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When a Painting is a Poem: a Perfect Symbol


In the tradition of the Chinese literati painting, poetry and calligraphy converge in one of art’s most beautiful currents.

Anyone who’s had any contact with Chinese culture will have seen paintings that include inscriptions and that seem an integral part of the larger composition. These types of works belong to what are called the “Three Perfections.” On a single canvas meet the poet, the calligrapher and the painter. The virtue of these works is in the semantic expansion that’s not seen in any other artistic movement, and has much to do with the way the semiotic systems interact with and are enhanced by each other.

By using the same brush in painting and in calligraphy the image and the inscription produce a structural affinity, while the poem speaks of the painting. The process of signification is then reciprocal, achieving a perfect generosity between one discipline and another, between sign and image, and between a style and a concept. In the tradition of “literati painting”, as it was called at the time, there’s a possibility of saying much more.

Painting: A Spring Gathering, by Shen Zhou

 * A Spring Gathering, by Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Ming dynasty, ca. 1480 (Freer Gallery of Art)

During the period of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), several works of the “three perfections,” were produced, almost all from artists of the Wu School, in the city of Suzhou. We present here one of them to shed light on how the movement subverted through just the interaction of these three perfections and with the smallest of syntactic units: the brush. Hopefully, when we meet with a literati painting, the experience itself – and the aesthetics – will be that much more expansive. Painting as silent poetry, and the poem like a painting with sound, syntactic and semantic mirrors.

Painting: Detail of A Spring Gathering, by Shen Zhou

* Detail of A Spring Gathering, by Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Ming dynasty, ca. 1480 (Freer Gallery of Art)

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