Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sung Calligraphers revisited

"Cold Food Observance"
Su Shih (1036-1101)

Last month, Gawain Knight
referred to the above scroll
while discussing
"the Salutary Effects of not Expressing Oneself"

He quoted the art historian, Jay Xu
(currently Pritzker Curator of Asian Art at the Art Institute of Chicago) from the 1999 essay included in the catalog to the John B. Elliott Collection called "The Embodied Image")

The brushwork of the scroll, known as the Cold Food Observance,
is coarse and unpolished, and the structure of the individual
characters is unbalanced; these features convey an impression
of roughness which reinforces the content of the poems.

And then Gawain added that :

Many have experienced powerful feelings in response to this piece of calligraphy. The manner in which the plaintive voice harmonized with the miserablehandwriting helped them experience a deeply moving empathy for Su shih’s plight.

But do I agree ?

Perhaps I'd agree with his fellow Sung calligrapher,
Huang T'ing Chien
who referred to this kind of Su Shih character as
"toads flattened by rocks"

Many characters feel swollen
as if with rain
(or tears)

And yet still,
I think it's wonderfully beautiful.
like a kind of moody landscape

but some characters in the scroll
aren't that way at all.

They feel as bright and bouncy
as a sunny day

Is this one
"coarse and unpolished"?

I'm just not sure
that would be the best way
to describe it

there's quite a variety
even if it all seems to come
from the same passionate personality

that feels clever, inventive
and perhaps a bit vain

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.

But he didn't apply that remark
to the "Cold Food Observance"

This one certainly feels sad,
but isn't it like a sad,
singing voice ?
(Billie Holiday, perhaps ?)

and this one feels exuberant
(at least to me)

What follows
are details
from two other Su Shih scrolls
from the National Palace collection

(so we can compare
a variety
of Su Shih's work)

These seem to feel
a bit more aggressive

and what could feel
more dramatic ?

In conclusion,
I'm not really buying
that "Cold Food Observance"
is "coarse and unpolished"
(and that was probably a highly
controversial assertion
for a young scholar, like Jay Xu, to make)

Nor do I especially agree that the
style of calligraphy in that scroll
presents a uniformity of mood
like sorrow or despair.

But if it does express misery,
I guess I want more of it !

and by the way,
here's a wonderful quote
from the artist himself:

"although I do not excel in calligraphy,
no one knows calligraphy better than I do.
If one can understand the true essence of calligraphy,
then one can achieve excellence without laborious practice"

More examples of Su Shih can be found here


And now,
we move on to a comparison
Huang T'ing-chien and Mi Fu

Perhaps Huang Ting-Jian’s calligraphic style – obnoxious, pushy, extrovert, yet classically formal and emotionally aloof – is of a piece with his fanciful fantasies regarding the history of the art form. Perhaps they – the style, the fantasies – reflect the sins of a self-confident, self-righteous man who felt that he had the right to be a great calligrapher and simply exercised it without much care for either axial symmetry or inconvenient art-historical facts. (Which last he may have contemptuously dismissed with some classical Chinese equivalent of “factoids”). And perhaps Mi Fu, with his small, introverted hand, perfect in its polite unpresumptiousness, and his neat alignments, his orderly spacing, felt uncertain of his status as a scholar – and therefore someone deserving of his calligraphy to be taken seriously – and therefore felt motivated to shore it up with profound historical scholarship. (Two diametrically opposed ways to view scholarship: scholarship as birthright on the one hand, as self-validation on the other.)

Certainly, both men were great calligraphers; and one might argue that Mi Fu’s was the more beautiful hand. But I can’t help feeling a greater liking for Huang Ting-Jian. I sense a certain community of spirit. For one, I too presume to my own unorthodox opinions about art even though scholars do not agree with me at all. Also, the way in which his characters jostle and fall in all directions, and yet, somehow, miraculously, everything remains in balance across the page reminds me of the precarious creative pandemonium of my own life (and this blog). And there is another likeness: in the colophon shown above, Huang writes about his life in exile in Guangxi, in a god-forsaken village at the end of the world, in a house overgrown with grass and overrun with rats, which is quite a lot like this abandoned house in a remote valley, a house with rickety windows and doors which do not quite close, and drowning in a tidal wave of feral bougainvillea, which I have begun to share this week with wild spiders, lizards, and a large wild bat, apparently named Mietek.

Gawain Knight

The above lines
are Gawain's response
to Jay Xu's essay,

"Opposite Paths to Originality
Huang T'ing-chien andMi Fu"

So.. I just thought I show
some examples of
each of their work


Huang T'ing-chien

"to transmit the calligrapher's full force onto the paper, the brush has to be wielded with deliberation and at a relatively slow speed. The result is what Shen Shu calls the "trembling" or "struggling" quality in Huang's calligraphy"

...............Jay Xu


Moving on now
Mi Fu

"His characters are typified by a compact structure with a centripetal movement,
in other words, they have a strong tendency to collapse inward.

Huang's characters have an expansive quality, while Mi Fu's are self contained"

............Jay Xu

'The tight cohesion of Mi Fu's characters is counterbalanced by the generous spacing he allows between individual characters and between columns.

By contrast, Huang's characters have an expansive quality that is offset by tight spacing between characters and between columns."

...............Jay Xu

Regarding my own worthless opinion,
I'd agree with almost all of the above,
especially the contrast between
the introspective characters of Mi Fu
and the extroverted , trembling quality of Huang.

Each has a way
of making the whole page
(i.e. the space between the characters)
but I am partial to Mi Fu
who just seems to have extraordinary delicacy,
with such a variety of effects.

If they were both musicians,
he's mastered 10 instruments,
while Huang has mastered one.

But regarding their critiques of Yen Chen Ch'ing,
I'm more inclined to agree with Huang as he wrote:

"extraordinary and monumental, elegant and towering, it contains all the superior style, spiritual power, and bony structure of the Wei, Chin, Sui,and Tung masters"

(except, of course, that I can't comment on all those comparisons -- and according to Mi Fu, Huang couldn't either -- since Mi Fu wrote: " I have grown old scrutinizing calligraphy, but there are no extant ink writings from the Wei dynasty")

On the other hand - Mi Fu wrote:

"Yen made himself famous by using flicking and kicking strokes. There was too much mannerism, so his work lacks the flavor of plainness and lightness and naturalness.. generally speaking, the flicking and kicking were the progenitors of all the bizarre and ugly writings of later generations. Beginning with them, the methods of antiquity dissipated and were no longer headed down"

Which I think is only an exercise in rhetoric,
probably to defend himself again exactly the same charges.

Yen-chen Ch'ing

So there you have it,
I think all three of us
(me, Gawain, and Xu)
are fans of both calligraphers.

Is Gawain more like Huang than Mi Fu ?
I think that I'm more like single-track Huang,
and multi-cultural Gawain is more like the erudite Mi Fu.

And I wish a new essay were published every year,
comparing the two and
quoting from their own written critiques.
(but I'm guessing that Jay Xu's is the last such essay I'll ever find)

By the way, Hui-tsung and Huang T'ing-chien were discussed on this blog last year.

And multiple examples of all the above calligraphers can be found here
(whenever the site is working)