November 27, 2007

The Chinese Stamp

While archiving my works on paper, I came across an old drawing of an enlargement of a postage stamp. The drawing was completed in an illustration class when I was still an undergraduate at Douglass College in New Jersey. What is amazing to me now about the drawing is not the rendering but how prophetic the content turned out to be now that I see it again through the lens of age and experience.
I recall that I was attracted to this stamp because of the delicate colors and curvilinear composition. The dog seemed to rest in perfect harmony with the banana plant and the rolling hillocks. The colors were delicate, creamy pastels against a gold back round, the stark black and white dog a perfect counterpoint to this delicacy. I scrutinized the strange language on the stamp, carefully copying the odd shapes in pencil. I dutifully rendered the choppy lines of the printed foreign script. At the time they were forms to me but without meaning. Although I could see the artistry in the script, my ignorance of the language was a barrier to understanding the content. As an undergraduate in an illustration class in the United States in the late seventies, this language, however intriguing, was not relevant.
I had no idea that two years later, I would be in China, reading and writing this language. I would come to know masters of Chinese painting, both past and present and have experiences that would change the course of my life forever. Looking retrospectively at my young drawing of the Chinese stamp I am stunned at the thought of how quickly and dramatically a life can change. Knowing from my old-age vantage point that the young woman who made this drawing was teetering on the very brink of that change, I hold my breath, as if a sigh from the future would send a chill to the past. Within a year, my health would fail, I would leave the pre-med science program and study full-time in art, my family life would be turned on its head, I would leave my country. It would be a long time before I could come back home. In many ways I never really did.
Looking again at my drawing of the Chinese stamp, with my experiences in my second life as Zhen Ni Ta the Chinese artist well behind me instead of in front of me, I read instead of merely see. When I look at the writing, I cannot see the shapes without the crisp clear tones of Mandarin ringing in my brain. “Zhong Hua Min Guo You Ju Tai Bei “- the postal office of the Republic of China, Tai Bei. The writing on the face of the painting depicted in the stamp is too small and I cannot read it. But the carefully drawn little squares underneath the calligraphy I recognize as an ancient script used in seals. I can just barely make out something which appears to be a wish for good fortune.
The painting depicted in the stamp I now recognize as a work by the 18th century painter, Lang Shi Ning - another irony and harbinger of things to come. For Lang Shi Ning, the imperial court painter for the emperor Qian Long, was not in fact Chinese, but the Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione. Too little is known of his life in China, yet it was known that apart from his tenure as an imperial painter, Castiglione designed architecture for the emperor which blended European and Asian aesthetics. Following in the footsteps of a rare artist who trained in China, I would learn to grasp the same traditional brushes, touch the same hand-ground inks to those same fine silks and papers. But in communist China, there were no emperors with courts to serve under (not that I would by any stretch of the imagination qualify for such a position!). There were only people who trained me in the traditional arts of painting - people like that nice family in Beijing who taught me how to make glue sizing for silk and paper. A family who, I was to find out shortly before leaving the country, counted among their members, Pu Jie, brother of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China.

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