Marin Independent Journal (California), March 21, 2006
Dance of brush, ink and paper
[image] Senior curator Michael Knight of Strawberry takes a walk through
the gallery where The Elegant Gathering: The Yeh Family Collection,' is
being installed at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
DIPPING A BRUSH in ink and putting it to paper is a practice older than
time. The ancient art of painting with ink has a certain unchanging
sequence that goes like this:
- The artist loads up his brush with ink.
- He puts it on paper.
- The ink flows off the brush, onto the paper. The ink starts out dark
and wet, and becomes light and dry as he progresses.
- He picks up the brush and does it again and again and again.
This repetitive, loving process is at the heart of calligraphy, one of
the most well-known forms of ink/brush painting that's been honed and
perfected by China's educated elite over many centuries. When painted by
true masters, the nuances of brushstroke, movement, and line - indeed,
what could be called the choreography of the technique - have a
captivating effect on audiences.
One particular Marin resident, Michael Knight of Strawberry, has an
affinity for this art form that goes far beyond a passing fancy. As
senior curator of Chinese art at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, he's
dedicated his life to Chinese art - and even played a major role in
bringing a world-class exhibition of calligraphy and painting to the Bay
"The Elegant Gathering: The Yeh Family Collection" opens Friday at the
Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and highlights 80 works of
calligraphy and Chinese painting that span hundreds of years. With the
help of Knight, the museum courted the prominent Yeh family, which
eventually donated its extensive and important collection to the museum.
Rare masterworks from imperial courts dating to the 10th century will be
on display, along with hand scrolls from the Ming dynasty - all of which
were collected by the Yehs since the 1800s.
"These paintings represent the Yeh family's heritage," Knight explains.
"It's what's left of their worldly possessions, and Max Yeh [of
Mendocino] had promised his father that he'd place the collection in a
By giving this group of paintings to the Asian Art Museum, the Yehs [and
Knight] ensured that a diverse and wide audience would get the chance to
learn more about calligraphy, its long history and unique status in
"Calligraphy can be challenging, and somewhat foreign for Westerners,"
Knight says. "But it began with the start of imperial China nearly 2,000
years ago. An educated, clerical class was responsible for writing
things down for the emperor's purposes. Eventually, they began to play
with the characters and abbreviate them, and it was seen as an art form."
Since then, calligraphy has been used to express creativity, make a
philosophical statement, write personal correspondence and inscribe
poems and words onto paintings. In the simplest sense, then, the pieces
presented in this show look like Chinese characters merely painted onto
paper. And it's true that they are, but careful viewing reveals the
multitude of information and elegance, stories and skill contained in
each art work.
One work, by the late Ming-early Qing calligrapher Wang Duo [1592-1652],
stands out for its individuality and artistry. According to Knight,
"This great work of art with fascinating content" is a series of poems
that the artist wrote based on his conversations with a Jesuit
missionary in the 16th century. Duo was known for his informal cursive
work, and this album of poems in a free script exemplifies these qualities.
Another outstanding calligraphy in "The Elegant Gathering" is the only
surviving work by court calligrapher Chu Suiliang of the Tang dynasty.
The album or book-like artwork is thought to be nearly 1,100 years old
and showcases the talents of this ancient artist in great swoops of
black ink on paper. An added bonus of this piece is the many notations
attached to it, mostly expressions of admiration for the original
calligraphy by its owners in the decades following Chu's creation of it.
"When people look at Chu Suiliang's calligraphy or any of the other
pieces in the exhibition, there are a couple of ways I like to explain
them," Knight says. "From a Western perspective, they can be seen as an
abstract art form and one can appreciate the magic of the line. Another
way I to look at them is as a kind of dance that the artist composes
with brush, ink and paper. There's a rhythm that's established."
To better appreciate this rhythm, the Asian Art Museum has installed a
complementary exhibition in gallery 18 on the second floor that gives a
basic but in-depth introduction to calligraphy as a whole. In all, the
institution has tried to bring this unknown and perhaps seemingly
obscure art to the masses in our region. Because the works are light
sensitive and can only be displayed for brief periods, a first group of
40 artworks will be replaced with a second on June 27.
"With 'The Elegant Gathering,' we're hoping to make the dense world of
Chinese calligraphy and the world of the educated elite in China more
understandable to Western audiences," Knight explains.
"The Yeh family contained, over the generations, some of the leading
intellectuals, reformers, movers and shakers of the 20th century.
There's that personal aspect to it - who were the people who collected
this sophisticated Chinese art form? We want to bring some understanding
of that, but above all, the calligraphy and painting here is just great
IF YOU GO
What: "The Elegant Gathering: The Yeh Family Collection"
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco [across Civic
Center Plaza from City Hall]
When: Part I runs Friday to June 25; Part II runs June 27 to Sept. 17
Hours: Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open until 9 p.m.
Admission: $10 adults, $7 seniors, $6 for youths 12 to 17, free for kids
Information: 581-3500 or www.asianart.org
The Elegant Gathering: The Yeh Family Collection
Part I: March 24–June 25 , 2006
Part II: June 27-September 17, 2006
“Yaji,” or ‘elegant gathering,’ refers to a tradition among members of
China’s intellectual elite who would informally gather to “debate with
art rather than words.” The Elegant Gathering features 80 superb
masterworks of Chinese calligraphy and painting carefully drawn together
by generations of the fascinating Yeh family—scholars, statesmen, and
passionate practitioners of the yaji tradition.
Thee paintings and calligraphy on view—some dating as far back as the
7th century—were generously presented to the museum in 2003 by brother
and sister Max Yeh and Yeh Tung, the heirs of a fascinating family that
collected the artworks over three generations beginning in the
mid-1800s. You will see masterworks by Mi Fu (1051–1107), Fu Shan
(1605–1690), Zhang Daqian (1899–1983), and others, as well as artworks
by members of the Yeh family and their contemporaries. Because the works
are light sensitive and can only be displayed for brief periods, a first
grouping of 40 artworks will be replaced by a second on June 27.
Click on one of the links below to see how you can enhance your
experience of the exhibition and explore the culture of China with our
public programs and other special features.
The Elegant Gathering: Art, Politics and Collecting in China Symposium
Friday & Saturday, May 12 & 13
UC Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
In conjunction with the exhibition The Elegant Gathering, this academic
conference will explore the collecting of art, calligraphy, and poetry
as a social activity, providing the framework and the pretext for yaji,
the “elegant gatherings” of the Chinese literati.
Confirmed participants include Julia Andrews (Ohio State University),
Robert Ashmore (UC Berkeley), Qianshen Bai (Boston University), Patricia
Berger (UC Berkeley), Shana Brown (University of Hawaii), Katharine
Burnett (UC Davis), Jonathan Hay (NYU), Jeffrey Riegel (UC Berkeley),
Kuiyi Shen (UC San Diego), Peter Sturman (UC Santa Barbara), Richard
Vinograd (Stanford University), Wen-hsin Yeh (UC Berkeley), and Max Yeh.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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