The Chinese way of appreciating a painting is often expressed by the words du hua, to read a painting. Because art is a visual language, words alone cannot adequately convey its expressive dimension. How to Read Chinese Paintings seeks to visually analyze 36 paintings and calligraphies from the encyclopedic collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to elucidate what makes each a masterpiece. Maxwell K. Hearn s elegantly erudite yet readable text discusses each work in depth, considering multiple layers of meaning. Style, technique, symbolism, past traditions, historical events, and the artist s personal circumstances all come into play. Spanning more than a thousand years, from the 8th through the 17th century, the subjects represented are particularly wide-ranging: landscapes, flowers, birds, figures, religious subjects, and calligraphies. All illuminate the main goal of every Chinese artist: to capture not only the outer appearance of a subject but also its inner essence. Numerous large color details, accompanied by informative captions, allow the reader to delve further into the most significant aspects of each work. Together the text and illustrations reveal many of the major themes and characteristics of Chinese painting. To read these works is to enter a dialogue with the past. Slowly perusing a scroll or album, one shares an intimate experience that has been repeated over the centuries. And it is through such readings that meaning is revealed. Also included in this volume is a map, dynastic chronology, and further reading suggestions.
Hearn offers this catalogue, which decodes these works and makes them accessible to a 21st-century Western audience. Hearn discusses 36 masterpieces (dating roughly from the 8th through the 17th centuries) from the Metropolitan's stellar collection, illuminating how each work exemplifies a particular quality: i.e., "The Subtle Subversive" or the "Landscape as Self-Portrait." Once the subtleties are highlighted, the details come alive with meaning -- and even pointed political metaphors. For instance, Hearn explains that the "Groom and Horse" became an allegorical plea "for the proper use of scholarly talent" (the groom being the scholar). Ironically, today's technology plays a starring role. Many paintings are easier to "read" in reproduction here with the aid of digital photo manipulation that can better amplify contrasts. The high-resolution enlargements also expose the brushstroke sequences behind the construction of characters and dense compositions. Among the most surprising revelations is that the Chinese, way back in the 700s, did their own version of blogging commentary. Just as we now "scroll" through a history of email correspondence or tack a reaction to another's blog entry online, Chinese scholars, emperors and other admirers wrote calligraphic colophons, stamping their vermilion personal seals and often writing appreciations right on the original, permanently altering the artwork itself for the next generation. While our contemporary cyberspace forum is more democratic, typical reactions tend to be slapdash, without aesthetic flair, and are destined to be deleted. On these paintings, however, the tradition of these artistic paper trails manage -- with the simplest of technologies -- to keep the past alive in dialogue with the present. --Victoria C. Rowan