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'Trendy' Works Gain Respect
In 1874, a group of European painters, who were later to become known as members of the most momentous art movement in the 19th century, put on a show in Paris.

In trying to capture the effects of light on varied surfaces, particularly in open-air settings, they transformed painting, using bright colors and sketchy brushwork that seemed bewildering and even shocking to traditionalists.

Their innovative art works immediately became the target of attacks from some art lovers and experts alike and a picture by Monet, Impression: Sunrise, was coined derisively “Impressionism.”

An interesting thing happened: The term "Impressionism" was used by these artists in later exhibitions and became established as the formal name of this extremely influential movement in Western art.

Stories like this one about Impressionism are not limited to the West. They exist in China, too.

Since the early 1980s, a new generation of Chinese calligraphers has endeavored to reinvigorate traditional calligraphy and make it a more striking visual art.

Their experiments, much as those of the Impressionists, were ridiculed by some conventional calligraphers as "trendy calligraphy," "naive and rough" works that lacked the elegance of classical calligraphy and were no more than "trendy" things that would soon disappear.

'Trendy' Works

To the astonishment of those critics, a grand exhibition under the banner of "trendy calligraphy" is now being held at the newly established Today Art Gallery in western Beijing.

The first of its kind in China, the exhibition, which runs until next Tuesday, displays 200 works by about 40 contemporary artists who have been active in the reform of Chinese calligraphy during the past 20 years.

Together with the show, an auxiliary exhibition of contemporary Chinese seal carving is being staged in the gallery, with another 40 artists participating. An intricate art involving carving Chinese characters on stone with a knife, Chinese seal carving is often regarded as a derivative art based on Chinese calligraphy, because it is heavily influenced by calligraphy and most seal carvers are also calligraphers.

The exhibitions are in fact a retrospective of the prevalent new styles that have emerged in Chinese calligraphy in the past two decades, organizers say.

"The past 20 years have seen many unusual creative spirits among Chinese calligraphers, especially middle-aged and young artists. As a result, calligraphy in the country has seen the emergence of new styles that form the so-called 'trendy calligraphy'," remarked He Yinghui, vice-chairman of the Chinese Calligraphers' Association.

He is a member of the curatorial committee of the exhibitions, which also includes leading calligraphers and seal-carvers Wang Yong, Wo Xinhua, Shi Kai, Chen Guobin and Xu Zhenlian.

The idea of organizing the exhibitions, however, was first raised by Zhang Baoquan, a calligrapher, real estate developer and director of the Today Art Gallery.

"In my opinion, these new styles will eventually be proved to be the mainstream of 21st century Chinese calligraphy," Zhang said. "The exhibitions attempt to advocate individuality and creativity in the traditional art form."

Innovative Art

What has energized the calligraphers and seal carvers in their artistic experiments is their strong desire to develop new modes of expression in Chinese art that reflect their attitudes and the age in which they live.

Unlike the more avant-garde trends of "modern calligraphy" which is more concerned with how calligraphy can be used as a resource and inspiration in modern visual arts, the calligraphic works in the current exhibition all stick to the writing of readable words and stress the quality of calligraphic lines, as required in traditional Chinese calligraphy.

But most of the exhibits have gone beyond the traditional modes of Chinese calligraphy, especially in artistic form and aesthetic concepts, experts say.

"The most distinctive tendency is that most artists are experimenting with different materials, formats, structures and brushwork so that their works have better visual effects in the settings of modern houses and exhibition venues," said Shao Yan, a Beijing-based calligrapher.

For thousands of years, the art of Chinese calligraphy has basically served as a means of communication, historic record, or personal enjoyment. For example, a calligraphic piece might well have been just an ordinary letter, a stele to commemorate the dead, or a scroll to show one or two friends. They are regarded as art works primarily because they reflect the spirit of the writers and offer aesthetic pleasure to recipients.

As the practical functions of calligraphy gradually vanish in a modern society where the computer is taking the place of the writing brush, calligraphy stands out more as an independent visual art that can be exhibited in modern galleries or used to decorate the walls of people's homes.

As a result, the calligraphic works are often larger and more conspicuous; background colors are sometimes applied to the paper so that the works look more solid than on purely white paper; some calligraphers even apply colors in drawing the calligraphic lines and structures.

Visual Beauty

Above all, the artists are aware that they are producing calligraphic art works, rather than simply writing Chinese characters with brushes. Viewers are encouraged to pay more attention to the visual appeal of the works than the meaning of words.

A couplet by calligrapher Zeng Xiang is one of the most eye-catching works in the exhibition. Written with seemingly casual brush strokes, the work, with two narrow vertical pieces framed together, is apparently influenced by modern fine art in its composition, brushwork, and structure of words. The images, nevertheless, match well with the mood the words create: "Lotus breeze alarms bathing birds; bridge shadow allures swimming fish."

"What especially impresses me is that works in the exhibition are framed or rubbed on neatly designed wooden panels. You will naturally feel these are great art works, not just pieces of paper with Chinese words written on them," said Li Mei, a 21-year-old college student.

According to Tang Shu'an, a calligraphy scholar, it is also worth noting that contemporary calligraphers are fortunate in being able to absorb the influences of a greater variety of calligraphic heritages than their predecessors, because boundless archaeological findings have been made in China in recent years.

Viewers will find that many works in the current exhibitions are inspired by ancient folk calligraphy carved on vessels, bamboo strips, bricks, and stones that can be dated back to the Qin (221-206 BC), Han (206 BC-AD 220), and Northern Wei (AD 386-534) periods.

The calligraphic strokes and lines in the contemporary works tend to be heavy, expressive, and forceful, different from the fluid and graceful styles of previous literati calligraphy. The structure of the characters is often exaggerated or distorted to suit the styles.

New Problems

While many people applaud the adventurous spirit of the artists, experts like Shi Kai warned that the artists' works are facing the potential problem of becoming monotonous because they are influenced by similar schools of ancient Chinese calligraphy and the works of their contemporaries.

Calligrapher and scholar Xu Liming feels that many contemporary calligraphers put too much stress on formulaic techniques and are weak in cultural understanding, especially in philosophy, aesthetics, and art history.

In spite of the worries and criticisms, the exhibitions of "trendy" calligraphy and seal carving doubtlessly represent a breakthrough in their representation of the new artistic trends of our time.

(China Daily September 3, 2002)

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