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[Comments] (1) Signed, Sealed, Repeat: Went to the Met today to say goodbye to the lovely Chinese writing exhibit. Today I decided I would get to the bottom of a mystery that's been bothering me: why do the manuscripts and paintings on display have so many seal impressions on them? Once I noticed this it really started bothering me and I kept looking at the seal impressions instead of the manuscripts. Random manuscript, random painting.

I don't understand a word of Chinese, except as part of a much larger system, but I think I figured it out. In recent works you have one or two seal impressions to act as the artist's signature and/or studio stamp. (I learned this much from English descriptions.) In older works you have seal impressions in those places, but also impressions scattered throughout the document seemingly at random. I believe that those extra seals come from the previous owners of the work.

The impressions aren't part of the work because some of them got cropped when the work was remounted, and in some cases more stamps were added to the new mounting material. I found two pieces that had two impressions in common, but they were made a century apart by different people in different genres. That only makes sense if they were in the same collections for a while. Seals use all different styles of script, but if the seal is part of the work you shouldn't get extremely old pieces with modern-looking impressions on top of them.

Sometimes the impressions actually obscure a bit of the work, which is the sort of sloppy stamping I'd expect from a censor or customs inspector. But why would you need to approve or inspect the same piece over and over again, even over centuries? One manuscript had 90 seal impressions counting duplicates (fortunately, most of these were in blank space at the end), and one unfortunate masterpiece had 27 impressions all over it like misplaced kisses.

In general it seems like the sort of thing people did before certificates of authenticity and modern ideas of art preservation. As I mentioned, none of the contemporary pieces had an unreasonable number of seal impressions (though given the dadaist nature of some of those pieces I wouldn't be surprised to see one where they completely obliterate a text). However this is just my hypothesis, so I invite people who might actually know what is happening (John? Steve?) to set me straight.

Since a lot of the works on display were letters, I've got a far-fetched hypothesis that some of the seals might be postmarks. Doesn't seem too likely.


Comments:

Posted by Susie at Mon Jan 15 2007 10:31

The old post you linked to made me laugh.


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