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Curator Interview: Mastering the Art of Chinese Painting


Xie Zhiliu (Chinese, 1910–1997). Hosta and Asters. Pencil and ink on paper; overall: 12 3/16 x 10 1/8 in. (31 x 25.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Sarah Shay, 2005 (2005.411.96).

The exhibition Mastering the Art of Chinese Painting: Xie Zhiliu (1910–1997) showcases a rich body of material that offers a rare glimpse into the creative process of a traditional Chinese artist. I spoke with Maxwell K. Hearn, Douglas Dillon Curator in the Museum's Department of Asian Art, about Hosta and Asters, one of the many stunning works on view.

Jennette Mullaney: As a traditional Chinese artist, Xie Zhiliu copied the work of earlier masters and drew directly from life. How have these disciplines informed this work?

Maxwell K. Hearn: Nice question. They haven't. Well, that's not quite true. This appears to be a study from nature, which underlies traditional artists' training, but Chinese art is almost never about recording the actual appearance of the natural world. Instead, artists distill their impressions of nature to create works that idealize the natural world and emphasize the graphic qualities that enable them to translate nature into an essential calligraphic medium. So in this drawing, we see that Xie first sketched these two plants in pencil and then he went over the pencil drawings in ink. And as he did so, he emphasized the beautiful lines; he abstracted the natural world into a set of patterns. And that's most obvious in his treatment of the leaves of the hosta, which have become geometric arcs, regularly spaced and perfectly formed. So he's perfected nature to emphasize the beautiful line work of his drawing. Look, for example, at the wavy contour of the hosta leaf that bends towards the viewer: it's a very elegant, almost musical, set of curves. In fact, the whole silhouette has been transformed into lines that carry the energy of the artist and convey as much about his technical prowess as they do about the nature of the plant itself.

So in that sense, Xie carries on the traditional emphasis on beautiful brushwork and linear design as the main desideratum of the Chinese artist, but always anchoring his depiction in an understanding of the natural world.

Jennette Mullaney: He's following tradition and he's putting his own stamp on it as well.

Maxwell K. Hearn: Because he was traditionally trained, his instinct is to always reduce the natural world or reality to a linear description of form rather than rely on shading to model his subject, and that's a very traditional approach. What is rare is that he has preserved these life studies that show us that his art is still rooted in careful observation of the real world. And we might assume that from looking at most Chinese paintings, but almost no other artist's preparatory studies have been preserved, so this material gives us a unique perspective and insight into how Chinese artists must all have learned from nature as well as from earlier works of art. And as you noted, many of the works in the exhibition are copies of earlier paintings (see an example), so all Chinese artists learned their craft by studying the pictorial solutions that generations of earlier artists had perfected in representing three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface.

Jennette Mullaney: Although this is not a traced work, I would like to ask about the tracing.

Maxwell K. Hearn: Well, you can say, in a sense, that he traced his own pencil drawing, so even in this work you can see how he takes an initial sketch and traces over it and refines the design.

Jennette Mullaney: Those unfamiliar with these artistic traditions might consider tracing to be an imitative rather than a creative act. Yet tracing allowed Xie to express himself creatively in his work.

Maxwell K. Hearn: Yes, in this particular example we see how he has distilled nature into abstract patterns that still convey the energy and spirit of his subject. In fact, all traditional artists in China began by making tracings, and they started that process with the art of writing. Every person who learned to write in China did so by first tracing and then imitating the handwriting of their teacher or of earlier masters' styles preserved in rubbings or copy books until they could reproduce the forms of those written characters spontaneously. And as they learned to master various earlier styles, their own personal style emerged from a synthesis of what they learned from earlier models. The same was undoubtedly true for painters: that they learned their craft by looking at earlier works of art and by making copies. You can see the same process in the work of Degas, for instance, copying Delacroix or copying the old masters. Copying is a fundamental way in which artists trained themselves, East and West. But whereas we have many examples of Western artists' drawings, sketches, or cartoons made in preparation for doing finished paintings, virtually none of these preparatory sketches have survived in Chinese art. So this collection of drawings, tracings, and studies, has allowed us to look inside the traditional process of becoming an artist and practicing one's craft in China. That's what makes this material so incredibly valuable.

Jennette Mullaney: What else does this drawing reveal about Xie's artistic process?

Maxwell K. Hearn: Xie worked in two different styles. Hosta and Asters represents his meticulous style, usually reserved for his intricately detailed images of flowers and birds, which are also vividly colored. For this kind of painting Xie relied on preliminary drawings that functioned as a kind of template or road map for a finished painting. He would have put another piece of paper on top of this preparatory sketch and traced its lines, focusing on making the finished drawing as beautiful as possible and then adding color. But he also painted landscapes, and there the brushwork is much freer and more spontaneous and did not require a preparatory drawing. Xie simply used his familiarity with earlier pictorial idioms to evoke imaginary landscapes, often in the styles of earlier masters. The exhibition also features examples of Xie's landscape painting (see example). Xie was also a scholar, and we have some of his scholarly manuscripts (see example) on view. He was also a poet, and we show some of his poetry manuscripts (see example). And, also, he was a talented calligrapher, and we see him practicing different styles of calligraphy (see example) in the exhibition. So we really get a sense of the artist as a true literatus, a man who combined scholarship with artistic practice and who knew his tradition as a painter, calligrapher, poet, and scholar.

Jennette Mullaney is associate email marketing manager in the Department of Digital Media.

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