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Press release


September 15, 2000 — January 7, 2001
Douglas Dillon Galleries, C. C Wang Family Gallery,
Frances Young Tang Gallery, north wing, second floor

The most important and comprehensive exhibition of its kind ever assembled in the West, The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection — opening September 15 — will bring together some 120 works of art from the two principal collections of Chinese calligraphy that were formed in the United States. More than 55 masterworks from the John B. Elliott Collection of The Art Museum, Princeton University — perhaps the finest such collection outside Asia — will be integrated with a similar number of masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, most notably from the John M. Crawford Jr. Collection, and loans from six private collections. Spanning the period from the fourth century to the modern era, the exhibition will explore the stylistic range and individuality of many of the leading artists of the last 1,000 years.

In China, calligraphy is regarded as the quintessential visual art, ranking above painting as the most important vehicle for individual expression. By the fourth century, writing became a fine art in China, when earlier scribal styles were transformed into highly personal vehicles for self-expression. After a brief review of the evolution of the principal script types — from the first writings engraved on "oracle bones" around the 14th century B.C. to the perfection of standard script in the 7th century A.D. — and an extraordinary survey of the varied writing styles of the 4th-century "calligraphic sage" Wang Xizhi, the exhibition is given over to a chronological survey of the immensely varied personal interpretations of these script types from the 11th to the 20th century.

Maxwell Hearn, Curator in the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum, noted: "Calligraphy may be appreciated in much the same way as some abstract art — by following the artist's every gesture, re-experiencing the kinesthetic action of creation as preserved in the inked lines. Because each character has a recognized standard form and is composed following a fixed sequence of brushstrokes, it is possible to follow the hand of the artist as he reenacts this pattern. Not unlike a slalom skier following a fixed course, however, from the moment the calligrapher launches into his writing, his every movement is a unique response to where he has come from and where he is going. From stroke to stroke and character to character, calligraphy is an indelible record of the unique and highly personal solutions each writer creates in response to physical circumstances — the tactile qualities of brush, ink, and paper or silk; psychic circumstances, namely his state of mind and emotions; and historical circumstances, that is, how he chooses to acknowledge or to ignore the techniques and nuances that earlier writers have created in writing the same characters."

The exhibition was organized by The Art Museum, Princeton University.

The exhibition was made possible by the Publications Committee of the Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Martha Sutherland Cheng, the Joint Committee on Chinese Studies of the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Social Sciences Research Council; and anonymous donors.

The exhibition in New York is made possible by The Dillon Fund.

ROOM ONE: Early Paradigms:
The Beginnings of Writing to the Tang Dynasty (618-907)

Written Chinese evolved through five basic script types: seal script, the earliest historical script form, which appeared in the Shang dynasty (16th c.-ca. 1050 B.C.); clerical script, a standardized scribal form of writing with a brush that evolved under the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220); running script and cursive script, both representing increasingly abbreviated forms of the standard character forms; and standard script, the modern form of Chinese writing that achieved its first fully realized form in the seventh century. All of these scripts continue to be practiced today.

According to Chinese tradition, the key figure in the transformation of writing into art was Wang Xizhi (303-361). It is likely that not a single autograph work by Wang survives today; instead, his style is preserved in a wide variety of later copies. The Elliott collection boasts an exceedingly rare tracing copy of a letter by Wang, known as Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest, that probably dates to the seventh century, when the Tang dynasty emperor Taizong (r. 626-49) declared Wang's style to be the orthodox paradigm. Later dynasties, following this precedent, used official patronage of Wang's style as a means of political legitimation by identifying the court with scholarly orthodoxy. In the exhibition, this point is illustrated by a group of rubbings of Wang Xizhi's writings. The earliest and rarest examples, on loan from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection, come from an imperially commissioned compendium of model calligraphies engraved in 992 at the outset of the Song dynasty (960-1279).

ROOM TWO: In Quest of Spontaneity and Aesthetic Refinement:
The Song Dynasty (960-1279)

During the Song dynasty, a new meritocracy of scholar-officials emerged as a potent cultural force, as a result of civil service examinations that placed a premium on the command of literature, history, and calligraphy. Wary of the court's attempt to codify writing styles and critical of the declining standards in calligraphy due to the proliferation of inferior copies of model texts, a small circle of leading scholars championed spontaneity and self-expression through highly personal brush styles that captured "a picture of the mind." One of the most innovative calligraphers in this circle was the noted poet Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), and two of his masterpieces are featured in the exhibition. Biographies of Lian Po and Lin Xiangru, from the Crawford Collection, was written about 1095, shortly after Huang was exiled to Sichuan, and is one of the artist's two surviving masterworks of "wild cursive" writing. The handscroll, which measures nearly sixty feet in length and contains some 1700 characters, transcribes a first-century B.C. account of the rivalry of two court officials; it may well reflect Huang's feeling that his banishment was the result of someone's personal malice. Huang was still living in exile in 1100 when he wrote Scroll for Zhang Datong for his nephew. Now in the Elliott Collection, the scroll preserves one of the most powerful examples of Huang's large-scale running script, in which daringly asymmetrical characters pulse with energy from Huang's tightly grasped brush.

The varied size of Huang's characters means that they often intrude into one another's spaces and Huang's friend, the renowned connoisseur and collector Mi Fu (1052-1107), steeped himself in the tradition of calligraphy and eventually became the most sophisticated and brilliantly inventive calligrapher of his time. Mi's Three Letters from the Elliott Collection, datable to 1093-94, illustrate the grace and complexity of his running script in his favorite format — intimate personal correspondence. Each letter expresses a different mood, and in each case the content has shaped the writing. Mi's desire to reflect his emotions in his writing is epitomized by Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River of about 1100 from the Crawford Collection. Written with ecstatic abandon, this masterpiece of cursive writing gives a vivid sense of the drama described in Mi's poem through changes in brushline, character size, and ink tone.

After the conquest of north China by the Jurchen in 1127, the rulers of the so-called Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) sought to assert their legitimacy through an active program of artistic patronage. Emperor Gaozong (r. 1127-62), the first Southern Song ruler, consciously adopted a style of calligraphy derived from that of Wang Xizhi as a means of promoting his own orthodoxy. Six examples of imperial calligraphy — by Gaozong, empress Yang Meizi (1162-1232), and emperor Lizong (r. 1225-64) — illustrate how Gaozong's new writing style established a precedent that was followed by subsequent Song rulers as well as by other members of the court. These imperial writings, all done in the intimate format of the album leaf or oval fan, show a certain suave elegance but, according to the late Song calligrapher Zhao Mengjian (1199-before 1267), who is represented in the exhibition by a handscroll from the Crawford Collection, they lacked a solid structural framework of "supports and walls." This weakness was not remedied until the next generation when Zhao Mengjian's relative, Zhao Mengfu, reinvigorated writing with a creative revival of antique styles.

ROOM THREE: Under Mongol Rule:
The Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368)

In 1279 the Southern Song dynasty fell to the Mongols who had earlier founded the Yuan dynasty. Disenfranchised by early Mongol rulers and living in enforced retirement, members of southern China's scholarly elite rejected the artistic styles of the fallen dynasty as degenerate and sought moral and aesthetic renewal through a return to earlier traditions. This artistic revolution was led by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), who undertook a comprehensive study of earlier styles. Drawing on the structural principles of Tang dynasty calligraphy, Zhao created a new form of standard script that rapidly became the model for calligraphy throughout China, even inspiring a new typeface for woodblock-printed books. In no other period has the work of a single calligrapher so dominated the practice of this art. Zhao's achievement is epitomized by his monumental Record of the Miaoyan Monastery of about 1309-10 from the Elliott Collection. In this work Zhao succeeded in renewing the debased tradition of Wang Xizhi by synthesizing features from various Tang dynasty models into a single coherent style. Zhao's equally profound influence in running and cursive scripts is illustrated by three other works by him together with related works by members of his family and his immediate followers.

Zhao's friend Xianyu Shu (1246-1302) grew up in north China, but moved south to Hangzhou after the Mongol reunification. Continuing to practice the bold, spontaneous calligraphic style inherited from such early Song literati masters as Huang Tingjian and Mi Fu, his writing had a profoundly liberating influence on Zhao's art. Like Zhao, he is represented in the exhibition by four works, which date from 1290 to 1301.

ROOM FOUR: Empire of Restoration:
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

The overthrow of the Mongols in 1368 and the establishment of the Ming dynasty marked a return to native Chinese rule. Early Ming emperors revived imperial sponsorship of the arts as part of a broader program of political legitimation through cultural restoration. By the early 15th century, a succession of talented calligraphers at court, especially Song Ke (1327-1387) and the brothers Shen Du (1357-1434) and Shen Can (1379-1453), had successfully systematized Zhao Mengfu's complex standard script, creating an exacting "chancellery style" that became the model for all government documents as well as for all students who aspired to government office. The complex layers of tradition interwoven in this style are suggested by Song Ke's Thirteen Colophons to the Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering, done in 1370, two years after the Ming dynasty was founded. The handscroll, on loan from a private collection, shows Song's creative response to a text that Zhao Mengfu composed in 1310 as he studied a rubbing of Wang Xizhi's most famous calligraphic work. In this handscroll, Song displays his mastery of four distinct scripts: standard, running, draft cursive, and modern cursive.

ROOM FIVE: The Scholar-Artists of Suzhou and Late Ming Literati Culture
With the waning of imperial patronage during the late 15th century, innovations in calligraphy shifted to cultural centers in the south. In the first half of the 16th century the arts of painting and calligraphy were dominated by a tight-knit group of scholar-artists living in Suzhou. Rebelling against the constrictions of the court chancellery style, these artists revived the individualistic manner of the early Song masters. Large-character poems by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) from the Elliott and Crawford collections recall the monumental running-script of Huang Tingjian, while a handscroll in "wild cursive" script by Zhu Yunming (1461-1527) in the Elliott Collection goes beyond Song models in its free-wheeling manner of execution. Breaking down the spatial integrity of characters within columns, Zhu creates an abstract field of lines and dots that recall the skeinlike drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. Zhu's characters disintegrate before our eyes, pulled apart by an irresistible centripetal force. As characters part and scatter, the distinction between image and ground, between the spaces within characters and the spaces surrounding them, are blurred.

Toward the end of the 16th century, Dong Qichang (1555-1636), a native of Songjiang (near modern day Shanghai) came to dominate the theory and practice of calligraphy. Disparaging the achievements of calligraphers in nearby Suzhou, Dong stressed the need to study the works of Wang Xizhi and Tang dynasty masters. In Poem Commemorating an Imperially Bestowed Feast of 1632, for example, Dong follows the monumental style of the Tang master Yan Zhenqing (709-785). Other writers who sought to achieve a monumental style at this time were Zhang Ruitu (1570?-1641) and Mi Wanzhong (active ca. 1595-after 1631), both of whom worked in the Ming capital.

ROOMS SIX AND SEVEN: Idiosyncratic Calligraphers of the Seventeenth Century:
Ming Loyalists Under the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Paradoxically, the late Ming interest in antique models led to a great diversity of experimental styles that placed a premium on idiosyncrasy and strangeness. Wang Duo (1592-1652) dedicated his career to copying works by Wang Xizhi, as in his Calligraphy after Wang Xizhi of 1643 from the Elliott Collection, but his re-creations of early models completely reconfigure them. Unlike Wang Duo, Fu Shan (1607-1684) refused to serve the Manchus after their conquest of the Ming in 1644, expressing his opposition through the rejection of the refined, orthodox style of calligraphy promoted by the Manchu court. Preferring his calligraphy be "awkward and not skillful; ugly, not charming; deformed, not slippery; spontaneous, not premeditated," Fu used eccentrically archaistic characters and obscure alternate forms that distorted classical models. Fu's spectacular twelve-panel poem entitled Frank Words of Farewell for Wei Yi'ao of 1657 from the collection of H. Christopher Luce was a farewell gift for Fu's friend. The text, which describes how Wei Yi'ao preferred wine to official duties, implies that Wei indulged his taste for drink as a form of political protest. The eccentric style of Fu's calligraphy, which combines regular, running, seal, and clerical elements in a wild cursive style, reinforces the themes of drunkenness and defiant individuality.

ROOM EIGHT: From Metal and Stone:
Epigraphic Styles of the Later Qing Dynasty (18th-20th century)

While the early Qing emperors greatly admired the calligraphy of Dong Qichang, which became the semi-official style of government documents, a variety of eccentric styles were practiced by artists such as Gao Fenghan (1682-ca. 1747) and Jin Nong (1687-1764) working in the southern commercial center of Yangzhou. Jin Nong's Appreciating Bamboo, written in a blocky form of clerical script, reflects the ongoing interest in stone inscriptions as an alternative to the Wang Xizhi tradition. During the 19th and early 20th centuries scholars seeking more reliable models of antique writing meticulously collected and studied ancient inscriptions recovered from stone monuments and bronzes. Seal script, in particular, enjoyed a major revival at this time, as exemplified by the works of Qian Dian (1741-1806), Wu Dacheng (1835-1902), and Wu Changshi (1844-1927), all of which are represented by loans from the Luce Collection. The exhibition ends with a series of monumental writings in couplets and a group of letters—two distinct forms that emphasize calligraphy's dual role as a public art, suitable for embellishing architectural spaces or stone monuments, and as a private art, capable of conveying the most personal qualities of the writer.

The original exhibition of the John B. Elliott Collection was held at The Art Museum, Princeton University from March 27 to June 27, 1999. It was curated by Cary Y. Liu, associate curator, Princeton University, with guest curator Robert E. Harrist, Jr., associate professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University. It was accompanied by a full catalogue, The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection (The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999), by Robert E. Harrist, Jr., and Wen C. Fong, Edwards S. Sanford Professor Emeritus of Art History at Princeton University and Consultative Chairman of Asian Art and Douglas Dillon Curator of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. After its display at the Metropolitan Museum the Elliott Collection will be exhibited at The Seattle Art Museum.

The expanded exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum is organized by Maxwell K. Hearn, Curator of Asian Art.


May 8, 2000

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