How to Read Chinese Paintings

Chinese paintings, with their meticulous brushwork and calligraphy, can be dazzling. But that very codified perfection can also alienate the non-connoisseur into an uncomprehending daze. For those who have wanted to be more clued in, Metropolitan Museum curator Maxwell K. Hearn offers this catalogue, which decodes these works and makes them accessible to a 21st-century Western audience. Hearn discusses 36 masterpieces (dating roughly from the 8th through the 17th centuries) from the Metropolitan's stellar collection, illuminating how each work exemplifies a particular quality: i.e., "The Subtle Subversive" or the "Landscape as Self-Portrait." Once the subtleties are highlighted, the details come alive with meaning -- and even pointed political metaphors. For instance, Hearn explains that the "Groom and Horse" became an allegorical plea "for the proper use of scholarly talent" (the groom being the scholar). Ironically, today's technology plays a starring role. Many paintings are easier to "read" in reproduction here with the aid of digital photo manipulation that can better amplify contrasts. The high-resolution enlargements also expose the brushstroke sequences behind the construction of characters and dense compositions. Among the most surprising revelations is that the Chinese, way back in the 700s, did their own version of blogging commentary. Just as we now "scroll" through a history of email correspondence or tack a reaction to another's blog entry online, Chinese scholars, emperors and other admirers wrote calligraphic colophons, stamping their vermilion personal seals and often writing appreciations right on the original, permanently altering the artwork itself for the next generation. While our contemporary cyberspace forum is more democratic, typical reactions tend to be slapdash, without aesthetic flair, and are destined to be deleted. On these paintings, however, the tradition of these artistic paper trails manage -- with the simplest of technologies -- to keep the past alive in dialogue with the present.

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