Chinese Calligraphy: André Kneib

In conversation with Asian Art Newspaper, calligrapher André Kneib recounts his extraordinary journey which began long before it was easy, or fashionable, to travel to China and discusses calligraphy.

Even today, as globalisation has brought the art world closer together than ever, certain areas have so far been less popular. Such is the case for Chinese calligraphy and even more so for the art of ancient calligraphy. If in China, and other Asian countries, it is common to grow up with a basic knowledge and appreciation of calligraphy, its history and study often remains a sanctuary of an initiated group. Very few Western scholars can be considered experts in Chinese painting and calligraphy and even fewer people, whether Chinese or from abroad, can claim to have revolutionised the field of calligraphy. However, such is the case with calligrapher André Kneib (b 1952), born and based in France, who besides defending and promoting Chinese calligraphy as a scholar, a teacher, and curator has himself, as an artist, contributed to adding an unexpected yet retrospectively essential element to calligraphy: colour.

Asian Art Newspaper: In the 1970s China was a mainly closed country, how does a university student in France get to become one of the authorities in Chinese calligraphy?
André Kneib: As a young student, I went to Paris to study Chinese. I was interested in foreign languages and at home I had a small booklet Teach Yourself Chinese that I had found in my uncle’s library. I loved all the characters. During my last year at school, I had an excellent philosophy teacher, who indicated that at university level there was actually a school where I could study the Chinese language. That is how it all started. I began learning Chinese, speaking, reading, and writing the language. I had an interest in writing Chinese which I studied with great care. In Paris, one of my professors told me that in China there was something called ‘calligraphy’. I immediately started looking into it, and before I knew it, I was involved in a regular curriculum, graduating, continuing with a master’s degree and followed by a PhD. The subject of calligraphy intrigued me. What was it? What was it about? One of my professors who had heard of my interest in calligraphy, recommended that I go to Musée Cernuschi in Paris where Lee Ungno, a great Korean master (1904, Seoul-1989, Paris), was giving calligraphy lessons. I went and I was able to learn the basics with him.

AAN: The subject was quite unusual at the time, so it must have been difficult finding teachers in the West with the knowledge to guide you in calligraphy?
AK: One needs to remember that in the Western world, even today, there are not many experts in Chinese calligraphy. There are five or six at the most, like Jean-Marie Simonet in Belgium, Lothar Ledderose in Germany, Jean-François Billeter in Switzerland and Stephen Goldberg in the US, and of course, the situation was much worse when I started out.

Residency in Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto, Japan

AAN: Although you are from France, you are acknowledged in Asia as an artist and a connoisseur of calligraphy in your own right.
AK: In China, wherever you go, whatever the province, and whoever is actively involved in calligraphy, they all know me. The same goes for Taiwan. As for Japan, I completed a residency at the Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto and while I was there, a Buddhist monk who lived in Nagahama approached me. He came to see me in Kyoto, saying that rumour had it that there was a Frenchman staying at the villa who was working with calligraphy. He explained that they were in the process of renovating their temple, asking if I was interested in being associated with the renovation process. When I went to see the temple with him, he suggested I complete a work involving the fusuma (sliding doors), separating the sanctuary from the congregation. Initially, I did not understand what he was looking for, whether it was sutras, proverbs or whether he had something completely different in mind. He wanted a site-specific piece for the temple. As he was about to travel over the next few weeks, he recommended that in the meantime, I stay in the temple in order to get a feeling for the place and the space. It was a unique experience as every morning some elderly ladies came and brought me my meals and some fruit. Overnight, however, I was alone in the space, giving me ample time to think about what I wanted to do. I subsequently submitted my proposal depicting eight times the character ‘heart’, which was approved by the various instances.

What was surprising was how in a country where there are thousands of people practising calligraphy, they had come to me for that project. Perhaps it was because that specific monk had a lot of contact with Europe – and specifically France. To me, it was an incredible honour to be asked to complete the project. One of my Chinese friends even went as far as to tell me that now that I had completed this project, I could stop all together. Indeed, it is similar as if in the West, I had completed the windows of a church. That was a very important moment in my life.

AAN: What was the situation with European institutions with regard to calligraphy, when you were a student?
AK: In Europe, people started to get interested in calligraphy after World War II. There were not many people following the subject closely, even though there were specialists like the people I mentioned above. It was very slow in the beginning. Incidentally, one of the main reasons the subject had been relatively ignored was that within the great American and European institutions there was very little calligraphy. People showed little interest and for a long time calligraphy was considered difficult, hermetic, and complicated. The institutions also had enough to keep themselves busy with ceramics, bronzes, jades, etc., items which also required a great deal of care. In addition, the patrons of these institutions were themselves mainly interested in bronzes and ceramics, and then only in painting. They moved ahead in these areas while leaving calligraphy behind, mainly because there was not much around and also because it was difficult.

Andre Kneib Calligraphy, and Scholarship to China

AAN: With little expertise on which to rely, and the institutions not truly devoted to calligraphy and painting, it seems you were compelled to go to the source, to Asia.
AK: Absolutely. I had started off with Lee Ungno in Paris with the basic idea of understanding what calligraphy meant. Then, in the course of my masters with François Cheng, my teacher recommended that I go to Taiwan to develop my knowledge of the subject I had chosen to write about: ‘A few elements for the study of Chinese calligraphy’. Once I had finished writing my thesis, my professors encouraged me to continue, as I still had the desire to understand calligraphy, its meaning, and wanted to know everything about and around it.

Léon Vandermeersch, one of the great still-living sinologists, suggested I apply for a scholarship in China and simply go there to study. Having this scholarship meant that all French students were dispatched nationwide in China to various cities. So there I was in 1979, knowing nothing about China and being sent to Nanjing University. Strangely enough, the university did not quite know what to do with me. They did not have anyone at hand to teach me so week after week I went to museums and explored the city. I started meeting young Chinese people of my age and one day I met a fellow by the name of Liu Dan (b 1953), a great painter, and we became friends. We got together every now and then until he told me about a friend of his who was also employed by Nanjing University who could perhaps help me. Although at the time it was not easy to visit people at their home, Liu Dan took me to meet the person who was to become my calligraphy teacher: Ding Hao (1941-2012).

AAN: It must have been difficult gaining your teacher’s trust and convince him of your motivation and your interest towards a subject as hard as calligraphy.
AK: As we met, Ding Hao first wanted to see what I had completed so far. He looked at my thesis and carefully studied the bibliography. I showed him some of my works, exercises, and somehow we got along and he agreed to help me move forward. Ding Hao had encountered a great deal of problems during the Cultural Revolution and at the university, officially, he was in charge of the library’s ancient books. Ding Hao did not have the best relationship with the university officials and therefore, in the beginning, the university officials were not that much in favour of him teaching me. However, one day, Ding Hao had resolved all the paperwork and was officially designated to teach me calligraphy.

AAN: Calligraphy is such a broad subject, it must have been difficult to know where to begin?
AK: As we started off, he indicated that if I truly wanted to understand calligraphy, I needed to be able to read and understand Chinese ancient texts on calligraphy (the calligraphy treatises). I had heard about them, but back then, there were no translations available. Basically, I needed to start from the very beginning, studying the first texts to see how it became an established art. Subsequently, Ding Hao picked the first important text and used it to teach me about the history of calligraphy. Reading this text was extremely difficult, as it was written in classical Chinese. One day, he said we should find someone else for the proper calligraphy practice classes as I needed a lot of guidance. Once a week, I would meet with this other teacher and do nothing else other than work with paper, ink, and brush. So we finally had it all set up – the practice of calligraphy and the history, together with the theory of calligraphy (using the various treatises as well as the theoretical discourse).

Progressing in Calligraphy and Ding Hao

AAN: Did you think you would become a scholar of Chinese calligraphy?
AK: At the time, I saw myself continuing my studies towards a PhD, in order to possibly teach at a later date. The other option was to do some research in the field by translating and writing about ancient calligraphy, all the more so as nothing had been done in that field in the West and there were no translations in modern Chinese. I kept wondering why there were versions of writings by Confucius in contemporary Chinese, but nothing in terms of calligraphy. The answer was quite simple: Chinese people interested in the field of ancient calligraphy had a good enough level of classical Chinese that they could easily understand it.

However, there came a moment when I became a little tired of the whole thing, especially the practising part. Ding Hao immediately said that if I was not willing to pursue practising calligraphy, he would stop his part, too, as it would not lead to anything. I remember, it was around Christmas time and he simply declared we would stop. In the meantime, I should take the opportunity of the upcoming holiday to travel through China and think about things and we would discuss and assess the situation in the new year. I did not know what to think, and one evening in my university dorm, I literally threw myself into calligraphy, but not at all as an exercise, but open-hearted, giving it a free run. This created a breakthrough and that night I must have completed close to 50 pieces. I surprised myself. A few days later, I showed my work to Ding Hao and to my calligraphy teacher. Both of them were stunned. Ding Hao encouraged me to continue what I had just begun – and to do nothing else.

AAN: That one evening had a huge impact. What happened next?
AK: Ding Hao then came up with the idea of organising an exhibition on the university campus. Nanjing University is a very big university with thousands of students going through the campus every day. As I was continuing my endeavours in the field of calligraphy, I became a minor celebrity on campus and the news also then spread to the town. Aware that my work sparked some interest, Ding Hao decided to stage another exhibition, but this time in a public space in town. There is a famous monument located in the centre of town, the Drum Tower, with a ground floor space used as an exhibition space. Ding Hao put a lot of effort into organising that exhibition and as we were now at another level, the university needed to notify the French embassy in Beijing to ask their position. The French embassy was all in favour of the project, sending their cultural attaché to attend the opening. Not only did the cultural attaché come from Beijing, but he also brought two correspondents from the French dailies, Le Monde. Once back in Beijing, one correspondent wrote a two-page article on the exhibition. Following that exhibition and its review, one thing led to another and the French embassy in Beijing was determined to stage its own exhibition of my work.

AAN: Without knowing it, you slowly also became an artist.
AK: While this new artistic life was taking shape, it was still my intention to continue working on my PhD. My previous exhibition had created a certain buzz, but some people were very critical about a foreigner working in Chinese calligraphy. As I had already been in Nanjing for two years, I was wondering whether I could extend my stay. However, as I was making a little bit too much ‘noise’ in Nanjing, the authorities indicated that an extension of another year would not be possible. In the meantime, I went to Beijing to stage an exhibition in the embassy. At the opening, the French ambassador invited his circle of friends which included a Chinese writer, then also Vice-Minister of Culture. During the opening, he enquired about my stay in Nanjing.

At the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing

When he found out that I could not extend my stay, he summoned me to come see him the next day at the ministry before I went back to Nanjing. Upon my arrival back at the train station in Nanjing, an official welcoming committee from the university was waiting for me, with the announcement that I could stay longer in Nanjing. I then spent one more year there. After that, I was hoping to get a position at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, which I did quite quickly. Starting 1982-1983, I was in Beijing with the Central Academy, which was then still located in the centre of town, and the university put me in touch with a teacher with whom I could finish my thesis. In the capital, I had my own network through the embassies. Almost every week, through word of mouth, I had people coming to see me in my room at the Central Academy, willing to buy one of my pieces, although I was not at all planning on becoming a full-time artist! I ended up spending another two years in Beijing with several exhibitions organised. So I found myself being an artist although it was initially not my intention!

AAN: You seemed to face two different reactions: those who were appalled that a Westerner was reinterpreting traditional Chinese calligraphy, and those who were thrilled that the tradition was reinvented, even if it was by a Westerner. Is that correct?
AK: Yes, exactly. The ones in favour of my work kept telling me to ignore all negative feedback. They even went as far as to say that if my work was the centre of controversy in newspapers and discussions, it was an excellent sign! They strongly encouraged me to continue. When you are young, you just move forward. In addition, the context was extremely favourable as it was the beginning of the ‘open door’ policy. Strangely enough, some young people, although not critical, tried to convince me that what I was doing was outdated, that only old people would be interested in calligraphy. At the time at the Central Academy, there was not even a calligraphy department! When they had to choose, students usually only wanted to learn more about Western art and not be bothered with Chinese classical art.

AAN: Your main contribution is that you brought colour into Chinese calligraphy. It seems logical retrospectively, but was it seen as a very big step at the time?
AK: Retrospectively, the colour appeared while I was still in Nanjing – on that night when I was highly productive and let go of all constraints. I had the clear feeling that within calligraphy, it all belonged to me now. After all, I had studied for years and years how to perform the various strokes (rods, hooks). It is the same with a language, you reach a point where you are in charge, where the language belongs to you.

I started thinking about colour very early on, aware of the fact that, in China, there were other approaches like monochrome painting where colour was also present. However, I kept wondering why there was a certain taboo when it came to colour. For the Chinese, within ink, there are nine tones ranging from very clear to extremely dark. They call it colour, but I come from Europe, so colour to me is life and I could not understand why there was this barrier, this filter, when it came to colour. In China, calligraphy written in red is very rarely found and it really does not go beyond that. When thinking about it now, I started doing something that I had not found in Chinese calligraphy, so I decided to do it myself. Needless to say, I was very happy with the result.

Using Colour

AAN: Did you get positive reactions for bringing colour into calligraphy?
AK: Yes. Within the negative reactions people were saying that by adding colour I was stepping out of the myth of calligraphy, doing something totally different. I let them say whatever they wanted: to me, it was calligraphy, even if that meant having a different approach to the traditionalists.

AAN: In the meantime, has your approach been copied?
AK: A little bit, although I am not aware of everything that is going on. When speaking with Western artists, who have no connection whatsoever with calligraphy, I have the impression that my work also allows Westerners to open up towards calligraphy. Then, they can go deeper and look at the history, for example. I am happy that my work is also helpful in giving calligraphy more access and more visibility in the West.

AAN: The ramifications of Chinese calligraphy seem endless, encompassing so many other fields.
AK: The Chinese are the first to emphasise this and I completely agree: you cannot fully appreciate and understand traditional Chinese painting without referring to calligraphy. The reading of traditional Chinese painting is not accurate, if one has not had an initiation in calligraphy. In China, in Chinese art history classes, it is a must as they consider painting as the ‘child’ of calligraphy. Calligraphy is the mother of it all and it is not unusual to have Chinese painters use their calligraphy brushes when painting. A proper knowledge of calligraphy and everything it implies allows a true understanding and appreciation of Chinese traditional painting.

We need to be aware that calligraphy (and I am not referring to writing) has been around in China for approximately 2,100 to 2,200 years, whereas for Chinese painting we need to wait another 1,000 years, until approximately the 9th century. Another important thing about calligraphy is that it has been a continuous history that has not known any interruptions.

The most accurate definition of Chinese calligraphy I have come across is the one by Pierre Ryckmans (1935-2014), who devoted his entire life to studying the history of China’s culture, painting and painting treatises, translating, and commenting on some of them. In 2000, in one of his articles, he described calligraphy the following way: ‘Chinese calligraphy is the conscious and deliberate use of writing, for purposes that go beyond communication’. Today, for whoever is interested in calligraphy, there is a broad bibliography, and a lot of new avenues have been opened thanks to the access offered by the internet.

AAN: It took a while until the young generation of Chinese artists rediscovered Chinese calligraphy and even decided to include some of its features in their own work. How do you view the quality of this calligraphy?
AK: It is a very interesting subject. Chinese contemporary painting – and I am referring to contemporary painting in China at large from the end of the 20th to the early 21st century, is part of today’s art history, but 90 per cent of it is of very poor quality. A bubble was created when all these artists who invaded the art market, exhibitions, and museums, and I have to say that most of it is really not good, even though there are some exceptions, like Liu Dan or some others. Liu Dan had the right terminology for that type of art: ‘Bad Western Art Made in China’.

How to tell the good from the bad

AAN: Westerners are facing a dilemma as good calligraphy does not need to fulfil certain criteria. How does a Westerner know what is good from what is just average?
AK: It is tragic, but the responsibility for this catastrophe goes to the West, including the buyers and the collectors who have started to add ‘zeros’ to the prices and produced this generation of people who basically could not care less about art. However, I believe we are now getting back to a more normal situation. In China, there are almost one and a half billion people and I am convinced there are definitely more than six or seven virtuoso artists among them who, because of the international context, have been overlooked. In the West, all too often, the decision-makers within museums, galleries, and publications, are people who often know little about China and put all these artists on a pedestal. Today, in China, there are fabulous things happening that are slowly getting more exposure. Some painters are inspired by Western art and by traditional art, with a true vocation to create and reflect. They are the ones who will amaze us and, probably within a generation, we will understand that what we saw in the early part of this century had no specific interest and no artistic authenticity.

AAN: Some of today’s artists are trying to bring Western and Chinese cultures together, although it is not a new trend.
AK: Historically, one of the most interesting cases in Chinese painting is the one of Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit, who went to China in the 18th century, and learned Chinese painting. He was at the Qianlong Emperor’s court and when you look at his paintings, you immediately realise that no Chinese artist could have completed these pieces. The same goes for a Westerner. What Castiglione completed is just amazing with an in-depth knowledge of both cultures. Neither did he want to create something ‘Chinese-like’, or anything ‘Western-like’. He was just there and came up with these pieces of unique quality which hold an important place in Chinese art history today.

AAN: Of course, for people who are not initiated, they have no way to find out whether what they see has any artistic value.AK: Experts like Stephen Goldberg will save us because they know both worlds and they know what they are talking about, and where it is all going. My guess is that within a generation, there will be many such experts. Then, we will no longer have this ambiguous situation we are experiencing right now.

AAN: In addition, most of the time, people do not know or understand what is written on the pieces.
AK: Neither do the Chinese! There is a sub-category in Chinese calligraphy called cursive script. It is often illegible! This is why within the calligraphy exhibitions, the curators add a printed version of the text, so people can manage to decipher something. However, the semantic interpretation of a calligraphy piece, understanding what it is actually about, is secondary. Within the appreciation of the aesthetics of calligraphy, its semantic content is there of course, but it comes second. What comes first is the visual quality of the stroke, of the sign, etc. Of course, when one does not know, one needs to get it explained or when it is a very famous piece, Chinese people know it and somehow recognise it.

The importance of brushstrokes

AAN: Are there any tendencies in contemporary calligraphy that do not refer to the already known and existing canon of available primary material (poetry, proverbs, etc)?
AK: Of course! Some people even create calligraphy, but with non-existing characters. There is such a trend. This leads me to emphasise that what counts and what is important is the brushstroke. The absolute and essential common denominator of all aesthetic for East Asia (China, Korea, Japan) is the brushstroke, the plastic visual dimension of the stroke. This is what matters, what Chinese people are after and what they appreciate whether in ancient or contemporary calligraphy. Further to that, what the Chinese want to discover when looking at painting or calligraphy, is the person behind it.

Around the beginning of the Christian era, one of the emperors heard that one of his favourite calligraphers was in the process of dying. Therefore, he told his people to quickly go and see him with silk, brushes, and ink in order to make him complete the maximum amount of calligraphy pieces. He completed the calligraphy, but without having any message to convey to the emperor. What the emperor ultimately wanted was his brushstrokes, because when he was away on journeys or battles, he displayed them in his tent: it was all about pure aesthetic beauty. Generally, when people in Japan or in China pick a piece of calligraphy piece, this is what they are looking for, which does, however, not imply that the meaning is totally lost.

AAN: In your work, you tend to focus on one single character. Why?
AK: One of the reasons why I love one single character is because one character is not just one word. It is much more than just one character: for example, the character ‘heart’ means many different things and can have more than dozens of meanings. To me, looking at and manipulating a Chinese character is already something very poetic. You go from one character to another and you see what it encompasses. Another character I like a lot is the one for ‘bamboo’. In China, bamboo has a different status to other plants. I can appreciate all the semantic vigour contained within each Chinese character and it brings me a certain intensity during creation, and while looking at it. I like simple things, like rocks, grass, stars, birds, for example.

The role of calligraphy

AAN: Besides its aesthetic aspect where, according to you, lies the purpose of calligraphy?
AK: Basically, calligraphy is not made to decorate a living room, even traditionally. The scrolls are put into jars, on shelves and, for example, you will see ‘old Mr Li’ exchanging a piece with ‘old Mr Wang’. Then, the pieces are brought out and if both are enthusiastic about it, it is not unusual to have one of them taking out brush and ink and add a few characters onto them. That is why some of these works are overloaded with annotations, called colophons. The Chinese have a tendency to use painting and calligraphy the way we use books, or photo albums: you take them out when you want to tell a story or show something. In that respect, the Chinese term used to appreciate painting is quite self-explanatory: du hua, literally meaning to read painting. One reads it. Of course, you will also find some commissions for lobbies of large banks and hotels. However, painting in the noble sense as well as calligraphy is something that needs to be ‘manipulated’, with an exchange of ideas of views that needs to take place.

AAN: That explains why presently, the calligraphy market mainly evolves around ancient calligraphy.
AK: Yes, absolutely. The calligraphy market is mainly about ancient traditional calligraphy, which is fed and paid for by the Chinese. Chinese people are acquiring ancient calligraphy in order to collect their heritage, their legacy, and also to capitalise on it. When there is a masterpiece coming up for sale (if it is not a fake), it is the wealthy Chinese who invest in it.

AAN: Where does that leave the Chinese contemporary art market?
AK: In general, Chinese people do not buy that much contemporary art. One of the reasons being, that they consider some of these young artists being, let us say, Warhol emulators, they would rather own an authentic Warhol lithograph than a work by a Chinese artist who is trying to mimic Western artists. Today, the situation is better than what it used to be. In the past decades, the West created these stars overnight from scratch. Some of these careers were artificially built and according to me, they were not justified. This phenomenon is, however, also visible with some Western artists. It may sound old-fashioned, but in my opinion, with regards to an art work, there needs to be an emotion that reveals itself somehow. It is like a musical or a poetic or a culinary experience: something is happening when listening, reading or tasting exquisite food for your ears, your soul, your eyes or your mouth. For art, it can be more complicated, because we sometimes do not have the training or the culture, but I am convinced that history will sort things out and make its selection.

AAN: To end our conversation, what are your upcoming projects and how do you see the evolution of calligraphy?
AK: I will continue doing what I have been doing for the past 40 years, because it is part of my life. I am not making calligraphy to make exhibitions: I seize the opportunities when I think it is enriching. I guess I will complete calligraphy until my very last day, because I live with it.


If you would like to read more on the artist’s life, see André Kneib and the Art of Chinese Calligraphy by Stephen J Goldberg, Editions Méroé, Paris, 2018. Andre Kneib has also had an exhibition at Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai.