Chinese Painting at Mid-Century

Jeanette Shambaugh Stein, 1971

CHINESE PAINTING: THE TRADITION In the early 12th century A.D. the critic Han Cho wrote: “Painting is brush lines, these lines in turn reveal the emotions of the heart… It stands in subtle accord with the creative process of nature, and has the same driving force as the Tao… Hence with the aid of the brush one fixes the shape of things, and with the aid of ink one distinguishes between light and dark.”

These words suggest some of the fundamental ideas underlying Chinese painting over the centuries. Some ideas and attitudes are constants; others are infinitely variable, depending upon the individual personality of the artist, his personal view of nature, and his era.

“Paintings stand in subtle accord with the creative process of nature.” (Ho Cho, 12 c.) This idea is a first constant which is manifested in infinite variety. Landscape painters saw themselves as the receiver of the forces of nature, which they could transmit to the viewer. The viewer, if he has no access to landscape, in turn, receives the Tao, the forces of nature from a painting, “in order to nourish his nature.” Then, as now, “the din of the dusty world and the locked-in-ness of human habitation human nature habitually abhors; while, on the contrary, haze, mist, and the haunting spirits of the countryside are what human nature seeks and can rarely find.” (Kuo Hsi, 11th c.)

How can a painter be capable of “receiving” from nature? This problem has infinite variables. “Let one who wishes to portray these masterpieces of creation first be captivated by their charm; then let him study with great diligence.” (Kuo Hsi, 11th c.)

“When one is not equal to painting the best thing is to take a stroll alone. Perhaps one will encounter an odd piece of rock or dried up branch. They are pieces of nature, totally unlike what is in a picture. One should give them a cool careful look and try to catch that indefinable quality wherein lies the expression of life.” (Ku Ning-Yuan, 16th c.)

This leads us into a second important constant. The Chinese painter was never satisfied to render only the outward appearance of forms in nature. “To judge a painting by its verisimilitude shows the mental level of a child.” Further, “mountains, rocks, bamboo…clouds have no constant form but have a constant inner nature (law). Anybody can detect inaccuracies of form…but when a mistake is made with regard to form, it is confined to that object; but when a mistake is made in the inner nature of things, the whole is spoiled…The inner nature can be understood only by those with the highest spirits.” (Su Tung-p’o, 12th c.)

“A painting is brush lines” expresses a third constant. The brush stroke is the vehicle by which the artist puts the creative energy in nature on silk or paper. The way the artist uses line is infinitely varied.

Kuo Hsi cautioned: “When using the brush one must never allow oneself to be used by it. When using the ink one must never allow oneself to be used by ink. Brush and ink are the most ordinary everyday implements; how then could a man who does not know hot to control them hope to attain the highest levels?” (Kuo Hsi, 11th c.)

“And I, who have recognized the importance of the line in painting, can thread upon the divine that has taken the form in the shape of mountains and rivers. Fifty years ago my ego had not yet been born in mountains and rivers…now mountains and rivers let me speak for them.” (Shih T’ao, 17th c.)

The Chinese artist is ever aware that he has learned from the old masters, and yet he must break loose. “The goal of painting should be freshness after mastery, but it is difficult to be spontaneous after one has mastery.” (Ku Ning-yuan, 16th c.)

“I find it regrettable that people cling to the past and do not develop it; this simply comes from the fact that the manner of their knowledge constricts them…the educated man borrows from the old in order to begin the new…People of today still do not understand and continually say…one can take so and so’s internal drawing…or so and so’s purity, etc. This means making ourselves the servant of a certain master…such a man knows that the old exists but not that the ego exists. The beard and eyebrow of the ancients cannot grow on our faces, the entrails of the ancients cannot rest in our bellies. We express our own entrails and display our own beard and eyebrows.” (Shih T’ao, 17th c.)

CHINESE PAINTING AT MID-CENTURY If the modern Chinese artist shares with the Western artist the struggle to break through the confines of tradition to discover his own expression, the Far Eastern artist also struggles with problems that he does not share with most Western artists. He has had to contend with Western influence; what to value and assimilate, how to incorporate techniques and viewpoints if one chooses to maintain one’s “Chineseness.” He has also had to respond as an artist to the urgency of the times.

The break with the accepted pattern of learning to paint came as early as 1909 when Western style art academies began to appear in Shanghai, Canton, and later Peking. Only after the stunning blow to Chinese national pride of the Treaty of Versailles, did Chinese youth go directly to Europe instead of Japan to study. For many the technical mastery of oils was an end in itself, but to some students of a second generation who went to France in the 1930s, oils were just another technical resource, which they abandoned in favor of brush and ink upon returning to China.

Western influences have persisted in various ways since the 1930s: in the use of contemporary subjects, a broader color spectrum and westernized perspective, in a less traditional feel for brush line, and eventually in an interest in non-objective painting. (The Chinese have always enjoyed calligraphy as a continuous tradition equivalent to an abstract art, whereas in the West non-objective painting is a recent phenomenon which some Chinese artists now also practice.

The modern Chinese painter has been concerned not only with the old problem of individual expression and the new one of Western material and visual conventions, but also with the problems of a nation in turmoil and distress. Others have been concerned with reasserting their “Chineseness” as painters.

Chinese art, just as Chinese literature, had been the exclusive province of the scholarly elite. As early as 1917 Hu Shih and other scholars were advocating the adoption of the vernacular for writers “to destroy…the powdered and obsequious literature of the aristocratic few…to destroy the stereotyped…literature of classicism…” in order to create “an expressive literature of the people.” In 1929 when Wang Shih-chieh was Minister of Education for the Kuomintang and addressed the exhibiting artists on the occasion of the First National Art Exhibition in Shanghai, he exhorted them to cease their ‘aimless’ painting and to identify themselves with the people. The traditional repertoire of bird and flower, landscapes with genteel scholars and servants and so on, failed to relate to the times.

In the 1920s a group of Canton artists, later known as the Ling Nan-p’ai, were revolutionaries in politics as well as in art, where they sought to revitalize the scholarly tradition by blending Chinese and Western traditions. Led by Kao Chien-fu (1879-1951), they retained traditional brush technique, but added perspective, shading and atmosphere as well as contemporary motifs such as plane, railroads, telephone poles and people in modern dress.

In the 1920s a group of Shanghai artists inspired by Lu Hsun, a leader of the proletarian literature movement, tired to express spiritual turmoil and revolutionary aims as proletarian social realists. They chose the woodcut as their medium as it was suited to mass dissemination of ideas, not dependent on machines and easily portable. Many joined the Communists in Yenan whose 1937 ideology stated, “the test of modern art is its value to the progress of China.” The best of art tradition could be used, as well as the best of world culture, but unless art was based upon a realism understandable to the Chinese people, it was considered useless. The Communist leaders, before the ultimate victory over Kuomintang in 1949, believed that art should no longer be the special preserve of the educated elite, but should be used to instruct the people.

World War II provided yet another impetus to artists to paint contemporary subjects. By 1939 the Japanese occupied the important coastal cities. The Kuomintang government removed itself to southwestern China at Chungking. The universities also re-established themselves in the Southwest as did the art schools. The far western provinces were regarded for centuries as the ends of the earth, “a place of banishment for unruly official.” But in 1942 the National Art Research Institute, formed at Chungking, sponsored research and for the first time the western tribal peoples received the serious attention of cultural anthropologists who commissioned artists to record those tribes. Other artists were sent to copy and supervise the preservation of Buddhist cave paintings.

After the war, art schools returned to the eastern coastal cities. These were years of struggle for the Chinese in every sphere. Many artists turned away from extreme forms of propaganda and some developed personal styles. The Communist victory encouraged for a time a new vitality in writers and artists alike: “Let the hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools contend” was the bold party line of 1956. A harsh party reaction curtailed the policy of raising educational standards for the able student, which would produce the technical and scientific elite needed after the departure of Russian advisors. The policy gradually relaxed until 1968 when Chairman Mao, seeking to reassert egalitarian ideals once again, let loose the Red Guard Movement.

Many artists whose families moved to Taiwan are active there now. A large group continues as traditional landscape, bamboo and bird painters. A few have tried to create a new vitality within the ink brush tradition, of which the Fifth Moon Group is best known outside Taiwan. The Fifth Moon Group was founded in 1959 and takes its name from habitually exhibiting during the fifth lunar month. The artists in this loosely knit group follow individual directions.

The mid-twentieth century painters assembled here demonstrate many varieties of personal style and many varieties of response to this turbulent period. In selecting the paintings for this exhibition, we have, in general, used three criteria. Aside from their mid-century contemporaneity, we have limited our selection to Chinese painters who use traditional materials (brush, ink, watercolor) designed for traditional formats. We have looked for artists whose use of the brush may still be broadly understood as traditional, that is, where a brush stroke has an individual structure and ‘life’ of its own. We have not been able to include even all of the interesting ink painters of this time, both because of insufficient contact with them and because of limited gallery space. The small sampling is offered as an introduction to the contemporary expression of a very ancient tradition.

It may occur to some that the charming, fresh, original painting of contemporary life, chosen here for artistic merit, are an unimpeachable response to the party demands for ‘socialist realism.’ The landscape paintings, while linked to the past are unmistakably original and individual. In every period, including the last 150 years (in spite of frequent generalizations to the contrary) fresh and original painters have emerged. The ‘avant-garde’ 18th century “individualist and Eccentrics” of Chinese painting have received attention in U.S. exhibitions during the last decade. We hope for more opportunities to view Chinese masters of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This text was originally published in the exhibition brochure.