Literati: Exhibition Foreword

Over a thousand years ago, Yan Zhenqing, a Tang dynasty official, lifted his brush and began to write a letter. The letter was about the recent death of his beloved nephew. The version of Requiem to My Nephew that survives today is riddled with errors and corrections, which tells us it was likely a draft, not meant for the eyes of the public, or even the letter’s intended recipient. Nonetheless, this is one of the most treasured specimens of ancient Chinese calligraphy, studied and emulated by generations of scholars and literary figures over the centuries. Perhaps precisely because of the letter’s status as a draft, it provides us with a window into Yan’s very soul, where we can see his flowing emotions and spirit emerging through his exquisite calligraphy, and feel his profound grief and patriotic sentiments at the loss of his nephew during the An Lushan Rebellion.

Generally, in art and exhibitions, we deal with “official artworks,” highly polished objects that are selected specifically for public consumption. Through these artworks, we can learn about the artist’s creative ideas, but we are only given a selective view, what the artist has consciously chosen to show us. Drafts, notes, manuscripts and sketches are something quite different. When making them, the artist is often speaking only to himself, privately working out a problem or exploring a new idea that may or may not eventually emerge in a more public “official artwork.” This process is often described as “thinking on paper.”

The rare opportunity to look at these preparatory manuscripts can be highly instructive. They can tell us much about the artist’s process. They can tell us whether the artist is a methodical planner, or an improviser. Variations across different drafts can tell us the true focus of the artist’s expression and efforts, and what is merely background noise or stylistic flourish. In this exhibition, we have just such an opportunity to examine the art and ideas of two important Yunnan artists, Yu Jian and Ma Yun. Yu Jian’s poetry and photography, and Ma Yun’s paintings, are presented alongside their notebooks, sketches and drafts, as well as a selection of collected objects and reading materials.

In this exhibition we also hope to reexamine the concept of the “literati,” and what it means in today’s world. In traditional Chinese culture, anyone who would deem to call themselves a “literati,” whether working in the palace or living out among the people, would certainly be deeply steeped in music, chess, calligraphy and painting at the very least. Beyond the palace painters, very few of the most influential artworks in ancient Chinese history come from people who identified primarily as artists. These great works of calligraphy, poetry, painting and music come to us from the hands of statesmen and scholars, formidable figures who dealt with weighty matters of the state and the common good. For them, art was not a set of skills and techniques to be honed for presentation in markets and museums, but an essential act of personal cultivation, a way to sharpen their senses and heighten their endurance in a dangerous, ever-changing world, and an outlet for release from the pressures of the profound challenges they faced at court or on the battlefield. Such an approach has of course changed considerably through the progression of history, but the custom of literati figure as creator remains deeply engrained, and today it is expressed in a wide range of forms beyond brush and ink. As Yu Jian says, “I replace ink painting with the camera, using modern technology to reconstruct the phenomenon of the traditional Chinese literati. What I am doing is breaking this convention of confining the artist to a single category or art form.” Yu Jian expresses the aim of this exhibition quite well: “Many people think of me as just a poet. Through this exhibition, they will see the whole me.” This idea of “seeing the whole artist” should be an essential attitude in our approach to understanding art. For this reason, we aim to go beyond a polished presentation of “official” artworks to take a deeper look at the inner lives of these artists: the details they constantly revise, the different approaches they take to their goal, even the notes and doodles they jot down in moments of contemplation or distraction standing as a reflection of a more complete person. This brings us closer to what it actually means to make art. Ma Yun tells us, “Whenever I approach creation, everything is in constant flux. To try and rein in this change is impossible, but in this change, in this process, all of the joys and sorrows of creation naturally come into being.”

Jeff Crosby