NEW YORK—The Chinese judge a painting's value by “du hua,” which literally means “to read a painting.” And do Chinese paintings have stories to tell.
The Met exhibition Anatomy of a Masterpiece—How to Read Chinese Paintings interprets for Westerners not familiar with the nuances of Chinese art the story, atmosphere, and meanings within the lines and shapes. The exhibit introduces us to the visual symbols that characterize the place, time and culture from which the painting has emerged and from which it is nourished.
Maxwell K. Hearn, Curator of Asian Art, offers extracts that analyze 36 classical paintings and calligraphies from the museum's vaults, revealing their meaning layer by layer. The viewer begins to see how style, technique, symbolism, past traditions, historical events and the artist's personal circumstances are integrated.
Dating from the 8th century to the 17th century, the paintings are of landscapes, flowers, birds, human figures, religious subjects and calligraphy. All aspire to the key point of all Chinese art—to describe not only the subject's external form, but also its intrinsic nature. To “read” these paintings means starting a dialogue with the past. By and by the secrets of a distant and unfamiliar world are revealed to the viewer.
In classical Western art, the artist starts a painting by carefully observing and studying an object—the landscape, a still life or person. Even if the painting is imagined, it is based on knowledge which the artist accumulated from previous observations and on his knowledge of perspective and anatomy.
A Chinese artist does not investigate objects in his world. He does not aspire to copy an object, but rather capture the intrinsic nature of things. This is not expected for it might even divert attention from the painting's real purpose and cause the viewer to focus on the obvious layer rather than on what’s hidden.
The experience of observing such art is like embarking on a voyage in the realms of imagination, a journey of revelation and catharsis. This body of work is well worth looking into.
Anatomy of a Masterpiece: How to Read Chinese Paintings at The Met runs through August 10, 2008, at the galleries for Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 2nd floor, north wing. The display, which spans 1,000 years of Chinese art history, from the 8th to the 17th century, examines many of the museum’s finest paintings.