Exhibition of Zhao Mengfu: A Brief History of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy

赵孟頫 红衣罗汉图卷 辽宁省博物馆
Arhat in Red by Zhao Mengfu, housed in Liaoning Provincial Museum.

Over one hundred paintings and calligraphic works of Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), a famous Chinese calligrapher and painter in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), are on display in the Palace Museum in Beijing from September 6 to December 5, 2017. The exhibition consists of four parts: Arts Inspiring Zhao Mengfu, Zhao Mengfu’s and Discriminating Zhao Mengfu’s and painting illuminate China’s history of Works. The exhibition presents Zhao’s works as well as what his period of history looked like. Wang Qi, head of the preparatory team of the exhibition and an associate research fellow of the Palace Museum, opined that the display could be called “a brief history of Chinese paintings and calligraphic works” from the late 6th Century to the early 20th Century. 

Zhao’s achievements in calligraphy and painting illuminate China’s history of art. He excelled at several major types of calligraphy and was ranked as one of the four greatest regular-script calligraphers in all of history. His paintings, on the other hand, cover a wide range of subjects and show his profound command of various painting techniques. He proposed the theory that calligraphy and painting evolved from the same origin, a milestone contribution to the theory and practice of sholarly painting since the Yuan Dynasty.

The great calligrapher and painter was a descendent of Zhao Kuangyin, the first emperor of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), which was toppled by the Mongols who established the Yuan Dynasty. Zhao Mengfu lived under Yuan rule for the rest of his life. When he was 33, he began to serve in the Yuan government. During his government service, he never stopped painting and creating calligraphic works.His works are characterized by natural grace and reserved temperament, which also mirror the optimal personality traits of traditional Chinese literati.

Zhao was born in Wuxing, a southeastern city in China’s present-day Zhejiang Province. Wuxing was famous for its painting and calligraphy tradition. Several outstanding calligraphers such as Wang Xizhi and his son Wang Xianzhi served in the local government. Wuxing was the cultural center of the early Yuan Dynasty, and dubbed “China’s Florence in the 13th Century” by famous Chinese-American scholar Li Chu-tsing. The first part of the exhibition, Arts Inspiring Zhao Mengfu, includes Ink Orchid by Zhao Mengjian (1199-1264), a great calligrapher and painter of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and Eight Species of Flowers by Qian Xuan (1239-1299). These calligraphers and painters heavily influenced Zhao Mengfu during his stay in Wuxing.

The second part, Zhao Mengfu’s Achievements in Calligraphy and Painting, includes most of Zhao’s greatest works that are still preserved today, such as calligraphic works Returning Home and Prose Poem on the Nymph of the Luo River, both in running script, and paintings Waterside Village and Watering Horses in Autumn Suburbs.

Beautiful Rocksand Sparse by Zhao Mengfu, housed in the Palace Museum.

The third part, Zhao Mengfu’s Artistic Influences, features works of his wife Guan Daosheng and his student Huang Gongwang (1269-1354), who also became a famous calligrapher and painter. This part also includes recreations of Zhao’s works by eminent people including Dong Qichang (1555-1636), a famous calligrapher and painter in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Wang Lianqi, a research fellow at the Palace Museum and member of the National Commission for Cultural Relics Identification, remarked that Zhao Mengfu’s existing works consist of only about 150 calligraphic pieces and just more than 30 paintings. Counterfeit works are far easier to find than originals. Therefore, the exhibition team set up the fourth part, Discriminating Zhao Mengfu’s Works, in which authentic works are displayed alongside counterfeits so that visitors can discern the differences.

Recently, China Pictorial (CP) sat down with Wang Qi, head of the preparatory team of the exhibition, to discuss Zhao Mengfu and his works.

Prose Poem on the Nymph of the Luo River, a calligraphic work in running script by Zhao Mengfu, housed in the Palace Museum.

CP: How many works by Zhao Mengfu are still preserved today? What has contributed to this exhibition?

Wang Qi: A small number of Zhao Mengfu’s works are scattered across many countries for various reasons. For example, some are collected at Princeton University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Palace Museum holds the largest collection of Zhao’s works in the world. It has a collection of 12 paintings, 48 calligraphic works and 11 inscriptions for paintings and calligraphic works. These are a wide variety of works from all periods of Zhao’s life, making the collection capable of tracing the evolution of his artistic style. Of over 60 authentic works displayed in this show, most are from the Palace Museum collection. The exceptions are eight pieces from Shanghai Museum and Liaoning Provincial Museum.

Alongside the sheer scale of the exhibition, the extensive research performed on the collections is another factor making this a world-class event. Since 1949, senior experts in the Palace Museum including Xu Bangda, a master of painting and calligraphy authentication, and Wang Lianqi, who has been studying Zhao Mengfu for decades, have made clear assessments and research on Zhao’s works—strong academic support for this exhibition.

A facsimile of one of Zhao Mengfu’s calligraphic works in running cursive script by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing
Dynasty, housed in the Palace Museum

CP: What standout pieces should foreign readers reference to best understand Zhao’s works?

Wang Qi: Zhao made remarkable achievements in five major types of calligraphy. I recommend Prose Poem on the Nymph of the Luo River in running script, which manifests a combination of the skills he learned from previous famous calligraphers and his own writing techniques. The unstrained strokes of the calligraphic work are elegant and possess natural grace. This piece is really pleasing to viewers.

As for paintings, Zhao’s Beautiful Rocks and Sparse Woods is his best in the eyes of researchers of scholarly painting. To accompany this painting, he wrote a poem expressing his ideas on applying calligraphic techniques and skills to paintings, which provided a key theory for China’s scholarly painting. This painting is the best expression of this theory. It achieved a perfect combination of Zhao’s artistic expression and ideas.

CP: Compared with Western art during the same period, what makes Zhao Mengfu significant to China’s history of art?

Wang Qi: Painting in Western and Oriental art worlds evolved across two parallel and different paths. Compared with Western art in the same period, Zhao’s works focus on expressing the spirit of nature and people instead of requiring faithful reappearance of configuration, as did most Western paintings of the same period.

In China’s history of art, Zhao Mengfu enjoyed the same status as famous poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and famous painter Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) in the Renaissance period. Zhao Mengfu, like his Western counterparts, not only inherited fine traditions but also made great achievements. His ideas made a major influence on subsequent generations.

Eight Species of Flower(part) by Qian Xuan,a painter in the Yuan Dynasty, housed in the
Palace Museum

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