Chinese Figure Paintings
Contemporary Visions

Foreword by K.Y. Ng

There is an anecdote about the great Tang painter Zhou Fang in Tuhua jianwenzhi (Experience of Chinese Painting), written by Guo Ruoxu of the Song dynasty. Zhao Zong, the son-in-law of Guo Ziyi, asked Han Gan, a painter skilled in painting horses, to draw a portrait for him. He then asked Zhou Fang to do him a second one. When Guo Ziyi asked his daughter to comment on the two portraits, she replied that both were good likeness of her husband, but Zhou's was better. When asked why, she answered, "The first portrait depicts only my husband's appearance, but the second one also conveys his spirit - it shows his character and bearing." In other words Zhou's portrait is superior to Han's because the former is a 'likeness in spirit'. The Chinese title of this present exhibition is Beyond the Formula of Five-eyes and Three-sections, which is another way of saying 'likeness in spirit'. This has been the principle of figure painting since ancient times, which has remained unshaken, though tools and materials might have changed. The impact of the 'theory of likeness in spirit' is so profound that most painters have since stressed the importance of likeness in spirit and spurned likeness in form. They consider a too true-to-form figure painting as dull and lifeless, and is no different from a photograph.

China , an enormous land with a large and varied population, has yielded a great number of outstanding painters in the recent years. Amongst the eighty painters featuring in this exhibition, the majority of them are concentrated in five regions: Beijing (18 in total), Shanghai (10), Zhejiang (8), Hong Kong (8) and Nanjing (7) while the rest come from Sichuan, Taiwan, Shaanxi, Hunan, Tianjin, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hubei, Qinghai and Guizhou. This list is by no means exhaustive of all eminent painters in China . Owing to the regrettable fact that the works of some painters are not readily available, or that it is difficult to find suitable works within a limited period of time, some highly esteemed and worthwhile painters are not represented.

This exhibition is a review of the development of ink figure painting from the beginning of this century up to the early 1990's. While arranging the hundred or so paintings, I noticed one important breakthrough in the twentieth century figure painting, and that was the import of Western techniques. Much attention has been paid to naturalistic realism which, combined with traditional Chinese brush and ink, has brought new elements into Chinese painting as a whole. Another striking feature is the increased number of nudes, which would have been a rare phenomenon before the twentieth century.

Some of the exhibits are fine-lined paintings, as represented by the works of Chen Baiyi, Hai Tian and Jiang Tailu. We have recently seen too many so-called 'expressionistic' paintings, which are actually produced by people who lack basic training in sketching and modelling. I believe that spirit derives from form, and that likeness in spirit can only be achieved with the highest degree of modelling skill. Some people might dismiss fine-lined paintings as dull, but I believe that sincere and serious works should be encouraged as they would have a rectifying effect on the patchy and worthless 'free-style' productions.

My special thanks go to Mr Wan Qingli who has, despite his many other commitments, written the introduction for this catalogue. He has studied the photographs of the paintings and the artists' biographies in great detail before putting forward his opinion. His responsible and thorough attitude has my greatest respect.


K. Y. Ng 1991
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Foreword by K.Y. Ng
An Review of Twentieth Century Chinese Ink Figure Paintings
Online Catalogue