Moving Ink – A History of 20th Century Chinese Painting

Wednesday November 30, 2022, visit-conference of the exhibition Moving Ink – A History of 20th Century Chinese Paintingnd century by Mael Bellec, chief curator at the Cernuschi museum.

The first contemporary Chinese paintings entered the collections of the Cernuschi Museum in 1953, following a major donation of seventy-six works. It should however be remembered that the museum had, since 1946, organized an exhibition of contemporary painters. The collection initially consisted mainly of works from the 1940s, but the museum's acquisition policy has since made it possible to enrich this fund with more recent works by artists active in China or in the diaspora. The museum now has a unique collection in this field in France and one of the largest in Europe, which has made it possible to mount this exhibition.

In calligraphy, the school of "the study of the stelae", opposed to the elegant and decorative official styles, had grown gradually from the 18nd s.. Kang Youwei (1858-1927), best known as a political thinker, was one of its proponents. He advocated the need to reform Chinese painting and calligraphy. For him, strengthening art was tantamount to strengthening society. He studied and was inspired by the Wei stelae. Remembrance of Lady Qiao – Reminiscence of the Red Cliff is an excellent example of his calligraphy: thickness of the lines, sometimes angular character of certain characters, very vigorous style. This movement will gain momentum at the beginning of the 20nd century with artists like Wu Changshuo (1844-1927) or Wang Zhen (1867-1938). Huaisu writing on a banana leaf (1922) by Wang Zhen demonstrates how calligraphic styles interact with pictorial styles. The great master of Chinese painting at the start of the 20nd s. is unmistakably Qi Baishi (1864-1957). Seal engraver and prolific painter, he became famous thanks to Chen Shizeng (1876-1923) who presented him in Beijing but also in Japan. Paintings with floral and animal subjects (1947) show his dynamic style, of great simplicity, and his use of "painting without bones" (without outline). This original style and this direct approach to nature influenced many young artists.

Kang Youwei (1858-1927). Remembrance of Lady Qiao (Reminiscence of the Red Cliff). Ink on paper.

Wang Zhen (1867-1938). Huaisu writing on a banana leaf (detail). Ink and colors on paper. 1924.

Qi Baishi (1864-1957). Painting with floral and animal subjects. Ink and colors on paper. 1947.

Yun Fei’an (1889-1959). Two green birds on a magnolia (detail). Ink and colors on paper.1945.

Many of the latter went to study in Japan, considered an example of modernity. At the beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1912), a naturalistic style was taught which combined Japanese tradition and borrowings from Song and Ming art. Thus, artists will rediscover Chinese painting in Japanese art. Chen Zhifo (1896-1962) who had studied in Tōkyō, drew on the repertoire of Song painters. For Wild geese (circa 1945), he uses muted colors and a fine line as well as a technique close to watercolor. Finding a balance between meticulous drawing and individual expression, he revived the spirit of Song flower and bird painting with a modernist edge. Yu Fei'an (1889-1959) makes even more reference to Song art in Two green birds on a magnolia (1947). The elegance and refinement of the treatment is at the expense of naturalness and the calligraphic style is that created by Emperor Huizong (1100-1126).
Some of the artists who today seem to us to be traditionalists have renewed landscape painting in their time. Huang Binhong (1865-1955) is one of the most important landscape painters in eastern China. His technique, combining superimposed touches and subtle colours, gives his works strength and balance.
Pu Ru (1898-1991), member of the imperial family and cousin of the last emperor Pu Yi (1906-1967), is one of the painters who ensured the transition between the traditional world and the republican period. He excelled in poetry as well as in painting and calligraphy. Having achieved international fame, he went into exile in Taipei when the Communists took power. Pu Ru operates a synthesis of old styles with many references to Song. In autumn walk (1947), the figure of the sage in the middle of a landscape is a classic subject of Chinese painting but, here, revived.

Pu Ru (1896-1963). Autumn walk (detail). Ink and colors on paper. 1947.

Fu Baoshi (1904-1965). Storm (detail). Ink and colors on paper. 1947.

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). The Red Cliff (detail). Ink and colors on paper. 1945.

Fu Baoshi (1904-1965), renewed character painting especially after his stay in Japan where he became familiar with the works of Gu Kaizhi (345-406). He also tried his hand at painting landscapes and Storm (1944) is exemplary of his technique and his sense of experimentation, since he sprinkled his painting with streaks of water to suggest rain.
Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) was a prolific painter who explored a wide variety of styles and techniques. In  The Red Cliff (1945), he illustrates two poems on the same horizontal scroll and reproduces only part of the poem by reworking the text. In the episode on the left, the gaze focuses on the boat seen between the cliffs but the main character is at the top, on the left, crying out. Zhang Daqian is probably the artist who best mastered the traditional vocabulary to make something new out of it.
The Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) had the effect that artists who were in the eastern regions, under Japanese control, retreated to the West. This allowed them to discover provinces such as Xinjiang, Sichuan or Gansu, and to come into contact with the local populations, what are now called ethnic minorities. Pang Xunqin (1906-1985), relying on photographs taken by the ethnographer Rui Yifu (1895-1990) with whom he traveled to Guizhou, became interested in folklore and painted portraits of Miao women. Miao woman wearing a hood  (1940) is an ethnographic document with particular care given to the details of the clothing and a technique close to watercolor with slight shading. He used these subjects in more complex works, positioning the figure in a landscape and creating an idealized atmosphere as in Miao woman under a tree (1940). Zhang Daqian took part in this movement of rediscovery of China but also in the movement of rebirth of the painting of characters. He was very successful with his "portraits" of Tang ladies. His Two Tibetans with mastiffs (1945) makes technical borrowings from Tang painting, which he had studied extensively in the Mogao caves. Wu Zuoren (1908-1997) had studied Western painting and his travels in the West allowed him to produce many works (oil paintings, watercolors and sketches). The history of tea (1945) is presented in the form of a horizontal roll on which are evoked the various stages since the production of the tea. Seven scenes are spread over the entire length, spaced out by large empty expanses evoking the vastness of the plains; the rendering of the characters and animals seems sketchy but sufficiently evocative, the effect of perspective is suggested with the lines of animals which are getting smaller. The absence of contour also falls under watercolour.

Pang Xunqin (1906-1985). Miao woman wearing a hood (detail). Ink and colors on paper. Around 1940.

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). Two Tibetans with mastiffs. Ink and colors on paper. 1945.

Wu Zuoren (1908-1997). History of tea (detail). Ink and colors on paper. 1945.

The next room is devoted to artists who came to work in Europe between the two wars. The study of the nude became in the 30s a sign of belonging to modernity. Sanyu (Chang yu 1895-1966) studied in France and eventually settled there. woman drawing (early 30s), treated in ink and brush but shaded in pencil, shows that he was as interested in his female comrades as he was in the models. In another style, Nude lying down (30s) shows the mastery of the brush of Sanyu who here paints a powerful drawing in a very graphic style. The shading has completely disappeared and like other Chinese artists, he uses the modulation of contour lines which is a process rooted in Chinese painting. Pan Yuliang (1895-1977) had studied oil painting in China and continued his studies in Europe. Seated nude with red qipao (1955) is also treated with contours and without shading. The Asian model is wearing a Chinese dress. The body and the garment are painted by playing on the thickness of the contour lines to suggest volumes. The background work, almost abstract, probably comes from his practice of engraving. Artists like Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) tried to integrate references to modern Western art into Chinese art. Very inspired by Wretched of Georges Rouault, Lin Fengmian adopts for Pietà (40s) dark tones, thick contours and simplification of shapes. This synthesis is not only technical but also iconographic: the typically Western subject of the Pietà is used here to evoke the situation of China during the Sino-Japanese war.

Sanyu (Chang Yu 1895-1966). Reclining nude. Ink on paper. 1930.

Pan Yuliang (1895-1977). Seated nude with red qipao. Ink and colors on paper. 1955.

We then move on to a room which illustrates, with preparatory studies, the establishment of socialist realism in China. From the proclamation of the People's Republic of China (1949) Chinese art will undergo a profound transformation and artists or intellectuals could only continue their work after investigation. The Communist Party committee decides whether the subject, composition or style is acceptable. It is a new form of art which glorifies workers, peasants or soldiers and which has an educational purpose. This production had an influence on society and on the intellectual structure of the population. What is exhibited in this room are sketches which were then transposed into paintings. For Against all odds (1971), Tang Xiaohe (born in 1941) proposes a pyramidal composition with Mao Zedong in the center who, moreover, is taller than the other characters. On the finished painting, we see that the artist has made some changes. You should know that the works were examined by commissions where there were party members, workers, peasants or soldiers who could ask for all kinds of modifications. It was a time when history painting dominated, but Western models were reviewed in the light of Soviet painting. It was long thought to be a stereotypical painting, which is partly true, but it turns out to be of great technical complexity.

Tang Xiaohe (born in 1941). Sketch for Advance against winds and tides. Charcoal on paper. 1971.

Zao Wou-ki (Zhao Wuji 1920-2013). Untitled. Ink on paper. 1989.

The painters who came to the West had two possibilities, either playing with exoticism or integrating into European currents.
Zao Wou-ki (Zhao Wuji 1920-2013) wanted to free himself from a "chinoiserie" that he considered disabling and it was only after having established his own style that he made his ink production public. , considering that this means of expression was a new tool. Untitled (1989) is a good example of his use of monochrome ink and wash.

Chuang Che (Zhuang Zhe born in 1934). Untitled. Ink and oil on canvas. 1963.

Hsiao Chin (Xiao Qin born in 1935). Chi. Ink and colors on paper. 1980.

Chuang Che (Zhuang Zhe, born in 1934) adopted an abstract expressionism tinged with a calligraphic dimension. He transposed the effects of ink into oil paint and sometimes employed both mediums on the same canvas as in Untitled (1963). Hsiao Chin (Xiao Qin, born in 1935), after spending time in Taiwan, came to Europe and settled in Milan where he created, with Antonio Calderara (1903-1978), the Punto movement, characterized by the rejection of informal art and through spiritual research. His series About (1980) is painted on paper and is adorned with seals, obvious identity markers. The spaces between the lines create tensions which are supposed to materialize the qi, the breath supposed to animate all things in Chinese thought.

From the 1980s, the opening of China enabled continental artists to renew themselves thanks to technical, aesthetic and thematic innovations as well as the borrowing of foreign elements. Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) was one of the first to produce semi-abstract inks, he proclaimed that the meaning of a painting resided in the form and should be realized through it. For Bamboo forest and irrigated fields (1992), the artist, although using a horizontal format, punctuates the composition with vertical lines. Ma Desheng (born in 1952), self-taught, was one of the founding members of the group The stars but had to go into exile in France during the 1980s. He began as a wood engraver but turned to ink painting. For Untitled (1991), the broad brush strokes and the refusal of academic rules of composition stylize the landscape by making it abstract. Also a sculptor and poet, Ma Desheng achieved international fame.
Wallasse Ting (Ding Xiongquan 1928-2010) aspired from the start to a fusion between Chinese and Western painting. Self-taught, he was inspired by popular arts and opera.
Li Jin (born in 1958) painted the real body (1993) after a stay in Tibet where he was struck by the body exposure ritual. The emaciated body, treated in a gray and red wash, seems lit from within and stands out against a calligraphic background with extracts from two ritual texts. Li Jin was, however, best known for his painting of happy scenes or banquets, often self-portraits treated with derision. Yang Jiechang (Yang Jiecang born in 1956) seeks to place ink painting in a spiritual and contemporary context. The powerful calligraphy of Everything is possible (2000) falls within the spirit of the school ofthe study of the steles» but, to break with convention, his calligraphy runs from left to right and the gaps in the characters are filled in, making it difficult to read.

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010). Bamboo forest and irrigated fields (Detail). Ink and colors on paper. 1992.

Li Jin (born in 1958). The True Body. Ink and colors on paper. 1993.

Yang Jiechang (Yang Jiecang born in 1956). Everything is possible (detail). Ink on paper. 2000.


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