Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the
John B. Elliott Collection
by Tony Luppino
The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection offers something for both the knowledgeable collector of Chinese calligraphy and the fascinated but untutored. A hansom and thoughtful publication, The Embodied Image can be enjoyed casually or used as a guidebook to expands one’s knowledge and familiarity with calligraphy. This publication of the John B. Elliott Collection of Chinese calligraphy at the Princeton University Museum is that rare mixture of basic reference and thoughtful scholarship that will be a useful addition to any library on Chinese art, at home or in the University.
The Embodied Image will be especially appreciated by people who fall somewhere in between the novice and specialist. I put myself in this category. I have always been drawn to the beauty of calligraphy. I faithfully attend exhibits when possible and visit museum collections when traveling. I usually come away from looking at Chinese calligraphy warmed by its beauty and promising myself to make a more concerted effort to deepen my appreciation through more study. I suspect I am not alone in this respect, and for those of you who share my predicament, The Embodied Image is the answer to a long-time desire.
The Embodied Image, is impressive in size and production quality. The essays present enough intellectual depth and original ideas for the expert while providing an overview of the history and artistic principles of Chinese calligraphy in a way that is accessible to anyone with a reasonable serious interest in Asian art and culture.
This combination of high scholarship and clarity of presentation is undoubtedly a byproduct of the John B. Elliott collection itself. Mr. Elliott wanted to give to his alma mater not only a first rate collection in terms of its aesthetic merit but he also wanted the collection to have value as a teaching aid to students studying Chinese Art. The very high artistic quality of the works in the Princeton Museum is complemented by a conscious rationality in the range of works. As a result, this large group of works is conceived with an awareness of historical completeness and continuity that is exceptional in its rigor.
The historical breadth of the collection provides the foundation needed for exploring the driving artistic forces behind Chinese calligraphy. The essays paint a picture of an art whose lifeblood is tradition and at the same time, whose philosophy is remarkably modern. Particularly in its concern with creativity, Chinese calligraphy, though ancient in origin, is quite modern in its artistic concept. Most notably, it holds individual artistic achievement and innovation in high regard.
It is no wonder that many twentieth century artists, especially the abstract expressionists, found inspiration in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. The pioneering American abstract painter Robert Motherwell possessed several classic books on Chinese calligraphy. He underlined passages that refer to the personal nature of the calligrapher’s art and its emotional strength. One such notation ends with the quote “When the calligrapher’s art is mature, his work is a grand display of linear ecstasies.” The Embodied Image contains many such “linear ecstasies” from the John B. Elliott Collection and are used as the basis on which to build the essays in the book.
The overriding message of the essays is that the supreme calligraphers have given us a beauty that transcends the literal meaning of the signs. This has been well understood by Chinese calligraphers and collectors for thousands of years and is integral to the foundation of the art. The Embodied Image takes us behind the signs to understand the larger message of calligraphy through its great artists and masterworks.
Occasionally, the language of the book slips into academic jargon more at home in a doctoral thesis and some judicious editing for a publication of this nature would not have been unwelcome. These lapses into over-writing , while forcing one to take a deep breadth occasionally, do not detract from the overall quality of the essays and catalogue descriptions. For the most part, the many authors write in a way that is at a high intellectual level yet crisp, descriptive and accessible to a wide audience.
Robert E.Harrist, Jr. deserves special recognition in this respect for his essay A Letter from Wang Hsi-chih and the Culture of Chinese Calligraphy. Harrist recounts the history of Chinese calligraphy and of Wang Hsi-chih through a detailed analysis of one of the most important works in the Elliott collection, the Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest. The essay succeeds because it combines the highest scholarship with clear yet passionate writing. Wang Hsi-chih is among the most revered Chinese calligraphers. The piece selected for analysis is an early T’ang dynasty (probably mid-600’s) copy of Wang Hsi-chih’s letter crafted in the middle of the fourth century. The scroll has a rich pedigree of ownership documented by a series of colophons that range from a simple title by the Emperor Hui-tsung (1100-1126) to “a major work of calligraphy in its own right” by Tung Ch’I-ch’ang (1609). The most recent colophon notes that Chang Ta-ch-ien acquired the scroll in 1957.
The history of the ownership of the work of calligraphy contributes to its spiritual and artistic value. Calligraphy holds a special place among the arts in China because it not only provides artistic pleasure, but it is also the mechanism through which culture and heritage are transmitted through the ages. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the origin of Chinese writing is steeped in myth. A ninth century Chinese historian tells of a four-eyed sage in ancient times who created the Chinese form of written characters by learning to read the signs of prints left by birds and tortoises.
The earliest scripts known through archeology date back to nearly four thousand years on oracle bones and ritual bronze vessels. The long and rich history of calligraphy is far too complex to even attempt a brief outline here. Suffice to say that calligraphy both reflects and is a part of the cultural, social and political changes in China itself. Calligraphy became a major art form by the fourth century. Its practice and patronage by emperors throughout the ages gained for calligraphy a unique status in China. The Embodied Image provides an excellent overview of the development of calligraphy, its relationship to political and social developments in China and acquaints the reader with the major players in the evolution of calligraphy. Among these players, are the renowned collectors and connoisseurs of calligraphy who fill a very important role in the art alongside the calligraphers themselves.
The nature of calligraphy as not only a work of art but also the embodiment of the creative force in the individual strikes a deep chord with people today in all cultures. Calligraphy’s blending of ritual and continuity with personality and innovation reflect our own search to define ourselves both as individuals and within a larger spiritual and historical context. Harrist sums up the particular attraction of all calligraphy in his closing remarks on the scroll by Wang Hsi-chih, “Perhaps the secret of the fascination the letter has exercised for so long lies not just in its beauty and its status as a prestigious work of art, but in the bond, however tenuous, between this small piece of paper and the venerated but elusive man whose words and brushstrokes it transmits.” One can spend many hours steeped in this fascination with The Embodied Image for a companion.