Calligraphy and Inscriptions on Chinese Paintings

Etymologically, the word “calligraphy” is derived from the Greek language to refer to “beautiful writing”. Works that feature calligraphy and inscriptions are often associated with neat legible handwritings and good penmanship. In the Peoples Republic of China, however, it is closely associated with art and in most cases even seen as an art form in its own right. It is often displayed side by side with paintings in the museums, an indication of the equal status it shares with paintings in this culture (Gardner & Kleiner, 2017, p. 1064). Additionally, calligraphy in the form of inscriptions is utilized in decorating everyday items such as vases and dishes to beautify them and improve their aesthetic value. The art was develop in the formative years of Imperial China consisting of inscribe characters made by a succession of single brushstrokes. Traditionally, every literate person in the empire was require to learn this at by copying the Chinese ideographs that were offered as they require standard form.  Innovations by Wang Xizhi during the 4th Century soon made the coveted practice of calligraphy in the Imperial China a high art.

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As a requirement for appointment into the highest offices in the empire, one had to be well-versed in calligraphy and inscriptions. A system of meritocracy was used to make sure that those who ascended to these top positions were able to uphold all the aesthetic standards that had been established earlier by the cultural and political paragons in the past. In Chinese culture, the only sure way to influence current events was to by having as strong command in both the precedents and the history (Chen, 2011, p. 34).  Painters also incorporated the use of inscriptions in their works to pass messages or simply mark them with their names as the owners. They often worked on paper using ink while choosing their subjects from rocks, bamboo or even old trees. These paintings could be done using the same impeccable brush skills they had in calligraphy. It was from the calligraphy and inscriptions that these paintings emerged.

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The development of paintings that were drawn from calligraphy developed in the imperial court with these officials-cum-artists distinguishing their works of art from ordinary calligraphy by using an illusionistic style of brush painting that was colorful and preferred by professionals. A new class of scholar-amateur painters now came into being with their personal style of painting prominently featuring calligraphic brush lines that were very expressive. Zhao Mengfu, a brilliant calligrapher, and scholar was among the first wave of influential individuals to embrace this new artistic paradigm (Khoo & Penrose, 2003, p. 11). He used his skill as a calligrapher to now paint and was intent on making a stark distinction between scholar paintings and the works of professional craftsmen. He used the verb “to write” to refer to his form of art as opposed to “to paint” as did most of the craftsmen that were responsible for the prolific production of paintings during this particular time in history.  As a scholar-artist, this new approach was further underscored in is painting Twin Pines, Level Distance as painting to him was not only about representation but the beauty that it also projected. He emphasized this point by making an inscription that was directly over his landscape painting.

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The use of calligraphy and inscriptions by scholar-artists was further bolstered by their accurate application of style and symbolism to express their innermost feelings while leaving the rather complicated art of formal portraiture to the empire’s professional artists. It was not long until pottery; calligraphy and poetry were all integrated into a single work with these paintings presenting pictorial and poetic imagery with calligraphic lines that were in tandem, meant to express the emotions and the mind of the artist. An instance of this technique is in Guan Daosheng’s painting Bamboo Grooves in Mist and Rain that also features a segment with inscriptions by the artist on its extreme right.

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