This exhibition includes a selection of around one hundred and fifty works by Xie Zhiliu (pronounced "shay jer-leo"), one of modern China's leading traditional artists and a preeminent connoisseur of painting and calligraphy. The rare trove of material on view demonstrates how studying and copying earlier models were as much a part of Chinese artistic tradition as learning from nature. Drawn from a recent gift of sketches, calligraphic works, manuscripts, and seals presented to the Museum by the artist's daughter, Sarah Shay, the installation commemorates the one-hundredth anniversary of Xie Zhiliu's birth.
Xie Zhiliu received a traditional Chinese artistic education, which combined the two disciplines of copying the work of earlier masters and drawing directly from life. His finished paintings, like those of many other Chinese artists, appear to be freehand creations—the work of a master draftsman who handled his brush with a confidence borne of years of practice. However, unlike many artists, Xie preserved numerous copies and sketches he made throughout his career, not only building a unique record of his creative process but also revealing how a seemingly spontaneous composition could be preceded by one or more sketches and drafts. These preparatory works could also serve as templates, thus liberating Xie from the need to visualize a completed composition in advance and allowing him to concentrate instead on making each of his brushstrokes as dynamic and fluid as possible. Juxtaposing Xie’s preparatory sketches with images of earlier models and with his own finished works, this exhibition seeks to demonstrate not only how traditional Chinese masters developed their personal styles through a combination of careful imitation and creative adaptation but also how they often relied on preparatory drawings to practice their craft—in a manner not dissimilar to that of Western painters.
More About the Artist
Xie Zhiliu was a native of Changzhou, a city with a strong tradition of bird-and-flower painting, a genre in which Xie excelled. Moving to Chongqing to escape the Japanese occupation in 1937, he became a close friend of a renowned painter Zhang Daqian (1899–1983), who introduced him to the Buddhist cave murals of the Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang. After the war, he became an advisor and preeminent connoisseur on painting and calligraphy for the Shanghai Museum as well as a professor of painting. Thanks to his access to the rich holdings of the museum, Xie expanded his style through the study of Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasty painting, a topic on which he published. Between 1983 and 1990 he led a team of scholars in evaluating the collections of China’s leading cultural institutions, which resulted in a twenty-four-volume illustrated index of more than seventy thousand paintings and calligraphies.
About the Installation
The installation is organized thematically. The first two galleries, entitled "Tracing the Past," present Xie’s early studies of figures, narratives, and bird-and-flower paintings of the Song dynasty (960–1279). His sketches of Buddhist figures based on his study of the Dunhuang murals are also included here. The artist's admiration for the master painter Chen Hongshou (1599–1652) and other bird-and-flower specialists is highlighted in the subsequent two galleries with a number of precise copies of these artists' paintings. How Xie also learned directly from nature is illustrated in the fifth gallery. Featured are a number of studies of flowers and fruit as well as two albums of landscape sketches, capturing naturalistic compositions defined largely by contour lines with little interior modeling. Also on view in this section is a pencil sketch of narcissus visualized from different angles that show how his lines were slowly formed with numerous adjustments and corrections. Xie's appreciation for cursive calligraphy is the focus of the next section. A manuscript called Poems of Inner Mongolia (1961) as well as several copies including Select Characters from Huaisu's Autobiography (1969) and Notes on Zhang Xu dated to the late 1960s document Xie's conscientious study of ancient models in the Shanghai Museum collection. The section concludes with Five Poems (1990), reflecting the abiding influence of these earlier masters. The final gallery features Xie’s integration of naturalism and stylization in his late years. Among the works on view is a brightly colored album called Views of Yosemite National Park, California (1994), which the artist made with his wife, the painter Chen Peiqiu (b. 1923), in 1994. Complementing the installation is a display of some of the artist's seals, which constitute a valuable anthology of the seal carver's art by many of the leading practitioners of the late twentieth century. This group also highlights one of the most innovative and important forms of calligraphy to be practiced since the late Ming dynasty.