Calligraphy Exhibit Hard to Read

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 29, 2000 | Go to article overview

Calligraphy Exhibit Hard to Read


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Art lovers cheered when collector Robert Ellsworth recently gave 260 works of Chinese calligraphy to the Freer Gallery of Art. The bequest made the Freer the largest source of 19th- and 20th-century Chinese writings in the United States.

Twenty go on view tomorrow - along with complementary materials and a display case of calligraphic tools - in the exhibit "Brushing the Past: Later Chinese Calligraphy From the Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth."

The Chinese regard calligraphy, or the art of fine handwriting, as the highest of their arts because of its possibilities for expressiveness and individuality. This tradition, however, is different from that of the West and an art and philosophy that should be clarified in the gallery's presentation.

Freer Director Milo Cleveland Beach points to these differences when he writes in the catalog, "One of our fundamental responsibilities is to find ways to demystify and make accessible the more difficult aspects of Chinese culture - and calligraphy must be placed in this category, at least for non-Chinese viewers."

This doesn't happen. Although curator Joseph Chang chose some fine calligraphy from the Ellsworth gift to display, the presentation is disorienting. An adjacent introductory gallery contains only a short explanation of calligraphy's importance. The main gallery has no indicators for entering and leaving, or for going to the introductory section first.

The days when a museum can simply mount beautiful objects and attract public interest with them are gone. Chinese art is esoteric, with calligraphy among its most exotic components. Calligraphy's underlying philosophy is dramatic and compelling. Educational aids such as a brochure written for the layman, videos of calligraphers working and photomurals could have illustrated this. Bilingual labels would have helped the Freer's Chinese visitors.

Mr. Ellsworth, 70, and his love affair with Chinese art is a fascinating story, one told only briefly in the show. One of the exhibit's three sections concentrates on Mr. Ellsworth and his fellow calligrapher-collectors.

He started unusually early. At age 4 he was rummaging in neighborhood trash bins for treasure. Although not a calligrapher, he supported himself as a painter for many years. Mr. Ellsworth went on to become one of the most successful New York dealers of Chinese art and also built an important collection. "I deal only to collect," he jokes.

The most celebrated of the calligrapher-collectors was Duanfang (1861-1911), one of the greatest collectors at the end of the 19th century. His position as a high-ranking government official at the end of China's turbulent Qing dynasty (1644-1911) enabled him to assemble a legendary collection of ancient bronzes, jades, paintings, calligraphy, sculpture and rubbings.

Charles Lang Freer, founder of the gallery, visited Duanfang in 1909 and 1910 and studied his extensive art holdings. After Duanfang was murdered by his own troops when he was sent to put down an uprising in Sichuan Province against a proposed railroad line, Mr. Freer was able to buy works from the collection. One, an ancient jade ritual ax, is displayed in the show beneath Duanfang's vertical hanging "Couplet" double scrolls.

Qi Baishi's pairing "Poem by Li Qi, in Seal Script" and "Grapes" is rightfully the exhibit's centerpiece. The artist (1864-1957) was one of the most important Chinese painters of the 20th century, and his quivering interpretation of the seal style shows how dynamically abstract Chinese calligraphy can be.

Seal script is one of the oldest of the five writing styles and was originally used for incising seals into ceramic molds used for making ritual bronze vessels. …

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