Complexities of Chinese calligraphy revealed

Courtesy PhotoWritten word: A commissioned contemporary work by Xu Bing is part of the extensive Chinese calligraphy exhibition at the Asian Art Museum.

Calligraphy, admired as the ultimate art form by China’s educated elite for more than 2,000 years, has evolved with a complex set of rules and conventions that affect every aspect of the calligrapher’s practice.

That history is on view in “Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy,” an exhibit curated by Michael Knight opening Friday at the Asian Art Museum in The City.

Knight, the museum’s senior curator of Chinese art, and Joseph Chang, senior research fellow at the museum’s Research Institute for Asian Art, have put together an unprecedented exhibition of 40 masterpieces dating back to the 14th century, many from the collection of Bay Area entrepreneur Jerry Yang.

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Describing the art form, Knight says, “By manipulating a brush with varied movements and pressures, calligraphers create sensuous strokes. Their ink dances through dots and lines to present balance within a character, harmony between characters, and rhythm among lines on the surface of silk, satin and paper alike.”

The “decoding” in the exhibit’s name refers to the structuring of the show to be accessible to both novices and experts. There are entry points at many levels: styles, format, tools and techniques. Translations of the works and artist biographies are supplied, and a multimedia tour provides a wealth of information.

Among works on view is Zhao Mengfu’s 13th-century “The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma,” created in small standard script (xiaokaishu) with more than 10,000 characters. It is a testament to the control, concentration and endurance of the calligrapher.

Also on exhibit is Wang Duo’s 17th-century “Autumn Stirrings in Eight Verses” and Chen Hongshou's ”Poems,” from the same period.

A set of four hanging scrolls by 19th-century artist Zhao Zhiqian illustrates the poetry involved in calligraphy, and the impossible task of rendering a meaningful translation. An approximation of Zhao’s scroll:

  • Surging tsunami (huge waves)
  • Mountains drop (avalanche)
  • Erupting (everywhere) waves
  • Sinking thunders

The show also includes modern works and a commissioned video animation by Xu Bing, an acclaimed visual artist who often addresses the power of language in his works.

Asian Art Museum Director Jay Xu has a special interest in the exhibit from his native China. In his culture, Xu says, “A person's character is his [written] character. Centuries of educated Chinese have sought to refine their calligraphy by studying the examples of those who had come before them.”</p>

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