Look no further, we have a winner for the competition for this year’s least sexy exhibition title. The Historical Expression of Chinese Art: Calligraphy and Painting from the National Museum of China, at the National Museum of Australia, will take a lot of beating. Perhaps it sounds better in Mandarin, but this is only too typical of the kinds of titles favoured by Chinese officialdom.
I’m sure the NMA would have had a few alternative suggestions but in the interests of Sino-Australian relations the original title has survived. It demonstrates a significant difference between museums in Australia and in China. Whereas Australian museums are hungry for publicity, which holds the promise of greater attendances, more sponsorship and government funding, Chinese museums would sooner not be noticed just in case someone pointed out an error or a problem that incurred official displeasure. Hence the kind of title that might appeal only to a student of oriental history.
It may sound comical but the level of caution practised by Chinese cultural institutions today would be viewed as sheer paranoia in Australia. Their first priorities are purely defensive, as it’s less important to make great exhibitions than to avoid generating controversy.
History is a much safer bet than anything contemporary, so even when an exhibition features living artists it’s the historical aspects of the work that are emphasised. This is the case with the three participants in this show: Xie Yun, Wang Naizhuang and Xiao Lang. They’re not exactly young radicals: the first two turn 90 this year, the latter died in 2010 at the age of 93.
The exhibition organisers might say they are being properly Confucian in showing deference to age. I’d argue that it’s possible to be sceptical about the reasons behind the selection without being disrespectful to the artists themselves, who are each masters of their craft. The display is supplemented by a 20-metre scroll (a replica of a priceless original) showing the Qianlong Emperor departing for a tour of inspection of the south. An animated version plays continuously on the end wall of the gallery. Another addition is the NMA’s own Harvest of Endurance scroll, a remarkable 50-metre painting created by Chinese expats, Mo Jiangyi and Wang Jingwen, for the Bicentennial year of 1988, narrating the history of the Chinese in Australia.
Even allowing for the tight control of Chinese cultural exports, at a time when the political relationship between Australia and China is under strain culture provides a perennial bridge. The Historical Expression of Chinese Art is part of an exchange which has seen the NMA exhibition, Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists (a much cooler title!) being shown in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, and soon in Chengdu and Taipei.
Xie, Wang and Xiao are Chinese ‘old masters’, whose work draws on traditions that stretch back thousands of years. The clearest example of this is Xie’s calligraphic work employing the antiquated script of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), preserved on the so-called “oracle bones” or “dragon bones” used to divine the future.
In other works Xie uses the Clerical script that dates from the Warring States period of the 4thC. BCE, and a range of more expressive styles that are at once more modern and personal. One incredibly raw piece, Mountain (1995) features the character for ‘mountain’ roughly daubed in ink against a bright red background sketched in with equal spontaneity. This is the most self-consciously avant-garde work in the show, and as such, it has been widely reproduced.
Just as impressive is Xie’s large inscription, Travelling Miles, featuring four large characters crudely inscribed on a white surface. The work is almost visceral in its impact, allowing us to feel every stroke of the brush as the ink blotches and dries.
We also see the slightly tremulous quality of an old man’s hand from which the vigour of youth has gone, leaving no shortage of experience and self-confidence. Take the time to study it and a great work of calligraphy will tell much about its creator. The artist’s time of life, his mood, his character are all implicit in the marks on the paper.
Wang Naizhuang pays his debt to the past wth a series of works based on Buddhist cave paintings of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE -220 CE). These are dense, vigorous pieces that include both figures and inscriptions. Wang’s other works range from studies of bamboo (a classic subject used to test an artist’s mastery of the brush), to detailed landscapes, and the most delicate of ink drawings in which a tangle of thorny branches is recorded by a thin, unwavering line.
It adds up to a portrait of an amazingly versatile and skilful artist with an understanding of both Chinese and western idioms. In the landscape, Snow at Shennongjia (2006), Wang gives us a horizontal study of a heavily-forested mountain range in which the dark, loosely brushed forms of trees and shrubs are offset by the rhythmic application of tiny flakes of snow, settling into thin lines of white that delineate the main forms. Like so many pictures in this show, one could spend a very long time exploring all the subtleties – and this is exactly Wang’s point: that we can explore a painted landscape in the same spirit in which we might roam over the land itself, savouring every impression.
The final artist, the late Xiao Lang, is the most intimate of the trio. An expert painter of birds, flowers and insects, Xiao claimed to only dabble in calligraphy, but all his works have a tremendous sense of vitality. We can sense his pleasure in observing a grasshopper, its legs and antennae captured with the most precise flick of the brush. In Breeze(1989), we can almost feel the vibrations of a cicada’s wings being transmitted through the twig on which it sits.
Xiao, one of whose grand-daughters now lives in Sydney, comes across as a modest man with a sense of humour, and a hair-trigger sensitivity for the natural world. His chickens are all recognisable stand-ins for various types of human being. A painting of a pig called Fat boy(1976) shows us a sleek, lazy character accustomed to being pampered.
In A graceful silhouette (1984), Xiao creates a watery, quasi-abstract view of a pond in which flowers, leaves and perhaps clouds are reflected in a watery surface that blends imperceptibly with each subject. The key to reading the work is the mirror image of the silhouette of a dragonfly.
These three old men, Xie, Wang and Xiao, survived one of the most turbulent eras of modern history, living through the Civil War, the Japanese invasion, the later upheavals of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and finally, the free market. One would love to ask them about those times but they might be reluctant to talk. To be still making calligraphic inscriptions, still painting landscapes and animals after all those traumas is a heroic achievement. In a world of revolutionary change it requires real inner strength to recognise that politics is short but art is long.
The Historical Expression of Chinese Art: Calligraphy and Painting from the National Museum of China
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 5 April – 28 July, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April, 2019