Preface by Lang Shaojun
Three years ago, Mr K.Y. Ng asked my thoughts regarding an exhibition of traditional Chinese-style painting from Nanjing which he was planning, and shortly after, he threw himself into this activity, with frequent flights from Hong Kong to Nanjing and diligently making contacts. He finally selected works by fifteen middle-aged and younger painters for inclusion in this exhibition for which he entitled Tiansun Yunjin to convey "The Brocade Woven with Clouds by the Celestial Weaving Maid".
The succinct title was an allusion to an ancient legend. Tiansun, which literally means "heaven's grandchild", named for the star known as the Weaving Maid, who was renowned for her skill and artistry in weaving brocade with clouds in the sky. In his collection of poetry Hongzhu (The Red Candle), the poet Wen Yiduo drew upon the allusion: "Ah! I must call on the Weaving Maid to embroider me a gown, so that I can wear your colours!" (E! Wo yao qing tiansun zhi jian jinpao, gei wo chuanzhe ni de secai!) Titling this exhibition of 15 Nanjing artists Tiansun Yunjin similarly expresses the wish that their works will be as resplendently beautiful as the cloud brocade fashioned by the Weaving Maid!
Nanjing is one of China's renowned ancient capital cities with a rich cultural resources and long-standing artistic traditions. For the past half century, Nanjing has been home to creative, educational and publishing institutions in the fine arts - Jiangsu Provincial Chinese Painting Academy, Jiangsu Art Academy, Nanjing Academy of Calligraphy and Painting, Nanjing Academy of Fine Arts, Fine Arts Institute of Nanjing Teacher Training University and Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House, which have nurtured a large crop of successful and influential artists. In traditional Chinese painting, there were many prominent artists from Nanjing active in the 1960s and 1970s, including Liu Haisu, Fu Baoshi, Chen Zhifo, L? Fengzi, Qian Songyan, Song Wenzhi, Wei Zixi, Ya Ming, Chen Dayu and Zhang Wenjun. Active in the subsequent period of reform and opening to the outside world there has been a generation of innovatively brilliant young artists, such as the fifteen selected for inclusion in this exhibition. These young artists grew up within the aura cast by the older generation of Nanjing artists but they entered college when the Cultural Revolution and the age of Mao Zedong had drawn to a close. In their philosophy and art, the younger generation is utterly unlike the generation who preceded them. Their predecessors worked collectively and the personal aspirations of the artists were united around a national ideology, while the younger generation work individually and their works express their personal aspirations and style, as the influence of the nationalist consciousness recedes. The earlier generation stressed the political nature of their material and they sought to create content that was revolutionary in nature; many painted scenes depicting the constructive efforts of workers and peasants (e.g., newly constructed dams, bridges and workers' sanatoria), while many others presented scenes evoking the poetry of Mao Zedong or commemorating revolutionary sacred sites (e.g., Jinggangshan and Yan'an). Generally, they used modes of positive eulogy to express the "nature" of social classes and the Communist Party, thereby eschewing personal experience of reality and the need to delineate the individual spirit. Their successors have largely adopted the opposite course; regardless of their narrative stance and whether or not their subject matter is old or new, or imbued with a revolutionary spirit, they strive to stress emotions, human nature and individuality. The earlier generation emphasised "veracity", a proximate translation for the concept of xiesheng in Chinese-style painting, and worked to embellish this style, distancing themselves from the desolation, detachment and solitude that were the hallmarks of the classical literati painters (wenren). Instead they eulogised the "joyful experiences" (xiwen-lejian) the masses derived from wholesome work, a sense of robust beauty and the satisfaction of being well-fed, and sought to create a style that documented those times. Most of these artists did not sell their works and they lived simply. The younger generation regard "realism" as only one of many optional styles and they draw close to literati-painter traditions, emphasising uniqueness of expression and the individuality of artistic language and style. They look to the art market and pay attention to matters of lifestyle. ¡K
These differences can be generally described as the product of different times and natural human response to those times. In terms of the psychology created by the environment in which they find themselves, the younger generation of Nanjing artists are rebelling against the art of their predecessors. They are tired of the politicisation and formularisation of art and seek freer artistic creativity and expression, as well as the realisation of their individual values and tastes. They respect the earlier generation and their works but want to travel their own road, in order to express the age in which they live as well as their own modes of existence.
Beijing, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Xi'an are the major urban centres of contemporary Chinese painting and each city has its own distinct regionality. Because of the development of modern communications, Chinese-style painting in each of these centres embraces the characteristics of different stylistic schools and they in turn have their own traditions and features. As the centre of Chinese culture, Beijing has the greatest inclusivity but the majestic and imposing northern style predominates. Xi'an has developed and altered the traditions of the Xi'an School of painting, as it develops a more pronounced and vigorous north-western style. Guangzhou was the earliest centre in China to open up to market economy and thus has a strong openness in its culture. In the New Era, it has benefited from a number of artists who have migrated to the city, which rendered diversified styles and market concerns prominent. Nevertheless, the mainstream new generation artists focus on the vibrant and rich depiction of contemporary southern scenes. Nanjing and Hangzhou are the two main centres of the Jiangnan style, and whether viewed from the perspectives of regionality or inherited traditions, artists there have an intimacy with the paintings of the ancient and modern literati-artists and they are highly influenced by contemporary Shanghai culture. For historical reasons, Hangzhou and Nanjing gradually came to replace Shanghai as centres of traditional Chinese painting and today they form rival centres in the Jiangnan Chinese painting scene. Artists in both places have their own heritage and histories; they emphasise traditions but they draw from them in different ways; all works have the special characteristics of Jiangnan but there are also marked discrepancies in style. Hangzhou painters, centred on the Chinese Painting Department of the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts, are most subject to the influences of Zhejiang painters; the painting style is strong and unconventional, and there are obvious interacting influences among these artists and shared styles. Nanjing artists do not have the sense that there is an authoritative centre for their traditions.
While they are greatly influenced by the arts of Jiangsu, characterised by refined beauty as the arbiter of style with an admixture of eccentricity, there are much greater differences between the styles of different artists. This observation is clearly demonstrated by the works included in this exhibition.
Fifteen artists were selected for inclusion in Tiansun Yunjin, and although they cannot present the Chinese-style painters of Nanjing in their entirety, it is clear that they are representative. What follows is a brief introduction to these artists:
Fang Jun takes delight in using bold and forthright brush-work to create landscapes filled with verdant mountains through which flow rivers with villages on their sloping banks. In these landscapes, the bridges spanning streams, the roads paved with stone, stands of pine trees, and the white walls, black tiles and red doors nestled in deep azure vegetation all appear as though it has just rained and they stand washed clean under a blue sky. The artist is also fond of including couplets of ancient-style poetry on these works, to evoke the realm in which poetry functions like painting and painting like poetry. The paintings are not depictions of imagined other worlds yet they have an utter stillness unrelieved by even the sound of a lotus blossom falling. The artist creates a sense of his hometown and the paintings are a remembrance of a rustic world that is rapidly receding and disappearing. Perhaps the artist is melding an imagined world with the ideal world he remembers.
During childhood Chang Jin lived on the shores of Lake Taihu, and his hazy but brooding scenes of the shores of the lake viewed at dusk from a distance connect with his memories of childhood. He is a devotee of the poems of Li He, imagining the life of that young Tang dynasty poet plagued by poverty and illness. Chang attempts to give artistic expression to the grotesque poetic realm created by the poet through an ethereal and solitary realm evoked by his paintings. In this exhibition his painting titled Gaoqing Zi Gu Duo Chouchang (Landscape Inspired by Poems of Li Changji) is a masterful re-working in another medium of the lines of Li He: "Beneath the moon at midnight the tree casts no shadow, A single mountain glows with moonlight". Chang Jin's inner refinement, rich emotion, preponderant melancholy and sentiment have an inner resonance with the poetry of Li He, and this can be sensed without resorting to a standard decoding of his work.
Zhu Daoping does not seek inspiration from ancient paintings but excavates his true feelings and visual memories drawn from life, and this in turn imbues his works with a sense of reality and tenderness. He is skilled in composition, being able to boldly conjure a distant scene and delineate its intricate living detail; these skills enable him to combine and blend bold and expansive qualities with elements that are subtle and implicit. His works is one of finesse and elegance, seemingly small and yet exuding an air of grandness. Being confident and endearing, it is devoid of any trace of cold detachment. We can truly say that in knowing the paintings we know the artist! One only has to stand and gaze in appreciation at his works - Shitoucheng Shang Kan Tiandi (Shitoucheng in Nanjing), Taicheng Xin Rong (The New Appearance of Taicheng), Xuanwuhu Xiajing Tu (Summer Vista of Xuanwu Lake) and Yeshan Lunju Tu (Discussing Lines of Poetry in the Mountains by Night) - to agree with this observation.
In contemporary painting circles, Song Yulin is known for his passionate love of traditional landscape paintings and is praised for his meticulous "fine brush". He pays great attention to perfecting composition and sequential transitions in spacing. In his delineation of hills and valleys he relies on ancient painting techniques that are simultaneously vigorous and gentle, strict yet harmonious. His Siji Shanshui (Four Seasonal Landscapes), a set of fan paintings included in the catalogue, can be regarded as a representative work. His technique and style of painting have developed out of a family tradition (his father was the late famed painter Song Wenzhi) as well as from his research and study of ancient painters, including Wen Zhengming and Tang Liuru. The tradition of innovating through a re-creation of the past is a major path along which Chinese painting has evolved.
Shi Banghe's use of simple line-work and unique modes of spacing to paint scenes of Nanjing city renders his works quite different from ancient and modern traditional-style landscape painting, as well as from modern and contemporary landscapes in oil. Delineating the city's residential districts, streets, lakes, hills and trees using light black ink he is able to create a bird's eye effect as though seeing the city from a plane, while the more concrete brush-work provides the works with a focal perspective. The meticulousness, vagueness and serenity of the works seem to create a sense of weightlessness and unreality, transforming them into fleeting and distant memories. The artist seeks to grasp the psychological sense of the modern metropolis, and this sense is intensified by his unique painting style.
Xu Xinrong originally studied and taught oil painting, but later switched to Chinese painting. He extols the austerity and profundity of Song dynasty landscape painting. His painting technique pays less attention to brush-work than colour patches, and to ink than colour. He meticulously paints expansive mountain forests, magically transforming cloudy mists and scenes in which heaven and earth join as a single undifferentiated body. His works are quite distinct from the landscapes of the Ming and Qing literati painters who use brush and ink to express character and ideas. They are closer to Song paintings in which "the light of the mountains and the colours of the streams draw us close to human beings", but he has added elements of haziness and delicacy which resonate with the individuality of the artist. The careful observer will also note a synthesis of Western forms and the accomplished use of colour in his works.
Zhang Youxian presents many different styles in his figural works, landscapes and flower paintings. His Rulin Waishi Renwu (Album Inspsired by The Scholars), included in this exhibition, relies on naive and gaunt brushwork in a decorative manner that appears to draw on the traditional wood-block print, to create figures with exaggerated gestures that are emotionally expressive and lively. His Tangren Shiyi (Album Inspired by Tang Dynasty Poems) features meticulous composition, as well as flowing, self-confident brush-work that seems utterly spontaneous. His landscapes and the figures in them rely on both brush-work and wash in which visibly vigorous strokes executed in a desolate mood, producing a style that is intentionally rough and wildly unrestrained.
Zhou Jingxin's figural paintings embrace meticulous brush-work with a masterful dexterity. His early works reveal decorative exaggeration in the modelling of the figures executed in meticulous gongbi style, as we see in his Shuihu Renwu (Characters from The Water Margin), and from here he has gone on to produce imaginative evocations in ink of ancient and modern personages. Later he switched to a "boneless" painting technique that relies on gradations of thick ink and colour to replace line-work; he playfully terms works of this type "ink sculpturing". His modern figural paintings include an unusual array of eccentric characters, as exemplified by Dengru (Login), Zhujiao Yu Peijiao (The Star and the Supporting Role) and Bawang Bieji (The Hegemon of Chu Bidding Farewell to his Concubine). In recent years he has returned to the re-creation of materials from ancient fiction, and these works stress the depiction of the character and emotions of the personages, while incorporating the bold colours of folk art in his impressionistic (xieyi) use of ink and enabling him to create works that are novel and humorous. In this exhibition his works titled Piaoliang N?ren Piqi Da (Beautiful Woman Are Invariably Bad-tempered) and Bajie Xun Kaixin (Pigsy Making Fun) simultaneously make the viewer laugh out loud while documenting amusing aspects of life!
Skilled at painting suggestive (xieyi) figural works, Zhu Xinjian is best known for his sensuous depiction of modern and ancient women engaged in various leisure activities - lounging about, dozing, bathing, disrobing, performing music and singing. In these works he directly or indirectly expresses their sensuous moods, as well as their joys and disappointments. These paintings are characterised by their earthiness and their varying degrees of nudity, originating from his illustrations for the classical erotic masterpiece Jinpingmei. The painting technique relies mainly on naive but graceful line-work to which colour is later applied in sections while the addition of calligraphic lines of poetry complete the works. He uses satirical humour to deconstruct modern Chinese pseudo neo-Confucianism but the artistic vision retains a male perspective with a playful appreciation of the subject matter.
Liu Ergang is a tranquil and meditative painter skilled in stylised and cartoon-like figural works augmented by simple brush-work landscape painting to which a succinct and pithy colophon is added, expressing wise insights that are Zen Buddhist in inspiration. His works remind us of "the cartoons of Feng Zikai", but they are also quite different. Feng Zikai's cartoons are permeated with child-like naivety, passionate involvement and Buddhistic sentiment, and focus on real, well delineated characters. Liu Ergang attempts to transcend temporality, and focus on the human interest and the humour of the situations he depicts, relying on line and splash painting techniques to create a deliberate naivete.
On seeing Xu Lele's paintings, we are sometimes reminded of Wu Changshuo's maxim "yu gu wei tu" (be a student of the ancients). She invariably depicts ancient characters, events, buildings and artefacts, and seeks to narrate ancient ideas and feelings. She has a talent for transporting the viewer into a remote ancient scene without any feeling of self-consciousness. Yet at the same time the viewer is able to step back and objectively bring a modern sense of appreciation of the technical skill of her Chinese-style painting and admire her virtuosity in recreating historical events and personalities, as well as her quietude and sense of humour.
Skilled in the use of fine, meticulous brush-work (gongbi), Huang Rouchang delineates contemporary urban women - their youth and beauty, as well as their sense of fashion and self-confidence. The works evoke the style and poise of actresses in advertising photography, but beyond the superficial beauty we sense a pallid spirit, that leads us to describe them as the modern equivalent of ancient paintings of "court beauties". The four works included in the exhibition show us that the painter is seeking to achieve a gentle and elegant style through attention to subtle and fine line-work and the light application of colour. The paintings appear to be shrouded by a fine mist bathed in pale moonlight.
Xiao Ping has many talents and, apart from his own calligraphy and paintings, is a scholar of art history and a devoted authenticator and collector. His published art-historical studies include Gong Xian, Chen Chun, Research on Ni Yunlin and The Painting School of Lou Dong. In his own painting career, he is adept in many genres - figural painting and landscapes, as well as flower and bird painting. In this exhibition two works -Chunyu Jiangnan (Spring Rain in Jiangnan) and Hetang Xiaoniao (Bird in a Lotus Pond) - are painted using the "boneless" technique and a profusion of ink and colour, yet the works succeed in retaining a sense of ancient style. Guose (Peony in a Blue and White Jar) and Shiliu (Pomegranates) are small works in the xieyi manner that are uniquely typified by bright colour and modernity.
Jiang Hongwei is one of the most influential contemporary gongbi flower and bird painters. Like the majority of the older and new generations of painters, he makes reference to the Song academic artists, but has succeeded in achieving the difficult task of including this referential concern within his own art, thereby creating a personal style of great depth and tranquillity. He is not contented with the meticulous application of ink and colour, but usually alternates between painting and wash techniques to construct an ornate work that through its gradual unfolding captures the life of nature and expresses its interactive co-existence with human life. This imbues his works with a stylistic rhythm that transcends the mundane world and sets them apart from fashionable gongbi works that rely upon simple exuberance.
Yu Hui is a talented female painter who began studying gongbi flower and bird painting under Chen Zhifo, but later changed direction and sought to create a new style and concept. In this exhibition, her Busheng Qingfeng (Unvanquished Breezes), Fenfen Haitang (Crab-apple) and Zui Qiufeng (The Intoxicated Autumn Breeze) rely on a comparatively traditional mode of illustration to depict, in turn, sparrows in a flowering bush, the atmosphere of the seasons, and the swell of nature, while giving lyric expression to the rhythmic movements of life. Her four screen paintings titled Shizhong Shanshui (Landscape within Rock) artfully draw on the folk art mode of Hua Tao Hua ("painting within painting") to insert landscape painting within the structures of Taihu rocks; the result is one of eccentric and illusory beauty that succeeds in expressing her unique creativity. In other works, she succeeds in placing birds and rocks in unique juxtapositions that have a majestically detached style replete with a sense of the modern.
Beijing, 9 December 2003
Translation by Bruce Doar