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SAN FRANCISCO, July 11, 2012. Chinese calligraphy—long considered the most sublime art form in China—is like a carefully choreographed dance, its steps guided by tradition. By manipulating a brush with varied movements and pressures, calligraphers create sensuous strokes: their ink dances across surfaces of silk, satin, or paper, presenting balance within a character, harmony among words, and rhythm across lines of text. With mind and hand in accord, calligraphers express the strength of their character through their characters.

This fall, the Asian Art Museum presents Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, a compelling new exhibition examining the complexities of this time-honored art form through 40 calligraphies—including 15 noted masterworks, many on public view for the first time—all borrowed from the significant collection of Bay Area entrepreneur Jerry Yang. The calligraphies are supplemented with three major abstract expressionist paintings by Brice Marden, Franz Kline, and Mark Tobey, plus a newly commissioned video installation by acclaimed international contemporary artist Xu Bing. Together, these artworks offer a stimulating exploration of creativity expressed within the constraints of artistic discipline.

The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive catalogue featuring essays by leading calligraphy experts, as well as a multimedia tour—including the perspective of Jerry Yang—and other public programs.

Out of Character is on view at the museum October 5, 2012, through January 13, 2013. The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation is the Presenting Sponsor of the exhibition.

After its presentation at the Asian Art Museum, the exhibition is scheduled to tour to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2014.

"Through the centuries, a complex set of rules and conventions evolved in this art form, governing scripts, styles, formats, content, and context, and impacting every aspect of the Chinese calligrapher's practice," said Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum. "The unique mix presented in Out of Character—classic calligraphies complemented by modern and new works—offers a framework for understanding that within these constraints, creativity and self- expression remained the goals of the calligrapher."

The first major exhibition of Chinese calligraphy in the U.S. since 1999, Out of Character is organized by the Asian Art Museum and curated by Dr. Michael Knight, the museum's senior curator of Chinese art, and Dr. Joseph Chang, senior research fellow at the museum's Research Institute for Asian Art.

In organizing the exhibition, the curators—with input from several noted scholars from both China and the U. S.—drew upon superb calligraphies from the Guanyuan Shanzhuang (The Mountain Villa for Gazing Afar), a significant collection of more than 250 works owned by Yang. Many of the artworks will be on public view for the first time, offering museum visitors a rare opportunity to see such masterworks as Lotus Sutra, a late 13"-to-early-14"-century handscroll by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). On view also will be the earliest dated calligraphy outside China by Dong Qichang (1555-1636).

"There aren't many opportunities for people to experience firsthand the complexity and diversity of Chinese calligraphy," said Jerry Yang. "For me, understanding and appreciating Chinese calligraphy has been a journey of discovery, inspiration, and fulfillment. I'm proud for the Asian Art Museum—known for its scholarship and pursuit of cultural understanding—to share these works with the broader community, enabling others to more fully appreciate the complex beauty and significance of this art form."

"There is no question that an essential aspect of Chinese culture is its language and writing," said Robert Y. C. Ho, Chairman of The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, "Chinese calligraphy is a highly complex, beautiful and sometimes inscrutable system that has evolved over several millennia and is central to China's political, cultural and social development. It captures and defines virtually every aspect of Chinese history and culture in a way that perhaps no other art form can."

Viewers will encounter the bold, streamlined presentation of Out of Character in three key sections: first, an introduction provides an overview of tools, materials, and techniques critical to understanding and appreciating Chinese calligraphy. This section features 25 calligraphies illustrating key elements including format, script, styles, content and context; in the second section, 15 featured calligraphies illustrate in depth the elements presented in the introduction; and third, a contemporary response by artist Xu Bing offers a cultural perspective on the nature of calligraphy.

Admired as the premier form of visual art in China, calligraphy is often puzzling to unschooled audiences. The exhibition begins by explaining the basic elements and constraints of calligraphy: the tools and materials, common scripts, and formats artists marshaled to express themselves within the constraints of the art form's conventions. Each of the 25 art works in this section uses rare works to illustrate important themes, including:

The Role of the Calligrapher in Chinese Society
In China, social status and economic success were tied to literacy; literacy was tied to calligraphy. Within the educated elite, accomplished calligraphers were cultural heroes, celebrated in many ways like modern day pop icons.

Over time, a complex set of rules and conventions has evolved in calligraphy. These conventions are explored in the following divisions: training, practice, and materials (brush, ink, paper/silk, implements).

Just as in modern Western handwriting there are two basic scripts, print and cursive, so Chinese calligraphers created scrolls using one of five basic scripts (three are formal and two are informal). Examples are presented of each type, and accompanying texts explain their history and significance, including the reasons an artist might have chosen one for a particular work.

Until the middle of the 19th century, Chinese scripts had stayed the same for 1500 years. Even so, each calligrapher had a personal style. As their art evolved to become a form of personal expression, calligraphers developed their own methods within the conventions of each script. The styles of some calligraphers were so admired that they gave rise to traditions the lasted for centuries.

Context and content
Most forms of Western art are designed for interior decoration; traditional calligraphy was not. For most Chinese calligraphers, their art was an avocation rather than a profession. What did they envision as the purpose of their works? How did the artists' lives and circumstances affect the content of the works? These issues are explored through the calligraphic traditions of letters, poetry, elegant gatherings (yaji), protest, and commissions and dedications.

There are four major formats in Chinese calligraphy: fans, albums, handscrolls and hanging scrolls. Size, manner of handling and viewing, and existing traditions have a large bearing on the scripts and nature of the characters used in each of these formats.

Calligraphy and painting
Art historians often draw parallels between calligraphy and the ink painting practiced by China's educated elite. But even though calligraphy and ink painting use the same materials and the same basic formats, the differences are fundamental. First and foremost among the rules and conventions of painting are the representation of something, be it a landscape, a flower, or a stalk of bamboo and the semiotic art of calligraphy, whose foundation is the copying of ancient masterworks.

Calligraphy and Abstraction
Calligraphy is not an abstract art form—it is writing. Even the most expressive script has a strict code of rules. However, calligraphy can be viewed in ways similar to those one would use for abstract artworks—as the expression of self through brush and ink, the flow of the characters and line, the contrasts in light and dark, etc. Three works by modern American masters, Mark Tobey (Written over the Plains, 1950), Franz Kline (Leigh V Span, 1959-1960), and Brice Marden (Etchings to Rexroth, 1986), each deeply influenced by calligraphy, illustrate this concept. These paintings are borrowed from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Calligraphy and Poetry
Poetry is the most common subject of Chinese calligraphy. In most cases, the poems chosen were well-known masterworks from the past, familiar to all members of China's educated elite. Others were composed by the calligrapher, some of whom were famous as poets. Poetry had its own rules and regulations that must be taken into consideration when composing or deciphering a calligraphy.

Calligraphy at Times of Crisis
Chinese painting, poetry, and calligraphy were often used for purposes of protest, particularly at times of dynastic change or personal crisis. Because of the very real danger of being prosecuted for saying something directly, messages in such works were often hidden through the use of allusion and indirect reference.

The Ancient as a Source of Creativity
Ancient scripts frequently served as a source of inspiration for calligraphers, particularly during the 19th century. These scripts, found on vessels from China's Bronze Age and on ancient stele, became sources for new techniques and approaches, the ancient serving as a source for creating something entirely new and innovative.

Leading calligraphy experts from China and the West assisted the museum's curators in selecting and evaluating works on view in Out of Character. Their choices were based on both importance and visual impact. Fifteen featured works will be distinguished from the 25 support works both by the method of installation and how they are interpreted. While only sections of many of the support works will be on display (for example one or two leaves from an album, or a short section of a hand scroll), each featured work will be shown in its entirety, an unprecedented presentation; the hand scrolls measure up to 33 feet in length, and one album has 85 leaves.

Featured works include:
When viewing calligraphy for the first time, people most commonly ask: "What does it say?" "Who created this?" "Why did the artist choose to present the content in this way?" and "How has the work survived so long?" The exhibition presents these works in a way that addresses these questions.
The museum has commissioned international artist Xu Bing (born 1955) to respond to calligraphy's long-standing tradition. Xu, awarded a MacArthur Fellowship Grant in 1999, will create an animated film, a medium that is new for both the artist and the museum. The twenty- minute film will run continuously in wide-screen, black and white format on three horizontal monitors in the museum's North Court.

To complement Out of Character, the museum's collection galleries on the second and third floors will feature more than sixty works from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Islamic cultures, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan exploring the themes of "Words as Art/Art with Words." Works as varied as an eighth-century Japanese sutra, marvelous Islamic illustrated manuscripts, contemporary Korean calligraphy, Tibetan thangkas, various objects with inscriptions around the museum's galleries, and the quotations inscribed in the museum's walls that relate to this building's former function as the San Francisco Main Public Library will be presented.

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