Chinese Figure Paintings
Contemporary Visions

An Review of Twentieth Century Chinese Ink Figure Paintings

During recent years Ng Kai-yuen, the proprietor of Luen Chai Curios Store, has devoted himself to promoting contemporary Chinese painting. After two spectacular exhibitions Metamorphosis and In the Literati Tradition, he is now presenting a third which he entitles, in the Chinese language, Beyond the Formula of 'Five-eyes and Three- sections', a title which is immediately appealing and meaningful.

'Five-eyes and Three-sections' is a term from the ancient Chinese painting vocabulary used to describe the proportions of the various parts of the human face. Shen Zongqian of the Qing dynasty wrote in Jiezhou xuehuabian (Introduction to Painting): "the distance between the two ears is equivalent to the length of five eyes", and "the first section being from the top of the head to the eyebrows, the second section from the eyebrows to the nose, and the third section from the nose to the chin". There are many similar convenient terms. For instance by using the height of the human head as a unit of measurement a painter can invent terms such as 'standing - seven' (the height of a standing person is equivalent to the height of seven human heads, 'sitting - five', 'squatting - three', and so on. However, for thousands of years, correctness of proportion has never been a criterion upon which a figure painting is judged, nor is it the ultimate aim of the painter. In the history of Chinese art, the Six Dynasties period was the era when many theories in literature and art, including some important theories on painting which were to have profound influence on posterity, were established. There is an entry in Shishuo xinyu, qiaoyi (New Idioms), written by Liu Yiqing during the Southern Dynasties period, that Ku Kaizhi's figures were painted without pupils in their eyes. When asked why he replied, "It is the spirit hidden in the eyes that appeals and not the beauty of the body." From this observation came the famous 'theory of likeness in spirit', which has since become the watchword in figure painting. When Xie He (also of the Southern Dynasties) listed the 'Six Principles' in his Guhuapinlu (Appraisal of Ancient Paintings), 'vivid representation of spirit and bearing' came first, and correctness of proportion was deemed to be of such minor significance that it was loosely incorporated in the third principle 'likeness in form'. Therefore, what differentiates Chinese figure painting from classical Western figure painting is the appeal of the former which lies not in the beauty of the human body but in something " Beyond the Formula of 'Five-eyes and Three-sections' " .

Ink figure painting has become the mainstream of Chinese painting in the twentieth century, a phenomenon unparalleled since Tang times, as landscape painting has always played a predominant role. It is true that some prominent painters of this century such as Qi Baishi, Huang Binhong, Zhang Daqian, Fu Baoshi, Pan Tianshou, Li Keran and Lu Yanshao, though some of them occasionally paint figures, they are mainly known for their landscapes and flowers and birds. But it is in figure painting that we find the greatest number of artists, the greatest number of works, and the fastest developments in skill. Since the 1980's, outstanding figure painters emerge one after another, each of them popular in their own way; thus the world of figure painting has become the domain of young artists.

Since man is the prime element of society, it is natural that the social effect of figure painting is more apparent and direct than that of landscape or flower and bird painting. The rapid development of figure painting in this century, on the other hand, is very much linked to social changes in China . 'Ink painting' is a general term, broadly used since the 1950's and refers more to the media than to the type. Interestingly, contemporary figure painting has its origin in magazines which were published in large quantities during the latter half of the 19th century. The best-known of them was the Dianshizhai Pictorial, a magazine which covered a wide range of subjects and was published three times each month, and continued in circulation for ten years. By the early twentieth century there were no fewer than a hundred black and white, hand- drawn magazines. Picture-strip albums also began to make their appearance, deriving their subject matters from chivalrous adventures, mythical stories or romantic love affairs. The popularity of these magazines and picture-strip albums gave birth to a large number of figure painters; in the same way that the prevalence of Buddhist and Daoist murals in Tang times gave rise to painters like Wu Daozi; in both cases the cause was historical. Unfortunately picture-strips were considered too trivial an art form by art historians, and we are left with little information about those painters who worked at the turn of the century, with the exception of a few names such as Wu Youru (whose date of birth and death is not known). The fact, however, is that many distinguished figure painters of the present century, especially those who emerged after the 1970's, are also skilled picture-strip painters. The message behind this is that when there is a demand for figure painting, talent would respond. Picture-strips are not to be taken lightly, as they have become the cradle of figure painting, serving as the forum for aspiring artists to show their merits. The painters featured in this exhibition are representative of a wide spectrum of styles and many started their careers in picture-strips. For example Xu Yansun (1898-1961) and Liu Jiyou (1918-1983) from Beijing , and Cheng Shifa (b.1921) from Shanghai have all produced highly-acclaimed picture-strips. It was during the creation of the picture-strips that their individual styles and modelling characteristics took shape. These masters epitomized the highest standard attainable in the 1950's and 1960's. Obviously a single figure painting is structurally different from picture-strips; it is neither an illustration for a literary work nor a story in picture form. It is an expression in its own right and detached from literature. It is independent in structure, atmosphere and modelling. Composition and use of ink and colour are aimed at achieving this unique effect. If a figure painting gives the impression of being an enlargement of a one picture-strip from a series, it is because the painter has not grasped the principles governing these two different types of drawings, or because he is deficient in technique. We find no such faults in Cheng Shifa's paintings, the reason being that he follows the literati painting tradition and attaches great importance to the use of the brush. His brush-lines have evolved from the running and grass scripts, and his pictures are a perfect combination of calligraphy and painting, which distinguish him from both his predecessors and contemporaries. Cheng began with picture-strips but has already risen above this art form. Of the younger generation there are Dai Dunbang (b.1936) from Shanghai , Liu Guohui (b.1940) from Zhejiang , Ye Yuzhong (b.194l), Peng Xiancheng (b.1941) and Xu Hengyu (b.1944) from Sichuan . Wang Mengqi (b.1947), Xu Lele (b.1955) and Zhou Jingxin (b.1959) from Jiangsu . Together they represent the group of figure painters born in the 1940's and 1950's. Not only do they enjoy great fame in the sphere of picture-strips but they have also brought new energy to ink figure painting. These three Jiangsu artists should be singled out as steeped in tradition but by no means out of touch with the modern world. Their works are humorous, amusing, and with depth, far removed from the superficial posing of movie stars in ancient costumes. Furthermore each of the three has his or her own style: Wang Mengqi's style is unrestrained, Xu Lele's is tranquil and that of Zhou Jingxin is ever-changing.

Reformism has had its impact on contemporary Chinese ink figure painting. For several generations, painters have debated about the best way to improve Chinese painting, and theories that 'the Western should complement the Chinese' or 'a merge of the Chinese and the Western' have been put forward. Due to their different objectives, these reformists can be divided into two camps. The first camp has as its objective the realism of 18th/19th century Europe . Xu Beihong (1895-1953) is undoubtedly its most representative figure. However, due to Xu's early death, the most influential person of this camp is Jiang Zhaohe (1904-1986) who, paradoxically, never studied abroad. Jiang had a solid foundation in sketching; the ink rubbing technique he used in shading the human face reveals the powerful brushmanship of a consummate figure painter. His Vagabond, produced in the 1930's, is an important work in the history of contemporary Chinese painting. Since Jiang left behind few pictures, it is a rare fortune that the present exhibition can show two of his works. Two artists indirectly influenced by Jiang, Wang Ziwu (b.1936) and Wang Youzheng (b.194l), are also represented in this exhibition. Recently, Wang Ziwu has used less of the rubbing technique to depict facial shading but his modelling is still meticulous. Wang Youzheng adopts the style of Liu Wenxi (b. 1933) by showing more of the characteristics of the Shaanxi school. The most outstanding of Jiang Zhaohe's disciples is Zhou Sicong (b.1939), who is also a distinguished pupil of Ye Qianyu (b.1907), Li Keran (1907-1989) and Li Kuchan (1898-1983). Talented and diligent, she is one of those rare artists who seek neither fame nor wealth. A set of her fan paintings is included in this exhibition, a consummate work of art that incites renewed interest at each viewing. Her husband, Lu Chen (b.1934), an earlier graduate from the Central Academy of Fine Arts and went through a similar experience. His recent works can be considered as a succession to Li Keran's free-style figure painting. Those influenced by Zhou and Lu in turn are Yang Gang (b. 1946), Nie Ou (b.1948) and Wang Mingming (b.1952) from Beijing . Thus it is obvious that the realistic camp, especially amongst artists trained in the Chinese Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, has already departed from purely European realism and has accepted the brush-line technique. The net result is a group of serious figure painters with solid training in modelling, who derive their subject matters from life and execute their paintings with meticulous brushmanship. However, during the three generations, styles have changed. Starting with Zhou Sicong and continuing with Yang Gang and Nie Ou there is a change in form and a shift in interest, with a tendency towards brevity. Also to be included in this camp are artists from the South, namely Fang Zengxian (b.1931) and Chen Dexi (b.1936). Fang and Chen have always considered brush and ink the most expressive media. They introduce the thread-lines found in traditional flowers and birds painting into figure painting. With a sparing use of ink, the visual effect is one of substantiality, and it is such conciseness that requires the greatest skill. The artist who has pursued the 'colour and ink' style for the longest period of time is Yang Zhiguang (b.1930) from Guangzhou , whose recent works have also put less emphasis on facial shading. In a general sense, there is the tendency of these formally-trained 'academics' to revert to tradition. They have greatly contributed to linking the past with the future, educating their successors and developing figure painting as a whole.

There is a second camp of reformists, the leading figure of whom is Lin Fengmian (b.1900). They believe that Eastern and Western paintings are common in spirit and different only in the use of media. Consequently, they advocate 'a merge of the Western and the Chinese'. Their objective is post-impressionism modernism. Using the basic tools of Chinese painting - paper, brush and ink, and supplementing them with Western water colours, they seek to progress side by side with their European contemporaries. Lin's figure paintings have the roundness and smoothness of ancient ceramic painting. The modelling technique is one he learned from the European masters Cezanne (1839-1906), Matisse (1869-1954), Modigliani (1884-1920) and Picasso (1881- 1973), but without a hint of imitation. Aided by other Western techniques such as the squared and all-over format he creates an unique style of his own which is decidedly different from the traditional Chinese manner. As the doyen of contemporary Chinese artists Lin needs no enumeration of his accomplishments, and the present exhibition can justly claim an exceptional degree of representativeness in being able to show two of his figure paintings. Lin's main concern is to explore new directions in painting but not to create any specific school. His educational approach is to cultivate the creativity of his pupils, thus those who imitate his style are certainly not his disciples. Two painters from the same generation as Lin, who also share Lin's ideals are Guan Liang (1900-1986) and Ding Yanyong (1902-1978). Guan studied in Japan but was influenced by Western painting. His and Ding's works are different in character but equal in excellence. Guan's brush-strokes linger and his figures have a sense of naivety, whereas Ding's brush- strokes run and his figures have a sense of playfulness. Ding even occasionally made fun of the people from the past with the vocabulary of Bada Shanren. What relates them to each other is that they both used the brush-line as the basic compositional element, and are both conferred the appellation 'Matisse of the Orient'. Huang Yongyu (b. 1924), the youngest artist from the first generation, won his reputation at the age of sixteen. His woodblock prints are done in relief rather than the usual intaglio on a black ground. So much complexity and virtuosity are involved that they have a distinctive character, known as the 'Huang school'. In the 1970's Huang turned to ink painting. Not bound by any rules and flexible in technique he attempts figures, landscape and flowers and birds. The figure painting shown here exemplifies his emphasis on the brush-lines and the humorous modelling so typical in his works. Other artists who also belong to the same camp are Wu Hualun (b.1942), Shi Hu (b.1942) and Shao Fei (b.1954). Amongst them Shi is an unorthodox genius. His modelling is many-faceted and very modern. Shao stresses the use of colours, also ever-changing in technique. Both of them testify to the venturing spirit of the younger generation.

Needless to say, the veteran painters from the Lingnan school were among the pioneers to reform Chinese painting. However, they rarely painted figures. As a remedy, the present exhibition manages to include a figure painting by Yang Shanshen (b.1913) who is reputed as 'the successor of the Lingnan school'. Whilst reforming Chinese painting has become the central issue of this century, there are many painters who prefer to adhere to tradition. One of them is Yu Ming (1884-1935), an expert in traditional figure painting. He is the teacher of Xu Yansun ( mentioned above, see p.82 ) who in turn is the teacher of Liu Lingcang (b.1907) and Pan Jiezi (b.1915), all four of them feature in the exhibition. Pan has spent years studying the murals at Dunhuang. For more than ten years he has been promoting fine-lined heavy-coloured painting, with much success and notable influence. The present exhibition also shows the work of Zhao Qin (b.1955), who is the disciple of both Liu and Pan. Thus we have a good opportunity to study the evolvement of style within four generations of this artistic lineage. The painting by Mi Gengyun (b.1910), the disciple of Zhang Daqian, is one of fine delineation and elegant colours. The fan painting by Wu Qingxia (b.1910), is reminiscent of the beauty paintings of the Qing dynasty. Another expert in beauty pictures is the old master Deng Fen (1892-1963) from Lingnan (different from the Lingnan school), who has a delightful style of his own. Li Keran (1907-1989) is known as the 'revolutionary landscapist', but in figure painting he is more inclined towards the traditional free style. The bold and untrammelled elements in his earlier works come close to the style of the Ming painter Guo Qingkuang (1456-1528). His later works, however, are inspired by the calligraphic tablets of Han and Wei times. The lines change from smooth to restrained, the brush-strokes from swift to slow. The study of calligraphic tablets was very much in vogue during the 19th century. Calligraphy on tablets was preferred to calligraphy on paper, and vigour was preferred to suppleness. Pre-Tang calligraphic tablets were esteemed to be perfect models and zealously copied. This had great impact on aesthetics, and for more than a hundred years both calligraphy and painting have been biased towards this direction. To paint with robust and heavy strokes became a fashion that continues to the present day. A good example is provided by Lu Fengzi (1886-1959), whose brushwork is transmuted from Han and Northern Wei calligraphic tablets. His figures have a sense of antiquity and are of a distinctive style. Also included in the exhibition is the painting of a guanyin by Rao Zhongyi (b.1917), with an inscription that 'it is painted with sculptural lines'. The lines are actually calligraphy of the zhouzhuan (large seal) style, and beneath an outer suppleness there is an inner vitality. The face of the guanyin is very human, perhaps the artist is being allusive? The whole composition is serene and scholarly. Literati painting has become history as the social class known as 'the literati' has ceased to exist. In its place we can perhaps put 'scholarly painting', and Rao would undoubtedly be ranked among the scholarly painters.

In Huaji (Heritage of Painting) the Southern Song writer Deng Chun classified painting into thirteen categories in terms of subject matters, of which 'landscape comes first and architectural painting comes last'. In late Yuan/early Ming times Tao Zhongyi gave a detailed listing of the thirteen subjects in his Chuogenglu as: 1) buddhas and bodhisattvas, 2) Daoist gods and immortals, 3) heavenly guardians, deities, spirits, luohans and monks, 4) dragons and tigers, 5) historical figures, 6) mountains and forests, 7) flowers, bamboos and birds, 8) mules and beasts, 9) vessels and implements, 10) mansions and architecture, 11) other earthly creatures, 12) farming and weaving, 13) blue and green landscapes. Among these, at least five of the subjects are related to figure painting. Obviously, this way of classification is no longer appro- priate nowadays, but 'weaving and farming' must have referred to the genre painting popular during Song times. Genre painting is not being neglected today. There is a group of outstanding Hunan painters who, under the leadership of Chen Baiyi (b.1926), concentrate on daily-life subjects. They are quick to capture the exact moment of the event and, characterized by their fine-lined heavy-coloured technique, have created their own ' Hunan school'. The veteran painter Song Yinke (b.1902) has lived most of his time in Guizhou . His pictures about the life of the Southwest ethnic minorities, though not done in the fine-lined heavy-coloured manner, share the characteristics of genre painting. Other examples of genre painting are Shi Lu's (1919-1982) Leisurely Traveller and Wanderer, produced during his visit to the Middle East in the early 1960's. Many of the young figure painters do genre painting as well; for instance Wang Youzheng's Sister and Brother and Whisper, Jiang Tailou's (b.194l) Rustic Scene, Hai Tian's (Tang Jibing, b.1951) Duckling, Qu Xue'ai's (b.1942) Early Spring, Zhou Heling's (b.1959) Little Fisherman, Lu Ping's (b.1958) Mountain Girl, and Liu She's (b.1960) Mountain Fortress. All these pictures have been executed to the smallest detail and within a lengthy period of time. The introduction of such serious works into the art market might, hopefully, have a rectifying effect on those so-called artists who mass-produce without regard to quality.

The breadth of the present exhibition, both in terms of range and variety, is considerable, and Taiwan artists are duly represented. Their works have an island- culture flavour, and their styles can be described as 1) traditionalist, 2) Westernized and 3) folk art. Painters of the first category, such as Qiu Yacai (b.1949) and Yu Peng (b.1955) use traditional media and work in a spontaneous, amateur manner (though some of them are professionals). Zheng Zaidong (b.1953) belongs to the second category. Apparently under the influence of Fauvism and expressionism he seeks expressions through colours and distorted forms. The third category is typically rural and is best represented by Hong Tong (1920-1987), himself an extraordinary phenomenon in 20th- century art circles. His work exhibited here, with the flower root painted to look like human toes or fingers and with an eye, evokes a strong sense of primitive mystery. For a while, Taiwan had some painters working in the primitive style, that being a psychological reaction to the rapid expansion of the country's bustling cities, but only Hong's works can be called primitive art. During his life time, Hong refused to sell his pictures. The one included in the exhibition is among the 300 pieces he left behind and is a collector's item. Some of the works of the Hong Kong painter Chen Fushan (b.1905) also have a primitive, mysterious character, but with an added surrealistic flavour. His compatriot You Shaozeng's (b.1911) style is close to the Fauvist Matisse and his works are instilled with a sense of brevity and urgency. The style of Zhu Xinghua (b.1935) is even more westernized. His work could more appropriately be called 'colour painting on paper' rather than 'ink painting', but its inclusion adds variety to this exhibition.

It would be difficult to write about all the eighty painters featured in this exhibition. Some of them, for instance Huang Zhou (b. 1925) and Fan Zeng (b.1938), are already familiar to the people of Hong Kong . What I would like to remind the audience is that some of the paintings included in the exhibition are of the best results of their creators. To name a few He Jiaying's (b.1957) Nude, Zhang Youxian's (b.1954) Figure from the Ghost Novel, Liao Zhai, Luo Bin's (b.1960) A Scene from Chinese Opera, Shi Jingzhao's (b.1940) Seeking Shelter, Li Jin's (b.195?) Young Girl, Yang Fuyin's (b.1944) Lady Viewing Plum Blossoms, Yang Gang's (b.1946) Shepherd's Song, Ye Yuzhong's (b.1941) Zhong Kui Marrying off His Sister, Wu Sheng's (b.1943) Dongpo Exploring the Hidden, Ma Xiaojuan's (b.1955) March, are all excellent paintings. Zhou Jingxin's (b.1959) The Eight Eccentric Painters of Yangzhou is the companion work to the winner of a Silver Medal at the 7th National Art Exhibition, each leaf a masterpiece. I can only applaud and repeat what I said earlier: the world of figure painting has become the domain of young artists.

As the twentieth Century reaches its final decade, Luen Chai Curios Store has taken the initiative to organize this exhibition, a retrospect of the development of Chinese figure painting of the previous nine decades. To my knowledge this is the first exhibition of such a nature, and much energy and effect have been spent in selecting the paintings and organizing the show. I am happy to write this introduction for the catalogue and hope that this article can enhance the audience's interest during their visit.


Wan Qingli University of Hong Kong

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