Chinese art balances historical calligraphy and painting

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Calligrapher Tan Zhao Yun demonstrating his art

A SIGNIFICANT exhibition of calligraphy and art from the National Museum of China is on show to the public at the National Museum from today (Friday, April 5). But it’s by no means just art for art’s sake.

Far from it, as deputy director of the National Museum of China, Shan Wei, and director of the NMA, Mathew Trinca, made clear yesterday when they joined media to outline the cultural links, which they said went to the heart of the China-Australia relationship.

The staging of the show “The Historical Expression of Chinese Art: Calligraphy and Painting from the National Museum of China” follows last year’s visit to the Beijing-based museum of the NMA’s “Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists”.

A work by Wang Naizhuang, calligraphy in background

The exhibition of more than 117 objects, previously unseen in Australia, balances historical calligraphy and painting with contemporary interpretations by leading three Chinese modern artists — calligraphic arts Xie Yun, Wang Naizhuang and the late artist Xiao Lang, whose family had loaned inks, brushes and calligraphy tools of the show.

Mr Shan said he hoped Australians would respond to “the aesthetic concepts contained in it, the spiritual pursuits embodied in it and the philosophy of life of Taoism and nature”.

Dr Trinca commented that through calligraphic scrolls like those now on show Australians could learn not only about Chinese culture but about ourselves.

“There is a strong connection between calligraphy and painting,” he said.

“And that connects us through to the past.”

Visitors admire the 14 metre wide animation. Photo: NMA

Central to the exhibition is a replica of a 20-metre-long 18th-century scroll and a animation inspired by it of “Emperor Qianlong’s Southern Inspection Tour [in 1751]”, where the famous Manchu emperor and his entourage, horses and all are seen moving across the 14 metre-wide screen as they observe the daily lives of Chinese people in the 112-day tour. It’s totally mesmerising.

Senior curatorial fellow at the NMA, Mike Pickering said he saw the animation, created with the use of 2500 models, as “like a documentary movie… a fascinating history of people from the past and their culture, definitely not just art”.

“Mountain,” 1995, by Xie Yun, oil paint on canvas. Photo: National Museum of China

Dr Pickering said he thought the exhibition, and particular the calligraphy of Xie Yun, would be a revelation from Australians about the way art can play a role in society. The characters for a goldfish or a wagon, for instance, were symbolic of success and wealth and even in Xie’s “The Mountain”, which people might look at as a landscape. His fondness for the poems of 8th century poetic genius Li Bai introduces another cultural note.

The paintings too were reflective of culture, while contemporary artist Wang Naizhuang, who bridges east and west in his art, often using calligraphy in the background to suggest antiquity, makes it clear in his artists note that he is not religious. His paintings of Bodhisattvas, Pickering says, become a meditation on religion.

The NMA has reason to feel proud too. Eight metres of the rarely exhibited “Harvest of Endurance: A History of the Chinese in Australia 1788-1988” scroll, representing two centuries of Chinese contact with, and migration to, Australia, is also on display as a companion element of the exhibition, showing Chinese Australians engaged in agriculture, mining, construction, commerce and in social, political and religious activities.

“The Historical Expression of Chinese Art: Calligraphy and Painting from the National Museum of China”, National Museum of Australia, temporary gallery (near the entrance), April 5 to July 28. Free exhibition.


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