ARTWORKS FROM AN EXHIBITION; THEOLOGICAL AESTHETICS - with Guests from Rome and Hong Kong : Fr. Joseph Tham L.C ; Denis Chang Khen-Lee QC, SC and Professor Edmund Kwok
Smitten By Faith Issue 00027 5th February 2022
Today is the fifth day of the ongoing 15 days of Lunar New Year celebrations. I wish HAPPY CHINESE NEW YEAR to all my readers as I write my opener to this week’s Smitten By Faith. I am still in Hong Kong and it has been a busy month since my husband Terry and I came out of our 3-week quarantine; Fr. Joseph Tham too who flew in from Rome had to endure the same. Straight out of quarantine in mid December, Fr. Joseph, Sin Sin Man, the curator and I, together with an entire team of terrific volunteers from the Wofoo Foundation and Regnum Christi worked feverishly to prepare for an art exhibition that was scheduled and then re-scheduled a few times due to Covid. However, dismay and consternation were never in our thoughts; we just went on calmly with the preparations because we knew that God would be with us. After all, the title of the Exhibition was ‘Art For God’.
And so, I am delighted to inform my readers that the Exhibition and book launch, ‘ART FOR GOD’ at the Anita Chan Lai-Ling Gallery at the Fringe Club in Hong Kong did take place and just recently ended its very successful 9-day run from 20th to 29th January 2022. To comply with Covid regulations, all our visitors were masked and thanks to the terrific location of the Gallery plus media publicity and of course, the many friends who came to support us, there was a constant ebb and flow of viewers throughout the 9 days, all strictly adhering to the social distancing regulations. It was in fact a rather unique experience for us; with the ebb and flow of visitors, the Gallery was never over-crowded and, just like the blank spaces in Chinese watercolour painting ( see below ), there was room and space to fully appreciate the artworks. Best of all, visitors could personally seek out and speak to the artist, Fr. Joseph Tham.
Left : The book - ART FOR GOD
Right : The Wall Poster of the Exhibition. As you can see, the date is incorrect - it was re-scheduled a few times !
The Exhibition, curated by well-known Hong Kong and international art connoisseur, Sin Sin Man ably showed how a Catholic priest was able to amalgamate the aesthetics of Chinese art with Chinese philosophy and Christian theology. So, appropriately, today’s article will re-visit and appraise what I think are the highlights of the Exhibition, helped along with commentaries from my 3 guests as they write about not just the aesthetics of the beautiful artworks but also the cultural, spiritual and philosophical features which accompanied all the amazing paintings, calligraphy and seals, moving and impressing all who viewed them.
And here, a word about my 3 very Special Guests :
Denis Chang Khen-Lee QC, SC and JP is a Senior Counsel and Head of Chambers in private legal practice in Hong Kong and among other things, Council Chair of the Caritas Institute of Higher Education ( the future St. Francis University). Denis has spoken on legal philosophy, natural law, Lonergan, Confucian relational self and theological aesthetics. In the book, ‘Art For God’, Denis wrote the riveting Prologue.
Prof Edmund Kwok, a comparative modern European and Chinese intellectual historian has published more than 29 books. His many prestigious academic appointments include Dean of the Faculty of Arts (Chinese University of HK), Chair Professor of Social Sciences(HK Baptist University), Founding Executive Vice-President of United International College of HK Baptist University/Beijing Normal University(Zhuhai), Founding President of Xing Wai College (Shanghai), and Chief Academic Advisor and Dean in Beijing Institute of Technology(Zhuhai). Currently Prof Edmund is Supervisor to Caritas Institute of Community Education and Board Member of Holy Spirit Study Center.
And, we have words from the Artist himself ! Born in Hong Kong, the Artist, Fr. Joseph Tham L.C is an unusual combination of former medical doctor, Catholic priest, University Professor in Bioethics in Rome and most of all, a thoughtful artist of extraordinary Chinese paintings, calligraphy and seals. Fr. Joseph’s skills as an artist were already inculcated since the age of 12 years under the guidance of artistic masters in Hong Kong and later in Canada. Despite his busy academic and spiritual duties since his ordination as a priest in 2004, Fr. Tham has managed to maintain a constant closeness to Chinese watercolour painting, calligraphy and seal carving which he continues to create in his free time. His sensitive, inspirational and expressive artworks have been exhibited all over the world so we in Hong Kong were very fortunate to have had the privilege of viewing them very recently.
Left : Denis Chang
Centre : Fr. Joseph Tham L.C
Right : Prof Edmund Kwok
ARTWORKS FROM AN EXHIBITION – THEOLOGICAL AESTHETICS
Some people think that appreciating Chinese art may take years to really understand. However, there is nothing to stop the viewer from responding emotionally to the aesthetics of Chinese artworks. And, not just any aesthetics. My guest Denis Chang tells me that Fr. Joseph’s artworks is a form of “theological aesthetics” and I have ‘borrowed’ his very apt description for the title of this week’s article ! For sure, knowledge achieved from study will always be important in art appreciation. But, I think that for many of us who viewed the Exhibition ‘Art For God’, the spiritual impact was clearly discerned. Fr. Joseph has planted his spiritual roots deep within his ink, colour and paper as he conveys how he communicates with God – profoundly and energetically.
In the Epilogue of the book, Art For God, Prof Edmund Kwok Siu-Tong writes that with his artworks and reflections, Fr. Joseph “ …is using the Chinese cultural paradigm of harmony between heaven, earth and humanity to testify how Chinese art from a Catholic priest may be presented to God.” He says further that when we look at Fr. Joseph’s art, we are all fellow travellers in the spiritual journey – “ .. a purposeful travel of pilgrimage as well as an inter-cultural and inter-religious travel in both Catholic and Chinese spirituality”.
What a mystical way to sum up the effect of this Exhibition !
There were 21 Artworks and 10 seals on display at the Exhibition. For today’s article, I have chosen just 1 example from each category : a seal, a painting and a calligraphy to emphasize the ‘theological aesthetics’ and the ‘spiritual journey’. I have included commentaries from Fr. Joseph, Denis Chang and Edmund Kwok – mostly taken from the book. I might add that in order to illustrate more clearly the context of today’s article, these extracts are taken out of sequence from the book. For the full commentaries of my guests, do read the book, ART FOR GOD (www.jfpublishing.com).
Far Left - a view of the Gallery
Centre left : Fr. Joseph explaining his artworks to a rapt audience
Centre right : Here I am standing by the wall poster with Sin Sin Man, the Curator
Far right : masked visitors enjoying the Exhibition
The vermillion impression of a seal stamped on a finished work of Chinese art is unique to Chinese painting and calligraphy which goes all the way back thousands of years to 221 BCE in ancient China. It’s also more than the artist’s signature. Seals contain different kinds of inscriptions. In the Introduction to his book, Fr. Joseph says, “ Seal carving …..is closely related to the evolution of the Chinese language and calligraphic fonts. It opens a space to explore the relationship between Chinese literature, religious sayings and traditional proverbs and Christian spirituality.”
THE HARMONY SEAL
Note : The Seal above is NOT the actual size ( which is actually very small - about the size of a Holy Communion host ). It has been enlarged for this article.
About the seal carving above , Fr. Joseph Tham writes :
“The symbolism of this seal carving is taken from a traditional round shape design. The ancient Chinese words for ‘Heaven’ and ‘Man’ have the same root that looks like a stick figure of a human being. The design emphasizes that from Heaven, God becomes man in his incarnation. The kneeling posture of man represents God's kenosis, the self-emptying of Jesus. When you look carefully, the three round dots symbolize the mystery of unity in the Trinity. The partition of the seal is in the shape of a cross, reminding us that we are reconciled to God through the Paschal mystery. The circle is a symbol of unity and harmony. The circular seal is the size of the communion bread, the Eucharistic host that is the spiritual food that sustains us in our journey towards this ideal of universal harmony.”
About ‘Heaven, Earth and Humanity in Harmony’ which is the Chinese title of the Exhibition, Fr. Joseph elaborates :
“ In these turbulent times we all desire harmony more than ever. We need healing with the Earth and nature, and peace among humanity. ‘Heaven, Earth and Humankind’ are the three elements that the ancient Chinese have conceived to be the significant components of the Cosmos, each with a specific role to play. The desire implicit in this saying is that the Universe strives to achieve harmony through the interactions of these players. Harmony is a Chinese and Confucian ideal that would result when first, there is peace among human beings. According to Confucius, peace requires the principle of ‘ The Golden Mean’ that humanity needs to follow in society. According to Confucian thought, harmony comes with self-discipline so that a person is at peace with himself and his or her passions only through the development of virtues. This would then spread outwards towards circles of relationships – among family members, friends, workplaces, within governments and eventually among nations. …When Heaven and Earth are in harmony; and when Earth and people are in harmony; the next level will be the need for Heaven and humanity to be at peace. From the Christian perspective, this means we need reconciliation with God, who is the source of peace.”
Denis Chang writes in his Prologue to the book :
“Heaven, Earth and Humanity in Harmony’ - The words come from Zhuangzi, a pivotal figure in classical philosophical Daoism. Mencius stressed the third element i.e. Humanity in Harmony. According to the Book of Rites, Confucius himself referred to a foundational principle of Chinese humanism abbreviated to ‘The Human at the Heart of Heaven and Earth.”
Edmund Kwok writes : “ …Fr. Joseph Tham transfers and transforms …the concept of Harmony, one of the cornerstones of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism to construct his theological and aesthetical framework of intercultural and interreligious dialogue.”
CHINESE WATERCOLOUR PAINTING
At the Exhibition, we were treated to many of Fr. Joseph’s sensitive Chinese watercolour paintings from stunning landscapes to flowers and birds – man’s relationship with nature beautifully captured by his imagination and spiritual approach. Fr. Joseph’s style of painting is the ‘Lingnan school’ from the Chinese Lingnan region ( in Guangdong ) founded in the 19th century. The distinctive aspect of the Lingnan technique is the use of western painting styles ( impressionism ), bright colours, strokes and blank spaces all fused with the traditional Han painting techniques.
Denis Chang says, “ These are truly accomplished works of art. The Lingnan School style of painting is particularly suited to Fr. Joseph Tham’s purposes. Whilst the bright colouring in place of traditional pale ink wash comes from the impressionism of Western art, there is retained an essential Chineseness without losing openness of spirit.”
On the use of perspective in Chinese art, Edmund Kwok writes, “ The famous painter Zhong Bing ( 375-443 CE) described his experience of perspective in painting as ‘meditation on the Dao ( the way) with a clear mind, lying down to travel (spiritually and imaginatively) and the scenery ( painted in the artworks)”
Fr. Joseph writes : “ To better appreciate Chinese watercolour painting, one must see its relationship with calligraphy and poetry. Chinese painting has a long history of expressing nature by the literati, more as an expression of the human spirit and less for decorative purposes. That is why many of them are rolled up in scrolls, not for public display. For those familiar with Western art, the Chinese watercolour style is most similar to the impressionist movement. The external forms are less important than the mood or spirit (impressions) that artists convey through the pieces.”
Dimensions : 40 X 92 cm
In the magnificent painting of the Sea Eagle above, Fr. Joseph says, “ The Eagle is one of my favourite painting subjects. It moves with beauty, elegance and precision. In the composition of the ‘Sea Eagle’ I raised the perspective to be from high above, creating an unusual tension with the waves. What is the bird looking for? A tasty snack that the waves might deliver? The waves appear precarious and unpredictable. Is the Eagle’s skill up to the delicate task? Our lives are sometimes analogous to the predicament in this image. We face many challenges in life; in situations that may not be ideal. We often need to balance the risks and decide with prudence the best course of action. Spiritual discernment helps us to tackle such choices through the lens of God’s will. Rather than weighing the pros and cons from merely human factors, we should also consider that a perspective from on high might be a better one than ours.
‘When we seek first the Kingdom of God, the rest will be given to us.’ (Matt. 6:33)”
I have never studied Chinese art and certainly not Calligraphy – the art of beautiful writing. Yet, when I look at Fr. Joseph’s Chinese calligraphy and his smooth brush strokes, they feel familiar. I am awed by this most supreme among the visual arts in China, a skill that requires very many years of practice. But, when I gaze at Fr. Joseph’s calligraphy, even without knowing the various Chinese calligraphic characters or the painterly tradition, I am able to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the brush strokes – each line, rhythm and structure - just like perfect dance movements.
Dimensions : 35 x 46 cm
Seals: ‘Great Wisdom Guised as Folly’; ‘In the Beginning was the Word’; ‘Tham’ ; ‘Kit Chee’
Text of calligraphy: “The supreme person is selfless; the Godly person, meritless; and the saintly person, fameless.”
Inspirational Source: Zhuangzi, ‘Enjoyment in Untroubled Ease’; Warring States Period.
About Chinese calligraphy, Fr. Joseph writes : “Calligraphy is the highest form of art according to the Chinese. The flow of the brush and the demanding techniques of the strokes make this artform the most appreciated by the learned. Poetry, painting and seal carving are extensions of calligraphy with different fonts: oracle bone, seal, scholar, official, running and cursive scripts (篆書、隸書、楷書、行書、草書).……This saying from Zhuangzi ‘ Enjoyment in Untroubled Ease’ speaks of the universal human aspiration for greatness. Greatness comes from selflessness, humility and indifference to fame and success. This is so contrary to the worldly desires today for wealth, power and celebrity. This saying invites us to true interior freedom and charity towards others - so compatible with the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels.”
Denis Chang says, “ [Fr. Joseph’s ] work combines signs and symbols, art and literature, calligraphy and poetry, history and geography, space and time, philosophy and theology. As far as I can discern, Fr. Tham, like St Augustine, does not see any rigid dichotomy – attributed to Greek thought – between signs in nature and symbols in culture. Both signs and symbols need, among other things, an interpreter.
Edmund Kwok writes, “ …Fr Joseph Tham reveals one basic feature of Chinese traditional culture, ….especially in his concept of aesthetics in everyday life, the tradition of “yi” (art) and “shu” …. This concept is clearly manifested in traditional painting ….. has to be actualized and appreciated from a multi-dimensional way and in integrated and holistic models.”
We end this Review and Appraisal with a fitting comment by Denis Chang which he wrote in the book’s Prologue :
“…Fr. Joseph Tham’s art exists not for its own sake but for God’s greater glory. God, however, is not in competition with humanity. What is for God’s glory is also for our greater good. Or, as St. Ireneaus puts it, ‘the glory of God is Man fully alive!’
… We live in a world which is broken but still beautiful, mediated by meaning and capable of being transvalued by love. The world is suffused with a ‘surplus’ of beauty beyond the functional and the mundane. As Confucius says, there is beauty in everything but not everybody sees it. Fr. Tham’s ‘Art for God’ helps to awaken and keep us fully alive to beauty whether in nature or in art and culture. “
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