Pictures from Ancient China: Interpreting a Painted Universe

By Ellis, Glen | ROM Magazine, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Pictures from Ancient China: Interpreting a Painted Universe


Ellis, Glen, ROM Magazine


The ROM's curatorial ranks were enhanced this autumn with the appointment of Wen-chien Cheng as the new Curator, Louise Hawley Stone Chair of East Asian Art. She succeeds Klaas Ruitenbeek, now director of the Museum of Asian Art at the National Museums in Berlin, Germany. In welcoming Dr. Cheng, the Museum expresses its ongoing gratitude to Louise Hawley Stone (1904-1997), the donor, patron, and friend behind the endowment.

Cheng brings both a literary and an art-history perspective to her research of East Asian paintings. As a student of classical Chinese literature in Taiwan, she found herself drawn as well to Chinese art. "When I was in a certain mood," she recalls, "I would go to the library and look at Chinese paintings in catalogues. Afterwards, I would look at the world through the lens of the Chinese masterpieces."

After graduating, she left for France to study French and art. She began to observe the essential differences between the Eastern and Western traditions, not only the obvious differences in the approach to colour and perspective but also the essential difference in the approach to brushwork. Eventually, she returned to Taiwan to study Chinese painting and brushwork, which she calls her "true love."

She describes Chinese art as being about calligraphy and lines. "You can stop the brush, and turn it, and twist it," she remarks, "to create a subtlety of brushstrokes and tonality. Colour may be less than prominent; sometimes black ink will suffice." She also notes that in the Chinese tradition the artist may write on the painting or attach a scroll to the work as commentary. Sometimes the painting itself may be lost but the perceptions of it may persist in inscriptions and colophons that can still be found in the form of printed books.

She especially admires the order of the Song dynasty universe, its balance of the human world and nature. She is also attracted by the literati tradition, whose artists expressed both their erudition, literary and otherwise, and their feelings. …

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