The emperors, monks, sightseers and soldiers, whose works are on display at the Freer Gallery of Art, are remembered less for what they wrote than for the way they wrote it. They are amsters of calligraphy, and in China it clligraphy that has traditionally been considered the queen of all the arts.
The word in English (its roots are Greek) means "beautiful handwriting." In China it means more than that. The calligraphers represented here were more than gifted scribes. They were scholar, poets, painters, and they were all these things at once.
They balanced, in each character, freedom and control, tradition and invention. Compressed within each brushstroke are references, allusoins, harmonies and meanings few Westerners will grasp.
Included in this modes show are wall paintings and scrolls and rubbings taken long-ago from old Chinese stones. It is sometimes claimed that the visual arts are universal because they do not need translation. What is amazing here is how successfully these artists communicate with viewers, even with those veiwers who do not know Chinese.
Yen Chen-ch'ing, the 8th-century calligrapher, was a general, a warrior, and his militarism shows. His characters look vigorous, masculine and fierce. His brushstokes, reproduced in stone, are as strong and sharp as sword blades. His handwriting was considered an attack on that of Wang Hsi-chith (321-379 A.D.), "the said of Chinese calligraphy," whose characters, in contrast, seem genteel, effete.
Some calligraphers here are miniaturists, others used big brushes that left ink strokes thick as thumbs. Some wrote regularly, neatly; others were action painters. The calligraphy of Yang Wei-chen (1206-1370) is not tame," it is explosive.His style has a name. It is called "wild grass."
he often used a partially dry brush Rarely do his characters resemble one another. Some are blunt, some delicate and curvy - the image seems to shift with teh context and teh maning. Some of his images seem almost three-dimensional, as if conceived in space. An example of his handwriting is pictured here. The dancing, spiraling brushstroke in the upper left hand corner is the character for "painting." He is not writing of the painting as object; he is showing us the act.
Many Chinese characters have evolved from pictures. Here and there one sees what must have been a bird, an eye, a vessel. When Chinese sages describe the form taken by a bomboo brach, they refer to characters, not to botany. When they look at painting, they are as concerned with brushstokes as with the landscape shown. These characters aren't only written words, they are also paintings.
In Wang Sheing-hsiu's calligraphy which means "Dreaming of Immortality in a Thatched Cottage," and reads from right to left, the character for "thatched" shows us the crossed grasses, as that for "cottage" indicates the shelter of the roof. The exhibition at the Freer will be on view all summer.