To fulfill the "non-western" requirement of my art history major, I took a class on the art of China, Japan, and Korea. Although there were many highlights of the course, I was most fascinated by the various traditions of painting and calligraphy. Such a fine line separates the two practices that we might say they stand at either end of a spectrum of drawing, from the most everyday writing to the most elaborately shaded and precise of landscapes. Browsing the auction catalog of an upcoming sale of Chinese painting at Sotheby's, I was impressed by how these subtle relationships continued to come into play in twentieth-century art.
This painting, Fishing Boats After Rain, was done by Zhao Shao'ang in 1963, with ink and color on paper. I love the atmospheric washes and its composition, the strong horizontals of the boats balanced by the verticals of the calligraphy, reeds, and poles. Its precise drawing and subtle lawyers of color remind me of Japanese prints.
This piece by Yu Fei'an, Green Bird on Maple Tree, combines subtle modeling in the bird and branches with extremely flat, abstracted leaves. The calligraphy in the upper left corner also seems particularly beautiful, balanced yet dashing. The piece consists of ink and color on paper and dates from 1948.
Amusingly titled Why So Stubborn, this painting by Li Keran shows what mere ink can do. With no underdrawing, the artist uses a few deft strokes to define the figure's loose clothing, the tension of the rope, the solid muscularity of the bull, and the agitated expression of the calligraphy.
This painting of Goldfish by Wu Zuoren from 1978 brilliantly captures a view underwater with incredibly descriptive washes of ink. The calligraphy uses a bolder line but seems equally aqueous in style, a perfect marriage of image and text.
The piece on the left dates from 1927 but its traditional style could place it much earlier (at least to a novice's eye like mine). It is a landscape by Zeng Xi, depicting the familiar mountains shrouded in mist. The artist inscribed the work (with calligraphy) and sealed it (with the red stamps) both when it was first painted and again later on. The painting was also, according to the Chinese tradition, marked with the annotations and seals of later collectors. These additions include the titleslip of a noted calligrapher and collector Deng Erya and an annotation and two seals by Zhang Daqian. On the right is Poem in Xingshu by Qi Baishi, which gives us a closer look at a relatively free-form style of Chinese calligraphy, considered more casual and artistic. (I'm treading on thin memories here. I seem to recall there were three main styles of calligraphy, an official more block like form based on ancient text, a more everyday standardized type, and a more conciously casual and artistic style employed by the "ameteur" painters or literati, and that Japanese calligraphy on the whole is thinner, looser, and more stylized.) Of course the viewer's appreciation of calligraphy would be enhanced if one could read the language, but one can also evaluate a piece of calligraphy on purely visual grounds. Calligraphy should be balanced, both within each character and within each column of script. Each character should be distinct yet relate visually to the characters around it.
On the left we see Crane by Ding Yanyong, ink on a paper hanging scroll from 1977, in which painting is taken to a calligraphic extreme. The crane is defined by one unbroken line indistinguishable in style from the writing on the left. Another hanging scroll on the right is Calligraphy by Shi Lu, showing writing at its painterly extreme, in which the characters are so abstracted, or perhaps I should say so stylized, that they become almost figurative.
This is Bird and Rock by Zhang Daqian, the artist who at one time owned Zeng Xi's landscape shown above. Daqian's painting is done with ink on gold paper and dates from the Lantern Festival of 1969. It seems a good synthesis of some of the qualities I've been exploring. The subtlty of ink wash, the deft use of calligraphic lines to describe a landscape. The complimentary composition between the picture and the calligraphy to the side, and between that line of calligraphy and every character within it. I think what impresses me most about these works, or about Chinese drawing more generally, is its incredible economy, an economy of paint strokes that calls for both rigid control and fluid dexterity. The beauty of depicting an entire world in so few touches of ink on paper that you can count them there on the page (imagine trying to count all the brushstrokes in a painting by Pollock or any other "western" artist) is a beauty that continues to take my breath away.