Painting, together with calligraphy, poetry and music, constitutes one of the four key traditional arts of China and is an extension of the art of calligraphy. It is therefore, like calligraphy, linked to the sacred prestige of written word. One’s first encounter with a Chinese painting will immediately betray its literary nature. Unlike a western painting that hangs on a wall, the Chinese work is mounted in the form of a scroll, which by its nature is related to the world of books. It belongs to the realm of the written word.
A further distinction is that the Chinese is simply not interested in transcribing or depicting reality. His objective is rather to ‘write the meaning of thing’, to express the idea. Thus, the role of the painting is to incorporate the minimum visual codes or clues to inspire its full and invisible fruition in the viewer’s imagination.
The Chinese aesthetic is very different to that of the West. The prime purpose for the scholar is the cultivation of an inner life, the ultimate aim of which is to perfect one’s character in order to attain the moral stature befitting one’s status as a gentleman. Thus, the notion of beauty as such is irrelevant, indeed is often considered to be a superficial distraction from the purpose of nourishing the energy of the gentleman in capturing the spirit or essence of nature. In fact, the ultimate ‘beauty’ of a work does not depend on its beauty. It is the result of its inner ‘truth’ and it is this moral concept that is at the heart of all Chinese aesthetics.
As China emerges in the world economically and politically, there has been an absolute surge within the country. This has happened in film, theatre, dance, poetry, philosophy, architecture, design and art. However revolutionary these audacious advances are, it must be remembered that the Chinese, more than any civilization before or since, have a profound reverence for their past, both intellectual and artistic. It is therefore part and parcel of the NEW to express references to the OLD. And it is the written word (the word in ink) that is the binding agent constituting the continuity of the revered civilization and essential for understanding Chinese society past and present.
This is particularly evident in contemporary Ink art - Ink, brush and paper all having been invented in China. References to the great masterpieces of Ink painting in the past always find their way, subtly or ostentatiously, into the daring experiments of today. The successors of the gentleman-scholars described above are today’s ink artists. They are deeply aware of the classical canon and its aesthetic and moral imperatives and have carefully studied the old masters. However, just as Picasso and Cezanne studied Raphael, Poussin, Velasquez and others in order to create their revolutionary pictorial language, so the new literati are doing the same in order to formulate their own revolution for their work to be relevant to, and meaningful for, the world of today. And revolutionary and culturally subversive it is. Subtly, the ink painters embody their revolutionary message in works that are not afraid to take account of the past in order to make sense of the present.
Very many different stylistic approaches have therefore evolved over the past 30 years. Works now range from those that at first sight look quite traditional but in fact embody powerful fresh aesthetic initiatives by artists like Liu Dan (1953), Yang Yanping (1934), Wei Ligang (1964), Lo Ch’ing (1948) and Guan Zhi (1979), to those that are unambiguously avant-garde seen in the works of Yang Jiechang (1956), Qiu Anxiong (1972), Qiu Zhijie (1969) and others.
But all of the best contemporary practitioners have a common purpose: to create works that do not jettison the great cultural legacy of the past in formulating a language that addresses the intellectual cultural and social issues of today. Wei Ligang expresses it well when he says, “as a practitioner for many years of traditional calligraphy, I am aware of how relevant it still is to contemporary aesthetics but at the same time how important it is to find a new pictorial language for society today.”
It is our view therefore that these few (only 50 or so of international stature) artists are poised to assume a historic relevance as the cultural conduit between China’s great past and her future. And as such they are likely to shortly become the target of the new generation of collectors and museums in China and the diaspora who, in their new-found national pride and following the global fashion that only contemporary is cool, will be hungry for contemporary manifestations of their country’s enduring civilization.
About the author
Michael Goedhuis has been exhibiting Chinese modern and contemporary art at TEFAF for 15 years. He have been showing works of the leading practitioners in the field of Ink painting, such as Wei Ligang, Wang Dongling, Li Chevalier, Lo Ch’ing, Yang Yanping, Yao Jui-chung, Qin Feng and Guan Zhi, and developed a market with history to TEFAF from the US and Asia as well as Europe. In addition to representing contemporary Chinese artists, his activities now include exhibiting work by the new generation of Western artists, both painters and sculptors.