32nd Annual Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture

Xu Wei's Calligraphy in Jail

Xu Wei (1521–1593) occupies a unique place in Chinese art history. An avant-garde artist recognized for paintings that took the medium of brush-and-ink to wild extremes flirting with pure abstraction, he was arguably even more masterful in calligraphy, capable of writing in a range of styles that display a ceaselessly inventive mind. Xu Wei was a scholar, a master prose writer, a poet of startling originality, a playwright. Xu was an all-around man of talent who largely relied on his literary and artistic skills to survive in a world where talent was a valued commodity. But Xu Wei was also prone to fits of mental instability, and in 1566 he was jailed for murdering his wife. For seven years Xu Wei remained incarcerated before finally being released in a general amnesty. Strangely, it is largely assumed that it was during Xu’s period in jail, which coordinate with his middle years, that his artistic talents blossomed. But what kind of environment did a sixteenth-century Chinese gaol provide? How is it that Xu not only was unbroken by his jailtime experience but, to the contrary, was reticent to leave when freedom finally was offered. This presentation will recount what we know about the events that led to Xu’s incarceration and his experiences in order to put into context some of his surviving works of calligraphy and offer insights into this unique artist’s creativity in confinement.

Peter Charles Sturman PhD, Yale University (1989), is professor of Chinese art history in the History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests center on literati culture of the Northern Song and its immediate aftermath, though he has published widely on text-image relationships in China from the premodern to the present. He is the author of Mi Fu: Style and the Art of Calligraphy in Northern Song China (Yale University Press, 1997) and co-editor of The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China (The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2012), winner of the Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award for museum scholarship. Current projects include a book on the development of literati painting in the late Northern Song, provisionally titled Form and Shadow: Painting and the Literary Mind in Song Dynasty China, and collaborative books on Tang dynasty writings on calligraphy and on the noted Ming dynasty polymath Xu Wei (1521–1593).

About Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture Series
First presented in 1982 in celebration of his 80th birthday, the Sammy Yukuan Lee Lectures on Chinese Art and Archaeology honors the life and philanthropy of respected businessman, art collector, and Chinese art authority, Sammy Yukuan Lee. This series is presented annually by the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies with support from the Sammy Yukuan Lee Foundation, and in partnership with the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Please upgrade to a browser that supports HTML5 audio or install Flash.

Audio MP3 Download Podcast


Transcript   * This might take a few seconds to load.

published icon

Published: Saturday, November 2, 2019