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Masterpieces Offer Visual Masterclass in Art
"It's a once-in-50-years chance. I can't miss it."

The words of Huang Yan, 20, a Chinese painting major from Xiamen University in east China's Fujian Province, probably best express what is in the minds of people queuing anxiously to see a current exhibition of calligraphy and painting at Shanghai Museum.

"There is a world of difference between the originals and the photos in books or albums. When standing before the original masterpieces, I feel as if the artworks can breathe and the masters are speaking to me face to face," said Huang, who spent a day and a half coming to Shanghai by train and got up early in the morning for the show.

The exhibition -- "A Thousand Years of Heritage: Chinese Calligraphy and Painting from the Jin, Tang, Song and Yuan Dynasties" -- is showing 72 valuable masterpieces in Chinese art history for the first time.

Most people have only heard or read about these works in high school textbooks but never had the chance to see them with their own eyes.

Regarded as the highest-profile display of traditional Chinese art in more than half a century, the exhibition is being held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Shanghai Museum and will run until January 6.

All the exhibits were carefully selected by experts from the collections of the Palace Museum in Beijing, Shanghai Museum and Liaoning Provincial Museum in Shenyang, where the country's best ancient and traditional artworks are kept.

National Treasures

Shan Guolin, director of the calligraphy and painting department of Shanghai Museum, said all the 72 pieces in the exhibition are national treasures.

Although Shanghai Museum does not charge an additional entry fee for the show other than the regular ticket price of 20 yuan (US$2.40), it allows only 4,000 visitors to view the exhibition each day in an effort to avoid possible damage to the treasures. The museum has increased its tight security checks.

"I believe any visitors, whether specialists or ordinary viewers, will find the exhibits impressive and instructive," said Shan.

The exhibition is a convincing history of Chinese art from the Jin Dynasty (AD 265-420) to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), a period when Chinese calligraphy and painting matured and reached an artistic peak.

Among the 26 splendid pieces of calligraphy are works by Wang Xizhi, Wang Xianzhi and Wang Xun of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420); Yan Zhenqing, Ouyang Xun and Huaisu of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907); Su Shi, Mi Fu, Huang Tingjian and Cai Xiang of the Song Dynasty (960-1279); and Zhao Mengfu and Xianyu Shu of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

Wang Xun's "Boyuan Tie (Letter to Boyuan)," a running-cursive script hand scroll now in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing, is doubtless the most remarkable piece in the exhibition.

One of the "San Xi (three rarities)" praised by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the hand scroll is the only existing authentic calligraphic work of the Jin Dynasty signed by the artist. The clear-cut, determined brushwork perfectly blends with the free, romantic mood typical of the scholar-artist of the Eastern Jin Dynasty.

However, the tradition of calligraphy of the Jin period was largely maintained and developed through replicas made by later generations of calligraphers, primarily those of the Tang Dynasty.

The current exhibition includes replicas of Wang Xizhi's "Shangyu Tiejuan (Letter from Shangyu)" and Wang Xianzhi's "Yatouwan Tie (About Yatouwan Bolus)" that are said to be produced by calligraphers of the Tang Dynasty.

Although not original pieces, the replicas are highly valuable as they are the best and oldest copies of works by the father-and-son master calligraphers. Both replicas are from the collection of Shanghai Museum.

Other calligraphy pieces in the exhibition are mostly in the running-cursive style, demonstrating how this tradition started by the Wangs was followed and developed by later calligraphers with individual languages and how effectively the running-cursive style was able to express the emotions and thoughts of the artists.

Proof of History

"The paintings in the exhibition are telling examples of how Chinese painting has developed in a period spanning more than 1,000 years. Each of them is saturated with artistic creations and humanistic richness from their periods, which are especially worth enjoying," remarked Shan.

The earliest painting in the exhibition is "Youchun Tujuan (Spring Outing)" by Zhan Ziqian of the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), which is a vivid portrait of a group of aristocrats going on an outing in spring.

The hand scroll, now in the collection of the Palace Museum, is a replica by some artist of the Song Dynasty. Nevertheless, experts say, the painting is evidence of how mature Chinese landscape painting was in the Sui and Tang dynasties, especially in their realistic techniques and use of colors.

Equally eye-catching are three landscape paintings by Dong Yuan of the late Five Dynasties (AD 907-960) and early Song Dynasty, including his most well-known "Xiao Xiang Tujuan (Landscape of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers)."

In recent years, a landscape painting with the signature of Dong Yuan in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has aroused heated debate among connoisseurs and art historians all over the world on whether the painting is an original work by Dong or not.

Some experts suggest the three paintings in the current exhibition are replicas as well but there is no conclusion so far.

The most remarkable figure paintings in the exhibitions are such masterpieces as "Bu Lian Tu (Emperor Taizong Greeting Tibet Envoys)," by Yan Liben of the Tang Dynasty and "Zanhua Shinu Tu (Palace Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses)" by Zhou Fang of the Tang Dynasty.

Others that are highly acclaimed are "Han Xizai Yeyan Tu (Han Xizai's Night Revels)," attributed to Gu Hongzhong of the Five Dynasties, and "Qingming Shanghe Tu (Along the River to the Capital in Qingming Festival)," by Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty.

The 5.3-metre-long hand scroll "Along the River to the Capital during the Qingming Festival," for example, is internationally famous for depicting the social life of Bianjing, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1279). It portrays more than 500 people from all walks of life and the detailed environment of the city.

In addition to its classical realist style, the work is of utmost importance for historical research, experts say.

Other masterpieces include "Wu Niu Tujuan (Five Oxen)" by Han Huang of the Tang Dynasty and a painting of birds by Northern Song Emperor Zhao Ji. A hand scroll by Zhao Ji hit a historic record price of 25.3 million yuan (US$3 million) in China Guardian's spring auction earlier this year.

World Heritage

"It is lucky that these masterpieces have been able to survive and people are able to see them in public museums," said Yang Xin, a connoisseur who was vice-president of the Palace Museum.

"In the past, most of the works belonged to the imperial family or private collectors and went through endless social and natural disasters."

He gave as an example the fact that the painting "Along the River to the Capital during the Qingming Festival" was stolen from the imperial palace four times and was brought back to the palace five times since it was first collected by the court of the Song Dynasty.

Fortunately, the painting remains intact today. A most valuable piece in the collection of the Palace Museum, the painting is being shown in a public exhibition for the first time.

The exhibition has attracted a lot of art fans and experts from abroad as well. More than 60 leading art historians and scholars from countries such as the United States, Japan and Germany participated in an international symposium held at the opening of the exhibition last week.

This international symposium was held in Chinese without any simultaneous translation. All the international experts are specialized in Chinese calligraphy and painting and do not need translation at all.

Julia M. White, curator of Asian Art from the Honolulu Academy of Arts in Hawaii, was one of them.

"It's a marvelous show. Any of us who are interested in Chinese art will find this a most valuable occasion to see all these masterpieces," said White.

According to White, there is a growing interest in Chinese art in the United States, both among researchers and ordinary people. "My museum would like to increase exchanges with Chinese museums such as Shanghai Museum by introducing Chinese art exhibitions to American audiences," she added.

Wang Qingzheng, deputy director of Shanghai Museum, said studies of Chinese art have become increasingly popular internationally.

"We only hope that China, the birthplace of Chinese art, will turn out to be the world's center of Chinese art studies. We warmly welcome support from all over the world to help us realize this goal."

(China Daily December 7, 2002)

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