My Opinion on Contemporary Chinese painting

Li Xiaoshan

“Chinese painting already reached a dead end” has become the talk of the painting circle. However, people with such a view are by no means looking at the existing state of Chinese painting from this perspective. The truth is a little bit more complex than we can imagine. Contemporary Chinese painting has arrived at a crossroads where it is presented with these mutually opposing choices: crisis or new life; destruction or creation. Contemporary Chinese artists find themselves in frustration and anxiety as well as introspection and contemplation, which is a reflection of the characteristics of our historical development. It is toughest to be a Chinese painter now than in any other historical periods, as his creative talent is significantly stifled by objective pressure and subjective dissatisfaction. Indeed, for contemporary Chinese artists, it is a baptism to face up to the challenges of the times.

As one aspect of the feudal ideology,traditional Chinese painting is deeply rooted in an absolutely closed authoritarian society. According to the feudal cardinal guide of “the Invariable Heaven, and the Invariable Tao”, Chinese feudal society which lasted 2000 years demonstrated astonishing stability from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen, which restrict the development of art as Ideology. Both from form and content, Chinese paintings maintained a balance with the social process from the formation, development to the decline and did not show any mutation or leap. The history of Chinese painting is actually a process of unceasingly perfection of formal artistic medium adopted to pursue the so called ‘artistic conception (yijing)’ on techniques, and one that is continuously narrowing down on artistic concepts and aesthetic experiences.

It is not difficult to understand that from early Chinese paintings(silk painting, fresco, relief stone sculpture)to later ones, the evolution of form in painting is to gradually phase out the kind of pure point, line, color, black way to mould, but gives these formal symbols with Abstract aesthetic mean. It is safe to say that the stronger the abstract aesthetic tastes emphasizing brush work of calligraphy is, the better it is to indicate the stricter rule in the form of Chinese painting. Following this, the apex of technical perfection therefore led to a sheer and rigid abstract form. Thus Chinese painters began to focus on painting techniques in pursuit of ‘artistic conception (yijing)’, which is the most conservative elements in later Chinese painting, rather than on exploration of artistic concepts.

Of course, the “stagnation” of traditional Chinese painting development is not simply a result of the conservative feudalism; the weakness of Chinese painting theory also stifled the practice of Chinese painting in a considerable extent. The ultimate meaning of Chinese painting theory is not how to guide the painting to observe and grasp the changing beauty of life by the roots, but empirical talk which is dominated by the national characteristics of “take methodology more seriously than theory” and collected on the foundation of large amount of painting practices. Among which some of the valuable and essential parts are often lost in numerous lengthy and repeated methodology. The “Six Codes” has actually become the highest standards of Chinese painting both in Aesthetic judgments and creative methods. (Although many ancient painters and theorists have made complements to this “Six Codes” after it was proposed by Xie He, but the theory was not largely modified by them). If painting theory does not provide dialectical epistemology to painting practices, and does not guide practices fundamentally to open up new aesthetic concepts but remain in the low-level emphasizing teacher-student relationship, and specific skills of painting, or proposes some vague ideas (sometimes may be classic too), it will not be helpful to provides guidance on painting practice to make continuous innovation. As you know, the history of development is a dialectical integration of succession and intermittence, gradual progress and revolution. When the social progressive accumulation reached the breaking point, brand new, epoch-making theory, namely the revelation and foresight made standing on the peak of intellectual and social development is needed to promote the rapid expansion and carrying out of social practices. However, the leading nature of theory is not only stifled by objective conditions, but also the tradition of theory itself. Under the historical condition of today, Chinese painting theory need to be fundamentally changed, rather than be revised or complemented.

So, we must discard the old theoretical system and cognition of the arts and pay more attention to emphasize conceptual issues in modern painting. Painting concept is a series of constructive factors dominating paintings: painter’s understanding of the subject, the approach to objects to represent with technology and how to constitute a unique “visual language” which is different from other sensory stimulation etc.

Changes in concept are the beginning of painting revolution. We must recognize and evaluate contemporary Chinese paintings according to this basic point. The new viewpoint of painting was not fabricated; it would for sure absorb from the outstanding traditional heritage. The so-called artistic heritage is certainly not a bunch of dead goods which lined up for people to pick and use whenever they need and mix them up randomly according to temporary needs. The outstanding heritage of Chinese painting refers to the spiritual essence which integrated space, time, and observer himself. On the point that painter project ideal and mood to the objects he painted as an observer, the practice of Chinese painting highly matches the modern scientific spirit( such as the relativity theory, principle of quantum theory, etc.). As the German physicist Heisenberg said: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to us through our method of questioning.” Indeed, it is just the superior oriental artistic spirit that modern Chinese painting needs to carry forward. By understanding this, no one shall misunderstand new painting concept to be abstract stereotype

So, which aspects of Chinese painting should we reform?We show our admiration to Fan Kuan and Zhu Da when we read the album of their paintings or in the museum, it shows at least two things: first, preconceived aesthetic concepts are controlling us when we appreciate pictures, second, these works are indeed able to arouse echo in our hearts both in aesthetic sentiments and forms. We are willing to acknowledge the greatness of ancients and insignificance of ourselves. It clearly revealed the fact that as long as we are infatuated with the ancient art forms and perceive Chinese painting with a traditional view, we will have no choice but to acknowledge that ancients are smarter than us and worship the ancient on our knees. So it can be seen that the primary task of reforming Chinese painting is to change our worship to the strict formal standards and break through the old fashioned formal restrictions.

The Chinese painting reached an end-stage of development in the age of painters such as Ren Bonian, Wu Changshuo and Huang Binhong.( there are already great heroes in figure, flower-and-bird and landscape painting) Although contemporary Chinese artists did not give up to continue the diligent work in the garden of Chinese painting, but they obtained little success. When we see a large number of talented artists are still defending the obviously outdated artistic concepts, and have indeed wasted so much energy in practice, the only thing we can do is to show our deep sorrow and sympathy; When we see some painters who consider themselves quintessence school painters above politics and worldly interests, especially some of the once famous old painters despising the reform movement of art, we believe that this is not lofty, but stupid and lazy. He who wants to be Don Quixote would make themselves the laughing-stock of the afterworld. Schiller said that the dangerous threat is the extreme vulgarness, while the most detestable vulgarness is loafing about and muddling along. The nature of art is to create continually, without it, art will become merely manual skills that make ends meet.

It should be admitted that the efforts of contemporary Chinese artists are not entirely in vain. They recognized that the traditional Chinese painting has been senile, and is trying to catch up with the times breathlessly and only could absorb some leavings of cultural heritage. Painters like Liu Haisu, Shi Lu, Zhu Qizhan, Lin Fengmian and others are those who began their art career under the influence of trend of thought in the new era. They didn’t lift their voice to clamor the urgency of reform in art, yet they played the role of a link between past and future in practice. Their conception in painting was limited in the scope of traditional thought, but this did not obstruct their practice in exploring new aesthetic experiences. What promoted them to do so was the talented artistic insight and irresistible creative spirits of these artists. As the outstanding representatives of contemporary Chinese painting, they could certainly not be regarded as epochal masters; yet as artists who have led Chinese paintings to go on the way of modern art, they should enjoy the highest honor. To evaluate the position of an artist in the history of art, we should mainly see whether he had made any breakthrough in the form of art and any exploration in the concept of art. So the basis to confirm Liu Haisu and other artists as outstanding ones is that their created had added to the continuation of Chinese painting.

If Liu Haisu, Shi Lu, Zhu Qizhan, Lin Fengmian and others are more inclined to the modern aspects in painting(of course, views on modern painting were merely seen in their works), then Pan Tianshou and Li Keran’s works contained more rational elements, they have not exceeded the track of traditional Chinese painting yet, and they only wanted to put their effort in finding new subject matters in life. They moved toward the extreme in some traditional technique, namely they paid too much attention to the pictures, which influenced the direct reveling of sentiment in pictures. Thus their way of art became even narrower. Their shortcomings did not affect themselves that much (Their diligence, hard work and talent helped to make it up) but the disadvantages have been largely magnified on their students. We can say that, most influenced of Pan Tianshou and Li Keran’s achievements in Chinese painting are negative for the later generations. Compared with them, Fu Baoshi also had something in common. His painting was unique. He has a unique way to perceive tradition. The biggest characteristic of him was his great attention paid to life experience, so when you see his painting you can actually smell the real life. However, he inclined too much to naturalistic style. Among all famous contemporary artists, he was one who used least traditional methods; He fell into the convention of old bottles for new wine while rebelling against tradition. Painters influenced by Fu Baoshi, not only lost the vigor of Fu’s works but also completed his artistic exploration which he hasn’t done and fixed it rigidly to be a normalized mode.

Certainly, explorations on Chinese painting by Pan Tianshou, Li Keran and Fu Baoshi are noteworthy. However, Li Kuchan, Huang Zhou and others are much more inferior . In fact, Li Kuchan’s works were the typical sample of putting pieces together. He didn’t fully understand the spirit of traditional Chinese painting by root and he just drew out the advantages on some skills and even the disadvantages from senior painters and then moved them into his works with hardly any changes. He’s adept skill in brushwork did not upraise his art, but caused the loss of his personality instead. Huang Zhou and Cheng Shifa’s works are monotonous repetition. Their early works did show some talent with a kind of passions of young artists. However, they soon came to a stagnation; specifically, churning out is their main problem which showed that their understanding of art was too inadequate. Many figure painters similar to Huang Zhou and Cheng Shifa are all incapable of not making their mistakes——their figure paintings have already become the game of brushwork with the pure goal to develop the characteristics of ink and wash.

Make a general survey of the current Chinese painting, we can not find a leader of art reform movement which is quietly launched before our eyes at present among the numerous famous painters. This era doesn’t need artists who could only inherit cultural tradition, but artists who can make epochal contribution. We should create such an atmosphere: each artist can abandon the strict specifications in technique and rigid aesthetic standards to create a colorful and varied art form on the basis of free exploration. Don’t worry, real artists who are living in modern China will neither be “westernized” nor cling to the “national essence”. National life customs and modern concepts open to international world would bring unlimited prospects to contemporary Chinese painting. Courage, nerve and strength are basic requirements of artists who have the lofty ideal to bring out a new situation for contemporary Chinese painting. We use the words of Epicurus to end this article: people who agree with God may not be sincere, while people who disagree with God may not be insincere.

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