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Shen Zhou's Art of Calligraphy

The style of Shen Zhou's calligraphy in his early years, having a slightly awkward touch within elegant beauty, followed in the family tradition and the Zhao Mengfu manner circulating in Suzhou at the time. In later years, Shen Zhou then began incorporating the brushwork of Song dynasty calligraphers, marking a conscious departure from traditional styles of fluid beauty by focusing on the study of Huang Tingjian's manner. Developing his own Huang Tingjian style, Shen Zhou along with Wu Kuan and Li Yingzhen became a representative calligrapher of his period. Though many calligraphers throughout history studied the style of Huang Tingjian, and it became a trend in Suzhou, Shen Zhou was one of its most representative and accomplished practitioners. Shen's running script features strong and heavy brushwork, the character forms bony yet spirited, and a manner robust but wondrously pure without a touch of commonality. Inspiring the viewer, it is as lofty as Shen Zhou was in character. Although Shen was not as gifted in calligraphy as he was in painting, hence becoming overshadowed by the latter, his calligraphy nonetheless still reveals the unique style of the period and his contributions to the art. His calligraphy in the style of Huang Tingjian, Wu Kuan's rendering in the manner of Su Shi, and the style of Mi Fu practiced by Li Yingzhen are all representative examples of literati efforts to actively break from the Secretariat Style popular at the time. These artists practiced what they preached, not only becoming ideal models for emulation but also leaders for the next generation and setting the stage for the efflorescence of Wu School calligraphy.

Not only gifted at painting and calligraphy, Shen Zhou was also an outstanding poet, the verses he composed in later years being rich and free, writing to his heart's content without adorning the expressions to create a natural and uncommon manner. Throughout his life, Shen Zhou sought neither fame nor wealth, lodging his feelings in landscapes using brush and ink while also using calligraphy to inscribe his own poems on paintings. Through expressing emotions, his art represents how text and image complement each other. For Shen Zhou, poetry, painting, and calligraphy had formed a perfect union, hence the term for the "Three Perfections," which is why Li Rihua in the late Ming dynasty wrote, "Painting has exceeding wonders, calligraphy strength in beauty, and chanting poetry unrestraint."

Commentary on Growing a Beard
Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Ming dynasty

Commentary on Growing a Beard(New window)

The background for this work involves a friend of Shen Zhou, Zhao Mingyu, who did not have a beard. When Yao Cundao heard of this, he asked Shen to do this work and recruited Zhou Zongdao (who had a full beard) to help out in the hope that he could "give" Zhao ten whiskers to make up for what he was lacking in terms of facial hair. Though called a "commentary," Shen Zhou's writing is full of comical humor, revealing a sense of close friendship among these literati. Though Shen Zhou makes a show of citing from classics to give the appearance of a serious composition, he transcribed it in large running script, giving it a more informal quality. The brushwork here features dark and heavy strokes with the forms and momentum upright and strokes extending at an angle, the spirit exuding and reflecting much of the spirit harmony of Huang Tingjian's calligraphy. Though it appears on the surface to be similar to Huang Tingjian's style, the brushwork in the dots and strokes is more astringent and powerfully upright in Shen Zhou's own manner, making this a representative surviving example of Shen's large running script.