Two Sung Calligraphers
That most wise and itinerant scholar, Sir Gawain, has scheduled a trip to Tai-Pei to coincide with the rotation of exhibits at the National Palace Museum -- which proclaims that "Currently, works of Northern Sung painting and calligraphy are extremely rare, so the chance to see such a rich and complete display of works from this crucial period in Chinese art history all at the same time is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event"
Here is Sir. G's first report to the blogging community of this event, and it is to be hoped that many more will follow.
Here is a site with full pictures of items on display -- but just in case these pictures are removed when the exhibit closes -- I'm showing details from two of Sir G's favorites.
There's a child-like quality to Huang T'ing-chien -- carefree -- spontaneous -- but - of course -- not child-like at all -- since there is perfect balance and control -- and there's that thrill of walking the edge between form and formless.
..and also that explosive, enthusiastic playfulness of children -- jumping around just because it feels good.
In Hui-tsung, I still feel the child-at-play -- but now the child has moved into a ballet class -- with all of its formal elegance -- but losing none of its explosive enthusiasm.
Isn't this the essence of refinement ? Yes, I really like Emperor Hui-tsung -- that poor devil who, as 13th son, never expected to become emperor -- and ended up as prisoner of the invading Jurgens.
But ....to continue my ongoing dispute with Sir G. ... I also liked Xugu --- where the characters, like this one seem to be immersed in space rather than floating on a surface.
What gets me here is the progression -- as if the two figures on the right were an expanded - and whackified - variant of the action on the left.
as well as squiggly hair-thin lines -- just where they're needed !
Moving on to Emperor Hui-tsung -- it does seem we've gone from earth to sky -- or maybe another planet or galaxy -- these things are so intense and strange. The sharp, pointed tips seem to emphasize the ink over the paper behind -- like vapor trails left by airplanes (or spaceships) in the sky.
And this is where I believe he really was emperor -- at the center of a vast, complex social network - a life of continuous (often unforeseen) demands demanding continuous balance. The poor guy was a Taoist master, he should have been living in a cave, not a palace.
He feels kind of trapped here, doesn't he ?
To my eye, usually the characters on this scroll relate vertically -- but here's a horizontal pair that seems like a ballet for four elegant dancers. The emperor seems to live in a world of sharp angles and long sleeves.
But in this vertical arrangement -- he just seems to be in his own room -- having a good time with his imagination -- or perhaps with memories of the home planet.
NYR is especially fond of Su Shih (1036-1101) whose famous poem/calligraphy "Cold Food Observance" is also in the current TaiPei exhibit.
He's different from the other two, isn't he ? He seems earthier -- gutsier -- characters pull inward instead of belonging to the space around them -- and they seem to only relate to each other in the vertical (not horizontal) lines.
Here's a character that could have come from nobody else --- and like Xugu -- he works with heavy brush- light brush. According to the Palace website, Huang T'ing Chien referred to this kind of Su Shih character as "toads flattened by rocks"
I like these heavy set characters -- they remind me of Jackie Gleason dancing
And what a florid variety of feeling -- like a crowd of fans sitting in the bleachers at the ball game
This one is sooooo sharp. Su Shih wrote that Huang T'ing Chien 's were so long and narrow that they resembled "trees hanging with snakes" -- and yet -- I think the pot was calling the kettle black.
This contrast of fat and thin is very exciting -- it's like a run in a violin solo - or like a Jackson Pollack drip painting -- if only Pollack could draw with drips.
More drama and passion -- these are characters that could accompany historical dramas like "Three Kingdoms" - or the civil wars of the 20th C.
According to Huang T'ing chien, Su Shih did not excel at suspending the wrist, so his range was limited. The right portions of the characters do not expand freely, so the diagonal strokes to the lower right are easily flawed, creating a "left elegant, right withered" appearance. -- and yet that doesn't always seem to be the case. (I get the feeling these two were rivals)
so aggressive -- so assertive -- this is a man who has tried to make things happen
I love these shaky legs ! -- I think in martial arts, this is called "drunken form"
something feels very difficult about this arrangement - with everything going in different directions
Back to children having fun -- doesn't anyone ever stop wanting to be a child ?
Moving on to another Sung Dynasty artist, HSUEH SHAO-P'ENG -- who is also known as the:
RECLUSE OF VERDANT ABSTRUSENESS
(it's enough just to deserve that name -- much less to make anything famous)
What an incredible variety of styles -- all on the same page!
and yet none of them could be done by the previous three gentlemen shown on this post.
These characters almost feel Arabic -- as letters that are revealing divine mysteries.
Here, it's as if he's trying to make an ugly, jumbled train-wreck of a letter -- but he just can't escape his innate love of elegance.
Like Su Shih, his characters seem self-absorbed -- not interested in relating to their neighbors in their columns or rows -- just independent crystallizations of energy -- like a display of exotic, tropical bugs.
If any language could the secrets of inner body-spirit development --
this would be the alphabet used.
Like the channels of human inner anatomy -- so full of bizarre twists and turns --
but in coordination -- so capable of powerful expression.
Four ways of being breathtaking
(if I were to order a suit of armor -- the one in the lower-right corner
would be engraved on my shield)
Or .. maybe these are directions to places in the hilly Ozarks -- with twisty, branching dirt roads (or are they rocky stream beds ?) -- that eventually lead the frustrated traveler to conclude:
"you just can't get there from here"
This is how I make an argument.
I meander around, stretch out into a long soliloquy, and finally I get to the point!
I think this is in response to a challenge:
Make a form -- make a wackier version of it -- and make them both as one.
Have any three dots ever expressed so much purpose ?
All of these should be embroidered on some of Marly's funny hats.
I have the terrible feeling that if the "recluse of verdant abstruseness" went to school ...
he was thrown out for continuous daydreaming in class.
and he feels the most 20th century of these guys (Juan Miro) --
with the willful pursuit of absurdity
And yet here's a completely different page attached to the same scroll -
where perhaps the meaning of the text has finally trumped the playfulness of his brush.
Moving on to a more conservative academic, Mi Fu (1051-1107) -- here's his "Poem written on the Wu River" -- borrowed by the National Palace, apparently, from the Crawford collection at the Met. (guess it's time for me to visit NY again)
What's the difference between the above squibbles and what little Johnny might do in fingerpainting class ? I think that would be a good question to ask applicants for the job of museum curator. Put the above arrangement into a portfolio of children's work -- and ask them to identify the Sung calligrapher.
And, of course, Mi Fu hardly appears to be more conservative than the others -- despite his complaints about the "wild cursive script" and lack of "tracks of standards" of Chang Hsu .
How could he have been any wilder ?
The above reminds me of the fireworks show every July 4th above the football field of our local high school. I can almost hear those ink strokes banging and whistling.
It's what I'd call "Joy in Life"
Each of these characters is so well designed -- they could each be corporate logos -- for inter-galactic trading firms.
And here --center bottom-- is the first instance I've seen of character collapse -- or maybe it's more like a bud that hasn't fully opened into the flower.
And sometimes the calligrapher seems to be saying:
"I'm doing this -- just because I can"
But note that however intense/bizarre each character is --- the space between them still feels open and fresh -- i.e. it hasn't been ignored.
But the artist has made it a bit easier on himself: since he's only putting one --or two -- characters between the horizontal boundaries of the scroll.
It always seems to be party time in Mi Fu's world.
Not much sense of seriousness here
Lots of laughter -- lots of clever joking -- don't they know what the nomadic peoples of central Asia have in store for them ?
It's like a party -- full of different kinds of people -- all of them interesting - and I especially like the lady who's bottom-row-center-right ---- the one who keeping four balls in the air.
As my minimal knowledge of history recalls -- after the Buddhist years of the Tang Dynasty, this was a period of Taoist ascendancy -- and there's no way these merry goof-balls should be running government ministries.
Now, we're getting a sense of color (heavy ink versus light ink).
It's all too delicious.
Lower right corner is me -- bicycling to my shop every afternoon
(to its left -- is me -- lifting bicycle over the curb)
Let's face it -- a lot of life is not that much fun --
but here we have a perpetual children's birthday party -- on demand -- whenever you want it --
the clowns arrive and start twisting their funny balloons.
Here's another Mi Fu -- feeling a bit more serious -- and reminding us that these masters could be quite versatile
What a gutsy - swinging confection. I think it's the sense of balance that makes it so easy for me to imagine these as people -- in this case, a dancer at some kind of folk festival.
The big red, intrusive seal, by the way, comes from the 18th C. Qianlong emperor -- who seems to have been so fond of leaving his mark on the masterpieces of Chinese culture.
Megalomaniac ? You bet --- but a very wise one -- i.e. the placement here really serves the character well -- making it seem to jumping forward from the picture plane
If these are people -- they're the kind you'd find in the fish market, not at court.
And what about those small splotches that surround it ? Are those intentional ? They seem to help it -- so even if I had the opportunity, I wouldn't take them out.
What a precarious balance ! Where the bottom two characters need the one on top to stay in balance. (I can't remember seeing such inter-dependence ever before)
I can imagine these letters flashing across the screen at the very beginning of a martial arts epic (but not the cheesy kind -- something more like "Seven Samurai")
I love to see tall, beautiful women dancing -- where their long, lanky limbs are like architectural features on the stage.
This is a fight scene -- like one of those epic duels in "Water Margins" where two equally matched opponents battle each other for dozens of rounds.
I love the contrasts in these strokes -- there's only one that swells (lower left)-- and that really sets the character of the whole piece.
My wife and I on the dance floor ?
There's such a contrast in energy and personality
Have you noticed a different mood ? Well, this is a different artist, Ts'ai Hsiang (1012-1067)-- and this is his "Leaving the City" letter of 1055 -- said to reflect his sorrow at the death of his 18 year old son the same year.
Some characters seem like short, stifled sobs
and sometimes he's letting it all out in flowing tears and wails.
According to his fellow calligrapher, Mi Fu:
"like a youthful girl, the forms and bearing are seductively charming and the movement slow and languorous, with plenty of ornamentation and complex beauty"
But with what extraordinary delicacy -- these are so close to being playful.
The National Palace website described him as follows:
"the generous spacing of the character structure and the hook method of Yen Chen-ch'ing conform to Ko Li-fang's statement:
"Chun-mo first studied the calligraphy of Chou Yueh, the variation of his forms departing from that of Yen P'ing yuan(Chen Ch'ing)
But still they're very painful ,
as if he's clutching his heart
one of the those characters that seems to be
going every direction at once
Things (hopes ?) are melting -- and settling
to the bottom.
What a delicious character !
it feels three dimensional.
And is that a tear -- hanging -- suspended-- in space ?
I love where that whipping line gets so thin,
it momentarily fades away
This reminds of the train wreck I saw,
just a few hundred feet from my shop,
where the cars were just a few inches too tall
to fit beneath the overpass
Each of these characters feel so compact,
And these just feel lost,
one jerking sob fades away,
then it's followed by another
Now we move on to another scroll by the same artist,
this one is called the "T'ao Sheng" letter,
and things are becoming much more light hearted.
"The maturity in cursive script methods and flow of brush movement indeed conform to what Ts'ai Hsiang himself once wrote:
"I have attained the 'roof-leak' method of Su Ts'ai-weng (shun-yuan)"
"The structure of these few characters and the brush method both bear the manner associate with draft cursive script, which is somewhat unique in northern Sung calligraphy." (National Palace Museum)
I haven't seen anything quite this minimal before -- but I'm not sure you could call it simple
..the balance depending so heavily on the brush running short on ink.
This is almost feeling more like a close-up drawing of vines and leaves
These sharp tips feel so quirky
and temporary - as if it will dissolve in a second
what an amazing sequence,
making space for that over-heavy stroke
This sure feels like foreground to background,
with a squiggle in the middle
"In the Sung dynasty appeared a new kind of brush - "Brush of Leisurely Eminence", which had a long tip and was solidly round. It also suffered less from the problem of the tip splitting apart and hairs falling out. Its ability to retain ink was far greater than the jujube-center brush of the Hari and Chin period. When doing calligraphy, its movement was fluid and flowing as well as natural and easy." (National Palace Website)
The "Brush of Leisurely Eminence" again at work !
What funny little splotches
..but they're not just splotches
(was this a game ?: make a mark that looks like a careless splotch
.. but effectively organizes its surrounding space)
This could be a painting all by itself
(three birds on a tree ?)
This one reminds me of the threads painted by Vermeer
..and, of course, when the tiny thread spools into just the right place
.. it feels so, so good
This is the "Ch'eng Hsin Hall" letter (also by Ts'ai Hsiang)
To quote the commentary from the National Palace website:
"This type of paper originated in the Southern T'ang of the Five Dynasties period. Emperor Lieh-tsu, the founder Li Sheng (888-943), ordered paper manufacturers in Hsuan-ch-eng to produce it. The Ch'eng-hsin Hall was the name of the residence where Lieh-tsu administered Nanking. According to descriptions of this paper, its surface was thin and smooth as the membrane of an egg, while tough and resilient as jade, having a fine and thin quality as well as a glossy shine."
It's not happy --- it's not sad -- but it is eccentric -- maybe you'd call it...
Fire energy ? The dance of splotches and squiggles ?
It certainly feels very comfortable,
and that figure at the bottom is unlike any other I've yet seen
Here's more from the National Palace:
"Ou-yang Hsiu once critiqued Ts'ai Hsiang's calligraphy as "refined yet vigorous," referring to the precision and sharpness of his brushwork."
That stroke within the box (in the middle character) -- how'd he do that ?
(not much margin for error)
These strokes remind me of the timbers in old, falling-down barns...
they're weathered -- and somewhat askew
The National Palace wrote:
"The grace and beauty of the right-falling strokes and the elongated character forms are as Huang T'ing-chien once wrote: "Chun-mo's semi-standard script letters are exceptionally graceful and beautiful, able to enter the house of Yung-hsing (Yu Shih-nan)"
Reminding me of my first experience with calligraphy
(the mark of Zorro slashed across the waistcoat of Sgt. Garcia)
Here's the National Palace commentary on this character:
"The hook method is simiar to that of Yen Chien-ch'ing. As Ko Li-fang once wrote, "Chun-mo first studied the calligraphy of Chou Yueh, the variation of his forms departing from tht of Yen P'ing-yuan (Chen-ch'ing)"
Looks like something cut in the sand -- maybe the body of a crab ?
and then seen a few days later
Reminds me of the Sulka masks (New Guinea)
So many different ways to balance things -
the heavy stroke on the right versus
the broken, cantilevered dollop on the left
Hsu Hsuan (916-991)
Letter: "Personal Sincerity"
I think we've just entered a much different world --
Hsu Hsuan grew up at the end of the Tang Dynasty
The National Palace Website wrote:
"In general, the brushwork is full and rounded - reflecting the period style of plump beatuy followed in the late T'ang dynasty. This same manner can also be found in the hearly Sung calligrapher Li Chien-Chung"
Huang T'ing-chien wrote that "the brush of the Great Official (Hsu Hsuan) is solid and the strokes powerful, just like the presentation in his writing."
"Record of Collected Antiquities" by Ou-yang Hsiu mentions that "Scholars all call the brush of Hsuan as imprecise, but studied in the characters. Each dot and stroke has its method"
The National Palace website adds:
"The brush in this piece of calligraphy seems to move more at will.
In terms of detail, the brushwork is not extremely fastidious, but the brush movement in the characters as a whole has a method that is naturally fluid."
OK ... but .... I'd like to see an example of "fastidious",
since, to me, this work seems oh-so-sharp
These feel both whimsical.... and classic
(something about the stately proportions of the spaces)
And for whatever reason...
these remind me of the quick brush drawings of Rembrandt
.. are they feeling solemn and mysterious ?
What a fine sequence -
and how delicately a stroke is either stiff or going limp
This one reminds me of a drop of pond water ...
seen through a micrscope...
with every kind of miniature critter
busily leading it critter life
Huang Ting Chien (1045-1105) presented these three poems to Chao Ching-tao (who admired his calligraphy).
This letter discusses the calligraphy of Su Shih and judges him
"first under heaven"--and advised him to use Su Shih as a model instead of
himslef -- which would only lead to "a flaccid brulsh iwth no spirit or energy"