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Story of Ink and Wash


October 2009 Issue, HI Art

Over thousands of years, ink-and-wash painting has developed smoothly with few sufferings, and it has only suffered two great calamities in recent decades. One is the May Fourth Movement took place in late Qing Dynasty and early Republic China, during which serious controversies over this kind of painting occurred. Indeed, the so called ‘controversies’ were nothing but the negation of the existed culture, including ink-and-wash painting, arranged marriage, imperial examination system and Shaman ceremonies. The other calamity was the Traditional Chinese Painting Revolution. In other words, that was a revolution in traditional Chinese paintings. Then ink-and-wash paintings were required to be mixed with western elements such as sketch and perspective principles, which made them rather queer and ridiculous. Strictly, the latter one was brought about within art circles at first, and consequently ink-and-wash paintings suffered most and unprecedentedly.

For thousands of years, ink-and-wash paintings have played a very important role in China’s arts: they were still included in the mainstream culture of this nation till the end of Qing Dynasty, and nobody then, official or civil, happy or not, felt it was necessary to alter them. According to Sullivan, a famous western art historian, Chinese art in Europe has caused at least two Sinicization Movements, one occurred in the 17th century and the other in the 18th century. In these two periods, the influence exerted on ideology, art as well as physical life in Europe by Chinese art was much greater than that done by Europe to China. For instance, Kang Xi, an emperor in Qing Dynasty, disliked oil paintings because they would blur after years. Therefore, he ordered European painters in China then, such as Castiglione, to study Chinese fine brushwork, painting on silk fabrics with gelatinous materials. Later, these foreigners reported to the emperor that ink-and-wash paintings were too difficult to learn: during the process of drawing, neither revision nor touching-up were allowed, and the painting would be ruined by even a little hesitation or inappropriate strength. It seems to a lot of Chinese artists that it is insincere and non-artistic to solve problem of space with perspective principles of Geometry. In Chinese paintings, there is more than one viewpoint towards the object, and the angle of line of vision is flexible, so in the same painting figures and objects may show different viewpoints and angles. Then the rule formulated by Guo Xi, a famous palace painter in Song Dynasty, was followed by almost all painters, official or civil, common or brilliant, ‘In landscape paintings, mountains should be as high as ten feet, with trees reaching one foot, horse one inch, and figures one tenth of inch’. In other words, parallels should not be altered in Chinese paintings. Castiglione came to China in 1715 when he was 27 years old and died at 78, during which he had served for three emperors (Kang Xi, Yong Zheng and Qian Long) and contributed his life to the task of combining Chinese and western painting techniques. It was through his efforts that western oil paintings won recognition for the Royal in China and excellent opportunity of spreading, from which the Chinese saw a new painting method. After the May Fourth Movement, various western arts such as operas, stage plays and oil paintings appeared in China, and from then on we saw Oil Paintings of Republic of China, of Russian School, of ’85 New Wave movement and of Post-1989 era. Even now most of the mainstream paintings advocated by the government and modern works speculated by the public are oil paintings. It is really hard to say whether that is good or not.

Ink-and-wash paintings are frequently discussed now, which is rather unusual in its history for thousands of years. Indeed, it should not be taken as a question that whether ink-and-wash paintings ought to be modernized. Just like westerners and the Chinese have different foods, which is fairly common, but it is unreasonable to put out such questions as ‘Is Chinese food good?’ or ‘Can it meet modern Chinese people’s need?’ Why do we insist on negating ourselves? Does that result from our lack in confidence, or other hidden reasons? Why Europeans will not have various meetings for discussing the possibility of modernizing oil paintings? If they had shown their hesitation and were unsure of themselves, would Chinese painters still imitate their every move?

The purpose of discussing something is to decide whether to repair and reuse it or throw it away. As to ink-and-wash paintings, we have talked about them for years, and what is our conclusion?

Zhu Wei

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009