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Zhao Zhiqian, Flowers Album

Zhao Zhiqian, Flowers Album, 1862 (Qing dynasty), album leaves, China (Shanghai Museum, China) A conversation between Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Kristen] So here we are in the Shanghai Museum looking at an album of paintings by the artist Zhao Zhiqian. - [Steven] This artist was part of the Shanghai School of Painting during the Qing dynasty. And we're seeing eight pages, each with both a painting and a poetic inclusion, beautifully rendered with calligraphy. - [Kristen] When we talk about schools, it's just a loose way of talking about artists who are active at a particular place in time. Among these professional artists active in 19th century Shanghai, many of them were interested in calligraphy and looking back at engravings on stone. - [Steven] For people whose eyes are trained to look at Chinese calligraphy you can see that archaize in quality, in the brushstrokes that make up the characters here. - [Kristen] They seem very square. They have a lot of horizontal movements. They seem as if they've been drawn from something carved on stone. - [Steven] So by the 19th century, you have this self-conscious cultural moment that is thinking about the 5,000 year history of Chinese culture. - [Kristen] He's even referencing that through his painting style as well, picking up this idea of painting the bird and flower genre, and also some more modern day subjects. Radishes, cabbages, not just the more famous garden flowers like peonies. - [Steven] One of the images that has a long inscription also includes plum blossoms, which are among the most traditional subjects. The plum blossom is among the first flowers of spring and it exists only for a moment. And so is often expressive of the ephemeral. - [Kristen] And it's a favorite among calligraphers because typically it's painted in monochrome, meaning just black ink and the lines of the branch and of the plum blossoms are like calligraphy. - [Steven] And I love the way that the plum blossom frames the calligraphy. The way in which there's such a beautiful integration on this page between the text and the image. The image almost becomes text and the text has its own lyrical aesthetic beauty and is very much image. - [Kristen] In fact, in his inscription, he's mentioning the flying white stroke that you can see starting at the upper left corner dragged where the brush is moving so quickly that it's barely touching the page, making a quick sharp turn to the right, and then back down again - [Steven] There is that beautiful sense of spontaneity, that this is not something that can be planned and then offsetting that pure black ink are those brilliant red seals. - [Kristen] That the end of the inscription is the artist's seal, oftentimes many of these artists in the Shanghai school were interested in seal carving, as well. That too is an art form. - [Steven] And so we have writing, printing, and painting. - [Kristen] The other thing that we see often in these Shanghai School artists in the 19th century is the vibrant, saturated use of color. - [Steven] A great example of that is the traditional subject of the peonies, which is also part of this series. Here, you get a sense of the modernity of his approach. The flower itself, although it has a great sense of volume, is also painted in a very flat way. The leaves turn beautifully, but they're also flat color. - [Kristen] Little touches of black are added on top of the color itself, shaping the leaves, shaping every petal layered one on top of the other. And in fact, the entire blossom seems to take up a lot more of the composition than we've seen in earlier renditions of the same subject. - [Steven] We are standing very close to this flower, but instead of the minute detail that we might have seen in earlier paintings, there is a broadness of the strokes that feels very modern - [Kristen] And the vigor of the brush stroke the lavish use of color, lavish use of water, all of this pushing the bounds of what might have been seen as refined or restrained in earlier times. - [Steven] So the expressive qualities in the painting just as it is in the strokes of the characters and in the seal. - [Kristen] And this is important too, to keep in mind who these artists were painting for. Many of these artists, Zhao Zhiqian himself, were professional artists. They would paint not only for themselves and for their friends but they would also be painting to sell their works. So they were painting works that were visually alluring and marketable. (jazzy piano music)