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Calligraphy: A Collector's Apologia
"Had I been born Chinese, I would have been a calligrapher, not a painter," Picasso once said.1 Without knowing any Chinese, Picasso nonetheless recognized an artistic expressiveness in Chinese script that characterizes this classic art form. Seldom has the written word assumed such an importance in a culture. With no real history of public oratory comparable to the Greco-Roman tradition in the west, written (or more precisely brushed) Chinese was the primary mode of communication.2 While advertising is ubiquitous, a walk down almost any street in any Chinatown reveals a bewildering array of signage that underscores this trait of Chinese culture. The eye is the privileged sense organ, not so much the ear. Gordon Barrass notes that it is no accident that Chinese calligraphers often supplement their living by creating signs for shops or public institutions such as museums and parks.3 Mao Zedong and other leaders in the new China, many of whom were quite passionate about calligraphy, penned a number of such public placards for various schools and public spaces in Beijing.4 This was yet another mark of an imperial tradition in which a ruler's calligraphy on public display conveyed meanings beyond the mere words inscribed on a plaque. Mao even created the banner for the People's Daily, thus putting his calligraphy on daily display (see picture to the left). Why is it that such an importance is given to writing that goes beyond merely a clear presentation of ideas?
Calligraphy brings to words or characters a dimension other than simply meaning—namely, gesture. Calligraphy is in essence performance art with a residual shadow. It captures the skills and emotions of the writer at a point in time and freezes it in a work that may be viewed over and over. The swirls and strokes of the brush, the flow of ink-now heavy and wet, now dry and streaky--the very absorbency of the paper on which the ink diffuses or pools, all capture a specific moment in time. The calligrapher's tracings on paper, his or her gesture, as they write a character become a visual map. The eye can perceive the flow of the brushwork as clearly as it can follow dancers' movements as they shift from step to step, stance to stance.
When I think of calligraphy in the largest sense, all manner of artists with a "calligraphic" component to their work come to mind. These can range from abstract expressionists to visual poetry (aka concrete poetry) to asemic writings (aka abstract calligraphy).They all share a concern for shape, composition, and gesture—with or without any inherent meaning. The brushwork may be with paint rather than ink, canvas rather than paper, but nonetheless it captures, sometimes rather strongly, the brush touching a surface. Another art form is visual poetry which arranges the elements of script (letters, words, type face, handwriting, etc.) to form shapes that compliment or add further visual meaning to the poem. Even two very differnt calligraphic tradions can combine to form paintings of fresh impact. See, for example, the works of Haji Noor Deen Mi Guang Jiang which use the Sini script that fuses Arabic and Chinese styles. The Chinese artists Xu Bing and Gu Wenda have even gone so far as to create "new Chinese characters" that mean absolutely nothing. Xu Bing has also invented his New English Calligraphy which presents English words and letters reworked to appear as Chinese script.5 Others such as Takahiro Tomatsu and Gu Wenda use unconventional tools and/or media—Takahiro uses fistfuls of the hair on his head as a brush and Gu Wenda incorporates human hair into some of his works.
Jiuan Heng in his essay "Calligraphy" references Zhang Huaiguan's distinction between 字 [zi4], the character as transcribed, and 书 [shu1], the act of writing.6 The character itself is written in a prescribed way with strokes made in a determined order, and the whole is balanced within an imagined grid to achieve regularity of stokes and spacing. Each character's size is consistent with the others and thus produces a uniform text. But in the act of writing personality, training and talent can transform the shape of a character into a lively entity with its own life and spirit. Penmanship is not calligraphy. Gesture turns mere script into calligraphy; i.e., something of interest in its own right quite apart from the character's inherent meaning. The traditional vertical lines that structure Chinese texts may bend or sway or change shape altogether as a newer, fresher kind of composition results from the way the characters are grouped on a page. In the example to the right, the phrase 闻 钟 知 寺 近 (the sound of bells lets one know they are nearing the temple) appears in jin wen script on the right side in a cluster of characters while the writing on the left preserves the traditional pattern of vertical movement. Part of the pleasure in this example arises from this contrast that the eye perceives. In both parts the meaning is understood by reading from top to bottom, right to left, but the composition of larger characters irregularly grouped and the smaller ones in straight lines achieves a new balance that just seems right, even natural, on the paper. The eye is satisfied by this formal element even without knowing the text's sense. In this respect, calligraphy is rather like some abstract art where the formal elements of color, line, and composition are the meaning not a representation of any thing in particular. This pleasure is—at least partly—independent of text and history. Knowing what the text means and also the knowledge that the script on the right is jin wen, a very early form of Chinese writing, adds yet other layers of appreciation, but they are not the only meaning to be discovered in this composition.
Compare the two renditions of the same character below. Both are legible and communicate a meaning. However, the character on the right has vital and dynamic lines,while the one on the left seems stiff and wooden. The meaning is clear in both cases—the character 福 (fu2 good fortune, good luck). But the one on the right seems like a blessing, it bursts onto the eye forcefully, just as we might wish good luck to enter our lives powerfully. This serves as an example of how gesture—the very act of writing—can transform a character into art. A good piece of calligraphy is like a living, breathing body. It coordinates blood, flesh, muscle, bone and spirit into an organic whole. The contrast could not be plainer even if you do not know what the character means.
Zhang Yiguo got it right I believe when he observed that: "Now I am confident that even though people do not understand the language of the characters, nevertheless they do understand the language of art, that is, the quality of line: brushwork, construction, application of ink, rhythm and composition."7 Whatever the tools, whatever the medium, the interplay of interesting writing and some artistic vision forms my personal pleasure in this art form.