Spirit of Literati Painting in Contemporary Art

Traditional Chinese culture underwent radical transformations in the 20th century, and so did ink painting, which is considered one of its privileged artistic mediums. In the 1980s, confronted by Western influences, traditional culture had to search for reasons that would correspond to the times, and through this ignited many debates. During the ’85 New Wave, Li Xiaoshan published an essay entitled “My Views on Contemporary Chinese Painting,” in which he articulated ink painting’s identity crisis and future challenges. In the 80s and 90s, a group of artists emerged under the banner of “Experimental Ink” and explored new expressive possibilities for this traditional medium. But for some artists, especially the younger generations, medium specificity is not the key to artistic creation; instead they chose to transcend the inherited understanding of “Chinese painting”, and located an interface between ink and contemporary art. Although contemporary art necessarily reflects on society and life in the present, it is in fact in line with the literati painting tradition, in which an artist manifests his mental state and philosophy of life in concrete visual terms. One might even say that contemporary art and literati painting are two sides of the same coin in terms of their inspirations. The four artists introduced below have all seized upon the gongbi or fine painting tradition as their expressive means, creating new vistas for both Chinese painting and contemporary art with their highly refined techniques. As Jiang Ji’an, one of the artists, has said, “an open mind is the most important. One must be open to tradition and to the future as well. Only then can gongbi painting remain viable and develop in new directions.”

Jiang Ji’an
Jiang Ji’an entered the Fine Arts Department of Shandong Normal University in 1983. He experienced the ’85 New Wave first-hand and in 1990 studied in the Graduate Programme in Folk Art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Jiang is the oldest among these four artists, but also the boldest and most liberal. With his solid foundation in traditional Chinese ink painting, he has navigated the tensions between Chinese and Western art to forge a path of his own. Jiang pays special attention to issues of vision and concepts. He does not limit himself to traditional gongbi painting, and in 1991 created conceptual pieces such as Fried Peanuts and Egg.

Consciously avoiding traditional painting’s reliance on subject matter, Jiang Ji’an endeavours to paint “without subject” and to “free a painting from superficial sociological content.”1 These stated aims reverse the painting’s unfortunate status as a social and political tool for much of the 20th century. In the mid-2000s, Jiang embarked on a series of paintings of everyday objects, in which he is concerned with how to paint along with the expressive potential of gongbi. Reading and Writing No. 5 (Lot 939) from 2006 depicts three egg-like forms illuminated by spotlights placed in front, in the middle, in the back, and on top of the painting. This results in an intricate network of light and shadow effects, with irregular patterns in front of the egg-like forms. This work is also a continuation of Jiang’s 2005 Light and Shadow series, in which he challenges the conventions of traditional gongbi with his use of chiaroscuro and lines. “I consider light and shadow as a visual problem, and more locally as a problem within traditional Chinese painting. Light and shadow are normal for contemporary art, but were absent in traditional Chinese painting.” Jiang revolutionises the visual language of gongbi painting but preserves its techniques and materials, breaking the stereotypes of Chinese and Western art and inviting the viewer into a conceptual realm absent in traditional Chinese painting. “The aesthetic principles of unity and coherence in Chinese and Western art history are all dissolved… The freedom thus brought about unsettles artists habituated to rules, but releases other artists from their bondage and becomes their starting point for building a new artistic system.”2

Peng Wei
Influenced by her father, a traditional Chinese painter, Peng Wei mastered the techniques of Chinese painting from a young age. She graduated from Nankai University with a degree in Fine Arts in 2000. Do You Know How I Spend Times (Lot 936) comes from her recent Distant Letter series. Peng made the entire hand scroll by hand, including the mounting, and inscribed on it a confessional letter by the 16th-century English poet Thomas Wyatt. The painted portion shows a man on a small skull in a misty waterscape. Bridging East and West, Peng Wei renders Wyatt’s emotions with the delicate precision of gongbi. Although Wyatt’s experience was in a different cultural context than traditional China, it had a lot in common with many literatis’ aborted careers. By imaginatively connecting the two, Peng Wei is also meditating on an artist’s relationship to his or her world. Like Peng’s other paintings, this is deeply rooted in traditional Chinese art. Even as she explores possibilities for her medium in contemporary culture, she insists on the rigours of traditional craft and
preserves the unique flavour of ink painting.

Snowy Forest (Lot 935) is from her continuing Brocade series, which is also Peng’s most famous body of work. Infatuated with clothing, she began in 2003 to paint historical Han Chinese garments from the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties on rice paper and then fine ink landscapes on the garments themselves. Clothing is like a second skin, and the snow-covered mountain ranges on this work strongly evoke the flavour of traditional ink painting. At a time when traditional culture seems increasingly irrelevant, Peng Wei’s Brocade series reaffirms its possibilities. For Peng, a contemporary artist is at once free and obligated to express his or her unrepresented experiences in his or her own means. To this Snowy Forest bears eloquent testimony.

Hao Liang
Born in 1983, Hao Liang, like Peng Wei, reveres traditional Chinese ink painting, and is grounded in the refined and luxurious sensibilities of gongbi. His subjects, however, are intimately connected to contemporary life. He graduated with a Master degree in Chinese painting from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 2009, having studied with the prominent artist Xu Lei. The Song Dynasty was a high point in Chinese painting, when the literati tradition arose and academic court tradition—characterised by careful compositions and detailed, refined brushwork—also flourished. Emperor Huizong’s gongbi bird-and-flower paintings are among the best examples of the latter. Influenced by Song court paintings, Hao Liang seeks the same attention to detail and archaic palette for his own works, but complements them with a mastery of glue-based paints as well as inspiration from Persian painting and Western Renaissance art. In his notable oeuvre, fantastical subjects and breath-taking techniques transport the viewer into historical China and other imaginative worlds.

Standing Alone in the Cold Woods (Lot 938) comes from Hao Liang’s Searching the Mountains and Hell Transformation Tableaux series, which are inspired by the Tang painter Wu Daozi. Taking cue from Wu Daozi’s mystical aesthetics, Hao meditates on death with every touch of his brush. A man wearing a mask and robes stands alone in the snow next to a barren tree, and a skeletal monkey hanging from the tree turns towards him. His luxuriously layered and folded robes, meticulously rendered by Hao, cannot conceal his skeleton underneath. Surrounded by symbols of death and looking askance, the man seems to be reflecting on his fleeting life and to warn the viewer of the transience of all earthly pleasures and beauties. Hao does not include any motifs explicitly connected to contemporary society, but his intellectual preoccupation is with timeless issues of existence itself. Skeletons have frequently appeared in his works in recent years, reflecting not only the influence of Renaissance anatomy but also of traditional Chinese paintings, such as the Skeletons’ Illusionary Performance by the Southern Songdynasty court painter Li Song. The latter work, in which a skeleton beguiles an infant with a skeletal puppet, shares with Hao’s Standing Alone in the Cold Woods the theme of the illusoriness of life. Technically, Hao Liang at once draws from and attempts to surpass traditional gongbi by simultaneously capturing spirit (xieshen 寫神) and capturing form (xieshi 寫實), as seen in his virtuosic rendition of the man’s translucent robes.

Xu Hualing
Born in 1972, Xu Hualing entered the Chinese Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in the 1990s. Her art is concerned with the intimate experiences of women. Abandoning the formulae and strictures of traditional gongbi painting, she aims to express her contemporariness as fully as possible. For her, artistic creation and life are one, and she takes as her primary subject her own everyday experiences. “Because the effects of social changes are imperceptible, I am bound to represent my personal experiences, such as my relationship to society.” Xu represents a new generation of artists who are not mired by trends and movements. With her CAFA classmates Chou Xiaofei, Wang Guangle, Hu Xiaohuan, and others, she formed the group “N12”—the ‘N’ signaling boundless possibilities—and has exhibited with them several times. Although Xu is the only member from the Chinese Painting Department, her medium has not at all been a restriction on her creativity.

As a student, Xu Hualing was exposed to Western art that dealt with the female form, and thus became interested in exploring the same theme. In her graduation thesis, a masterful series entitled Fragrance, she overturned the invisibility of the female body in traditional gongbi painting. The intimacies of the female experience have remained a primary motivation behind her subsequent works, including Composition (Lot 937). Composition is Xu Hualing’s recent attempt at transcending the limits of gongbi painting. Here she has overlaid a silk painting of a female body with a photograph of branches, allowing the two images to blend. In turn this indirectly comments on the information overload characteristic of our times. Following the traditional “boneless” technique, she renders the human figure with only washes and no lines—thereby depriving gongbi from its salient feature. The resultant lack of visual definition, combined with her use of similarly pale tones, engenders a mood of dreamy unreality. The tree branches in the background are figurations of the subject’s private emotions and, at the same time, symbolise Xu Hualing’s transcendence of traditional gongbi with a new artistic language.


1 Reflections of a Conceptual World: Jiang Ji’an vs Shang Wangyong
2 Concept Beyond 2012, New Essays on Gongbi- New Reasons for Art, Conversation between Zhang Yidan and Jiang Ji’an


Contemporary Asian Art

6 October 2013 | HONG KONG