In conjunction with Singapore Art Week 2017, The Private Museum is proud to present 21st Century Calligraphy: Selections from the Nanshun Shanfang Collection. The exhibition features 19 Chinese calligraphy works from 5 established Chinese calligraphers such as Wang Dongling, Sun Xiaoyun, Wang Tiande, Wei Ligang, and Guan Jun.
Wang Dongling’s artworks illuminate the essence of gestural abstraction through his bold experimentations of embodied action and performance in Chinese calligraphy. Wang Tiande’s artistic practice explores the ambivalent relation between contemporaneity and the traditional. Wei Ligang’s background in mathematics contributes to his unique approach of the deconstruction and re-construction of Chinese characters in his artworks. Sun Xiaoyun’s emphasis on her brushstrokes and aesthetics, along with Guan Jun’s neoclassical style, portray distinctive interpretations of historical transcripts by renowned Chinese poets such as Du Fu and Su Dong Po.
Viewers will gain the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the wide array of calligraphy styles-reflective of their various artistic development and practices in breaking the conventional approach of Chinese calligraphy-displayed through this collection.
Wang Dongling (b.1945)
Born in Jiangsu Province, China, Wang is highly regarded as the most prolific, modern Chinese calligrapher of his generation. He plays a key figure in the ’90s experimental ink movement which saw the significant rise of gestural markings over content in Chinese calligraphy. Graduated in 1966, and subsequently in year 1981 from Nanjing Normal University in arts, after which he pursued a Masters Degree from China Academy of Art. Wang has also achieved the largest piece (4.95m in height and 37.5m in width) of his calligraphy piece at the stadium of China Academy of Art in 2007. Wang is internationally recognised for his impressive performances which focus on the act of writing as an expression of the relationship between art and the body. He experiments with his use of brush, and the movements of his fingertips, wrists, arms, and his entire body. His recent works are exhibited at Brooklyn Museum, Gus Fisher Gallery, and Art Museum of China Academy of Art.
Sun Xiaoyun (b.1955)
Born in Nanjing, Jiangsu, Sun is presently the vice-chair of Jiangsu Calligrapher Association. She is also a professor at the Calligraphy Research Institute of China and the Calligraphy Training Centre of China. In 2006, she was appointed as the vice-director of the Jiangsu Provincial Art Museum. Sun’s calligraphy practice is an integration of ancient calligraphy style and modern aesthetic concept. A National First-grade Artist, she received Specialist Allowance from the State Council of China. In 2012, she was awarded the honorary title of Top 10 Chinese Cultural Figure.
Wang Tiande (b.1960)
Born in Shanghai, China, a prominent figure in the development of modern calligraphy, Wang graduated from the Chinese Paintings Department of China Academy of Art in 1988 and obtained his doctorate degree from the Calligraphy Department later on. At present, he is a professor of art at Fudan University in Shanghai. His works are in the collections of both East and West Institutions such as the National Art Museum of China, Shanghai Art Museum, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, UC Berkeley Art Museum, as well as many other major private collections around the world.
Guan Jun (b.1964)
Born in Jiangsu Binhai County, China, Guan graduated from Nanjing Arts Institute China in professional painting. Now the president of Chinese Calligraphy Institute at the Chinese National Academy of Arts, he is regarded as a National First-grade artist. Along with other prominent Chinese artists, he was awarded the honorary title of Top 10 Chinese Cultural Figure in 2012. His works had been exhibited in the fifth, sixth, and seventh sessions of National Calligraphy Exhibition. His most recent works of calligraphy were exhibited at the National Art Museum of China in 2016.
Wei Ligang (b.1964)
Born in Datong, Shanxi Province, China, Wei is widely known as a maverick among China’s contemporary abstract calligraphers. He graduated from Nankai University, Tianjin, with a major in mathematics in 1985 before studying the Fushan style cursive calligraphy four years later. After settling in Beijing and furthering his education in the United States of America, he is now the vice president of the Modern Calligraphy Art Association of China and Member of the Beijing Art Committee of China Democratic League. His works have been collected in major museums internationally, which include the Museum of Modern Art San Francisco, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, British Museum, National Art Museum of China, and Today Art Museum.
ARTIST PROFILE PIC
Private Pleasure and Public Enjoyment
Exhibition of 21st Century Calligraphy: Selections from the Nanshun Shanfang Collection
by Teo Han Wue
Regarded as China’s highest form of artistic expression, Chinese calligraphy has an uninterrupted history going back several millennia. To this day it remains particularly appreciated both for its semantic content and aesthetic significance.
It is an art based on the Chinese writing system, which is unique in the world due to its extraordinary evolution as a set of linguistic notations characterised by its formal-phonetic rather than purely phonetic nature.
According to sinologist Jao Tsung-I, the earliest known writing in China is found in incised marks on pottery unearthed at a late Neolithic archaeological site in Banpo, Xi’an dated about 4000 BC. By the time Chinese writing developed into oracle bone inscriptions during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1064 BC), it had become a mature, sophisticated system with great aesthetic quality. Jao calls it a miracle that Chinese writing had not gone completely phonetic like other languages of the world, but instead retained its picto-phonetic character. Otherwise, he says, the art of Chinese calligraphy as we know it today would not have developed at all.
Other scholars have also pointed out the visual nature of the Chinese written language. “An educated Chinese thinks in Chinese characters rather than the Chinese language (in its spoken form),” writer Wang Zengqi argues. “Chinese culture stresses the written form and the study of the written language is at the core of the more profound level of Chinese culture,” philosopher Ye Xiushan asserts. Another philosopher Li Zehou also highlights the characteristic of the Chinese language in its written rather than spoken form as an important means of forming and unifying a society and community.
Given this historical background, it is easy to see why calligraphy has come to represent the very quintessence of Chinese culture. Besides, it would be hard to conceive how Chinese painting would have looked without calligraphy.
Interestingly, Sun Xiaoyun (孙晓云), one of the calligraphers featured in this exhibition, suggests in an essay that calligraphy be taken as the symbol of Chinese civilisation instead of silk and china, which she feels may no longer be as appropriate for the purpose in the present day.
This exhibition, which presents a selection of fine calligraphic works by five new-generation artists from China in the 21st century, reflects to a great extent how this ancient art is still very much alive today whether in terms of the study of its classical tradition or bold experimentations as contemporary expressions.
Traditionally, calligraphy has always been inseparable from literature, poetry and painting. Very often the classical scholar takes the art of writing more as a private pleasure, which explains the format for a piece of work to be displayed and viewed. The way in which calligraphy as well as brush painting is usually presented in a hanging scroll, hand scroll or album rather than in a heavy frame has its origin in personal connoisseurship instead of public display. The scroll or album is usually rolled up again and put away after it is viewed by a small group of friends, quite unlike an oil painting, which has to be framed and openly displayed prominently. In the modern-day, however, context calligraphic works may also be done on a large scale and framed for display in a public place in the way oil paintings are. In this exhibition scrolls and albums have therefore to be accordingly adapted for special public display.
In Guan Jun’s (管峻) album of Su Shi’s essays and hand scroll of Yuan Mei’s Suiyuan Shihua (Poetry Talks in the Garden of Accord), the viewer can enjoy not only the lyricism and rhythmic flow of the sparkling prose but also savour the firm and well-balanced structure of the slender-stroked characters written in the regular formal script. These pieces by Guan are exemplary models of an excellent regular script.
The texts chosen for calligraphy usually reflect the artist’s great admiration for the ideals and spirit of the scholars who wrote them. In this case, Su Shi (1037－1101), also known as Su Dongpo, was one of China’s most outstanding literary figures in the 11th century. He and his father Su Xun and younger brother Su Zhe were ranked among the greatest writers of prose during Tang and Song dynasties. An accomplished poet, essayist, painter, calligrapher and gastronome; his writings and calligraphy have been highly influential and widely celebrated as among the best-loved works of the classical tradition.
Similarly, the choice of extracts from Yuan Mei’s Suiyuan Shihua, one of the most important works on poetry criticism of Qing dynasty, shows the same sentiments in the calligrapher. Though highly regarded as a poet and critic, Yuan Mei (1716-1797) is also well known as a gastronome for his work Suiyuan Shidan 随园食单(The Garden of Accord Food Book). Many Chinese restaurants have chosen to name themselves Suiyuan because of this.
Born in 1964 to a poor family in a farming village in Suzhou, Guan Jun was so fascinated by dazibao大字报 (big character poster) during the Cultural Revolution as a boy of eight or nine that he joined adult villagers to write it too. Despite his keen interest his family was too poor to buy him paper and brushes to learn to write until he got an opportunity when he joined the army. The move became a turning point in his life because that was where he got to learn painting from an artist and calligraphy from a calligrapher.
In 2012, Guan’s works in regular script were selected to be a standard of Chinese character fonts for a computer software in China. He himself had initially some reservations about having his calligraphy used in this way because he felt it ran contrary to the spirit of calligraphic art. But he was eventually persuaded.
Sun Xiaoyun, the only female calligrapher in this exhibition, displays much of her intimate and finely nuanced style in the xingshu, running script, particularly in the hand scroll Lidai Mingren Yong Jinling Cichao 历代名人咏金陵词抄 (Poems in praise of Jinling by notable poets from various periods). She believes as a female calligrapher, she is able to practice the art with her natural gift of needlework. The sense of poetic rhythm of the ci lyric is echoed here by the graceful fluency in the uneven length of line and irregular rhythmic patterns accentuating the melodious and lyrical character of this form of poetry. Ci is a form of poetry taken from the ancient court and popular songs with irregular lengths and rhyming patterns based upon the original tune. It reached its peak during the Song dynasty; though these songs or tunes were lost when the poets wrote them, only filling in the lyrics according to the original tunes as patterns.
In this work, also worthy of note what is, Sun’s choice of paper in the style of personal stationery for letter writing, which is in dark beige as though yellowed with age. It enhances the look of classical elegance that matches the overall tone of the text.
Jinling (present-day Nanjing), one of the four ancient cities of China, is of particular interest to Sun. She was born there in 1955 and that is where she currently works, as the director of Jiangsu Art Museum and holding leading positions in various art organisations. Born to a scholarly family who valued highly the art of writing, Sun’s interest in calligraphy began when she was only three. With her family support she grew up to dedicate herself totally to the study of calligraphy. Having researched thoroughly into the works of ancient masters such as Wang Xizhi (303-361), Yan Zhenqing (709-785), Mi Fu (1051-1107), Xu Wei (1521-1593) and Wang Duo (1592-1652), particularly their styles of running and cursive scripts, she has successfully distilled from them a distinctive character of her own. One of very few outstanding female calligraphers in China today, Sun has won numerous accolades and has exhibited frequently at home and abroad.
In the album of Autumn Poems by Du Fu’s (712-770), one of Tang’s greatest poets in the 11th Century, known for his deep concern about the poor, these eight poems were written after he moved to Sichuan from the capital Chang’an (now Xi’an) in 760 anxious about the weakening empire. His expression of lament became even more poignant during autumn when he was feeling sick and lonely.
Sun wrote one poem on each album leaf in her exquisitely elegant and intimate running script. Sun’s hanging scroll of Su Shi’s poem betrays a touch of irrepressible boldness in the rhythmic flow of swift running-script echoing the modulated tone in this song in praise of the mid-Autumn moon, an all-time favourite among calligraphers.
There has been much debate as to how a present-day calligrapher should meet the challenge of rendering this ancient art form into a modern and contemporary expression.
An artist could perpetuate it by drawing extensively from the wealth of traditional sources to create his or her individual style and injecting into it a new spirit and vision. On the other hand, he or she could choose to experiment and search for possibilities of new expressions through the old form by tapping into an even a wider variety of sources within and beyond the tradition.
These two approaches are reflected in the exhibition. The works by Sun Xiaoyun and Guan Jun are juxtaposed with those of Wang Dongling (王冬龄), Wang Tiande (王天德) and Wei Ligang (魏立刚), which are distinctly different due to their more experimental and exploratory directions.
Viewers get to see some of the smaller pieces by Wang Dongling, who is known for wild cursive works of exceptionally large sizes. The oldest artist in the group featured here, he is a good example of how a Chinese calligrapher is taking on the challenge of modernising the old art form.
Born in Jiangsu in 1945, Wang is director of the Modern Calligraphy Study Centre at the now China National Academy of Arts, Hangzhou, where he graduated in 1981 and teaches calligraphy. Considered one of China’s greatest living calligraphers, Wang got into trouble due to his great passion for calligraphy during the Cultural Revolution, when the art was condemned as feudal, capitalist and revisionist. Ironically it was his skills in writing the “big-character posters” that saved him from being a target of abuses and attacks. The irony was even greater that he was able to salvage large numbers of calligraphy works from destruction in the wake of Red Guards’ rampage. It was also during this time that he joined a group of students studying calligraphy under Lin Sanzhi, one of China’s greatest calligraphers, under the guise of promoting proletariat culture.
Later, when he enrolled at the China Academy of Art, he was fortunate to study under Lu Weizhao and Sha Menghai, both accomplished calligraphy scholars.
In the choice of texts, whereas Guan and Sun show a strong preference and deep appreciation for classical literature in their works, Wang is more inclined towards ancient philosophies, especially Buddhism and Daoism besides poetry with philosophical reflections. The brush gesture in Hua Fei Hua (flower and yet not flower) from a Bai Juyi (772-846) poem on the ambiguity and transience of reality is a swift swirling single-stroke that reminds one of the title of a book on his work: Shu Fei Shu (书非书 writing and non-writing).
Taking another line from Bai Juyi, Wang wrote this in his rapid robust cursive strokes: “A distant journey begins with taking the first step. A lofty mountain rises from specks of dust. This is my motto, which I carry out each day with a new spirit.”
Also shown here are two highly experimental works that Wang produced in a dark room. He uses the photosensitive materials of silver-salt solution and photographic paper to create richly layered and textured calligraphic works with unique and unexpected effects. Taking advantage of the process, he achieves a binary negative/positive juxtaposition made up of two characters wu (nothingness) and you (being) in reverse white. The idea of duality is suitably stressed through the stolid and compact structure of “nothingness” in regular script against the amorphous and ambiguous “being” in wild cursive script.
Though Wang’s art is steeped in traditional practice descended from a distinguished lineage, he was also influenced by art that he encountered in the United States and Japan during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The combination of what he had learnt from the two cultures with his staunch traditional roots became a formidable blend of East and West as well as old and new. Apparently he learnt how modern concepts could be applied to calligraphy in America; it was in Japan where he came to realise how important it was to be deeply rooted in one’s own tradition. Wang is a great admirer of Picasso, Klee, Miro and Matisse. Besides he also loves the works of Japanese artist Inoue Yuichi who was known for his modern calligraphy.
Because of his bold experiments, some critics see Wang more as a contemporary artist who creates with calligraphy rather than a mere calligrapher. He has completed a series of giant works of exceptional sizes with the expressionist gestures of his wild cursive script that many would consider good examples of modern calligraphy. To execute these pieces the very act of writing needs to go beyond the private studio into a public space, where the artist “performs” the work, which when finished will most certainly go on a spectacular public display due to the scale. A good example is his largest work Xiaoyao Yio (逍遥游 Free and easy wandering), a philosophical extract from the Daoist classic Zhuang Zi 庄子(circa 3rd century BC) done in 2003, and measuring 7.5 x 12.5 m. A special project to commemorate the 75th anniversary of China National Academy of Art at Hangzhou, the monumental piece written at one of the buildings at the academy took him about two hours to complete. A huge crowd watched him write as though it was a performance and applauded whenever he finished a line they appreciated, which made him feel that such interaction had made a difference to the work.
Experiments in modern ink art need not be restricted to painting or writing entirely with a brush, as Wang Tiande seems to suggest in his works. In addition to a brush he also applies a most unusual technique of burning with lit incense sticks to create the lines from a rubbing of a stele inscription or writing inspired by an old master. In an unlikely combination of fire and water (with ink), both layers are seamlessly merged into an integrated work. While the two works shown here are calligraphic pieces, Wang sometimes works with inspiration from old paintings too. With this mix, he seems to suggest his own way of addressing the obvious question of how the old can be combined with the new, even though they are like fire and water apparently incompatible.
Born in Shanghai in 1960, Wang graduated with a doctorate degree in calligraphy from the China National Academy of Art in Hangzhou in 1988 and is now a professor at the Fudan University in Shanghai. His works are widely collected in major art museums in China and abroad.
Another renowned calligrapher of the modern ink movement from the 1980s, Wei Ligang creates works that examine the aesthetic patterns and forms of Chinese writing, and the transition between chaos and order. He focuses on the written forms, which he deconstructs and re-forms paying close attention to their structures and strokes. This is why the viewer sees recognisable characters sometimes but only strokes and lines otherwise. His works in wild cursive script often morph into structures that look as though they are distortions and abstractions of the written forms, which in essence remain deeply rooted in the Chinese tradition.
Born in Datong, Shanxi in 1964, Wei is trained as a mathematician having graduated in 1985 from the Nankai University where he had become familiar with modern Japanese calligraphy. He noticed that the Japanese were doing much better than the Chinese in the area of modern calligraphy and decided to delve deeper into the art himself. His mathematical training led him to devise a special series which he calls “Wei’s squares”, something he considers fundamental in terms of returning to the elemental structure consisting of lines that precede the contents of the character. Among his bold experiments to create modern calligraphy is the application of colour to writing as well as materials such as acrylic and lacquer to ink.
Despite its relatively modest scale, this exhibition presents a few salient features of the state of calligraphy in China today. Firstly, Chinese calligraphy has a deeply profound tradition that is inseparable from its literary and painting traditions, which require the artist’s full commitment before he or she can achieve excellence and then break through, as in the case of Guan Jun and Sun Xiaoyun. Secondly, the artist can choose to experiment by exploring the rich possibilities of contemporary ink practice from the solid foundation he or she has built on the great calligraphic tradition. The latter is evident in the works of Wang Dongling, Wang Tiande and Wei Ligang.
The selection shows how these contemporary artists endeavor to bring out the great potential in Chinese calligraphy for creative expressions and experiments on ink aesthetics. The works presented by the five artists here, in their different approaches, reflect the tensions between the past and the present, the traditional and the modern, as well as the possibilities in the contemporary practice of ink art. Whatever approach the artist takes, he or she must face the challenge of making a contemporary expression out of a highly matured art form that had become fully developed almost 2000 years ago with a history boasting of numerous masters from various periods.
Calligraphy has enjoyed a revival since the 1980s after the Cultural Revolution ended. Various organizations were formed all over China to promote and popularize the art of writing including the field of education where calligraphy was offered as a subject leading to post-graduate degrees in universities.
We are grateful that Singaporean collector and connoisseur of calligraphic art, Mr Whang Shang Ying has generously offered to share with us his enjoyment of some of the best examples of modern calligraphy created in China today.