Chinese Paintings – Modern

Chinese Ink Now

By Ma Rufeng

NEW YORKFrom the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Ink Art to Sotheby's March selling exhibition in New York Shuimo/Water Ink: Enchanted Landscapes, the art of traditional Chinese ink painting has made a comeback. Ma Rufeng explores the age-old medium, which is being both revered and reimagined by new generations of artists.

Liu Dan’s Airy Mountains, Rushy Glens After Li Tang (Detail) will be in Sotheby’s March exhibition Shuimo/Water Ink: Enchanted Landscapes.

One of the most distinctive mediums of Chinese art, ink painting is grounded in a fine art heritage and aesthetic bedrock dating back more than 1000 years. However, since the early 20th century, with the deepening of Western cultural and artistic influences, it has faded from the contemporary art scene. This occurred in part because ink painting was long ago elevated to the realm of 'high art,' and, in the eyes of the leading cognoscenti who determined what constituted good taste, it lacked, in particular, responsiveness to the changing spirit and preferences of the times. As a result, Chinese ink paintings seemed one-dimensional and out of touch with the current visual arts. The fact that the art form was kept alive through the practice of copying the work of earlier masters further weakened its popularity as a form of artistic expression. Today, thanks to the efforts of a group of contemporary artists, Chinese ink painting has shed the rigid constraints of tradition, and now addresses modernity through a revolutionary new artistic language that remains respectful of ancient models.

Chinese ink brushes.

In recent years, the art form has also become an important channel for Western exploration of Eastern culture and its aesthetic values. In October 2013, Sotheby’s Hong Kong organised its first Contemporary Literati: Early Ink Masters auction, which achieved a total of HK$25.4 million. Liu Guosong’s Midnight Sun was the top lot at HK$6.28 million. However, that figure was only a fraction of the price commanded by Zeng Fanzhi’s painting The Last Supper, which on the same day fetched HK$180 million, a new record for a contemporary Asian artwork.

On this subject, Liu Guosong commented: “The unconventional nature of contemporary Chinese ink painting has great significance but it has not yet been fully discovered by the market. Time will tell.” Liu is a pioneer in the 20th-century ink painting movement, with a mission of breaking the mould, from paper and stroke-work to creative concepts. In the mid-century years, the genre did indeed incorporate abstract, perspective-based, conceptual and other contemporary elements to proudly fashion its own modernity. The modern movement led by Lui Shou-Kwan and Wang Wuxie had a tremendous impact on the more recent development of Chinese ink painting, and a school of experimental champions of ink painting such as Laurence Tam Chi-Sing and Raymond Fung Wing-Kee emerged in Hong Kong. Representative exponents of contemporary ink painting include: US- and China-based Li Huayi and Liu Dan; new-generation mainland Chinese artists Xu Lei, Li Jin and Gu Wenda; creative avant-garde experimental artists such as Xu Bing, Qiu Zhijie and Emily Shih-Chih Yang, from Taiwan. These artists are all at the forefront of the trend, developing the different facets and potential of Chinese ink painting.

To be exhibited at Sotheby’s New York this March, Li Huayi’s Immortal Mountain: Pureland Light from 2013 pays tribute to tradition while taking Chinese ink painting into the future.

Contemporary ink painting is not only emerging as a "hot stock" across the auction scene, but it is also leaving its mark in art galleries and world-class art museums. After five years of preparation, Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art late last year. It is the museum’s first large-scale exhibit of Chinese contemporary art, and the event can be seen as a kind of Western endorsement of the art form. In recent years, other venues in Asia and beyond have exhibited ink painting, including the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Princeton University, Harvard University, the British Museum, Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Asia Society New York and China Institute. In addition, Art Museum at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Ashmolean Museum of Art in Oxford have recently teamed up for the first time to host an exhibit titled Two Masters, Two Generations, and One Vision for Modern Chinese Painting: Paintings by Gao Jianfu (1879–1951) and Lui Shou-Kwan (1919–1975). The museum’s deputy director and exhibition curator professor Josh Yiu emphasises that although these two masters, Gao Jianfu and Lui Shou-Kwan, are separated by four decades and their stroke styles are different, in fact they both embody bold and transformational thinking. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates contemporary Chinese ink painting with the exhibition Ink Art: Past As Present In Contemporary China, on view through 6 April.

The M+ Museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District of Hong Kong has also announced that it will prioritise development of and training in ink painting. As part of that effort, the museum recently invited respected scholar Lesley Ma to serve as curator of Chinese ink painting. Galerie Ora-Ora, also in Hong Kong, is similarly dedicated to promoting the art form. Over the past few years, gallery owner Henrietta Tsui has shown the work of promising young ink painters, and she notes a growing interest among international collectors, particularly for abstract works. 

At the forefront of this trend, Sotheby’s New York will present its second selling exhibition of Chinese contemporary ink paintings from 14–28 March, entitled Shuimo/Water Ink: Enchanted Landscapes, exploring the themes of bold renewal and reinterpretation. Sixteen artists were invited to imagine a futuristic or magical landscape using the simple elements of water and ink. The artists include  Liu Dan, Zeng Xiaojun, Tai Xiangzhou, Cai Xiaosong, Wang Tiande, Hao Liang, Xiao Xu and Peng Wei from Beijing, Wu Xiang from Hangzhou, Wong Chungyu and the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat from Hong Kong, Yu Peng and Teng Pu Chun from Taipei, Li Huayi and Zheng Chongbin from San Francisco and Arnold Chang from New York.

Artist Liu Dan meticulously painting one of his large-scale works in 2013. 

One person with her finger on the market pulse is Mee-Seen Loong, Sotheby’s Vice Chairman of Chinese Art, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the field. “Over the past decade, there has been a steady rise in interest for contemporary ink, as evidenced by the increase in exhibitions, galleries and museums worldwide,” she says. “The common denominator has been both a respect for classical ink paintings and a shared excitement for the emergence of imaginative new ink artists who utilise a new artistic vocabulary.” According to Loong, last year Sotheby’s focused on the mid-century artists whose work paved the way for the new generation. She explains, “We presented an auction of these ‘early masters’ featuring artists such as Liu Guosong, Lu Shoukun, Wang Jiqian and He Huaishou, and many of them, especially Liu Guosong, did exceptionally well. The market was deep and bidders participated from around the world. Interest in the vibrant contemporary works clearly attracted attention to works by the pioneering artists.”

Indeed, the entire Chinese art scene has embraced the art form. Chinese ink painting marches confidently into the 21st century, drawing on its rich and varied artistic vocabulary and unsurpassed vitality of form – like a recitation of a Chinese poem with deep imaginative power and vibrant reflection. 


Journalist Ma Rufeng has more than ten years’ experience covering art and culture in Hong Kong and mainland China for a variety of Chinese publications. Translated by Ian Channing. 

Shuimo/Water Ink: Enchanted Landscapes, a selling exhibition of contemporary Chinese ink paintings, will be on view at Sotheby’s New York from 14–28 March.


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