Sun, Sep 21, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Living the life of a literatus

It would seem that things have changed, but not by much, for traditional artist scholars in Taiwan


Cheng Tzai-tong's From a Poem by Hsieh Tiao.


Chinese literati of 700 years ago were not much different from their contemporary counterparts. They trained in literature and philosophy, "loved good houses, nice clothes, delicacies, night life, going to entertainments, collecting vintage items ..." Ming dynasty prose writer Zhang Dai (張岱) wrote for his own epitaph.

As Literati Aesthetics in the 21st Century, (今之昔 新文人意境展) the current group exhibition at Jeff Hsu's Art (觀想藝術) gallery shows, a nice set of bamboo settees, burning incense and a bloom of peony by their windows still stir the sentiments of many artists here today, the same way they inspired Su Shi (蘇軾) and Zhao Mon-yi (趙孟頫 ) in the Sung and Yuan dynasties.

The literati painters in the past set themselves apart from those producing meticulously realistic works for the imperial academy. While earning their bread on government jobs, they sublimated their longing for an idyllic life away from the treacherous world of politics to express themselves in ink and paper.

The works of 10 of the contemporary artists in the exhibition constitute a wide range of genres, from oil painting, furniture/sculpture, installation, to traditional ink painting and calligraphy. As ancient literati artists enthused about their moods and enjoyments in the tranquility of their homes, today's literati artists are more self-absorbed and express that through depicting the apparently uneventful surroundings of their lives.

"The transition into a new century sounds an alarm for traditional literati. Paper fans [a favorite medium in the past] have been replaced by air conditioners. The prevalence of computers made ink brushes useful only for a few calligraphy die-hards. The onslaught of technology and a transformed, Westernized society are testing the traditional literati lifestyle," writes curator Michael Chen (陳贊雲) for the introduction to the show.

At first glance, the works are all flowers and mountains, but in their respective choice of media and styles, they are all attempts to solve the traditional/modern and Chinese/Western conflicts.

Lin Chuan-chu (林銓居) depicts mountain landscapes with disciplined oil techniques, while remaining true to the literati ink painting tradition of composition. In A View of Mount Chun from Below, gradations of pale blue replaces the traditional blank spaces in the composition, and the effect is dizzying and dramatic.

Chen Kun-de (陳坤德), 31, is the youngest artist in the show. Working in ink, his skills are admirable, but the biggest appeal of his works on scrolls are the uncanny juxtaposition of subjects.

Extension of the Unusual combines two studies of popular Sung dynasty subjects -- a gentleman on a horse and a dancing lady. What prevents the Sung man and the woman from catching sight of each other is an expanse of meadow on top of today's Yangmingshan. A stray zebra also betrays the post-modernist era in which Chen made the work.

Cheng Tzai-dong's (鄭在東) self-portrait series is perhaps the most intriguing part of the show. The blue-dominated oil paintings are haunting images with a hint of self-mockery. One can't help wondering whether the flimsy faceless solitary man in the vertiginous room surrounded by incense smoke and plum blossoms is living a life of intellectual pleasures, or of mental exile.

"Literati Aesthetics in the 21st Century" will run until Oct. 5 at Jeff Hsu's Art, B1, 1, Ln 200, Sungteh Rd. (台北松德路2001B1).

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