“Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy”– Ink Dancing On Paper

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is currently featuring an exhibit on Chinese calligraphy .  Two rooms house a wide range of calligraphic styles from the private collection of Jerry Yang, founder of Yahoo. Video clips and animation aid the viewer in understanding the background for becoming a master calligrapher.

Chinese calligraphy and monochromatic ink paintings are closely related, dating from classical pre-Han through Tang dynasties (pre-3rd century BCE through tenth century CE).  Emphasizing motion and emotion through stroke pressure, the five very distinctive calligraphic forms require expressing individual interpretation within the confines of each style.

The first–the “seal” style– is the oldest, derived from the Shang oracle bones (16th-11th centuries BCE) carved for divination purposes.  These Chinese characters are very difficult to read because of their archaic nature.  However, they are quite exquisite and the most pictorial, the closest to the origin of Chinese writing.

“Clerical”, the second calligraphic style, refers to the boxy brush strokes developed by civil servants–a kind of “illuminations” style comparable to medieval Europe, that has evenness of width and brush pressure, intended for important government and religious texts.

  “Semi-cursive” is very quick, fluid, and idiosyncratic–like an individual’s personal handwriting style.  With some practice, most Chinese can read these characters.  However, the calligrapher must master judging the correct amount of ink into which to dip the brush in order to finish the character without lifting the brush.  Too little ink and the character cannot be completed.  Brush drag is extremely beautiful and dramatic, even bold–each stroke having differences of width, length and intensity of color.

Cursive or “Grass style” is the most spontaneous as well as the most difficult to read, a type of “short hand” requiring training to decipher, as some strokes run into each other and others are abbreviated or eliminated altogether.

And finally there is the standard style–the “Palmer” method of calligraphy–clear, neat, easy to read, used in newspapers and books.  This is the calligraphy each child practices for hours, painfully and slowly, each stroke separated by a lift of the brush.

The exhibit moves on to a few examples of American painters and printmakers who are influenced by Chinese calligraphers, including Brice Marden, one of my favorites.  On the second floor is the exhibit “Words as Art/ Art with Words”. Examples of paintings and calligraphy from Korea and Japan are highlighted along with Chinese paintings to emphasize how there are no bounds to the richness of interpretation of brush stroke emanating from calligraphy.