Françoise Cloutier / my journey

Discovering another universe

Françoise in her studioIn 1998, I began studying Chinese calligraphy at the Ngan Siu-Mui Art School, Madame Ngan is a master with an international reputation who introduced me to the different styles of calligraphy: seal, clerical, regular, running and cursive. Her traditional teaching was an incredible journey for me into a cultural universe I knew nothing about and which is a constant source of wonder for me.  

Why Chinese calligraphy?

People often ask me this question. In fact, it was completely accidental. I was trying to get back into painting after a long absence when a Chinese friend told me about a course given by Madame Ngan Siu-Mui. However, since Chinese painting uses the brushwork techniques of calligraphy, I first needed to master them. Far from discouraging me, the idea was very appealing. At the time, I had no inkling how long and hard it would be to learn, and that the learning would never really completely be over. But these are things that you discover only as you go along. I was unaware then of the endless riches of the world I was entering. So rich a world, in fact, that I completely forgot about my original plan, which was to study Chinese painting.

The study of ancient works

In learning calligraphy, it is customary to study the works of the great masters and copy them. However, the word “copy” does not do justice to this activity. I prefer to talk about “interpretation”, since it is a matter of finding the dance of their brush. Just as the dancer or musician interprets the work of the choreographer or composer, I enjoy studying and working on these compositions, and this is the challenge I try to meet.

It was for this reason that when I spent more than four months in Xi’an, China in 2007, I was immensely attracted to the work of the monk Huai Su (ca 737-ca 785 A.D.) of the Tang dynasty, known as the “Crazy Drunken Monk”, one of the very great masters of calligraphy. His Autobiography, a calligraphy 7.55 m long, is considered to be a masterpiece of the crazy cursive style. In it, he recounts his life journey as a calligrapher; however, the text is more interesting as a document than as a work of literature. What makes it so remarkable is the extreme boldness of the brushwork and the calligrapher’s incredible exuberance, making the text virtually illegible, even for the Chinese, so abstract are the characters. This work is astonishingly modern.

Just as one plays a piece of music, I never grow bored with “playing” this particular piece over and over again. When I returned to Quebec, I presented a series of works that I entitled: Choreography from the brush of Huai Su and I am still working on the series in order to go even deeper into the universe of this giant of calligraphy.

Beyond gestural expression

More than just gestural expression, calligraphy is a means of personal expression for Asians, a way of expressing who they are. State of mind, vitality and temperament are displayed in the execution of a piece of calligraphy, and the one who looks at it will appreciate them. For François Cheng, writer, poet, essayist and specialist in the arts of his native country, calligraphy: “is an invitation to meditation, with its curves, its momentum. The brushstroke is more than just a line, it is bone, muscles, flesh and blood.”

Is not knowing Chinese characters an obstacle?

I know very little about Chinese characters but, contrary to what one might think, it is not an obstacle to learning calligraphy. The challenges are elsewhere: holding and manipulating the brush, posture, state of mind and concentration during execution, mastering the attack for a stroke, nuancing the brushwork from beginning to end of the stroke, planning the linkage to the attack for the next character, the energy expressed.

Mysterious characters

When looking at calligraphy, many people are put off by the fact that they do not understand its meaning. And yet, the aesthetic value of calligraphy is appreciated apart from understanding it. Naturally, the text is important, but there are remarkable and very famous calligraphies that are simply two people corresponding with each other.

Is it necessary to understand abstract art to appreciate it? Talking about contemporary and modern art, Bernard Lévy, editor-in-chief of the magazine Vie des Arts, wrote in the supplement on contemporary modern art Abécédaire irrévérencieux et critique de l’art moderne et contemporain 2007, p.7: “Most of the time…there is nothing there to understand: the important thing is to be open and receptive to the effects of colour and movement…to be available.” This is the advice I would give to anyone looking at a piece of calligraphy.

Fabienne Verdier, a well-known painter and calligrapher, told Charles Juliet in Entretien avec Fabienne Verdier, Albin Michel 2007: “(Form) is experienced and discovered by the one who walks through the movement of the brushstroke in his head.”

This “walk” of the brush and the eye are what I invite you to when looking at calligraphy.


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