Kiosk, University of Minnesota Newsletter 1997

A Brush with Sumi-E

In the late 19th century, far eastern art-especially the traditional Oriental brush painting known as "Sumi-E" painting-fired the European imagination and helped push Western painting in the direction of stylization and abstraction. Without this cross-fertilization, a host of postimpressionist movements, from Art Nouveau to Fauvism, might never have occurred.

Now, anyone interested in seeing contemporary versions of the art that inspired Gaúguin, Cézanne, Matisse, and a host of other luminaries can take in the 34th Annual Sumi-E Society exhibition at UMD's Tweed Museum of Art.

Co-sponsored by the Ming Chao (Minnesota Bridge) Chapter of the worldwide Sumi-E Society, the show features 115 paintings and examples of calligraphy selected for the exhibit by renowned watercolorist and UMD professor emeritus, Cheng-Khee Chee, who will also choose the winning entries.

Although the art form originated in China, its name is Japanese-"sumi," which means ink, and "e," (pronounced as a long "a") which means painting. The earliest examples of the style date from the 3rd Century B.C. Over time it spread from China to Japan, along the way developing an aesthetic vocabulary of simplicity and spontaneity inspired by Buddhism and Taoism. In fact, during the Sung Dynasty, which many consider to be the highwater mark of Sumi-E painting, some of the most renowned artists were Zen monks.

Today the Sumi-E Society encourages artists to tackle nontraditional subject matter in this highly traditional ink-and-brush style, and the show at the Tweed reflects this effort. Among the paintings are images and themes that will be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Chinese and Japanese art-landscapes featuring steep, pine-covered mountain slopes and misty valleys, nesting cranes, herons standing in reedy water, solitary flowers attracting solitary birds to their blossoms. But the show also offers a number of paintings that strike off in dramatically nontraditional directions, like Summer Day, by Joan Lok, a portrait of a young woman lounging on a wicker couch, or Betzi Robinson's Visions of Immortality, a painting that is about an equal mix of Sumi-E and New Age spirituality.

But even the nontraditional works in the Tweed exhibit reflect the tension between delicate tonalities and confident brushwork typical of Sumi-E painting, while the more traditional paintings show that there are still surprising variations to be rung on the old subjects. The show continues through September 28 in conjunction with an exhibit of Oriental art from the Tweed's permanent collection. For more information, call 218-726-8222.

-Richard Broderick