NEW YORK — Large public exhibits of ancient Chinese calligraphy are rare in the United States, as are major shows that can be appreciated by kids as well as adults, novices as well as experts.
"Out of Character" is both. It's the first public showing of highlights from the extensive Chinese calligraphy collection of former Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and his wife, Akiko Yamazaki.
"It's meant to be fun and casual," Yang said of the exhibit, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Aug. 17.
In addition to the 45 works that comprised the show in its first stop, at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, it now features a half-dozen works from the Met's collection, too.
There are novice-friendly features like "decoding cards" that visitors can use to help identify the five major types of calligraphy throughout the exhibit; short videos of a contemporary Bay Area calligrapher at work; and a 17-minute animated movie that works as a contemporary and light-hearted coda.
There are enormous ceiling-to-floor scrolls in big scrawled letters (some painted by somewhat inebriated calligraphers as a sort of performance art, according to curator Joseph Scheier-Dolberg); more intimate works in delicate, gossamer characters on paper; a work in purposefully blotchy characters on satin; and immense complete works like a rare Buddhist "Lotus Sutra" scroll and a complete book spread page by page across a wall.
Taken together, the exhibit tells the story of how calligraphy has evolved over millennia and been used in various settings.
A two-minute introductory video follows a California calligrapher carefully grinding ink and then putting brush to paper to form the Chinese character for "autumn" in all five script types. "It's an orientation and shows the evolution of a craft that people still sit straight-backed, at desks, and do every day," said Scheier-Dolberg.
No need in this exhibit for Chinese literacy, although that would certainly add to one's appreciation. The focus is firmly on writing styles and usage.
Examples date from 1315 to the present. The entry gallery features an enormous Tang Dynasty (618-907) "Palace Poem" by Wang Jian, rewritten by Mi Wanzhong in cursive, the most casual script, during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). "A real go-to poem of the time," Scheier-Dolberg said, it describes an imperial ceremony, and was later set to music and adopted as China's first national anthem.
"The fireworks of the collection," he said, is the Lotus Sutra, written in around 1315 by "epoch-making calligrapher" Zhao Mengfu. His delicate brushwork and dynamism define this text of more than 10,000 pinky-size, standard-script characters. The scroll is one of only two that survive from an original set of seven, the curator said.
"It really shows the spiritual and meditative side of calligraphy, and was written as an act of piety," he said.
A theme running throughout the exhibit is that of the craft's many stringent rules, as well as works that joyfully break them. For younger visitors, it can be interesting trying to identify which works seem to be following rules and which are breaking them.
Another gallery explores calligraphy's role in personal relations in pre-modern China. Friends exchanged letters, transcribed poems for one another and wrote commemorative inscriptions. The writers' personalities are reflected in the works — some fine and fluid, others big and bold with heavy brushstrokes. The written words were cherished as works of art, as well as for their meaning.
The rest of the exhibit is arranged chronologically and is wrapped evocatively around the museum's Astor Court, a recreation of the kind of Chinese salon in which calligraphy was sometimes painted and displayed.
Elegant works by Dong Qichang (1555-1636) revisit traditional aesthetics and took calligraphy to new heights of refinement. His works share a gallery with those of his more eccentric and daring contemporaries, highlighting the juxtaposition.
Later calligraphers experimented with quirky mixes of styles.
The "big and rough" styles of the 17th century are exemplified by Wang Duo, who deliberately rejected his era's standards of beauty in favor of extremes of wet and then virtually dry brushwork.
"He's really one of the great rule-breakers of Chinese history. You can see how he has a few drinks to get the creative juices flowing, makes no effort to control the flow when he loads his brush, and writes until his brush is almost completely dry," said the curator. "He was fantastic, like a Stravinsky of the calligraphy world."