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Song of the morning

Song of the morning

Song of the morning, 14281500, by Chen Xianzhang (14281500). China; Ming dynasty (13681644). Hanging scroll; ink on paper. Museum purchase, B68D6.

In this work, the writing is not just the title of a painting but the work of art itself. The Greek word calligraphy (beautiful writing) refers to writing as a visual art form. This large (about 6' tall) work, entitled The Song of the Morning, is mounted as a hanging scroll for wall decoration. The artist, Chen Xiangzheng, wielded the brush with vigor and freedom in a wild cursive style of writing. Although Chinese calligraphy is most often admired for the balance and harmony created by the placement of the strokes within each character and the relationship of one character to another, the Chinese also appreciate the wildness of some of their more eccentric artists. This script is cursive because it uses simplified versions of the characters and joins most of the remaining strokes into one sweeping movement of the brush. But Chen has gone even beyond this degree of abbreviation, altering the characters almost beyond recognition. In his own idiosyncratic way he has made some characters very large and some tiny. While some stretch out across the page, others are reduced to little squiggles. When the brush is pressed hard onto the paper and vigorously pulled across it, the bristles of the brush separate leaving spaces of white within the stroke known as feibai or flying white.

In his time Chen, a renowned scholar-artist from southern China also became the most famous master of Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhist literature; he was summoned to the capital, Beijing, by the emperor, who appointed him Fellow of the Academy. Chen refused the honor, preferring to remain a humble teacher in the tranquillity of Baisha, his hometown. As expressed in this work, Chen felt a spiritual connection with nature (translation):

Green mountains attract cranes and waterfowl.
Amidst whirling morning rain, river waves pound at the dawning sun.
Flowers blow dizzily in morning wind,
enticing birds to come.
Laughing bamboo and crowing birds are in
harmony with it all. 

Imagine painting this piece of calligraphy with Chen. Start in the upper right and go down each column. Remember the characters themselves are formed from left to right, top to bottom. What size brush did he use to paint this 6-foot-long piece of paper? Do you think he painted it sitting down or standing up? 

Hint: Chinese calligraphers always lay the paper on a horizontal surface: a bench, a table, or sometimes on the floor.

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