Calligraphy master showcased
• Photo gallery: Calligrapher Chen Wei-Teh
BY MAUREEN O'CONNELL
Advertiser Staff Writer
Long before Chinese artists pondered the aesthetics of paintings, jade carvings and metal work, there was calligraphy.
"To have the written word actually develop as the first art form in a culture is something that is really unique to Chinese culture," said Shawn Eichman, curator of Asian art at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
The evolution is detailed in an exhibition opening today at the museum, "Living Tradition: The Calligraphy of Chen Wei-Teh," featuring of one of Taiwan's most renowned practitioners.
Visitors will see that through calligraphy, Chen holds up a "mirror for the entire history of Chinese culture," Eichman said.
"Chen is a contemporary representative of this tradition that has continued for over 3,000 years in China," the curator said.
An expert in Chinese literature and Confucian philosophy, Chen is director of the Department of Chinese Literature at Mingdao University in Taiwan. His calligraphic journey began when he was 13 years old.
During his university years, Chen's calligraphy skills caught the attention of Taiwan master Yu Yo-ren and other mentors.
These days, our increasingly fast-paced, texting, tweeting world is keyboard-centric. Even so, Eichman said, graceful and powerfully expressive calligraphy strokes will not disappear.
Calligraphy is increasingly important in the Chinese contemporary arts, the curator said.
The oldest surviving Chinese characters, dating to about 1300 B.C., are inscriptions on bones that pose questions from the day's rulers to ancestors and spirits.
Through calligraphy, Chen said, "You really can communicate back with the very beginnings."
ART OVER FORM
Calligraphy — one of the "Three Perfections," along with poetry and painting — has served as a link between visual and literary Chinese arts. Its strokes formed the linear foundation for painting.
Over many centuries, calligraphic applications moved from words incised with a blade or cast in bronze to the use of a brush on bamboo slips, silk and eventually paper, Eichman said.
Cursive script flourished during the Tang dynasty (618-906) as a highly personalized form for artistic expression.
"It frees the artist from the form of the characters," Chen said through a translator. "In that sense, it's the most personally expressive."
Even without a grasp of its 3,000 characters, Chinese calligraphy can be appreciated on a purely visual level, Eichman said.
Some of the finest cursive calligraphers have produced beautiful and abstract, yet illegible, artwork.
"They'd been so free in their expressiveness at the time that they were writing that when they went back and looked at it, they couldn't read it," Eichman noted.