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The Palace Museum, Beijing, the Shanghai Museum, and the Macau Museum of Art have collaborated again to produce a compelling exhibition. The present show follows earlier exhibits on Ba Da Shan Ren with Shi Tao (2004) and one dedicated solely to Dong Qichang (2005). The Macau Museum of Art is one of the premiere locations for exhibitions of art in south China and is the only museum devoted to art in Macau. The present show is under the direction of Chan Hou Seng, the museum’s curator of Chinese paintings and calligraphy.
The magnificent artwork of Ming dynasty artists Xu Wei and Chen Chun has been brought together to display comprehensively the virtuosic painting and calligraphy of two highly regarded masters whose oeuvre had been missing from the exhibition circuit. Unlike many artists of the period whose work passed during the Nationalist years to the Palace Museum in Taipei, and whose legacies were promoted subsequently by the Taiwanese state and by Western historians of art, work by Xu and Chen all but nearly disappeared in the tumult of 1949 and the later Cultural Revolution. The paintings have returned triumphantly to this exhibit from the excellent permanent collections of the Beijing Palace Museum and Shanghai Museum of Art. The result is nothing short of an art-historical tour de force.
Qing Teng, better known as Xu Wei, and Bai Yang, likewise better known as Chen Chun, traditionally are regarded as innovative artists of the Ming dynasty who brought intense passion and expressive vigor to the free brushwork that characterizes their paintings and calligraphy. Chen, the older of the two, was born into a cultivated family. His father counted the great Wen Zhengming among his friends, and the young Chen studied calligraphy from an early age. He lived by most accounts the comfortable life of a literati notable. Xu, whose artistic style developed and, some would say, radicalized calligraphic techniques and painting styles that were to some extent inspired by the older Chen, cut the romantic figure of artist as madman, a sort of Chinese Van Gogh. It is when viewed in the context of these biographies and the tensions they produced that this exhibit becomes truly riveting.
In the Macau Museum’s capacious and well-lit galleries, the viewer is treated to extraordinary works of art that until now simply were not accessible. Beijing even in recent years had been reluctant to display its pre-Qing paintings in the Forbidden City galleries. The Shanghai Museum moved to a new building in 1996 (after a three-year closure), but additional space dedicated to the display of art was inadequate for the breadth of its collection. The Art Museum of Macau, constructed in 1999, is an ideal venue, and not just for space alone. Macau returned to the fold of the People’s Republic the year the museum opened, and the displayed Chinese artistic splendors of China are persuasive hints of the cultural capital gained by political reunion.
Viewers enter the Breath of the Universe at the center of the exhibit to read panels providing biographical information and historical context in Chinese, Portuguese (both of which are official languages of Macau), and English. The exhibition space is designed on a single floor within a rectilinear corridor. Each of the two ends of the wide hallway is dedicated to one of the artists. If the viewers proceed from the central entrance to the left, they encounter Chen. The art of Xu is to the right. This linear arrangement effectively separates the two wings, forcing the audience to engage one master at a time. It does not allow for side-by-side comparisons. Instead, the viewer is able to regard the unified work of each artist and gain a concentrated view of his oeuvre. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of the exhibition. Each artist emerges as a complex individual.
The segregative strategy is especially beneficial for Chen, as the exhibition serves to reclaim his artistic legacy. Chen was cast unjustifiably into the shadows by the brilliance of Xu, and the opportunity to view so many of his works together in one place is an occasion finally to evaluate Chen’s artistic vision. Viewers can at last appreciate his monumental calligraphic writings, which serve to anchor a selection of large and small landscapes along with smaller calligraphic scrolls, as true masterpieces of Chinese art. Like Xu, Chen regarded self-expression as the principle motivation for the liberated brushwork of his later years. The progression from an early, nuanced style remarkable for controlled virtuosity to a freer and more liberated hand is documented for all to see.
As a whole, the show works to emphasize the aesthetic originality of each artist’s vision. The galleries are not cluttered with overly pedantic notes. In fact, the exhibition could have provided more information to underscore the radically innovative artworks on display. The organizers have obviously sought to present Xu and Chen as innovative artists along an art-historical continuum. However, the generalized curatorial notes do not take advantage of all the evidence. For example, one large label lists the usual types of writing scripts used by Chinese calligraphers, including seal script, clerical script, standard script, and cursive (grass) script. But Xu invented his own calligraphic style, which he called “smashed grass script,” and it appears as a mere footnote at the bottom of a separate, unrelated label. The adjective “smashed” gives some indication of the radical and iconoclastic innovations of Xu’s calligraphy; but this is all that the viewer, provided she or he is lucky enough to spot the footnote, is given. The exhibition notes do indeed acknowledge that Xu had a free and wild style, but they provide few other clues to the radical subtext of his art.
The two-volume exhibition catalogue, edited by Chan Hou Seng, is a beautiful trilingual publication (Chinese, Portuguese, and English) that offers excellent color reproductions of all the 120 works of art, made up of 298 individual items, on display. A helpful supplementary catalogue reprints the individual labels for each work of art and transcribes in Chinese the poems and comments the artists wrote on their paintings or included in their calligraphic works. The labels are translated into Portuguese and English, whereas the transcriptions are not. This is a welcome and timely exhibition that will provide the material for further scholarship on Xu Wei, Chen Chun, and Ming dynasty painting. It is commendable in its representation of two brilliant artists and for making their rich oeuvre available to the world.
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