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A Garden of Words: The Calligraphy of Liu Fang Yuan: Looking back at tradition

Photo by Jana J. Monji

For those who are unfamiliar with the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, Liu Fang Yuan (流芳園, Liúfāng yuán), or Garden of Flowing Fragrance, is the name of the Chinese garden. Inspired by the gardens of Suzhou, Liu Fang Yuan is one of the largest Classical Chinese gardens outside of China, and words are everywhere. The garden has wooden placards, carved tiles and engraved stones created specifically for the garden, and these inscriptions are about the inaugural exhibition, A Garden of Words: The Calligraphy of Liu Fang Yuan, in the garden’s new gallery, the Studio for Lodging the Mind.

The exhibition is presented in two rotations with 20 works each. The first installation opened on August 28, 2021 and will continue until December 13, 2021.

Since 2007, the Huntington has commissioned over 30 artists to create original works of calligraphy that were then used as models for these inscriptions that visitors see in the garden. The exhibition of 21 contemporary ink artists is a selection of artists who are both professional and amateur calligraphers from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and people living locally. There is even work from a Chinese painter who now lives in New York and a New York photographer who now lives in China. 

Philip E. Bloom, the June and Simon K.C. Li Curator of the Chinese Garden and Director of the Center for East Asian Garden Studies who is also the curator of the exhibition, said, “Many of the sites throughout the garden have poetic names that are physically inscribed into pieces of wood or stone or tile. To celebrate the opening of the expansion, we thought we would organize an exhibition around the calligraphy in the garden, specifically to honor the 30 or so contemporary artists who have created works of calligraphy to name all of the sites. ” 

The new gallery is 1,720-square-feet and located at the north end of the garden. The name comes from an 11th century essay that a famous scholar Su Shi (蘇軾/苏轼) wrote. Bloom was a member of the committee that chose the poetic names for the garden sites, and it was Bloom who suggested the name of the new gallery, drawing from an essay by Su Shi about the paradox of collecting. “A gentleman may temporarily lodge his mind in external things, but he may not let his mind dwell permanently on them,” Su Shi wrote.

“If one obsesses too much on the physical collection, one is bound to be disappointed,” Bloom explained. 

Left, Lo Ch’ing (born 1948, Qingdao, Shandong Province, China; active Taiwan), “Listening to the Pines,” 2007. Hanging scroll, ink on paper; calligraphy written in seal scrip.
Right, Xue Longchun (born 1971, Gaoyou, Jiangsu Province, China; active China), “Jeweled Blossoms Slope, 2018. Hanging scroll, ink on paper; calligraphy written in running script. Photo by Jana J. Monji.

The exhibit both honors the artists as well as introduces and explains the art of calligraphy to the public. Calligraphy is a very old art form, and some aspects aren’t even familiar to speakers of Chinese. Bloom noted that calligraphy is the foundation for many Chinese arts. East Asian calligraphy also influenced Western arts. Bloom noted that some of the abstract expressionists in the 1940s and 1950s studied (mostly Japanese) calligraphy. Calligraphy has in this respect had an impact on modern art.

Tang Qingnian (born 1956, Beijing; active United States), “Relaxed talk and languid laughter are fit for bamboo and rocks; fine days in spring and autumn pair with cups and goblets” (after a couplet by Jin Nong, 1687-1763). 2018. Pair of hanging scrolls, ink on paper; calligraphy written in clerical script. Photo by Jana J. Monji.

You don’t have to understand Chinese to admire the beauty of Chinese calligraphy, and the exhibition breaks down the artistic practice into four aspects: Content, Materials, Forms and Futures. The content portion will help you understand how Chinese characters convey meaning and sound. Some are pictographs. Others are ideographs, and some are phonetic ideographs.

Materials section of “A Garden of Words: The Calligraphy of Liu Fang Yuan.” Photo by Jana J. Monji.

People who have studied Japanese or Chinese will be familiar with the concepts of radicals, and that is explained on a simplistic level. Even if you’ve tried your hand at calligraphy, you might not be aware of the considerations of the materials: ink, paper or silk and brushes. There is a brief discussion of brushes, inks and paper on a video that plays on a loop. As a former intaglio etching printmaker, I love thinking about the different papers and wish visitors could feel and smell them. There were times when, as a student printmaker in etching or photography, even the concept of blacks and what kind of black was best for a work or series was a serious consideration. The video doesn’t go crazy with detail but gives you an inkling of what each artist considers.

What might surprise some people are the five basic types of calligraphic script and that not everyone, including native speakers and readers of Chinese (or Japanese), can read them. They are seal, clerical, regular, running and cursive.

Lo Ch’ing (born 1948, Qingdao, Shandong Province, China; active Taiwan), “Corridor of Water and Clouds.” The middle figure for “Clouds” (雲) is usually made up of “rain” (雨) and the element that conveys the sound (云). The meaning is “twisted rain,” but in this case, Lo transformed the image into a cloud saturated with rain. Photo by Jana J. Monji.

If you’ve taken Chinese or Japanese calligraphy, you might have been told something was masculine or feminine, but such considerations have changed.

“In our exhibition, we don’t address anything about Japanese calligraphy. In general, there are simultaneously a lot of similarities and also some significant differences [from Chinese calligrahy],” Bloom said.

He also noted that besides Chinese characters, the Japanese language uses two other syllabaries. “As a result, Japan has developed some distinctive forms of calligraphy that don’t exist in China.”

He also said that one of the artists discusses in a video that calligraphy is looked at in terms of qi or spirits (not in the Halloween sense of ghosts, but in the form of personality traits). “He talks about the spirit of the mountain, the spirit of the scholar studio or a vulgar spirit.”

The artist also discusses that in traditional calligraphy, there was also the spirit of the boudoir, which was once a derogatory term for the women’s chambers, but this connotation has since changed. Because Bloom found the gender dynamics of historical calligraphy criticism to be problematic, this exhibition avoids using those types of aesthetic categories when describing the works in the exhibition.

Walking through the gallery, Bloom feels that you wouldn’t be able to readily identify which works were created by men and which were created by women. “In my personal opinion, the most powerful work… is by a woman calligrapher who just died late last year,” he said.

As the mainland Chinese focus on simplified forms of Chinese characters while Taiwan uses traditional forms, I wondered if the mainland Chinese were losing some of these calligraphic forms or if some calligraphy forms were becoming more esoteric or archaic in a similar way to what is happening to cursive writing in the United States, where it is not longer taught in some schools.

In an email response, Bloom wrote, “In terms of our exhibition, simplified characters have no effect on what we have displayed. All of the artists who contributed to the garden and exhibition write in traditional characters.”

Part of the reason for this choice can be traced back to the history of Chinese immigration in the US. “The majority of Chinese immigrants to the US between about 1965 and 2000 were from Taiwan and Hong Kong, which both use traditional characters — which means that the majority of our Chinese-reading audience (until 2010 or so) was people who were most familiar with traditional characters,” Bloom wrote.

Furthermore, traditional characters are also more commonly used in print in mainland China rather than modern simplified characters, which can be used in fine art calligraphy, according to Bloom. “In general, it is more common to use traditional characters. And actually, it is becoming more and more common in mainland China to use traditional characters for art publications and for scholarly books,” he wrote.

The Huntington also showcases calligraphy as an art form in person. An adjacent pavilion, the Flowery Brush Library, is designed in the style of a 17th-century Chinese scholar’s studio, and there, calligraphy demonstrations are planned in conjunction with this exhibit. (Check the event schedule. The calligraphy demonstrations are free with Huntington admission.)

The first rotation of A Garden of Words: The Calligraphy of Liu Fang Yuan continues until December 13, 2021 at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens (1151 Oxford Road, San Marino). The second rotation opens in 2022 (January 29 to May 16, 2022). For more information, call 626-405-2100 or visit the Huntington website.

Exhibition Events:

Mid-Autumn Moon Celebration 
Friday & Saturday, Sept. 18 & 19, 2021 | 6:30–9:30 p.m. 
Chinese Garden

Wild Cursive Calligraphy, Poetry, and Buddhist Monks in the Eighth Century and Beyond 
Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 | 7:30–9 p.m. 
Zoom lecture

Calligraphy Demonstration: Terry Yuan (Yuan Zhizhong 袁志鍾) 
Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021 | 2:30–3:30 p.m. 
Chinese Garden

Calligraphy in the Lingering Garden, Suzhou
Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 | 7:30–9 p.m.
Zoom lecture

Drinking and Scribbling in the Garden: Xu Wei’s Wild Cursive Calligraphy
Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 | 7:30–9 p.m.
Zoom lecture

Calligraphy Demonstration: Tang Qingnian 唐慶年 
Saturday, April 9, 2022 | 2:30–3:30 p.m. 
Chinese Garden

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