Paint it Black: Calligraphy and Contemporary Art in China

Paint it Black: Calligraphy and Contemporary Art in China

W ang Xizhi (303–361), revered as the “Sage of Calligraphy", is said to have cleaned his brushes in the pond by his house so often that the water turned black. Like ink diffusing through Wang’s pond, the influence of calligraphy is diffused throughout the fine and decorative arts of China. The avant-garde art of the 1980s and 1990s – emerging in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and at the dawn of globalisation – is often framed by a discussion of its iconoclasm, and the influence of the West. Its relationship with calligraphic traditions and ink wash art is time and again overlooked.

In China, calligraphy has been considered one of the highest forms of art since the 4th century, and its mastery was thought to reveal the utmost cultivation by the literati of the Song and Ming dynasties. Chinese script is ideographic; its ancient origins lie in pictorial representations of natural forms. Like a painter, the master calligrapher applies black ink through the deft strokes of a brush, enacting a meticulous technique that has been codified over generations. For the writer Ni Yihan, this process is quasi ritualistic; an expression of the choreography between body and medium, akin to a performance:

“Calligraphy is one of the earliest forms of Chinese performance art: on viewing a calligraphic piece, a connoisseur savours the artist’s effort and ingenuity, expressed in every thrust and pause and every contrast between blank and inked spaces and between light and dark patches.”

Here we explore a selection of seminal avant-garde works that will offered this October as part of the sale New Wave Beyond Yuanmingyuan: An Important European Private Collection of Chinese Contemporary Art. Each artist confronts calligraphic and ink traditions in their own way, whether that be through the materiality of black ink on xuan paper, or its relationship to language and meaning.

Qiu Zhijie, Tattoo II , Estimate: 60,000 – 90,000 HKD

In Tattoo II, Qiu Zhijie, appears to be pinned to the wall by a red character painted across his torso, mouth and onto the background. The red character – referencing calligraphic traditions – translates as “No, you must not”, and Qiu has described the work as a reaction to constraints on individual independence: “The subject is powerless to act because he is nothing more than an image. The only thing remaining is a flat surface onto which anyone can scrawl… This series is a response to the futility and drowning of the individual brought about by the onslaught of the Chinese media culture.”

Zhang Wei, Abstract Composition , Estimate: 50,000 – 80,000 HKD

Zhang Wei’s Abstract Composition is one of the first recorded examples of abstract art in China. Executed in 1978, the use of oil and ink on paper demonstrates the enduring importance of Chinese ink and calligraphy techniques in Zhang’s work. In this way, Zhang combines Western ideas and aesthetics of abstraction with traditional Chinese elements, forging a unique visual language that captures the spiritual essence of his subjects.


“Regardless of whether Western artists wanted to depict objective reality, they are also painting an image, whereby image and colour both have material qualities. But what I want to express and pursue is purely spiritual, divorced from objects and images, only using paintbrushes and paint to convey my temperament and disposition.”

Contemporary Art

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