Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Talkin' 'bout calligraphy

Since it is less than 48 hours until the opening ceremony, I thought I would talk about calligraphy, and specifically one of the most interesting of the ancient masters. This is an unedited extract from the guidebook I am writing...

Zhang Xu

Like the rigid, formal form of the characters they painted, the Four Masters of the Regular Script were all literati of high social status, who also served with distinction in government. The flipside of these rather stiff characters would be another Tang Dynasty artist, the drunken wild man of calligraphy, Zhang Xu (who is thought to have painted from 710-750).

In a fascinating 1300 year precursor to Jimi Hendrix playing the electric guitar with his teeth, Zhang Xu is famous for his orgies of drunken excess, in which he would pace about, shout, and soak his hair in ink in order to paint his timeless classics of wild cursive script.

Reading, (or more correctly, trying to read) “Crazy Zhang’s” fluid streams of alcohol-tinged calligraphy, it is quite eerie to imagine this ancient Chinese artist, who had a totally alien concept of the world, indulge in these seemingly modern-day western antics of artistic excess. In a strange kind of way, Crazy Zhang penchant for a tipple is a nice reflection of the fact that no matter where you are in time, location, or culture, people all have tendencies to behave in the same way.

However despite his counter-cultural tendencies, Zhang Xu did have his more restrained side. His wild cursive was in fact based on earlier Han examples, he just found that his talent had the greatest chance of being expressed to its fullest extent when he was ridiculously drunk. Furthermore, he was also adept at the more restrained style of Kaishu (Regular Script). Maybe, after all, he was less Jimi Hendrix and more Hunter S. Thompson.

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