Honoring its mission as a community museum, the Bruce Museum continues to offer exhibitions and related programming while undergoing a major renovation in preparation for a celebratory reopening on February 1, 2020. Its Bantle Lecture Gallery is currently featuring the American debut of 15 works on paper — calligraphic writing, drawings and color wash painting — by contemporary Chinese artists who continue to practice and explore traditional methods of Chinese brushwork. The works on view were gifted to the Town of Greenwich as part of the 2019 US-China Art and Culture Exchange, and then gifted to The Bruce by the Town of Greenwich.
When the collection arrived, the museum immediately recognized an opportunity to create an exhibition that connected its art, science and international culture areas as well as continue to encourage and expand community involvement. Corinne Flax, the Bruce’s manager of school and community partnerships, was given the job of curating the exhibition. She explained that while it was simple in part because the collection was preselected, the challenge came in matching the Chinese artists to their works. “There was detective work involved, I had to match the artists to their work by looking at pictures of them at events, as the works were not labeled.”
Flax had a short time span, approximately six weeks, to research the history and technical aspects of Chinese brushwork and then write explanatory wall and artwork label content. She also organized the flow of the exhibition beginning the presentation with an introduction of traditional concepts and basic tools, called “The Four Treasures of the Study” — various types of ink brushes made of bamboo and animal hair, rice paper, ink-stick cake, inkstone and five ceramic water droppers in the shape of turtles and bamboo, and three beautiful ceramic calligraphic brush cleaners that are on view in a display case.
What is interesting about these objects is that they are working tools that belong to teaching artist staff at the museum who loaned them for exhibition. “This has been a true museum collaboration with the staff here at the museum,” explained Flax. The three calligraphic brush cleaners deserve extra attention. Each one is in a different motif: eggplant symbolize success in the workplace, pomegranate for fertility and happiness, and turtle representing long life and power. The introduction section also includes a video interview and discussion produced by China Mattes with Master of Xuan, She Zhenjun, master brush maker, who explains and demonstrates the traditional and time-honored, ancient craft of writing brush and pen, manufacturing all done by hand in small workshops. The process of making the brushes begin with harvesting and treating “the bitter bamboo.”
The structure of Flax’s curatorial arrangement is instructive in informing viewers how and why the art on view was created and evolved, and further presenting the historical and present-day contexts. “Also known as waterpainting, brushwork has a long and illustrious history in China. The art form developed directly from the practice of calligraphy, or ‘Beautiful Writing,’ sometime during the Han Dynasty (220-589 A.D.). Traditionally, brushwork was not practiced by professional artists but by amateurs colloquially known as Scholar Artists, who prided themselves on their mastery of calligraphy and incorporated painting into their poems,” she explains in her curatorial statement.
“Today, the legacy of the Scholar Artist lives on in China and in the creation of these contemporary works of art. In the traditional calligraphic practice, artists copy the masterworks of previous generations in order to learn to create their own works. Each artist in the exhibition uses an established language of brushstrokes, natural images and color washes to express their own unique point of view.”