Chinese calligraphy / modern calligraphy

In parallel with the official and traditional art that is financially supported by the academies, there is also a modern calligraphy in China. This independent art relies on private funds and a private distribution network. It is an aspect of Chinese artistic production that is completely unknown in the West.

According to Yolaine Escande (L’Art en Chine), sonly painting and installations seem to attract the attention of exhibition organizers. And the West is oblivious to the heated debate in China concerning modern calligraphy.

She suggests that: “This is certainly due to lack of knowledge and certain preconceived notions, according to which art involving traditional media is necessarily passé. Thus, the art market for this type of work, very prolific in China, is completely unknown outside it.”

We see very little of this modern calligraphy, so we have to rely on the people who describe it. In his preface to the book La nouvelle langue du Dragon, iillustrated with “graphic images” by the Chinese artist Wu Hua, Léon Vandermeersh mentions that the first major exhibition of modern calligraphy in Beijing in 1985 caused just as big a scandal as the New York exhibition of 1913 that introduced cubism to North America. He adds: “Indeed, if cubism is the painting of partisans of the systematic decomposition of natural forms, then modern calligraphy plays on the deliberate deconstruction of Chinese writing in all its dimensions. The ideograms are made malleable to all sorts of deformations, by being made longer or shorter, larger or smaller, more angular or more rounded; malleable to the mixture of all pictographic styles, seal, clerical or cursive; malleable to a free recomposition of their graphic components, right up to the fabrication of illegible imitation Chinese characters. Their placement on the paper is completely random, sometimes erratic, sometimes crammed on the contrary into tight columns that do not breathe, not to mention the unusual colours sometimes chosen for the ink or for the background.”

Modern or traditional, Chinese calligraphy remains an art of personal expression, as Sun Guoting of the Tang dynasty (ca 648-ca 703 A.D.) noted in his Manual of Calligraphy: “The calligrapher draws infinite metamorphoses from his brush and confides all the emotions he feels to the shapes that are born on the paper.”


N.B.: I am not dealing here with Japanese or Korean calligraphy, not because I’m not interested in them – quite the contrary – but because these are vast subjects that in themselves would require a lengthy description. However, for those who are interested, I have indicated an important work on Japanese calligraphy in the References section.


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