Chinese Painting Today

by on Tuesday, 30 December 2008 Comments
Chinese painting is a special and pervasive feature of China’s social and cultural theater. In this respect, it has to be acknowledged that Chinese painting often functions as an assertion of national pride and uniqueness, which results in endless repetitive motifs. This should not overshadow the remarkable achievements in Chinese painting in the last decades. Actually, when all is said and done, future generations might recognize the 20th century as one of the most creative periods in the history of the venerable artistic tradition called "Chinese painting." Names such as Huang Binhong (1865-1955), Qi Baishi 1863-1957), Li Keran (1907-1989), Shi Lu ( 1919-1982), Lin Fengmian ( 1900-1991) already stand among the best artists of our time, not only in China but worldwide, even if Western knowledge of Chinese art remains very poor indeed.

But what is "Chinese painting" (guohua) anyway? One must first note that guohua can also be translated as "national painting" if one does not simply consider it as an abbreviation of zhongguohua, i.e., "Chinese painting" stricto sensu. The distinction is important for the intent it conveys, if not for the reality to which it refers. "Guohua and zhongguohua commonly refer to works painted with traditional Chinese pigments on a ground of traditional paper or silk. The terms thus describe the medium and ground of the painting rather than the style."

Some critics plead for a much broader definition of “national painting.” Art historian Lin Mu (born 1949) writes:
“Ink work, rice paper and free-hand techniques came into being only during the last few centuries. Painting styles in China also include folk painting, various fresco styles, silk paintings, stone intaglios, from which much is to be learned. As for the traditional ink and wash painting, which takes the Chan school as its spiritual kernel, this simple, elegant and leisurely style may have difficulty surviving in our changing world, where the closed and stagnant agricultural society from which the tradition emerged is being rapidly swept into the past.... Modern society has good reason to demand of Chinese painting a totally new look.”

Like other historians, Lin Mu argues that Chinese tradition is much more diverse and heterogeneous than often acknowledged, and that different schools, materials, techniques and religious faiths generated various styles of painting. It is only in contradistinction to Western art that the literati school came to bear the label of "Chinese painting" and was set into a canon. The limitations in technique and materials proper to this school have long been recognized, by prominent Chinese artists as Pan Tianshou (1897-1971) and Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). To do "Chinese painting" today is to retrieve the diversity of China’s artistic traditions, with particular attention to religious art and the traditions of ethnic minorities. Lin Mu celebrates the "vagueness" (mohuqing) of contemporary Chinese painting—a vagueness he finds far preferable to the insistence upon any one standard or dominant tradition.

The views summarized above are not mere repetitions of the criticisms Chinese painting has endured over the last 40-some years, but may prove to be even more challenging. The history of Chinese painting since 1949 is a tormented one. Traditional painting was first omitted from the curricula of Art academies. Subsequently, Chinese painting was mobilized for a short period in order to celebrate the successes of the new regime. From 1963 on, artists like Shi Lu, Li Keran, Lin Fengmian or Pan Tianshou fell victim (the last posthumously) to violent criticisms aimed at the "wild, weird, chaotic and black" nature of their works, which could not but betray an essentially counter-revolutionary spirit. The re-emergence of the guohua tradition following the Cultural Revolution has been long and difficult. Although the renewed nationalist fervor has helped its rehabilitation, its artistic development has remained under the control of the cultural bureaucracy. In the past two decades, other media have been deemed to better express the spirit of adventure and protest that art can convey. The underlying question is whether "national art" brings with it a predetermined meaning or might conversely be able to express the diversity, contradictions and various pursuits of the whole nation at a given moment in its history.

The debate about Chinese painting is thus a debate about the essence of Chinese identity. A strongly-worded article by Huo Chunyang, responding to positions voiced by Lin Mu and others, says much about what is here at stake. Chinese painting, Huo argues, is a "(spiritual) universe" (jingjie)—an expression derived from the yijing concept, i.e., the "density" or "quality of soul" that one can find in a painting. In its essence, he argues, Chinese painting manifests the spiritual energy gathered by the man who relates to the universe, and, as such, is the pure emanation of ancient Chinese philosophy. "Although the Chinese people received the shock brought by cultures of other people, they have never changed the spirit of their own culture. On the contrary, they have eagerly welcomed, digested and transformed the cultures coming from outside." The aspiration to cosmic unity embodied in this original Chinese culture cannot be found in Western tradition, Huo Chunyang asserts. Nowadays, artists unfaithful to the original spirit of Chinese culture change their style in order to please the foreigners, thus showing a lack of self-respect and self-confidence.

Huo Chunyang’s position reminds one of what is sometimes called "new conservatism" in art history, by which ink and brushwork become symbols of ethnic identity. Although such a position is quite widespread, it is generally not accepted without reservation. A good number of artists and critics hold a middle-of-the-road position, regarding ink and brush as the best medium through which to connect with their own tradition, while experimentation with other techniques they see as a means of engaging with contemporary art worldwide. This has been the case for instance with abstract or semi-abstract ink painting.

The debate on identity just summarized has been intensified by the internationalization of Chinese painting. "Internationalization" here refers to two concurrent phenomena: (1) even the most traditional style of Chinese painting has been deeply influenced by 20th-century Western art; (2) Chinese painting is no longer about China. A growing number of Chinese painters have opportunities to go abroad. As such, nowadays, the ranges of mountains that spill from their brushes sometimes do not evoke the image of Huashan, Huangshan or Emeishan, but rather remind one of landscapes encountered in the Northwest of the US, Western Canada, France’s Brittany or Australia’s South Wales. The first phenomenon is not new. Huang Binhong, who knew Chinese tradition better than anyone else, also learned a great deal from Matisse and Van Gogh. But the trend has taken on new dimensions, as many artists, while remaining faithful to the literati technique, apply it to a whole new range of subjects, or who, like Lin Fengmian, make extensive use of Western colors while maintaining the characteristic calligrapher’s line.

The second phenomenon is even more interesting. It separates the "identity" problem from its "territory" dimension, addressing in much more down-to-earth terms the question of the "Chineseness" of Chinese art. In addition, it gives people firmly rooted in tradition a new sense of universality. The cosmopolitan outlook of Chinese painting might have started among exiles, the most famous of them being of course Zhang Daqian, but others soon followed, sent on official missions. Li Keran’s paintings of East Germany in 1957 are testaments to the new horizons discovered by Chinese artists. Nowadays, the State is not the sole institution able to send Chinese painters abroad. Foreign universities or businesses are also inviting painters to give a Chinese flavor to American, Australian or European landscapes. The special relationship of artist Wu Guanzhong (born 1919) with France, where he has held several exhibitions, is a good example of this developing trend.

The trend towards globalization in Chinese painting should not mask enduring divisions among regional schools of painting—divisions sometimes accompanied by various rivalries and affiliation networks. Differences among regional schools are a pervasive fact of China’s art history. Back in 1961, the continuation of regional emulation was encouraged by Zhou Enlai, whose praise of the Jiangsu school of painting ensured its artists a privileged place for the following two decades. The Jiangsu school might indeed be the best example of a regional school of painting, with its history of several centuries and a distinctive style that nourishes but also sometimes confines the inspiration of local painters. Shaanxi artists offer another example of strong provincial affiliation. The Shaanxi school plays an important role in the cultural history of the post-1949 regime. Its founder, Zhao Wangyun (1906-1977), was an initiator of the new guohua, depicting scenes of contemporary life. After Zhao’s purging during the Anti-rightist campaign, Shi Lu became, for a time, the leader of the young, ebullient school. Here, indeed, artistic creativity and revolutionary fervor, if only briefly, were not seen as contradictory.

Regional differentiation can also have a great impact on the content of the works produced. The above-quoted art historian Lin Mu, for instance, is from the Southwest, and his views may indeed be seen to reflect the fact that most painters from the Southwest seek inspiration outside the mainstream Chan school-literati tradition, (many showing a special liking for the Taoist tradition, Tibetan Buddhism and southwest ethnic minorities’ “primitive” forms of art). The Chinese cultural stock is lived and interpreted in different ways by various schools of Chinese painting, a factor which may be even truer today than was the case 30 years ago.

Chinese painting is not only faced with the realities and opportunities of a market economy, but must also define itself in a global cultural environment. Values fostered by this environment can either render painting even more irrelevant to today’s Chinese society or can help it further to change and modernize its artistic language, giving it new impetus and appeal. Liu Chengji, who lectures at Zhengzhou University, offers an analysis of the aesthetic tendencies at work in the 1990s—an aesthetics that takes into account the dominant trends shaping secular society. Materialism is the first trend to be noticed, which Liu Chengji sees as the principal consequence of the consumerism encouraged by state policies. This stands in sharp contrast against the "humanist" view of culture and society advanced in the 80s. The primacy given to "feelings" is directly linked to the dominant materialism. "I feel, therefore I am" could be the motto of present-day China, and such a trend heavily influences the aesthetic criteria of the general public. A new "post-romanticism" derives from this trend and is best exemplified by the MTV culture. It is called "post-romanticism" because its characteristic "loss of innocence" distinguishes it from previous aesthetics. In the post-romantic (non)ethics, feelings are consciously produced and manipulated. Finally, "ethnicism" has been fuelled by political tensions with the US and Taiwan during the second half of the 90s. According to Liu Chengji, however, this trend is too much determined by political factors to enjoy a sustainable future. A look at the tendencies at work during the first decade of the XXIst century does not fundamentally challenge the description of these trends. One just have to notice that non-Chinese forms of art have taken even more importance, due to the globalization of the market where Chinese artists exhibit and sell their work. However, a stroll throughout the galleries gathered in the famous Moganshan road in Shanghai reveals the continuing and happy coexistence of Chinese painting with oil painting, video installations and other artistic media.

The painter Hu Mingzhe (born 1953), who specializes in popular romantic figure paintings, testifies to the aspirations often expressed by younger artists. She writes: "My soul aspires towards purity, liberation.... Art is a kind of religion, when you believe in it with your entire body and soul, when you fully associate with it, it seems that you are able to hear the voice of God, to feel the call of God.... Art wants to represent life, not social life, but rather spiritual life...." Another woman artist, Zhou Minghui (born 1954) paints motifs inspired by the daily lives of Tibetans living in Aba autonomous prefecture, Sichuan. This place, she says, "appears as a condensing point of human culture, philosophy, religion and history. It is the holy land where all life returns to nature.... What I paint seems to have been purified as well. My mind is serene and my thoughts enlightened.... The decayed is discarded and the original soul is retained.... Ultimately, culture and art will reach the other shore." Similar discourses and examples abound, which shows how a kind of religiosity pervades art. This religiosity has strong links with the dominant culture, in that it heavily relies on "feelings" and uses language and motifs also found in other contexts. At the same time, it expresses aspirations for new modes of life, which somehow transforms it into an indirect form of counter-culture. Not only has Chinese painting a future, but many of its features resonate with the aspirations of the post-modern mind... Through this medium also, China is entering and shaping cultural globalization.

Paintings by Li Jinyuan

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