Nestled in about 5 or 6 cabinets in the Asian room at the British Museum is a small exhibition of contemporary Chinese seals by Li Lanqing.
For 2500 years, seals have served as commanding emblems of identity and authority in China. Since the fourteenth century seal carving was invested with the same status as the three perfections, painting, poetry and calligraphy.
Li Lanqing is a former vice premier of the People’s Republic of China and one of the engineers of China’s opening up policies of the late 197os. After retiring in 2003 he devoted himself to seal carving, amongst his other passions.
The display, remarkably, has over one hundred of his seals and calligraphic works on display, and celebrates the tradition and innovation in Li’s work, as he promotes seal cutting as a popular art in modern China.
The first two cabinets show examples of Li’s seal work, along with implements. The most striking is the great seal used for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, in Heitan Jade. The seal takes the character of ‘Jing’, meaning ‘capital’, part of Beijings name, and shapes it like a dancer.
He also cuts phrases into the seals that reveal his life philosophy and the expressive power of seals, such as A Stone Speaks of Beauty (2008 Shoushan Stone) and A Stone Declares One’s Interests (2008 Qintian Stone). The implements include a seal cutting fastner, Calligraphy brushes and three carving knives. Seal carvers call a chisel an iron calligraphy brush.
Li also exploits the inherent pictorial qualities of Chinese characters and each seal is like a minature work of art, like song from a fishing boat at dusk (2010 Shoushan Stone) and water receding and stones emerging (2006 Balin Stone) while his changing outlook on life as he gets older is also reflected in seals such as my heart calms as water (2010 Shoushan Stone), eat like an ant (2009 Stone) and honesty (2012 lacquered wood).
A couple of Yinpu are also displayed, these are a book or album of famous seals or seals by famous engravers. The seal is stamped into the book and a rubbing taken of it’s side. One of the Yinpu was done especially by Li for this exhibition.
For Li, China’s forward development is grounded in an understanding of the past. A long arduous journey (2011 Stone) is his characterisation of the path towards revitalising China after the Cultural Revolution. Reflecting on the past a selection of the seals commemorate some of the strategies and maxims espoused by politicians during China’s opening up from the late 1970’s.
The last section looks at innovations, Li Lanqing takes an age old tradition and uses it to work with the issues of his time. For his calligraphy Li employs all 5 of the major types of script developed before the Tang dynasty (AD618 – 907), sometimes in the same piece of work and on show are a couple of examples of brush written calligraphy, towering over a fantastic dragon seal and a number of character seals, with a bust on top of each one and their translated names on the bottom. Included are Dickens, Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Shakespeare amongst others, all intricately detailed brass. It’s not just foreign icons that are celebrated, also included is Li Bai (701 – 762), the immortal poet, who I remember from the Art of Drinking exhibition as one of the 8 immortals of the wine cup. His seal is a small column block of Qinatian stone.
An example of Li’s wit can be seen in a seal of Balin Stone called Baiting Roast Duck Restaurant (Bad Officials are Examined by an Illiterate Person). Some strokes were carved to print in red, and some in white, to mimic a malfunctioning neon sign with half it’s lights out. If you read only the red strokes it alludes to the illiterate person examining a bad official, instead of advertising a famous Beijing restaurant, which is the full seal.
My favourite though, is nestled between seals for Ballet, Matisse and Goethe. Made in Shoushan stone, the seal is for Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Don Quixote himself pops up above the seal itself.
This is a small but enjoyable exhibition that serves an engaging, contemporary introduction to the ancient art of seal carving. Unfortunately I’ve been slow as usual, and it’s only on until the 15th of Jan, so get on the good foot! Details here