THE SUCCESSFUL INTEGRATION BETWEEN THE TRADITION AND THE CONTEMPORARY AN INTERPRETATION OF ZHU WEI’S ARTISTIC PURSUIT
We could easily read the contemporary features in Zhu Wei’s artworks if we simply adopt the approaches of iconography and sociology. Because it’s obvious that his works are well related with contemporary life and this could be clearly seen in many series like “The Story of Beijing” series, “Sweet Life” series, “The Utopia” series and “China Diary” series. However, such an interpretation will simplify the works of Zhu Wei to be fairly some common conceptual contents, or will describe them to be one and another symbolic fable. As we all know, similar articles are numerous today. Usually they are not talking about artworks themselves, moreover, they impose unrelated external standards to artworks, and therefore, the achievements in artistic value it acquired are naturally negligible. Of course I’m not denying the necessary grand influence of contemporary life or certain concepts on Zhu Wei; yet I still believe faithfully that they are no more than materials Zhu Wei deals with. When he draws, he is always facing or solving a large amount of formal issues. But these cannot be solved easily through merely presenting contemporary life and new concept; or there would be many peoples who could become outstanding artists. In my impression, there are some people do much better than Zhu Wei in talking about new concept. In fact, artistic forms, including composition, modeling, brush work and coloring, are comparatively independent systems which have both their origin and history. It’s forming up and development depend more upon their internal structure and self-improving rules. If an artist skips to create new approaches or rules before he could enter the existing ones, then it’s impossible for him to be written into the history. Therefore, in the history of art, even those most creative artists cannot but choose patterns and conventions in tradition to be their starting point of certain stages, then change and re-construct them according to needs. There is no other way out. Based on such a stance, I insist my opinion that the key point to understand Zhu Wei’s art is to start from his artwork itself, then analyze and study how the contemporary life and certain concepts influenced his adoption and creation in form. French historian of art Henri Focillon proposed the principle of “technique is the most important” in his The Life of Forms in Art,  which I appreciate very much.
We could see from Zhu Wei’s artworks that the main form of his painting is undoubtedly originated from the great traditional imperial court (fine brush) painting. Here we see a problem highlighted: why Zhu Wei didn’t imitate the form of western modern painting with fine brush painting like some others? As is pointed out by the theorist Wu Hong in an article, during the past three decades, some ink and wash painters have been focusing on thinking about how to make ink and wash painting contemporary and globalized.  Can this be enough to achieve the goal of making their artworks with “contemporary sense” and “globalized feature” quickly? Moreover, it is easier for medium used in fine brush painting to draw from western modern painting than that in freehand painting. I guess, the reason why Zhu Wei chose the opposite direction is firstly his education background and secondly his artistic ideal. Then what on earth his artistic ideal is? Obviously, it is, based on tradition, to re-create in order to get a contemporary expression completely different from those of the West. He once said: “It’s almost thirty years since I started drawing ink and wash painting and all my materials and techniques come from
tradition and are closely related with tradition. I never left tradition yet what I depicted are peoples and things today which are in progress, namely the contemporary subjects we normally refer to. Therefore, I never thought that tradition is separated from the contemporary; making the past serve the present is the idea and clue in my ink and wash painting.” Of course, this also made his exploration especially significant in the progress of Chinese contemporary art pursuing after “Re-Sinofication”.
I noticed that in the process of utilizing and reshaping tradition painting, Zhu Wei has gone through an experimental process of constant trials and errors or constant adjustments. Documents showed that he also had earlier attempts in other ways. Take “Portrait No.2 derivative from Bada’s landscape brush style, the embryo of Beijing Story” created in 1988 as an example, it’s easy to discover that he then was depicting peoples and Tian An Men of Republic of China with minimalist freehand brush on processed rice paper that emphasize the sense of oldness and time. Moreover, he also borrowed forms from traditional mural paintings; that is on the deep blue rectangular grounding, he wrote down some characteristics in simplified Chinese in white color. The work did featured Chinese characteristics a lot, yet not good enough in sense of the times. Maybe he sensed the differences between personal intention and form then, he made significant adjustment to his creation. Take his “Beijing Story, Colorful Sketch, No.2” painted in 1991 as an example, though he maintained the approach in using processed rice paper with ancient sense as the grounding of painting, yet he turned to refer to traditional imperial court (refined) painting in creation, which also became his later main way to go. As we see, in this painting depicting the plot of Peking Repartee, he not only made meaningful deformation to figures, but also used the small surface of Cubism in his background. It’s precious that he made a wonderful integration of the two. In Zhu Wei’s picture, there are the following elements that led to the distortion of figures: firstly, following the modeling form of traditional imperial court (fine brush) figure painting, Zhu Wei’s work is to make a transformation to cater to contemporary peoples. Moreover, during this process, he successfully created bold soldier, red flag, five pointed star, lattice window, banana leaf and other artistic symbols full of personal features based on his special personal experiences and he successfully transformed these symbols into forms. Actually this is a process that new subjects and new sense, including “socialism experiences”, entered traditional conventions and reshaped them; then in turn the results influenced the overall structure and dealing approaches of the picture naturally; secondly, Zhu Wei’s humorous mentality also had certain impact which not only promoted his expression of absurdity in life with wisdom in a mocking way, but also helped him to form a modeling way with personal characteristics——for example, the faces of his figures feature big head, big nose, big mouth and small ears which made people recognize that they are Zhu Wei’s artwork at the first glance; thirdly, the flat and decorative characteristics caused by the process and material in traditional fine brush painting called “alum water for 3 layers and dyeing for 9 layers” also played a role. That is to say, he has always been doing a contemporary transformation based on the traditional aesthetic principles of fine brush painting. Having in mind that some fine brush art painters often reform fine brush painting in 3D approaches or western realistic techniques, I could realize the brilliance of Zhu Wei even better. Related with this, Zhu Wei also went further deeply into his creation pursuit; namely, on one hand, he adopted the big-close up approach often used in modern photography into his paintings, for example, this composition is used in “The Story of Beijing, No.3” and his recent works “The Ink and Wash Research Lectures” series; on the other hand, he used surrealistic approach through juxtaposing ancient peoples and modern peoples together in picture, which we can see in “My Story No.1” and “New Positions of the Brocade Battle, No.5” which showed the coexistence of modern soldier and ancient child. Besides, he also utilized “post-modern” approaches like “image appropriation” and “reforming the classics”, for example, there are utilization and re-processing of traditional Chinese painting subjects in both “Two Red Flags, No.5” and “China Diary No.54”. The former one featured Zhu Wei’s reference borrowed from “Cao Buxing’s depicting of clothes look like just coming out from water” and described details of red flag which is closely related to the memory of contemporary Chinese; the latter, however, showed Zhu Wei’s re-process of the details of “Five Bulls Picture”, a masterpiece of Tang Dynasty painter Han Huang. As for the coloring, in my mind, though Zhu Wei added in some new approaches based on the lightening of modern life and western modern art, he is still in the traditional painting procedure and is still using colors from Chinese paintings. The sober visual effect with sense of thickness in thin coloring is achieved through his many times dyeing and rendering blending color and ink; it also has a totally different artistic sense from western paintings. Undoubtedly, to a certain extent, the unique style in Zhu Wei’s artwork is established upon his alternative utilization of the features stated above. I must emphasize that the “Album of Vernal Equinox”, a recent series of Zhu Wei changed the past freehand approach and adopted traditional composition. For example in “Album of Vernal Equinox NO.17”, four agravic peoples are drawn on the widely empty background, which stand there dully like four tumblers. A bunch of blossoming peach on the mid-left part of the picture is manifesting the coming of spring yet the scene that spring outing peoples who are in isolation from one another seem to be implicating that peoples have strange mentality that keep looking out one another and emphasize self-protection in the declining era. Yet in his new works “The Ink and Wash Research Lectures series” series, he still adopted his normally used close up composition and red color tone. The background is the red flag symbol he created while in the foreground, it’s Chinese man of strong modeling style of Zhu Wei who is in Chinese tunic suit and looks dull, numb and slow, or with the hair style that the separation line lies in the middle or on one side; or with eyes open or closed. I don’t know other people’s feel about them; as to me, after viewing these paintings, I sensed the great impact on most Chinese people from a kind of strong invisible power. So in my mind, they seem to be portraits of the era. I believe that all peoples with same background could read out some personal thoughts of their own from these works.
Today, people rarely talk about the conventional representation problem in Chinese painting when touching Chinese painting and contemporary ink and wash. Some even think that Chinese art has always been emphasizing the conventional representation; it is like this in painting as in opera. I remember once Mr. Jiang Zhou said in an article that “the integration of the east and the west made Chinese traditional painting gone through an almost damaging development in the 20th century, when many precious excellent elements were lost for that; the lesson we got in it need to be reflected entering the new century.” He also said that “development of Chinese traditional painting is a process solving the relationship between formula and reality, rather than cancelling the basic formula to rely on because of the existence of this relationship. No formula, no Chinese traditional painting.” I agree to him a lot and here I want to supplement something: the artistic representation formula of traditional fine brush painting not only showed a special aesthetic assumption, but also formed a set of special representation principle and thinking logic. Heritance and development could only be gained through good training up to a precise extent. Looking back to those outstanding painting masters in the history of China, all of them had precisely grasped the traditional formulas before they could create their personal ones. With a profound and overall understanding of the art history of China, Zhu Wei of course knows well about this point. His brilliance lies in that he can on one hand well inherit the representation formula of traditional fine brush painting, while on the other hand well re-construct the new tradition of fine brush painting with new subjects, new ideas and new experiences, which made him feel free to do brand new artistic manifestation. This reminds me of the following words of Ooka Makoto, an artistic critic of Japan:
“All products of human civilization hide in the past time and space, which is unknown world to every one of us. What we need to do, is to start exploring it from now on and take it as something of our own, namely to acquire ‘future’ again. Based on such a consideration, what I try to discover is new Du Fu, new Mozart, new Baudelaire, and new Matsuo Basho. For me, they are never peoples of the ‘past’, but on the contrary, they are peoples of ‘our future’. When we enter their worlds, we enter the future rather than withdraw back to the past. In this sense, I think, one of the greatest powers of culture and art is that they can turn the past into the future.” 
I don’t know whether Zhu Wei has read these words of Ooka Makoto or not, but I think, he is unanimous with Ooka Makoto mentally. Or he cannot develop the contemporary elements he excavated from the traditional imperial court (fine brush) paintings. And this pursuit which closely connected contemporary art with traditional context is precisely what we must give full attention to when we do contemporary art creation or participating in international dialogues. My teacher, the famous art historian Ruan Pu once said, “Chinese fine brush painting is a genre with great future and should be well developed.” Zhu Wei proofed the rightness of professor Ruan Pu’s view.
In the new era emphasizing artistic invention and personality expression, Zhu Wei kept good tension between “creation” and “reservation” which well worth learning from for other painters. The inspiration he gives us is: when seeking for the expression of contemporary life, it’s important to inherit and develop the traditional expression and make something new and better. Against the background that contemporary art is going on a globalized homogenous development, isn’t this pursuit of differentiation expression even more important?
I wish Zhu We a greater success!
At Marco Polo Hotel, Hong Kong
 Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art , Peking University Press, January, 2011.
 Wu Hong, Integration of Chinese Contemporary and Tradition: Re-Outlining, published in Hong Kong M+ art center website.
 Zhu Wei: Techniques and Materials Can Be Inherited, But Not Spirit,
published in Art website www.99ys.com: Song Rui interviewing Zhu Wei.
 During the “’85 New Wave” period, as a rebellion to the extremeleft
Cultural Revolutionary creation mode, Chinese new wave artists
borrow ideas and methods more from western modern art; which,
though was helpful in surpassing Cultural Revolution mode and open
multiple pattern, brought about “de-Sinofication” problem. From mid-
1990s onward, Chinese contemporary art started to make effort in “re-
Sinofication”; where the importance of Zhu Wei’s pursuit was revealed.
 Here the so-called “socialism experience” specifically refer to the
collective memory of Chinese people after 1949.
 Published in Wenyi Bao (Literary Gazette), on May 11st, 2000, edition 4.
 See Core Problems in Modern Art , by Ooka Makoto, published in
World Literature, issue 1, 1990.
(First published on Zhu Wei: Works 1988-2012 , China Today Art Museum Publishing House, January 2013, p.10)
Lu Hong, art director of Shenzhen Art Museum, famous critic and international curator.