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Chinese Painting Techniques in the 20th Century

--Examples of Zhu Wei’s Art Works in the 1990s


    Looking at Zhu Wei’s paintings, the viewer often experiences a sensation of gazing into a distant landscape. The scene may be a cloud drifting slowly above a volcanic mountaintop, or the restlessness before a rainstorm, or the calm felt thereafter. A physical landscape pay rekindle memories, or evoke hope and aspirations. Zhu Wei’s painting however, contain a sense of bitterness, as though that far away, dim landscape is a destiny that possesses forces of both destruction and rebirth. At that moment, all is silent.

    Zhu Wei’s paintings are simple and solemn in nature. They retain the strength and vitality of historical elements and are laden with the icons of our times. A theme of genesis that is often found in Zhu Wei’s paintings, allows him to avoid the influence of fads, trends and other such disturbances. He employs true emotions and a balanced outlook to create an attitude, a judgment, or a circumstance, similar to the undetected rumblings of subterranean lava, or the transformation of clouds when the wind blows.

    The nature world is a metaphor for reality. In nature, one species is dependent on another for subsistence. We live in an enormous and complicated ecosystem where species compete with one another for survival. In such a environment, the rise and fall of each community is left to fate. Humans remain at a primary level in the fight for survival, and compared to other species, have a great amount of undeveloped potential. Although humans possess far superior survival tactics and have the ability to cooperate together to seek improvement, we are nonetheless a long way from building a completely independent and cohesive system.

    Society mourns the demise of a great Chinese civilization, and must also remember the suffering and uncertain fate of individual lives. China today is infested with numerous and varied problems and vices. There are no clear distinctions between each different system. Our communities are at odds with one another. The users of group resources are unable to secure a stable standard of living, hence their lives are a gamble. Repeated upheaval indicates the difficulty to accumulate resources, and results in a confused state of living.

    Both the good and the bad live by basic instinct. We rely on certain precedents to guide our actions, but we are unable to create rules and regulations containing universal significant. A desire to see quick results makes people selfish. Presently, China is in a state of flux, with no clear defined sense of order in sight. The changes in China over the last half of the 20th century are not only fundamental shifts, they represent a turbulent period in a long and difficult passage through history. Seeds of change planted in such a bizarre and frustrating era will no doubt eventually exert their influence in the future.


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     Painters born in the 1960s have had to deal with such experiences. Many of them feel isolated and lonely, surrounded by atrocities. They have grown up in the company of human frailty and irrationally. Losses of paternal authorities, barren souls, lack of the spiritual, and ever growing materialism have contributed to a rite of youth that is unthinkable elsewhere. When mature enough to think independently, these youth began to question their world and they discovered absurdities, prejudices, greed, and compromise in both individuals and society. They have since found a sharp, penetrating voice to chronicle this empty period of history.

     Whatever the circumstance, humans seek warmth and encouragement. The pioneers of knowledge toiled to spread life’s wisdom to the masses. Fine art was created by this wisdom. And aesthetic experience is a comfort to the human soul. Contemporary art in late 20th century China is a self-conscious participation in the nurture and growth of a societal culture, which in turn makes art an active component in social change.

     An important characteristic of Western contemporary art is its proximity to life and reality. Rooted in an awareness of the self, its aim is the exploration of a freer state of mind. It dismantles the burdens that have been imposed on humans through politics, religion and science, and explores the possibility of surpassing day-to-day existence. After rebelling against traditional and conservative global views, Western contemporary art adopted an open attitude towards elements found in all known and unknown human territories. Modern art was created as a muti-faceted, all-encompassing movement. It is direct and spontaneous. Through use of techniques such as transfer, diversion and juxtaposition, it has broken through the constraint of the visual arts. Frequent use of diverse images, sounds, words and performances, explore various different ideas and structures. Western modern art originally began as a revolt against traditional culture in the late 19th century, and absorbed elements from both the west and the east. Late 20th century art is a continuation of this, with a pronounced characteristic of diversity. Modern art is the leading light of trends and inclinations of the present era. Contemporary Chinese art appropriated and borrowed the substance and form of Western art for a period. It has since emerged as an important force in a world that celebrates muti-culturalism and has finally found a voice of its own.

     Unfortunately, Chinese contemporary art also has its problems. In a climate of preset ideologies, the critical attitude of modern art has resulted in creations that are too cultured for the general public, making it unable to reach the masses or produce effective in-depth interaction with lower stratums of society. Art has been an exclusive activity for the elite. The current challenge for China is to further develop the pioneering spirit of art, and to promote its acceptance by the whole society. Artists have begun to think consciously about a solution to this dilemma. Since the early stage of his artistic life, Zhu Wei has offered viable means for traditional Chinese art to blend into its contemporary counterpart in order to achieve a new vitality.

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     Traditional Chinese art has a long history of magnificent achievements; its influence is still strongly felt in society today. However, the loss of a humanities-oriented environment and the passage of time have hindered the inheritance and development of Chinese art in the later part of the 20th century. Many attempts to change this situation have come to naught. However, in the late 20th century, the substance and form of traditional Chinese art, and the diversified characteristic of Western art fused. The result has been a style reflective of the essence of the times, and an effective way to rejuvenate Chinese art.


     Zhu Wei’s paintings are a definitive example of this integration. His identity as an artist, his use of traditional materials and techniques, and the contents explored in his paintings, all demonstrate a distinct Chinese spirit. This new form of art is clearly different from the past. It has evolved from an interaction, or dialogue, with modern art’s respect for muti-culturalism. The elements of China that are found in Zhu Wei’s works derive directly from the content’s authenticity. The traditional properties in his form and technique are traced to the artist’s own identity, environment, character and personal preference. By combining all of these elements, it is apparent that Zhu Wei’s paintings exude a consistent and pure Chinese essence.

     In the 1990s, Chinese art demonstrated a strong tendency to reflect life and reality. Artists began to use their individual experiences and thoughts, to speak out on the subject of the real world. Zhu Wei has become notably significant among other Chinese contemporary artists because he maintains the viewpoint of an ordinary Chinese citizen, and fully utilises the techniques of traditional Chinese art to paint honest pictures of Chinese life. His paintings do not evolve from obscure ideas, nor do they pander to the curiosity of foreigners. Zhu Wei’s art is about life itself, not artistic concepts, or sheltering oneself from the outside world. Among his cohort of artists who link art with reality, Zhu Wei is exceptional.

     Once, when Zhu Wei spoke on topic of art, he mentioned the term “exaggeration”. To him, art is a method of transferring the coldness and hardness of reality into a visual image. It is also a way to express concern for society, and to portray reality via analysis. Zhu Wei’s paintings are a fine example of this technique. In his paintings, he derives inspiration from society and reflects upon the imprints of time, by highlighting the grim nature of the real world. He has a deep concern of this world, and his paintings are the products of this compassion.

     Zhu Wei is sensitive to reality. He is urged on by the life’s imperfections to think and to explore further. He uses artistic means to offer compassionate opinions about reality. Zhu Wei’s comprehensive portrayals deeply move the viewer and offer a highly satisfying aesthetic experience. To examine his paintings closely, one can feel the intensity of his grasp on reality. He fully understands the truths of human society and is not swayed by its ever-changing exterior. Zhu Wei’s work exposes and attacks. It displays concern and empathy. The depth and breadth of his work comes from a cultured mind, an ability to see beneath the surface, and a depth of emotion. Colors, forms and expressions are expertly used to convey his feelings. The viewer can hear ‘sounds’ in the paintings by feeling the mood and movement of the strokes and the colors. Zhu Wei intends his art to chronicle the human nature of these times.

     Zhu Wei attempts to build a link between reality and human mind. The combination of a unique style, distinct forms, subtle yet meaningful images, and a perfect blend of ink and wash, evokes strong feelings in the viewer and elevates Zhu Wei’s painting to a spiritual level. His paintings contain a textured quality and a balanced force. Zhu Wei also aims to imitate colors and forms as close to reality as possible. This is yet another reason why his paintings are widely appreciated and accepted.  

    Zhu Wei juxtaposes classical and modern entities together in the same frame. In some of his paintings, a contemporary object is found in a traditional ‘flower-and-bird’ setting or in the midst of ancient characters; people and settings from completely different eras appear next to each other. Zhu Wei gives historical events a modern interpretation. The combination is not simply for a humorous effect, but to imply a deeper significant meaning set against the reality of our present times. Sometimes, in order to intensify the feel of time of track images and thoughts in progress, Zhu Wei creates a four-paneled painting. Zhu Wei also creates sculptures inspired by bronze wares of the Shang-Zhou era, and terracotta figurines of the Han dynasty, which have a modern sense to them.

     Zhu Wei is a contemporary artist, noted for his free use of many different themes and forms. Perhaps one day he will adopt a new medium to present his art. In this event, we may count on him to retain his concern and criticism of humanity and society, combined with his courage and passion for life, to concoct an artistic experience in true Chinese essence.


Zhang Li

July 2000, Beijing

First published in Zhu Wei Diary, p.14-19, published by Plum Blossoms (International) Ltd., 2000

Zhang Li has been researching Chinese contemporary art since early nineties and has built up his reputation in art circles as an important curator for Chinese contemporary art. Now he is the main curator in Shanghai Gallery of Art.

















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2000年7月 北京

首次刊发于Plum Blossoms国际有限公司2000年出版《朱伟日记》,第14-19页