Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
An old Chinese man went to Yosemite and it blew his mind. To explain why, we have to go back a few thousand years. Chinese people have an old civilization. Older, perhaps, than anybody else's civilization. That depends on how you define “civilization,” but who has the time to fight about these things? Point is, it's old. Chinese art thus has a lot of tradition. Chinese artists predictably spend a lot of time coming to terms with that tradition. You study the old masters, you reject the old masters, you copy the old masters, you desperately try to ignore the old masters, you become the old masters.
Xie Zhiliu was born in 1910 and he died in 1997. He grew up in Changzhou, which is known to have had a great tradition of Chinese painting, especially bird and flower stuff, which is the bread and butter of hundreds of years of Chinese painting. He later moved to Shanghai, where he was a professor of painting and an advisor to the Shanghai Museum. He was as firmly implanted in the tradition as a man can be.
An exhibit of Xie's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — “Mastering the Art of Chinese Painting: Xie Zhiliu (1910–1997)” — makes that traditionalism very clear. We see all kinds of birds and flowers and landscapes and calligraphy. Often, we see them right next to reproductions of the older classics Xie was imitating. The exhibit is thus a quick and highly enjoyable lesson in the history of Chinese painting and drawing.
Then you get to the last room of the exhibit, where something special happens.