Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Art and Visual Culture


Patrick Mahon


There is no Western equivalent to the practice of calligraphy in pre-modern China, an aesthetic form which does not resolve itself into a literary object or a visual one. Calligraphy was sustained by a rich and complex body of thought that can fully rival art criticism and theory in the West. To undertake this project, I immersed myself in the study of both key works of calligraphy and the aesthetic that sustained it during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) in China—not in order to practice calligraphy but to transform my own understanding of art and make contemporary Western paintings out of that immersion.

Various elements of that aesthetic are studied. Among them are the relation of the Chinese writing system to the natural world; the belief that calligraphy displays the writer’s character; the role of calligraphy in sustaining social relationships; calligraphy’s particular temporality; its political role during the Northern Song; the belief that the different arts of the brush could be transmuted into each other; and its relation to the past.

After outlining the Northern Song aesthetic, I examine two canonical works of calligraphy: Su Shi’s scroll, Rain on the Festival of Cold Food, and Huang Tingjian’s Scroll for Zhang Datong. Following this, my own practice is examined in one recent painting, The Declining Year at Hangzhou. This leads into a wider, fragmentary discussion of the influence of the Northern Song aesthetic in relation to contemporary practice. As a result of this immersion, art is understood as a form of conduct rather than as a subjective expression.