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Chinese calligraphy inspires modern artists

LIU DELONG | 2020-12-18
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Exhibition "The World Picture: Xu Bing's Dragonfly Eyes" features videos and preliminary materials artist Xu Bing and his team collected to prepare for his works. Photo: CHINA DAILY

Chinese calligraphy is a visual art centered on Chinese characters. Calligraphy is also a focus for traditional Chinese brush painting, since Chinese painting shares the same cultural elements and instruments as Chinese calligraphy. The concept of "brush and ink" have also become a key criterion when judging a Chinese painting. 
As a jewel in the crown of Chinese art, calligraphy has the potential to generate more visual possibilities. A quick scan of contemporary art history would reveal troves of Western artists drawing inspiration from Chinese culture and calligraphy, infusing oriental elements into their artwork. These works have become important reference for scholars to explore calligraphy in the modern era. 
Western artists 
Western artists have studied Chinese calligraphy and ink wash paintings for a long time. English art historian Herbert Read wrote in A Concise History of Modern Painting: "The belief that the facture or handwriting of the artist is an essential clue to his identity and quality had been the basis of the methodical criticism of the arts from the beginning of such criticism in the seventies of the nineteenth century Morelli and Cavalcasellei. Fenellosa and other exponents of Oriental art had later drawn attention to the high aesthetic value assigned to calligraphy in China and Japan. The present appreciation of such artists as Sesshu (c. 1420-1506), with his 'flung-ink' technique, no doubt has come about as a result of the discovery of similar techniques by modern artists; but the whole impact of Oriental art was such as to create an appreciation of the abstract qualities in works of art generally." 
The influence of Chinese characters and calligraphy on Western art can mostly be found in abstract expressionism. Artists borrowed enlarged brush strokes, the structures of Chinese characters, and materials or textures from calligraphy, using these elements to imply urban space, or to foster a poetic atmosphere. Art critic Herbert Read once remarked, "a new movement of painting has grown up which is at least in part directly inspired by Chinese calligraphy." 
In the 1940s, American artist Mark Tobey took the lead and began to study Chinese calligraphy. Later on, more artists started to fuse calligraphy into their art, such as Robert Motherwell, Marsden Hartley, Yves Klein, Antoni Tapies, Willem de Kooning, Henri Michaux, and Cy Twombly. By borrowing the structure of Chinese characters and the techniques of calligraphy, these Western artists created exploratory and abstract art pieces that fully displayed the artists' own personalities. This differentiated them from Chinese artists, who held on to creating paintings that depicted specific objects, and calligraphy works that focused on writing. 
Chinese calligraphy inspired Western painters in many ways. Brush strokes were the first source of inspiration. A brush stroke is the mark left by a brush on the paper. A piece of rice paper would allow an ink brush to demonstrate various styles of brush strokes: some dry, some wet, some heavy, some light. Some are sleek, whilst some others seem prickly. A stroke changes when a calligrapher alters his/her force or speed. This has made each stroke highly meaningful. When you zoom in on each stroke, you will find unique aesthetic images hidden  between the black and white. 
From this inspiration, early Abstract Expressionists embarked on widespread explorations. For instance, by constantly changing writing tools and materials, Klein probed calligraphy's potential in abstract expressionism. His art bridged installation and performance art,  as a model danced on the canvas, imprinting her image and movements. When creating "Fire Paintings," Klein used a gas powererd blow torch to create scorched figuration, black density, charred residue, and scarred streaks. Some of these works reminded viewers of ink drops diffusing into water, making the artworks immensely thought-provoking and inspiring. Although Klein did not use traditional writing tools for calligraphy, his works incorporate the effects of brushstrokes and have East Asian connotations, making his style easily recognizable. 
Western artists have also played with altering the structure of Chinese characters. With relatively stable structures, Chinese characters can be manifested in many ways, which makes them popular among artists at home and abroad. Robert Motherwell, Yves Klein, and Fabienne Verdier are among those that borrow Chinese characters and the lines and curves in calligraphy to express abstract art. In his Elegies to the Spanish Republic, Motherwell used thick black brushstrokes to form a picture in which the color black seems to be looming large across the frame. Verdier studied calligraphy in China, after which she started to explore the charm and playfulness of brushstrokes on large canvases with new tools and materials. Klein is known for writing words similar to Chinese characters on a white background. His works are powerful and with clear-cut outlines. 
Through a careful observation of calligraphy, abstract artists learned from calligraphy the way brushstrokes and the structure of Chinese characters can be divided and reorganized. Mark Tobey excelled at incorporating characters, colors, lines, and curves, and turning these elements into colorful images with variant shapes. Meanwhile, Tobey’s passion for Taoism also added a hue of Oriental serenity to his works. Henri Michaux used the color black to imitate brushstrokes. He rearranged the strokes in a uniquely orderly way to render a highly original and aesthetic picture. 
Similar to Chinese literati paintings, it is common for abstract painters to find inspirations in the poetic manifestation of calligraphy. Michaux is both a painter and a famous poet, so was Twombly, who was greatly influenced by Black Mountain poets. With thin brushstrokes, Twombly "scribbled" and created scratched line drawings that had a child-like quality. By creating colorful mixtures of texture and line weight, Twombly developed great lyricism and expressive outpourings emotion on the canvases, especially in his famous Blackboard series
Chinese artists 
China started combining calligraphy with modern art in the 1970s, when both calligraphers and artists approached the union from a different angle. After the reform and opening up, Western artwork and theories flooded into China. These works acutely unsettled local artists, who had immersed themselves in the creation of traditional art. With rising anxieties, ambitious traditional calligraphers began to contemplate ways of depict their current lives using modern art as an inspiration. Against this backdrop, a revolution started in "modern calligraphy". A group of Chinese artists attempted to transform traditional calligraphy into modern art. Their efforts over the past four decades display four directions: 
First, calligraphers started creating works with only a few characters (usually one to four). Created by Japanese calligraphers, Shojusu-sho (calligraphy with few characters), has greatly influenced Chinese calligraphers. Techniques such as exaggeration or separating the strokes in a character, allow the calligrapher to foster a visual strangeness. On top of this, calligraphers have also began modifying the materials and  textures, such as Wang Xuezhong, Gu Gan, and Wang Dongling in the early days, and Shao Yan in the later period. Shao Yan specialized in utilizing different tools when creating Shojusu-sho art pieces. He tried out many ink and wash techniques, including applying a mass drawing technique to sections of a Chinese character, sharpening the contrast within the picture. Shao would then flush the painting with water and create an inky image. His works have transcended writing itself. 
Other artists began to incorporate works with ancient writing styles such as Large Seal Script, Oracle Bone Script, Semi-Cursive Script, or Cursive Script, adding colors and different shades of ink. To some extent, this transformed traditional calligraphy into something in between painting and calligraphy. In his series of poetic art, including The Moonlight in the Lotus Pond, Wen Bei overlaid many characters of different chirographies, sizes, and shades one over another. These works can be seen as drawings of Chinese characters. 
In his series of Chinese characters in ink and wash, including The Yellow River and The Forbidden City, Wu Guanzhong combined Chinese characters with patterns,  creating art works in which characters and paintings co-exist within each other. 
Xu Bing became famous for separating and reorganizing the strokes of a character. A character represents  basic vocabulary, which can be reorganized to foster a sense of disjointedness, or even make it unrecognizable for the viewers. In Xu Bing's Tianshu ("Book From the Sky") he created a set of indecipherable “Chinese characters.” In New English Calligraphy, Xu created one-block words made of English letters bent to the shape of Chinese characters. 
Chinese artists also turned calligraphy into a trans-boundary and comprehensive form of art by bringing in videos and performance art. For instance, Qiu Zhijie created Writing the Orchid Pavilion Preface One Thousand Times by repeatedly writing over his free-handed interpretation of the original calligraphy by Wang Xizhi. Qiu turned the rice paper into a saturated inky black field. During the process of overlaying calligraphy on top of calligraphy, all words gradually became indecipherable and all literary comprehension was lost. 
In comparison to their Western counterparts, Chinese artists have mostly been exploring experimental ways to write Chinese characters. Calligraphy remains at the center of their efforts, while experiments have not been made to innovate the creative output. By contrast, Western Abstract Expressionists used calligraphy vocabularies as elements of creation, as they explored more manifestations of art. 
After 2000, Chinese modern calligraphy creation reached a stagnant phase, characterized by a lack of creativity, breakthrough, and originality. The majority of Chinese artists' works mimic Western modern artists. Some believe that this is because Chinese modern calligraphy is too attached to character expression.
Some calligraphers believe that modern calligraphy disrespects or even damages the rules of traditional calligraphy, therefore should not be considered "calligraphy." Ink and wash artists argue that modern calligraphy is not painting either. Of course, modern calligraphy has had the positive effect of fostering a more welcoming atmosphere for modern art, but these experiments lost something important: calligraphy is a way to express one’s ambitions and emotions, and of finding one's true self. 
Since the 20th century, traditional Chinese art forms like calligraphy and ink-wash painting have gradually been accepted, learned from, and developed by Western modern artists. These art forms have been reiterated in various forms and with a variety of materials. Therefore, it is essential for Chinese calligraphers to develop a global vision, and try to better understand the cultural and crative spirit. Chinese artists need to study Western artists' thought processes and creation methods. We should not only avoid limiting ourselves, but also try to exhibit the Chinese artistic spirit and display modern China as it is. 
Liu Delong is from the Art College of Changzhou University. 
Edited by  WENG RONG