Chinese Famous Women Album | Met Collects


This is a collaborative artwork that’s dated
1799 and it began with a set of 16 poems written by this famous scholar, calligrapher, painter
named Cao Zhenxiu. There was this whole tradition of collecting
biographies of famous women from Chinese history and legend who could serve as both good and
bad examples. This goes all the way back, by her time, like
1,800 years. The kind of biographies that get officially
celebrated focus on the chastity of widows, the loyalty of wives to their husbands. What made me so excited about this album is
that it represents this interesting development in changing attitudes towards what constitutes
feminine virtue. Cao Zhenxiu’s selections of famous women that
she found interesting are a little surprising. They’re very pointedly accomplished as scholars,
as artists, as calligraphers, as warriors. Cao Zhenxiu’s poems are on the left, written
with her calligraphy with her seals. And the on the right, we have the images by
this young, virtuoso painter in his mid-20s, named Gai Qi. But Gai Qi is not making straightforward illustrations
of the poems. He does all of these interesting things with
brush and ink. These images are almost like scenes seen under
moonlight, where at first it’s so low-contrast that you can’t even really see what’s happening. But if you take the time to let your eyes
adjust, you realize that within that limited spectrum is infinite richness and infinite
complexity. You wouldn’t necessarily think that an artist
like Gai Qi would take this approach in his mid-20s. You would think that he’d want to go big,
flashy. The boldness here is in its quietude, in its
subtlety, in its restraint. The leaf that really drew me to this album
was this one, which depicts Hong Fu Nü. She was a courtesan at the Sui Dynasty court
in the late-sixth century. She escaped from the court. She becomes this kind of, like, rebel-bandit
figure. We don’t see her face; we see her in three-quarter
rear profile and she has this long sweep of hair. And it looks like she’s looking into a big,
rectangular mirror. Then, when you step back and you see the whole
composition, you realize that what’s being depicted here is not a mirror but it’s a doorway,
through which we see the tail of the horse that’s outside. So, Gai Qi is sort of playing a trick on the
viewer here. This is the early work of a genius. And then we turn the page again and we get
another semi-legendary, semi-historical figure. Madame Wei gave rise to this whole tradition
that we think of as the classical tradition of calligraphy, and yet this is the only image
I’ve ever seen of Madame Wei. She also wrote this really important text
on calligraphy and this text has been read by pretty much every young calligrapher in
China since the sixth century. Here, Cao Zhenxiu puts her right back into
the story of Chinese history. Traditionally, scholarship despaired of the
possibility of finding the voices of women. New scholarship is saying that no, we just
weren’t looking hard enough. We weren’t looking in the right places. Here we have a visual, physical trace of a
woman performing an act of self-representation that’s really powerful, from the late-imperial
period. And we have this opportunity to put it on
view in the galleries and to have a dialogue. And that’s really exciting.

2 thoughts on “Chinese Famous Women Album | Met Collects

  1. The book moves quite flexibly, it's a shame most books today are stiched down.

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