by Wang Fan, Liu Li
NEW YORK, April 30 (Xinhua) -- In a gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, visitors stood still in front of a LCD television mounted on the wall, watching attentively as a video played of a calligrapher writing the Chinese character "chun," meaning "spring," in several different styles of script.
The video is just a "warm-up" for "Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy," an exhibition which opened Tuesday and aims to help beginners and specialists alike engage more deeply with the subject.
"It is difficult for us, the Europeans, to understand the movement of the characters and the distance between them. I can see the differences, but I don't understand the qualities. The words, dynamic or smooth, are very difficult for me to understand," said Andrew Gruner, a German archeologist and currently visiting professor at Harvard University.
He told Xinhua that the video, putting together different types of characters with introductory captions, has helped sharpen his understanding of the differences among these masterpieces.
Like Gruner, many Western viewers may only have a vague sense of what Chinese calligraphy looks like, and lack a clear idea of how it evolves and the social and historic factors behind each work.
Therefore, the exhibition, featuring more than 40 masterpieces chosen from the collection of Bay Area entrepreneur Jerry Yang and his wife Akiko Yamazaki, is a welcome effort to offer audiences a gateway into the intricacy as well as basic concepts of the oriental art form.
It starts with an introduction of the five main script types and the social role of calligraphy, and then proceeds chronologically with works from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, walking viewers through the evolution of a set of writing rules and traditions, as well as how Chinese calligraphers sought creativity and self-expression with this visual art.
Divided into eight sections, the show moves through the elegance of Wen Zhengming to the unorthodox gestures of Wang Duo and the powerful historicism of Deng Shiru.
"One of the key things about the exhibition is accessibility. We want to make sure people at every level of experience with Chinese calligraphy will come here and feel comfortable, and be able to use the exhibition to learn something," said Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, the exhibition's organizer and assistant curator in the Department of Asian Art at the museum.
"We want to make a point that it (calligraphy) is not so much a code, not so much impenetrable, one of the ways we do is through the way we arrange the works of the gallery, by putting a video out front, by providing this kind of interpretive material, trying to give people a tour they need," he said.
On the title of the exhibition, Dolberg said it is a somewhat jokey reference to Yang's connection to the tech world as "on Twitter, when you run out of 140 words, it says 'out of characters'."
Yang, the founder of Yahoo, recalled that he started collecting Chinese calligraphy in 1998 when a friend advised him.
"It is important for me to make sure my collection is accessible to the public. I feel that showing the breadth and depth of Chinese calligraphy to the audience in the U.S. was a great way for people to see part of Chinese culture," Yang told Xinhua in a written interview.
"Even if someone cannot read Chinese, one can appreciate the beauty, power, scale, and devotion that these artists have had over the centuries."
During the decoding tour, visitor Laura Baldwin did feel such a connection with the works.
"Honestly, I don't understand what's been said so much, but you can see their personalities in the characters," said Baldwin, who travelled from Connecticut to New York especially for the exhibition.
She told Xinhua she was most impressed by one of the seven hand scrolls of "The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma" by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), an acknowledged masterpiece maintaining both regularity and dynamism throughout a text of more than 10,000 characters.
"It is really very small characters, but very precise, which is really impressive," she said.
The exhibition will run though Aug. 27. Prior to its showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was put on display at Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 2012.