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New course features ancient Chinese art

March 24, 2008

Music major Beau Reeves ’11 dabbed her bamboo brush onto a puddle of black ink. Holding the brush at a 90-degree angle, she slashed a black line across the page. It was the first stroke in what would become the Chinese calligraphic word for flower.

“This is a beautiful art form,” Reeves said, with eyes fixed on the thin black line. “I have always been drawn to it.”

Sixteen students are taking part in the special topics course “Chinese Painting and Calligraphy,” taught by Associate Professor of Art and Art History Susan Scott. Students learned about painting theory, the history of Chinese painting and calligraphy, and examined paintings that have survived for thousands of years. Then they tried their hand at Chinese calligraphy.

“It’s simplistic and has a Zen quality to it,” says Brad Behles ’08, a studio art major.

Calligraphy dates back to the Neolithic period, when ancient oracles wrote people’s fortunes on the shin bones of oxen. The bones that have been found in caches in parts of China date back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties from 1600 B.C. through 256 B.C. Their calligraphy has contributed to the knowledge of ancient Chinese. Calligraphic poetry is also frequently found on Chinese paintings, along with red stamp seals naming the artist and owners.

Creating calligraphy looks easier than it is. Each stroke requires a certain amount of pressure on the brush, and there is a particular order in which each line of a character must be drawn.

“You have to get it right the first time,” said Emily Johnson ’11, as she practiced writing the character meaning courage.

Students will make a trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York April 12 to see the exhibition “The Anatomy of a Masterpiece: Howe to read Chinese Painting,” Scott hopes that toward the end of the course, students will try painting flowers, trees and animals, and perhaps entire paintings, complete with calligraphic poetry and stamp seals.