Published: August 29, 2000
China Institute Gallery Explores the Link between Words and Art
NEW YORK CITY – Why do Chinese paintings have calligraphy on them? For the first time in the United States, a landmark exhibition at China Institute Gallery explores the link between words and images in Chinese art. “” focuses on 35 works – including handscrolls, hanging scrolls, fans, woodblock prints and carved jade – ranging from the Song dynasty to the Twentieth Century. The exhibition features paintings inspired by famous poets of the past; paintings with poems evoking the beauty and symbolism of nature; and paintings with poems which comment on art, literature, politics and history.
Lenders to the exhibition include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution. A fully illustrated scholarly catalogue accompanies the exhibition.
A relationship between Chinese poetry and art by the “literatus,” “scholar-poet” or “scholar-artist” first emerges in the Song dynasty (960-1279) according to Jonathan Chaves, professor of East Asian Language and Literature at George Washington University and guest curator of the exhibition. “This integration reaches its culmination with a creation of the “integral poem-painting,” which occurs when the artist who paints the picture composes the poem and personally inscribes the poem on the picture surface,” says Chaves. In the Eleventh Century, a general theory of painting was created which elaborated a distinction between amateur scholars and professional artisan painters. One of the creators of the theory was Su Shi (1037-1101), who stressed that a scholar painting showed a relationship between painting and the elite art of poetic composition.
One of the earliest surviving examples of the “integral poem-painting” is a handscroll “Cloudy Mountains,” by Mi Youren (1074-1151). Mi Youren, as well as his father Mi Fu, were court painters, calligraphers and poets. One of the most influential art critics in Chinese history, the elder Mi was associated with the development of the “scholar-official painting.”
Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), a painter whose work was much sought after in his lifetime, was considered the acme of the scholar ideal, as poet, calligrapher, painter, and man. Wen created a unity of painting and poetry, where neither form of expression dominated the other. (It is interesting to note that in Wen’s time during the Ming dynasty, most of the upper classes did not paint and had less regard for painting than literature, which they held in high esteem). Wen’s hanging scroll in ink on paper entitled “Playing the Qin (Zither) in the Shade of the Pines,” depicts a scholar seated beneath towering pine trees and a rushing waterfall, capturing their sounds with his musical instrument.
One of the finest portraits in modern Chinese art, “Portrait of Du Fu” (712-70), a hanging scroll in ink and color on paper by Fu Baoshi (1904-65) creates harmony between painting and poetry by using a couplet written by Du Fu himself.
“The integration of painting and poetry provided a perfect forum for China’s literati to record the harmonies and travels of their minds and souls,” notes Willow Hai Chang, artistic director and curator of China Institute. “The fact that this combination of the visual and the literary has survived and flourished for so many hundreds of years is testimony to the enormous talents of the Chinese literati who have left an extraordinary legacy both to China and to civilization as well.”
A scholarly catalogue, , is available from the gallery in conjunction with the exhibition. Featuring color plates and a detailed examination of the works in the exhibition, the catalogue includes an in-depth essay by Jonathan Chaves, professor of East Asian Language and Literature at George Washington University and guest curator of the exhibition.
The gallery, at 125 East 65th Street (between Park and Lexington), is open Monday, Wednesday through Friday from 10 am to 5 pm; Tuesday and Thursday to 8 pm; Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday 1 to 5 pm. For information, call 212/744-8181.
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