on Zhang Xu dated to the late 1960s document Xie's conscientious study of ancient models in the Shanghai Museum collection. The section concludes with Five Poems (1990), reflecting the abiding influence of these earlier masters. The final gallery features Xie’s integration of naturalism and stylization in his late years. Among the works on view is a brightly colored album called Views of Yosemite National Park, California (1994), which the artist made with his wife, the painter Chen Peiqiu (b. 1923), in 1994. Complementing the installation is a display of some of the artist's seals, which constitute a valuable anthology of the seal carver's art by many of the leading practitioners of the late twentieth century. This group also highlights one of the most innovative and important forms of calligraphy to be practiced since the late Ming dynasty.

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Exhibition Objects

The exhibition includes a sampling of Xie Zhiliu's drawings prior to their restoration by the Museum's Asian Art Conservation Studio, which specializes in the restoration and remounting of East Asian painting and calligraphy.

The more than 250 tracings, sketches, and notebooks in the Sarah Shay gift presented a significant challenge to Museum conservators, who stabilized and restored the works for exhibition. Accumulated over a lifetime of artistic practice, most of these materials—which range in size from scraps of paper to works over four feet in height—had become brittle and fragile with age. Moreover, many were folded, creased, torn, or stained, and nearly all were unmounted. Executed in ink, pencil, and charcoal, these works were made on many different types of paper, ranging from stationary, ruled notebook sheets, and sketchpads to glassine, cellophane, and high-quality mulberry bark paper. Because different papers and drawing media react differently to conservation procedures, each work necessitated a unique treatment plan. As all the works have been repaired and stabilized, each has been mounted for presentation, either in a traditional scroll or album format or in a Western-style mat.

The process of tracing earlier models to learn from past masters has a long history in China, particularly for students of calligraphy, who typically begin their training by tracing characters to learn the nuances of brush movement and composition. As Xie Zhiliu's (1910–1997) tracing copies demonstrate, this method was also used to master the art of painting. The works in this section of the exhibition reveal Xie's early interest in the architectural, figural, and bird-and-flower compositions of the Song dynasty (960–1279) masters, as well as his study of ancient wall paintings, which he encountered while visiting the Buddhist cave temples of Dunhuang, in northwest China, in 1942–43.

On sheets of transparent, glossy paper, Xie made meticulous tracings of individual forms, constructing a lexicon of pictorial motifs that he could later draw upon to compose his own works. He also copied entire compositions but often did so loosely, allowing himself the freedom to "finish" a composition according to his own predilections. This process enabled him to assert his imagination while continuing to learn from past models.

Using line rather than shading to define form is fundamental to Chinese painting, and Xie's reliance on linear tracings demonstrates one way in which this tradition was perpetuated. By placing a tracing copy beneath a blank sheet of paper, Xie could work confidently from an established compositional template, freeing himself to focus on making the brushstrokes of his finished painting as beautiful as possible. Chinese artists have long used preparatory drawings in this way. Indeed, as early as the tenth century, mural artists in Dunhuang used pouncing to transfer iconographic images onto cave walls.

Born in Changzhou, a city located northwest of Shanghai along the Grand Canal, in Jiangsu province, Xie Zhiliu was privately educated under local scholars. As an aspiring young artist, he embarked upon the traditional path of learning by faithfully copying the work of his predecessors. His earliest models included not only original scroll paintings but printed reproductions as well. Xie particularly excelled in "bird-and-flower" paintings, a genre with a strong local tradition fostered by the Piling school of painters.

In 1937, at the start of the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), Xie moved to Chongqing to escape the Japanese occupation. There, he became a close friend of the painter Zhang Daqian (Chang Ta-ch'ien, 1899–1983), through whom he was introduced to the Buddhist cave murals of Dunhuang, in northwest China. From the autumn of 1942 to the following September, Xie spent nearly a year in this Silk Road oasis, studying the wall paintings in the more than four hundred Buddhist cave temples that were built there between the fifth and fourteenth century. Neither Xie nor Zhang brought cameras to document the murals; instead, they painted life-size reproductions. The careful tracings exhibited here were taken directly from the original images.

In 1930, at the age of twenty-one, Xie Zhiliu (1910–1997) visited an exhibition at the Nanjing Museum, where he saw a painting by the Ming dynasty master Chen Hongshou (1599–1652). He quickly became fascinated with Chen's meticulously executed bird-and-flower images, notable for their fine lines and brilliant color. During the next two decades, Xie copied numerous works by Chen, including the artist's figure paintings, carefully emulating their technical refinement and decorative charm. Xie also recreated Chen's style in his original compositions, as exemplified by the album of highly finished plum-blossom paintings on display in this gallery. Chen's art derived from that of the Song dynasty (960–1279) masters, with whom Xie was also familiar, having studied their work extensively as he expanded his repertoire.

Xie Zhiliu's (1910–1997) attraction to bird-and-flower motifs, together with his preference for meticulous drawing and fluid calligraphy, naturally led him to the work of two Qing dynasty masters of the genre: Yun Shouping (1633–1690) and Jiang Tingxi (1669–1732). Xie sometimes emulated these models a bit more loosely to accommodate his own taste and expressive style.

Yun Shouping, born and raised in Xie's hometown of Changzhou, revived the local Piling-school style of flower painting, which first rose to prominence in the thirteenth century, and transformed it into a more lyrical, literati mode of expression. Yun preferred to paint in translucent colors on paper, rather than silk, and he was famous for his "boneless" method of painting—that is, without ink outlines. He frequently embellished his compositions with his own poems, written in a fluid running script.

Jiang Tingxi began his career as a court painter in about 1700, but he was quickly promoted to the Hanlin Academy and ultimately rose to the post of president of the Board of Revenue. In spite of these weighty official responsibilities, Jiang maintained his reputation as a brilliant painter of realistic flowers and still lifes, which he executed with great technical proficiency.

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").

Complementing Xie Zhiliu's (1910–1997) assiduous study of the old masters was a profound interest in nature. He traveled to scenic areas throughout China, making sketches of flowers, plants, and the landscape. These drawings are often annotated with comments regarding the specificities of a particular site or the colors to use in the final painting, as well as suggestions on how to improve the composition. A large number of these sketches, including those of West Lake in Hangzhou and Mount Tianmu in Zhejiang province, come from a single early sketchbook that Xie carried with him as he traveled.

Xie usually sketched in pencil but occasionally brushed over his sketches with ink to create a clearer, more finished model for a final composition, thus simplifying and reinterpreting nature in the same way that he reworked earlier pictorial models.

Throughout his career, Xie sketched from life preparatory to creating his landscapes. In the 1950s and 1960s, Xie traveled extensively to regions including Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Guangdong province, where he drew the local scenery. These sketches, which bear alterations and handwritten notes by the artist, comprise a valuable record of Xie's creative process, demonstrating how he modified natural imagery to create compositions expressive of his own aesthetic.

Xie Zhiliu was both a painter and a scholar, and in addition to his artistic oeuvre, he left behind a number of handwritten manuscripts. Reflecting the full range of Xie's scholarly interests, these writings record the paintings and calligraphic works he studied and admired. Also included are the artists' chronologies he constructed and excerpts from miscellaneous books.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Xie Zhiliu (1910–1997) drew heavily on the work of Chen Hongshou (1599–1652), not only copying his paintings but faithfully transcribing his inscriptions as well. Indeed, Chen's calligraphy, with its elongated characters and bony, angular brushwork, shaped Xie's earliest writing style. However, as Xie's vision deteriorated in the late 1960s, he embraced the bolder calligraphic styles of Huang Tingjian (1045–1105), Huaisu (725–ca. 799), and Zhang Xu (act. ca. 700–750), practicing their running and wild cursive scripts in addition to writing scholarly essays on their work. Xie was particularly interested in Zhang Xu, and his copy of Zhang's masterpiece, written in the wild cursive style, is on display. (Xie appended his own poems to this work, as well as transcriptions of various connoisseurs' comments.) He approached Huaisu's calligraphy differently: rather than make a tracing copy of the whole of Huaisu's celebrated Autobiography, Xie selectively imitated individual characters that most interested him. In this instance, he worked from a rubbing of the text, as he did not have access to the original.

After World War II, Xie Zhiliu (1910–1997) moved to Shanghai, where he served as an artistic adviser and connoisseur of painting and calligraphy for the Shanghai Museum (founded in 1952), as well as a professor of painting. Working from the museum's rich holdings of Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasty paintings (topics on which he also published), Xie greatly enriched and expanded his style.

Xie first became fascinated with Song dynasty (960–1279) painting in his late twenties, experimenting with the monumental "northern" style notable for its massive mountain forms, emphatic, angular contours, and "raindrop" or "axe-cut" texture strokes. Later, he grew increasingly interested in the diverse styles of the "southern" masters, ranging from the ropey, "hemp-fiber" brushstrokes of Dong Yuan (act. 930s–960s) to the lyrical, evocative style of ink wash practiced by Liang Kai (ca. 1150?–ca. 1220?). In both instances, Xie modified the work of his predecessors by simplifying their detailed brushwork and adding richer colors, creating his own elegant style of landscape painting that was at once substantial and decorative.

This gallery in the exhibition highlights the work of Xie Zhiliu's (1910–1997) later years, during which he integrated naturalism and stylization to great effect. The display contrasts an elegant series of monochrome outline drawings of lotus leaves and blossoms with an album of brilliantly colored, finished lotus paintings from 1993. A parallel comparison is made between an early set of landscape sketches and an album of paintings inspired by Yosemite National Park, which the artist made with his wife, the painter Chen Peiqiu (b. 1923), when they traveled there in 1993–94.

In his late years, Xie developed a new painting method that involved the generous application of both monochrome and colored washes. He introduced bright blue and green hues to his palette, creating lush, dense compositions in which outlined motifs are set off by vivid washes. In contrast to the meticulously executed style of his earlier paintings, these images are looser, appearing almost unfinished. The two albums, both made in the 1990s, reflect Xie's distinctive personal style, developed after decades of exploring the entire canon of Chinese art.