Xie Zhiliu's Traces and Originality in Art

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Copying is bad; originality is good. That’s what we learn from toddlerdom on. In art as in life, be yourself. Don’t pretend. Nobody likes phonies, fakes or frauds. Forgery is illegal. Authenticity is holy.

But wait. Copying and imitating have been the rule for most of the history of human civilization. In the West artists from Raphael to Picasso have profited from copying the works of others. In art there is no such thing as pure originality.

Which brings us to a philosophically intriguing if not visually thrilling exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Mastering the Art of Chinese Painting: Xie Zhiliu (1910-1997)” presents more than 100 drawings and paintings by, according to wall labels, “one of modern China’s leading traditional artists and a pre-eminent connoisseur of painting and calligraphy.” Trained in traditional artistic methods in his youth, Xie Zhiliu (pronounced shay JER-leo) was an adviser to the Shanghai Museum and a professor of painting....

If Xie’s procedures typified the way artists had been working for centuries, as Mr. Hearn said they do, then it challenges the idea that Chinese art is as deeply grounded in real-life experience and observation of nature as is commonly believed. Copying was the royal road to aesthetic perfection.

Why, after all these centuries, is this news? Unlike in the West, Mr. Hearn said, Chinese painters did not save their preparatory studies, sketches and drawings because they did not want to reveal their trade secrets and risk demythologization of their talents. Xie was unusual in that he saved his drawings. Sarah Shay, his daughter, inherited them and recently gave the collection of more than 250 works to the Met.

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