Contemporary Chinese Paintings
As a frequenter of art galleries around the world, I am very much aware of the scarcity of masterpieces from celebrated artists and the pressing need of fostering young and middle-aged painters to fill the gap in the art market. So far, five exhibitions namely "Metamorphosis" , "In the Literati Tradition", "Chinese Figure Paintings", "The Verdant Cliff" and "The Infinite Palette" have been organized by us in hopes of exploring new routes in Chinese ink painting and for seeking painters with potential.
Our effort alone could hardly be sufficient to achieve these goals, but we are fortunate to have the help and support from many dealers, collectors, painters and friends to make the exhibitions a success. This time, we are proud to have cooperated with Duoyunxuan of Shanghai to organize this exhibition of contemporary Chinese ink painting to be held successively in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Duoyunxuan is recognized as an honourable art dealer in Shanghai as Rongbaozhai is in Beijing. Being among the most distinguished names in the trade and extremely well-experienced in dealing with painting, calligraphy and art publication, they both enjoy a very high reputation at home and abroad. Working together with Duoyunxuan has been most inspiring and this jointventure has indeed greatly enriched our experience.
Contemporary Chinese painting finds itself against such a historical backdrop: the loss of authority, the freedom of choice and creation, and the revival of the art market.
Traditional norms, standardized ideologies, chief exponents and recognized masters which were once authorities are either gone with history or have lost their authoritative dignity and vitality. The persistence and dominance of traditional norms once marked the maturity, perfection, repetition and declination of Chinese painting. The prevalence and control of standardized ideologies closely linked Chinese painting to politics and pushed it towards popularization. The works and influence of the chief exponents and master painters once set the standard and trends of Chinese painting of their period.
To have freedom of choice and creation implies that artists are left to select their desired subjects, styles and methods without any scruples, and to imagine, to fancy, to borrow ideas and to decide on the forms of their work. Therefore, we see the fierce revolt of young artists against ancient and modern traditions; we see the diverse directions of Chinese painting, we see the enthusiasm, hesitancy and perplexity of the artists, we see the loss of the standard of value and the efforts in re-establishing it. The world of contemporary Chinese painting is full of striking changes, contradictions, excitement, creation, wild arrogance, childishness, animation wait-and-see, and maintenance of past achievements.
The political reforms and economic expansion in the last decade have brought paintings back to the art market. The integration of art and profit has invigorated the creation, exhibition, publishing, collection and auction of paintings, and to a considerable extent changed the painters' mode of existence, aesthetic concept and attitude towards creation. The "production index of painting goes up, star and master painters increase drastically in number, painting styles catering to the interest of the patrons, galleries and the public prevail. Authentication, connoisseurship and the setting up of marketing standards are issues of immediate concern.
As a response to this situation, the study and criticism of Chinese painting have become topics of increasing interest. Passion co-exists with somnolence, analytical thinking moves along with unintelligible rigmarole, absolute nihilism keeps close company with unshakable traditionalism. All sorts of methods, including classical, Western, crude sociology methods and the frequently revived "thorough critical" methods, are in use. In this interregnum when the old value system has been discarded but the new one not yet established, confusion in theoretic criticism are somehow inevitable.
In China as well as internationally, Chinese paintings of great interest to the bidders are mostly works from deceased or recognized masters. This situation differs considerably from that of oil paintings where young and middle-age painters are held in high esteem. On the other hand, star artists of Chinese painting ushered by the news media every now and then are often not quite worthy of the recognition. Despite such confusion, contemporary Chinese paintings should not be interpreted as below standard or lacking in creativity. We are never short of talented painters with eminent painting skill, remarkable creativity and enormous potential to become great masters. Critics, art magazines, collectors, auction houses and art galleries are all sharpening their eyes to explore them, support them, assist them and introduce them to the world.
In order to carry forward this great heritage, Chinese painting of the 20th century should constantly transform. Confining to only one form, style or school would only push it to meet its fate. As a branch of the Chinese arts, Chinese painting naturally has its own definition and basic standards, which, when replaced by any unscrupulous changes, reforms and means of execution, would invariably lead to the demise of Chinese painting. Rhymeless modern poems are still poems but they can never be equal to or termed classical poems whose tonal pattern and rhyme scheme are strictly governed. Similarly, paintings devoid of the fundamental features of traditional Chinese painting can still be called painting, but they should not be labelled "Chinese painting" or "innovative Chinese painting". Regardless of how man metamorphoses, through progress in language, behaviour, environmental changes, or technological innovation, they should be governed by a train of standards and take care not to go beyond a certain rational limit, notwithstanding. The same applies to painting. Currently some so-called "Chinese paintings' have actually gone too far as to deserve this title. Action should be taken sooner or later to rectify the name.
Chinese painting, particularly ink work of free-hand style, was the domain of "intellectual aristocrat " , the exclusive art of the literati. Its significance and mode of expression were closely related to the literati's psychological status, spiritual pursuit and aesthetic appeal. It has, in this century, enjoyed unprecedented popularity brought by political and market changes. Its aristocratic elegance, detached beauty, desolate air and transcendency gradually fade away, but also gone is most of the quintessence of Chinese culture. Since painters of our age are distinctly different from their literati predecessors in their temperaments and measures of value, we wonder how much of the traditional literati spirit remain in their works? Can they or should they maintain the elegance and transcendency of traditional paintings? In what way can they assimilate the legacy of traditional art or to borrow ideas from Western ideolgy? How shall they face reality or prepare themselves to review the varied natures of the modern world and modern men through their works?
Another topic of concern is the tremendous changes effected on the identity of the viewers and the environmental functions of the paintings. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, painting scrolls and albums were mainly works for desk top appreciation while nowadays they are often displayed in art galleries, museums, conference rooms, hotels and a variety of public areas and buildings to allow viewing and appreciation from a relatively greater distance. In such different environments, viewers with an ability to appreciate the delicacy of this art decrease in number, the viewing time, the viewers' state of mind and the ambiance of the venue are also different from before. However, most painters are still unconsicious of these functional changes and the new requirements which result. Theorists need to research, or investigate, or consider how such changes affect the methods, content, form and media of Chinese painting. Since the 80's, large works created to suit special enviromental demands are mostly executed with broad strokes, huge colour blocks and vigorous momentum to obtain a striking visual effect. Traditional brushwork is often abandoned and other means of creation (including rubbing, spraying and use of additives) inspired by the "random" and "automatic" methods originated from the West are in use. These huge works are bold enough but lack artistic verve, richly adorned with graphical images but display no brushwork. They are huge but empty.
The techniques of Chinese painting are ancient yet eternal, and much more difficult to handle than they appear. People continue to discuss them from different perspectives but sensible conclusions can only be available from those who have the ability of appreciation and a good knowledge of the history, inherent traits, basic theory and mode of expression of this art. Unfortunately, we always come across propositions that are quite out of sense. For instance, the term brushwork is often related to the revival of conservative cultural force". If prejudice is not to blame, then this unrealistic remark must be attributed to the poor knowledge of those people in this art. Brushwork in not the only means of expression in Chinese painting but probably it is the most decisive and thus indispensable. Its norms and variants, styles and tones, forms and patterns, its relationship with painting media, the structural decomposition and re-arrangement of traditional brushwork etc. are all topics of foremost significance in the study of Chinese painting. If one understands brushwork and still becomes its slave, it is undoubtedly sad, if one does not understand it and chooses to deny it for this reason, it is lamentable.
I would like to dedicated the above to the Contemporary Chinese Painting Exhibition jointly organized by Duoyunxuan of Shanghai and Luen Chai Curios Store of Hong Kong.