Pertinacity just an Attitude
——Dialogue between Wang Jing and Zhu Wei
Wang Jing (hereinafter W): Dispute on ink-and-wash paintings has never stopped. However, it seems that from such dispute people have not found the way in which to improve ink-and-wash paintings. So what is the function of theories for you, a practitioner and artist?
Zhu Wei (hereinafter Z): No achievement is done following the guide of theories which will only show their function after something has finished. For instance, no one dares to write his resume at his birth, and his funeral orations will only be read after his death: theories could only become useful at this time. What I am exploring now is whether ink-and-wash paintings can be contemporary. If I succeed, many people may follow suit; otherwise I will become a lonely loser. Just like if you want to hunt wolves in mountain, people will be bound to give you various advices. Someone may say that it is windy and the wolf may bite your neck from the left-rear, and some others say it will attack you from the right rear. Some may tell you the sun sets early, so the wolf will kowtow to you, lead you to visit its house and give you some grapes upon you leave; while others may say recently the wolf is in good mood and it will help you conform with international practices. Then, do you think a hunter would believe in these words? For thousands of years, ink-and-wash paintings have developed smoothly without serious suffering. However, it came across two big calamities during these dozens of years: one was the May Fourth Movement happened in late Qing Dynasty and early Republic China, and the other was the traditional Chinese painting revolution. During the May Fourth Movement, ink-and-wash paintings were rather controversial, or we can even say they were negated. Indeed, then what people wanted to negate were existing culture, including ink-and-wash paintings, arranged marriages, imperial examinations and Shaman Celebrations. As to the so-called ‘traditional Chinese painting revolution’, bluntly, it was nothing but westernizing ink-and-wash paintings by integrating them with sketches and perspective principles, having made them rather ridiculous and nondescript. Exactly speaking, the latter calamity, in which ink-and-wash paintings have unprecedentedly suffered the most, originated from the inside of artistic circles.
W: You are quite right. In the 20th century, ink-and-wash paintings have been the object of self-questioning rising in intellectual circles for several times. If the self-examination is always done with anxiety and self-blame, people will fall into the trap of habitual thinking and fail to establish the self-recognition, not to say conducting objective literary and art criticism.
Z: For thousands of years, ink-and-wash paintings have played a very important role in China without any disruption, and they remained one part of the mainstream culture in China till the end of Qing Dynasty. Nobody, official or civil, kind or heartless, happy or upset, would express themselves with ink and wash painting. According to Sullivan, a famous western art historian, Chinese art has caused two Sinicization Movements in Europe: one happened in 17th century and the other in 18th century, during which the influence exerted by China on ideology, art and material life in Europe has greatly exceeded that exerted by Europe on China.
For many Chinese people, it is rather unpractical and un-artistic to solve dimension problems with perspective principles of Geometry. In Chinese paintings, there is more than one viewpoint as well as unfixed vision-line perspective towards objects, for which in the same painting, the painter may adopt different viewpoints and perspectives when drawing figures and objects. Then most of artists, official or civil, common or outstanding, would follow the painting rule formulated by Guo Xi, a painter in Song Dynasty, ‘In landscape paintings, mountains should be as high as ten feet, trees should reach one foot, with horses one tenth of foot, and figures one hundredth of foot’, meaning that if the painter has decided to use parallels, then they should not change this way all through to the end.
Castiglione came to China in 1715 when he was 27 years old and died at 78 in China, during which he had served for several emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. Over more than 50 years, he had specialized in ink-and-wash paintings, contributing his life to the combination of Chinese and Western paintings. Kangxi, the emperor then, did not like oil paintings, because they would blur and darken over time. Therefore he ordered European painters in China then, including Castiglione, to learn Chinese fine brush works, drawing on silk fabrics with gelatinous materials. However, later these westerners reported that ink-and-wash paintings were too difficult to learn: during the process of drawing neither revision nor touching-up were allowed; the whole painting would be ruined by even a little hesitation or incorrect use of strength.
It was Castiglione who has made western oil painting accepted by the royal in China at first, and then gained a good opportunity of spreading. It was not until then did Chinese know that paintings could be created in a different way. After the May Fourth Movement, some western forms of art, such as stage play, opera and oil painting, appeared in China, and then China saw Republic China Oil Painting, Russian School Oil Painting, ’85 New Wave Art Movement Oil Painting and Post-1989 Oil Painting. Even now, unexpectedly, what have been taken as mainstream paintings and speculated as Chinese contemporary artistic works are mostly oil paintings. It is hard to say whether we should feel happy or sad: China’s confidence has been lost.
W: Castiglione is an example reflecting the influence of Chinese painting skill exerted on foreign painters. Although he was a visitor who served and had to obey the emperor in Qing Dynasty, somewhat like an employee, what he was doing was the most effective cultural communication. Indeed, the focus-out painting technique had already existed in Chinese painting tradition before it was used by Richter. It originally appeared as an angle of view with which ancient Chinese observed the world, but it was not valued until people saw it in Richter’s works. Indeed, there were a lot of creative ideas in Chinese ancient aesthetic system, which had been formed before modern practices. For instance, ‘even one drop of water contains countless worlds’ put out by Zen just reflects a super-micro perspective.
Z: Unlike Castiglione, Richter has not come to and described modern China with his painting technique of ‘focus-out’ and European perspective principles. However, today’s China is rather different from the one in Qing Dynasty. Now most people think that western oil paintings are brilliant and fashionable, and most of Chinese painters are proficient in drawing these paintings and imitating western painters, with some of them even doing better than the imitated. Then Castiglione was not so free in that what he should draw was determined by the emperor, and all figures must be painted in a flat two-dimensional way without any shadow: ‘paintings must be done by imitating samples’. The sketch of one of his representative works, One Hundred Horses, is still in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Compared with modern Chinese artists specialized in western paintings, Castiglione had also profited from emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong all admired him a lot, and he had always been the imperial painter for his life with a fairly high official position in the court. In his old age, he participated in several big projects such as the design and construction of Changchun Garden in the Old Summer Palace. Besides, he had ever been the leader of Fengchen Garden, the department governing buildings in the imperial palace.
W: By and large, traditional Chinese ink-and-wash painting emphasizes the painter’s self-education and self-improvement, based on the individual’s life experience and emotions. Over years, ink-and-wash paintings are inactive in handling the relationship between individuals and the society and will not face acute social contradictions and issues directly. However, your works created from the end of the 1980s to the 1990s just contained referents to concrete social affairs, while recently they returned to express your inner heart again. What is the reason for such transformation?
Z: What do not face acute social contradictions actively are not ink-and-wash paintings alone, but all forms of art. The so-called contemporary paintings are full of figures with exaggerated expressions, and they are at best literati oil paintings. This has something to do with the entire national culture. Many of my paintings created from the end of 1980s to early 1990s did contain referents to concrete social phenomenon, and I even explored some issues by series of paintings, which have not occurred in the history of Chinese ink-and-wash painting, more or less, this depends on the social change as well as the comparatively relaxed creating environment. Seen from the history of ink-and-wash paintings, figure paintings run contrary to landscape ones. The former are related with and proportional to the richness and enlightening degree of the society. For instance, in Tang Dynasty, figure painters accounted 2/3 of all painters then, while in Northern Song Dynasty 1/5, in Southern Song 1/2, in Yuan Dynasty 1/5, and in Ming Dynasty 1/7; in Qing Dynasty, the proportion was even smaller. In early Qing we could still find landscape painters, such as Shi Tao and Zhu Da, who expressed their emotions by depicting scenery, while till mid and late Qing no such painters remained at all.
W: In the past, political aesthetics was alienated to and rejected the society, and sometimes they were characterized by avoiding the society and political identity. Someone transform realistic social issues into visual forms, considering art as one of measures which can be used to change the society, while some others think that social affairs have nothing to do with art: whether ink-and-wash paintings contain referents to contemporary issues or not, they are still themselves. In my opinion, the core of the wide discussion on the contemporaneity of ink-and-wash painting is whether such paintings should be taken as a tool for presenting realistic problems as well as constructing social system.
Z: Indeed, we should not take whether ink-and-wash paintings can be contemporary as an issue at all, just like foreigners and Chinese people eat different food, which has lasted thousands of years, but we just want to discuss whether such habit is good and reasonable and whether Chinese dish can meet our contemporary needs. Why do we insist on negating ourselves? Does that result from the lack of confidence or other shameful reasons? Have you heard that Europeans usually hold meetings discussing whether oil paintings can become contemporary? If they, just like Chinese do, hesitated to make their decision, would Chinese painters still imitate them so enthusiastically?
The purpose of discussing something is simply deciding whether it should be repaired and reused, or be thrown. We have discussed this issue for years, and what is our purpose?
I quite understand the bad habit rooted deep in Chinese culture: people are impatient, opportunistic and cowardly. These weaknesses can be applied to almost everywhere. By ‘impatient’, I mean we are always dreaming of the appearance of miracle. We are not willing to gain achievement by our own efforts, but holding the fantast that fruits may grow from nowhere one day. I say people are ‘opportunistic’, because what we admire are to win by small probability events and little endeavor. In China, all know Zhuge Liang’s legends such as ‘borrowing arrows with thatched boats’ and ‘showing great wisdom in an empty fort’. People all think that Zhuge Liang is extremely clever. However, we have not ever considered other factors: what if they did not have eastern wind? Then how to keep millions of soldiers from Wu State safe? What if Sima Yi attacked the fort directly without any hesitation? China is a great country, but why don’t we admire something practical? As to ‘cowardly’, I mean we have never dared to pursue what we consider to be correct. Artists are similar to scientists in that they should improve what are at hand and make innovations. In other words, they should make advancement on the solid basis of inheritance; moreover, we must understand thoroughly what we have inherited before we make further steps forward. However, few Chinese artists can accomplish that. In western philosophy, science and culture means accumulation and inheritance, obeying the rules and improving measures for testing and monitoring errors. Now Ink-and-wash paintings descended to such a condition, and nobody is to blame but ourselves. No western contemporary critiques have made any comments on our paintings, and it is we ourselves who are harming them.
W: Here I think it is necessary to talk about the intellectuals. Now artists are not blue-collar works any longer but someone have handled special techniques, which have already made them intellectual elites in the society. Now artists should be thinkers at first. When an artist transforms his judgment on the society into visual presentations and when his works are widely spread, his individual experience and knowledge structure is no longer something of his own. What is your opinion?
Z: One is accumulating knowledge for his lifetime. When living he can make use of knowledge he has acquired, but he cannot bring with him or leave any knowledge, after his death. Existing things will surely be discovered sooner or later. For example, relativity had existed before Einstein put out his Theory of Relativity, and it would not disappear after the scientist’s death. It was possible that others were still studying it but their discovery was made later than Einstein, so they could not announce it. No individual can affect the normal operation of the world, and people will still live well or even better without any figures. There is no Savior in the world, and if somebody says he is, then he must be a liar or ruffian.
W: It sounds a little pessimistic. Then at present how do you, an artist, view intellectuals’ social responsibility?
Z: In my spare time I have considered what I am. I am neither an official nor a merchant, neither a worker nor a farmer, neither a teacher nor a student, and neither a City Management Worker nor a stall-seller. I am no more than a painter. According to categories formulated by administration systems, painters are artists, and artists are literate; being literate means being knowledgeable and those who are knowledgeable can be taken to be intellectuals.
Strictly speaking, there is no real intellectual in China. What is an intellectual? At first, an intellectual is not one who has widely read or who has mastered much professional knowledge: the former is only a movable bookshelf while the latter is only a technician or experienced technician. An intellectual must have equipped with independent spirit, free will and originality. Secondly, intellectuals must be critiques of the society they are living in and opponents of the existing values; they must criticize the society and oppose the existing values. Indeed, we are not even knowledgeable people. There are a lot of things that we do not know and cannot know. We have not found the truth, and then how can we criticize? Not to say criticize as an intellectual.
W: Now let’s come back to your work. Why did you begin to create ‘Red Flags’ series? Do they have ‘political’ ideals? What is the significance of this series to your current creation?
Z: In late 1980s and early 1990s I painted some acute ink-and-wash figure paintings, such as The Story of Beijing series, China Dairy series and Pictures of the Strikingly Bizarre series, which had launched a great influence at that time. My personal ink-and-wash painting exhibition caused a greater sensation than that ‘Post-1989’ collective oil-painting exhibition. Later I read in newspaper that on the opening ceremony there had occurred physical conflicts twice because audience all wanted to view the exhibition earlier and the staff had to settle the problem. Then I was a young man newly graduated with ambitions, and my friends all engaged in rock and roll, with the most inferior one being a Punk, so it was natural that I had infused something special in my paintings. At that time my paintings were finished accompanied with music from Beatles, Rolling Stone and Cui Jian, and I always felt that what I wanted to draw were too many. Now I consider that my works created at that time were full of passion but weak in linguistic expression: I wanted my paintings to contain everything. In one drawing of the Pictures of the Strikingly Bizarre series, I had even inscribed some roll-lyrics and my pager number: now I feel that was really mischievous. After the expiration of my contract with Plum Blossoms Gallery in 2006, I only painted less than ten paintings each year, and this year I plan to create two for Cheng Xindong’s contemporary art exhibition to be held in National Gallery of Cuba. From 2007 to the end of 2008, it took me one year and a half to finish 7 paintings of Red Flags series, during which I had wished to present my ideas in a pure and traditional way with the sense of ancient painters like Wu Daozi and Cao Buxing. However, all appeared in those paintings were politicized in a realistic context. I do not know whether it was my fault, or the audience have formed the habit of associating everything they see to feel crisis in themselves. Now Chinese symbols and icons are repeatedly used, which makes people so fed up, and the root is contemporary artists’ impatient and opportunist attitude. Their works are superficial without profound meanings, and what they wish is to gain great achievements with only a little effort. Now I just want to do something contrary to their deeds.
W: Your working manner has lasted ten more years. Then are there any unexpected factors in your creation? If so, how can you keep balance between your habitual work and the unexpected factors?
Z: There is nothing unexpected at all. If you ponder the same thing every day you will never find anything unexpected. For instance, you have eaten some stuffed buns in a stormy and snowy day, and then burp on the bed at home: at this moment will your find anything unexpected?
Published in the ‘Dialogue’ column of Oriental Art◎Maters, First semimonthly issue of October, 2009