Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cheng Man-ch'ing: Man Jan

Three Seals of Man Jan 曼髥

Seal carving has existed in China since the dawn of the first millennium, but it was not until the thirteenth century that it became customary for artists to affix their seals on paintings and calligraphy. Generally speaking, no work of Asian art is considered complete and authentic without the artist seal affixed upon it—his imprimatur—even if there is no signature. This distinguishes casual practice copies and sketch models from the completed work.
Early seals in China were made of hard materials such as metal, ivory, and jade. These materials were difficult to carve and were reserved for the wealthy elite. The rise of seal carving as an art form came about during the latter sixteenth century with the introduction of soft stone (soap stone) as the commonly accepted medium for seals. The malleability of soft stone allowed greater freedom of expression when chiseling the characters, and allowed the viewer to trace the process of the carving as the art became ever more spontaneous.
Cheng Man-ch’ing’s seals offer a unique insight into the image Cheng wished to portray of himself. His seals can be divided into several categories: names seals, which include his given name, family name, sobriquet, styled name, studio name, or any other name by which he referred to himself by; phrase seals, which were chosen to reflect a particular poetic verse or character, or call to mind a certain ability, desire, or memorable event; and pictorial seals, which had pictures in place of characters carved.

It has been said that Cheng, like many other talented artists, carved some of his seals himself—but we will never know by their imprints which ones these are. Seal signatures and dedications are inscribed on almost any surface of the seal except the imprint side.

Man Jan, Beautiful Whiskers, was a sobriquet used by Cheng since his early fifties, saying, "Once I turned fifty, I grew my sideburns long and took the sobriquet Man Jan." Of particular note in the three seals above, is the left character Jan "Whiskers" of the middle seal. The character is carved as simply two hanging sideburns. Many artist used this form of the character to sign their works.Cheng, together with Yu Yu-jen 于右任 (1879-1964) and Liu Yen-t'ao 延濤 (1908-1998) became known the the Three Old Whiskers.


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