The Flowering Field
Contemporary Chinese Painting
The Return to Tradition and the Resurgence of Individuality: New Developments in Contemporary Chinese Painting
The exhibition "The Flowering Field - Contemporary Chinese Paintings", jointly presented by Luen Chai of Hong Kong and Kaikodo of New York, will be shown in both New York and Hong Kong. The special feature of this exhibition is that all the participating artists were born after 1940. The oldest of the fifty-eight artists is fifty-seven and the youngest thirty-five. Together these artists form a generation of young and middle-aged artists. In academic terms there is no self-evident basis for the adoption of 1940 as a cut-off point. Moreover, even though ranking by age is a typical expression of Chinese culture, the creation of art does not go by such rules. However, from a different perspective, since the age of the participating artists is not that far apart, their life experiences and artistic development have all similarly taken place since the establishment of New China in 1949. Whether the artists are from Hong Kong , Taiwan or overseas, their creative ideals have been closely linked to the development of New China. From the late 1970s, when China recovered its strength after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and set out along the road of modernisation, Chinese art also entered a relatively open and diverse "new era".1 In recent years the explorative drive and creative energy of this generation of artists has been much admired.2 With the passing of great masters like Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996), Liu Haisu (1896-1994), Huang Junbi (1898-1991), Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Chen Fushan (1905-1995), Li Keran (1907-1989), Ye Qianyu (1907-1995), Wu Zuoren (1908-1997), Lu Yanshao (1909-1993), Xie Zhiliu (1910-1997) and Huang Zhou (1925-1997), the Chinese painting world has entered into a period without their authoritative voices. 3 Middle-aged painters with their mature works become the main stay of the art world, while fresh, energetic young artists are also coming to prominence. By presenting their recent paintings, this exhibition provides an excellent opportunity to review the orientation of contemporary Chinese art. In particular, the displays of these works in the great cities of New York and Hong Kong will no doubt inspire a broader interest in the new art from China and lead to more meaningful exchanges befween the East and the West.
The Historical Background of Contemporary Chinese Painting
Whether we construct'the development of contemporary Chinese art based on studies of artists, artistic styles or society and culture, it is closely associated with the dramatic changes in modern Chinese history. Our understanding and appreciation of Chinese painting over the last decade or so is no exception. However, the "new era", which began in the late 1970s, is marked by tumultuous changes and complex events taking place in Chinese society and culture. We still lack the appropriate historical distance to put these changes and events in their proper perspective. The following are therefore only preliminary and general observations.
Firstly, without doubt Chinese painting of the "new era" unfolded within the relatively free and relaxed cultural environment following the introduction of the policy of reform and opening to the outside world. Although during this period there were campaigns against bourgeois liberalisation (1981) and spiritual pollution (1983), the campaign to construct spiritual civilisation (1986) and even the suppression of the Tiananmen democracy movement (1989), on the whole, between compromise and confrontation, artists were able to extend their freedom to choose and the space in which to create. This freedom arose from the gradual relaxation of the official stance on fine arts policy, and from the large number of associations and public exhibitions organised by artists themselves. A greater boost was provided by the economic reforms and the new cultural and artistic environment attendant upon them. The advantages and disadvantages of the commercialisation of art and the opening up of the international art market for the development of art in the "new era" still wait to be assessed, but in terms of the flourishing of artistic activities and the strengthening of overseas exchanges they have played a positive role. Moreover, the Chinese artists reap economic benefits from these commercial activities, giving them greater independence in their personal development. In addition, the control of the Party and the government over publishing has relaxed, and a large number of fine arts publications have appeared, 4 creating a vigorous atmosphere of debate and accelerating the circulation of information on the arts. At the same time, they provide an arena in which young and middle-aged artists can make their works known and promote their creative output.
Secondly, the policy of reform and opening up introduced in the late 1970s transformed China from a closed society into one facing the world, and thereby gave rise to the second Western Tide after the May Fourth New Culture Movement (1919). In a very short period of ten years or so the flood gates opened and the entire history of European and American art, in addition to modernism and post-modernism, was introduced into China , challenging the closed and uniform thought of Socialist art. Not only did these new theories reveal to Chinese artists a myriad creative styles and concepts, but among the younger artists they even led to serious questioning of the nature of art, as well as providing a touch-stone for social criticism, perspectives on life and personal liberation. We should consider "The Stars" (Xing Xing) art exhibition in 1979 as the starting point of the Chinese contemporary art movement, which spread throughout the country, and in particular facilitated the rise of the '"85 New Wave Art". This new development created an interest in the international scene after overseas exhibitions and trips abroad made by some members of the art community. 5 There seems to be little apparent linkage between the torrent of Western Tide, or the new art movements, and changes in contemporary ink painting, but, in fact, the liberated creative ideas and individual exploration of the former two developments gave tremendous inspiration to ink painting. At the same time they also helped to create a new and original visual language. 6
This second confrontation between Chinese and Western trends of thought also initiated comparative studies on Chinese and Western cultures and discussions on the survival of traditional culture. As a result, the changes that occurred in ink painting in the new era were derived from and took place against the background of an enthusiasm for traditional Chinese culture. This is the third point about the historical circumstances that is particularly worth noting. The debate on Chinese art was initiated by a young artist Li Xiaoshan in an article published in 1985 entitled "My Views on Contemporary Chinese Painting". Li argued that "Chinese art has already reached the end of its days," and "we must abandon old theoretical systems and our ossified understanding of art, and give priority to the question of modern painting concepts." 7 Li Xiaoshan's comment that Chinese painting had "reached the end of its days" and his hyper criticism of contemporary masters were described as "throwing a rock to make the waters part" and led to widespread and heated debate throughout China . A considerable number of people held the opposite opinion, believing that the present period was the "early spring" of Chinese painting or even a time when it flourished.8 These discussions covered a broad range of issues, including the evaluation of Chinese art, the approaches to tradition and creative innovations. The diverse opinions over the pros and cons of these issues developed a movement for the reevaluation of Chinese art. 9 Compared to the criticism of Chinese art by Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and other intellectuals at the beginning of the Republican period who felt that "Chinese painting in recent years has become utterly debased", 10 and in the Chinese painting reform movement of the 1950s and 60s, the profound re-thinking of the tradition that took place in the 1980s was both broader and deeper and was argued on the basis of everything from cultural systems, the artistic spirit to painting concepts. 11 Although this exhibition includes only two artists, Shi Hu and Lu Fusheng, who participated in the debate, 12 the examination of tradition from multiple view points will help to explore new creative paths, a development which is to be discussed below.
The fourth important point to consider is what catalytic effect did Chinese artists from Hong Kong , Taiwan and abroad have on the formation of the new wave of Chinese art. Since the late 1950s, some Chinese artists living outside the mainland, under the influence of Western modern art, reviewed the causes for the decline of traditional painting and proceeded to advocate brand new theories of creation and education. They introduced concepts and formal construction of abstract art of the West and opened up traditional brush painting with experimental materials and techniques, at the same time imbued the spirit of traditional art with a contemporary meaning. This new ink painting movement involving a fusion of Chinese and Western art had a profound influence among Chinese painters living in Hong Kong , Taiwan and elsewhere outside the mainland. 13 These new developments were gradually brought to the attention of artists in China in the 1970s, particularly following increased communication and interaction between China and the outside world. Modern ink painters from Hong Kong , Taiwan and other places outside the mainland have demonstrated a spirit of experimentation based on their critical examination of tradition, while their thoughts on native and foreign cultures may also be useful in the genesis of new trends of art in mainland China .
The "new era" has been one of tremendous change for Chinese art. The historical and cultural background in which contemporary young and middle-aged painters have found themselves has been relatively free and open in comparison to that of previous generations. It is a completely new era marked by pluralistic developments. However, in addressing the changes of the age, many artists have been affected by indecision and are impatient for quick results. This is a natural phenomenon in art of the "new era".
Chinese painting has forged its own path in world culture and has a long history. The development of this tradition, however, particularly in the form of post-Yuan dynasty scholar painting, had gradually reached a stage of decline by the late Qing dynasty. This coupled with the challenge posed by Western art after the introduction of Western culture to China produced great changes in the past century. Some of the artists who bore the weight of thousands of years of tradition saw it as the essence of the national culture which should be preserved and continued; others saw the tradition as a serious encumbrance and absolutely rejected it, believing that the East should learn from the West. Between these two poles were artists who took a middle stance and sought to trace the tradition to its source, while inheriting the tradition they also created their own new style; there were even painters who have mastered the styles of Western art yet finally returned to Chinese-style painting. In the complex developments that resulted from the interchanges between ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign, indigenous and Western, between the inheritance of "using the past to serve the present" and the transplanting of "drawing on the West to enrich China ", a new, contemporary tradition of Chinese art was formed. Because realism became the orthodoxy after the establishment of New China and the art academies used drawing as the foundation of all visual arts, the realistic figural ink paintings in a Western style formulated by Xu Beihong (1895-1953) and his successor Jiang Zhaohe (1904-1986) dominated Chinese painting. However, under the banner of "revolutionary romanticism" which served political ends, this painting style gradually became divorced from any realist humanistic content, achieving the height of its influence during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution. 14
After the Cultural Revolution, the ink painting of the "new era" reflected the choices of young and middle-aged artists. From the profusion of works in this exhibition, it is possible to see their re-assessment of the native tradition, a search for sources of innovation and at the same time a high degree of individuality in their response to the times and to life. This return to tradition and the resurgence of individuality are characteristic of ink painting of the "new era".
The Return to Tradition
The trend which sees young and middle-aged artists return to the tradition is not the same as the traditionalism of the first half of the 20th century when the revival of ancient styles was the basis for innovations. To these artists it is not necessary to choose between the two extremes of traditional or introduced culture. They are not motivated by crisis in which national survival is a major concern nor are they troubled by the shackles of tradition. The problem they face is overcoming the ink painting tradition of modern realism and its superficial political content (fig. 1), and breaking away from the Soviet style education system with its emphasis on academic drawing. This is because the majority of young and middle-aged artists have received the same kind of training in the art academies, have studied both Chinese and Western art and are extremely proficient at this form of realism; the early works of Yang Gang and Nie Ou (figs. 2 and 3) demonstrate this clearly. They have later successfully established a distinct individual style through their rediscovery and reinterpretation of traditional aesthetics. Thus the expressive qualities of brush and ink, the significance of essential form and the humanistic spirit as derived from tradition become their basis for innovation. The exploration of tradition by young and middle-aged artists benefit from the research of art historians on ancient and modern artistic traditions.15 In addition, the discovery of the earlier, somewhat less well-known masters of the traditional school, such as Chen Zizhuang (1913-1976) and Huang Qiuyuan (1913-1979; fig.4), who convincingly revealed the abstruse and profound content of tradition (fig. 4) and the vitality of its continuing developments, is also extremely influential.
In the tide of the return to tradition, the most notable group are the "new literati painters". This exhibition includes figure painters such as Nie Ou (no. 21), Zhu Xinjian (no. 8), Tian Liming (no. 17), Xu Lele (no. 2), Wang Yanping (no. 11) and Zhou Jingxin (no. 15), while landscape painters include Chen Xiangxun (no. 31), Zhao Wei (no. 53), Chen Ping (no. 52) and Lu Yushun (no. 30). The criticism, continuation and transformation of literati painting in the 20th century are the fundamental issue facing contemporary Chinese painting. However, the scholar-literati class on which literati painting depended has completely disintegrated following the political, social and economic transformation of modern China . The central core of Confucian knowledge has been replaced by a new Westernised education system. When the "new literati painters" came to the fore after the mid 1980s, their nomenclature and the concepts represented are somewhat controversial. 16 Still their emergence in the art scene in China at this particular moment in time have particular significance. As Xue Yongnian has said: " New literati painting is by no means the last rays of the setting sun of old literati painting; it represents the transformation of traditional literati painting brought about by the re-evaluation of tradition by some new wave artists, and re-examination of tradition on the part of Chinese painters, under the external influence of the impact of new wave art on the old tradition." 17 The reflections on and lessons learnt from ancient and modern traditions by the new literati painters signify a psychological state of free choice, syncretism and transformation. They are not limited to one school or one method; they abandon the formal conventions of tradition, but they certainly do not reject contemporary Western creative concepts. They draw on the vitality of the inherited tradition, aiming at spiritual expression beyond visible form and the aesthetic synthesis of painting, calligraphy and poetry. The subjective expression of the brush painting medium and the emotive and pleasurable experience of ink play in literati painting also have strong appeal to the young and middle-aged artists. The kind of painting produced by these artists is characterised by a highly personal style, its novelty of spatial composition, strong visual effects, and its emotional expression achieved through "the sense of nature and the simplicity of life destroyed by modern industrial civilisation." 18
Alongside the trend towards the production of small works for pleasure by the new literati painters, some young and middle-aged painters return to the monumental style of Song landscapes, for example Li Xubai (no. 57), Jia Youfu (no. 47), Wan Qingli (no. 37), Song Yulin (no. 34), Li Huayi (no. 58), Xu Shiping (no. 36) and Xiong Hai (no. 41). In fact, the reform of landscape painting in the 20th century has long established a symbiotic combination of the idealised naturalism of Song dynasty painting and Western realism. After the founding of New China, a large number of landscapes are depictions of the grand and imposing mountains and rivers of the motherland. For this reason, the significance of those who learnt afresh from Song dynasty landscape painting from the 1980s onwards lay in the trend towards eliminating illustration and panegyrics from their work, and a fresh search for the relationship between man and nature that sublimated by a sense of history and culture. Many of these works take the Taihang Mountains or Huashan Mountain in the north as their subject matter; the compositions featuring overlapping mountains and the surface texture formed with meticulous brush strokes and ink washes succeed in evoking a reverence for antiquity and a sense of being far removed from the dust of city life.
Some artists, like Li Huayi combined the theories of traditional landscape painting and the concepts of modern Western art, opening up a new area between reality and imagination in modern landscape painting. In addition, apart from masters of the Song "monumental" school such as Fan Kuan (c.960 - c.1030), Guo Xi (post 1000- c. 1090) and Li Tang (c.1048- c.1130), who influenced modern Chinese artists working in the Chinese style, landscape paintings of the Southern Song, with their small formats, lyrical mood and liberal ink washes are also studied. Xu Xinrong's new work (no. 33) relies on this tradition to create serene visions of the four seasons in a rural village south of the Yangzi.
The Resurgence of Individuality
The pluralistic expression of new wave ink painting in the "new era", in one respect refers to the different painting styles derived from ancient and modern traditions and modern Western concepts, but the most important result has been artists expressing their individual feelings. This trend towards using the individuality of the artist as a corner stone signifies the value of the individual in art and the concept of self expression, and at the same time negates the stifling of individuality and art serving political ends of the Cultural Revolution period. The deification of the people's heroic images as "red", "bright" and "bold" went into decline along with the artistic style used to portray such images.
Historically, there were different levels of subjective emotions in Chinese painting, but they were expressed most strongly in literati painting of the Ming and Qing. However, the ancient scholars and officials when in government were inclined towards an idealised morality, and during times of turmoil their personal hardships would often place them at odds with society, making their kind of art difficult to integrate with contemporary social life. Young and middle-aged artists have the ability to turn their own experiences and views of the world into artistic conceptions and so open up a wide, rich universe. For example, the peasants in Nie Ou's painting (no. 21) are drawn from her own experience during several years working in the countryside, but they are not simply a recreation. She has brought a childlike naivete to her appreciation of pure nature and her pastoral sensibility. The deeper meaning of her work is "a cultural spirit that is centuries old which shares in the toil of the farmer and takes delight in peace and poverty." 19 Some painters who use ancient figures as their subjects, such as Lu Fusheng (no. 7), Xu Lele (no. 2) and Zhou Jingxin (no. 15) do not merely seek an ancient concept and formal exaggeration, but also attempt to introduce a subtle refinement or humorous self mockery in order to express their own individuality and to elicit empathy from their contemporaries. Other artists, such as Shi Hu (no. 10), Zhu Xinjian (no. 8), Wang Yanping (no. 11), Li Jin (no. 3), Li Xiaoxuan (no. 13) and Liu Qinghe (no. 9) include modern figures in their paintings, and through their technique and their emotions continually test the limits of Chinese painting. They extend the freedom of time and space, thrusting in the ennui of urban culture and modern man's lack of restraint, and even make use of surrealistic images to test new realms that were previously untrodden. Traditional style landscape painting can also serve as a vehicle for the emotions of modern artists, who make use of its individuality to rediscover the aesthetic joys of nature which transcend everyday reality and material concerns. They eliminate the obligatory props of landscape painting in New China, such as highways, power stations and dams created by modern construction, and replace these with a natural world that is at once secluded and awesome and fully imbued with vitality. Whether these painters depict the intimate landscapes of south China or the grander vistas of the north, brush and ink remain the major medium for the artist's self expression. These rich transformations can be regarded as the achievements of modern landscape painting in the traditional style, and the present exhibition is testimony to this.
Modern Chinese painting has undergone a tortuous path of historical development between tradition and innovation. The comparatively free and relaxed social and cultural environment ushered in by the "new era" has allowed artists to give vent to their creative impulses. Without a doubt the new developments have brought fresh life into Chinese painting. A direction has been set for entry into the 21st century.