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The Ink and Wash Paintings in My Eyes


Hi Art, September Issue, 2012

Compared with oil painting, ink and wash painting is taking fragmental and disordered paces along the road to be contemporary. It cannot even feel its way along inch by inch. Basically, it is only marking time with small steps without any advancement. Besides, failing to change itself among the disorder, it can do nothing but wait and see.

The history of Chinese painting is just the history of ink and wash painting. Not until the past hundred years did contemporary artistic forms such as oil paintings enter China, so they can be ignored.

So far the painting history of China has not seen great changes in painting ideas like Enlightenment Movement and Renaissance. What are frequently seen are only quarrels and attacks among the art circle under the monarch’s unified leadership of each dynasty or artists concentrating on their own life and emotion. Intoxicated with the adulation they gave to each other, such artists are becoming increasingly feminine and contemptible.

Having not experienced the Enlightenment Movement, we, who are tend to think like flunkeys, are hard to understand those gun-free countries without strict policy for restricting the arms; having not experienced the Renaissance, we rarely treat and understand the legality of whorehouses in some countries from the respect that people have the rights to reigning their own bodies freely. We have not undergone the above two great movements, so it is difficult for us to comprehend the fact that human beings are entitled to express their thoughts independently through artistic forms such as literature, music, poetry, paintings and dance without any interruption.

Let’s just talk about recent things. No artists dealing with ink and wash paintings could be found in the Painter Village near the Summer Palace or in Tongxian District during these 30 years. I was the single ink-and-wash painter then, but I lived in Wanquanzhuang neighboring the Summer Palace. Later many oil painters opened their restaurants; some of them have chains and some are even going to list on GEM. However, I have not seen the ink and wash painters who do even the smallest business.

The greatest benefit the Reform and Opening-up has brought to us, I think, is allowing people to live in a more flexible way. For example, one can leave his hometown with wife and children and settle in a better place; he can buy whatever he likes with money instead of various compulsory coupons for food, cloth, bean products, bikes, sewing machines, and so on. What is more, one can travel freely without giving gifts and begging for a letter of introduction used to prove he is an innocent person busy with serious work. Although now we have to apply for various certificates for settling in a new place just like getting a visa for going abroad, it is far better than when one could not even leave the village where he was born. In the past, one had to get the permission of the local Artists Association, the Bureau of Culture, the labor union of the factory he worked in or the art team in the middle school he studies in before he could create paintings such as sketches and blackboard newspaper, while now it is more convenient: we can paint at anywhere with a stall and draw anything we dare to draw. Generally speaking, we are enjoying more freedom, more possibility and chances of painting and more spacious environment for creation. It seems that the rules for artistic creation have been met and consequently works will come out.  The well-known “F4”, a group of oil painters, were all loafers or artists having resigned from office then, and now their identities have not changed. This might be the only real revolution brought by the reform and opening-up to the artistic environment; to put it bluntly, some painters who are excellent, famous, successful and influential both at home and abroad are no longer professional art workers belonging to the system of the state’s institutions.

Basically speaking, ink and wash paintings have belonged to the Art Academy System for thousands of years, or sometimes the painters are officials who only treat painting as a compulsory job or hobby. Fed by the government, they can develop themselves in an all-round way. With guaranteed living sources, they would never lower themselves like the “post-1989” artists such as “F4”: embarrassed by life, the latter had sold Chinese cabbages at the gate of Peking University and clothes in Xidan Market.

Up till now, few ink and wash works are vivid and substantial or accepted by both laymen and experts, which may be related with the ink-and-wash painters’ circumstances. No one would say uncle without a gun to his head, and one will not be extremely eager for food unless he is going to be starved: money and reputation, everyone wants both.

Many years ago, I did feel anxious and shouted about the stagnating ink-and-wash paintings. However, except for some theorists, few ink-and-wash painters echoed me or had the courage to echo me. Ink and wash paintings are different from oil paintings in that they cannot be improved by introducing in foreign experts, and, further, there are no foreign experts we can turn to. Such paintings are somewhat like ping-pone: everyone knows that China is the best at ping-pone and no foreigners dare to teach it in China. However, the sport of ping-pone needs little room and easy to take, so everyone can try it; in the communities with places for the old to play chess and card or do exercises, we are sure to find people playing ping-pong. Ink and wash paintings, with a history 2000 years longer than oil paintings’, belonged to the Academy; besides, fed by the government, the ink-and-wash painters could only paint for the emperors, the empresses, the eunuchs and the lords. Sometimes the emperor, with strong interest, would paint by himself. What they followed was the rule of class but not that of art. Maybe this is one of the causes why for so many years most of ink and wash paintings have made people uncomfortable without clear reasons.

If an artist is eager to be accepted by the system like a lady who is anxious to get married, he will find the sense of belonging but lose the independent living attitude and viewing angle. Affected by others’ styles, he put his interests and emotions under the control of others. Then after a few years he is probably to become an empiricist with little imagination. Such an artist, who always takes the part as the whole, is just like a dog whose imagination is no longer than its body. How can such a person create satisfying works?

Zhu Wei

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012