The problem of the direction of Chinese painting has permeated the entire 20th century. Stylistically, modern Chinese painting can be divided into two schools - the traditional school and the mixed school. The traditional school emphasizes the inheritance and development of the Chinese painting tradition in its entirety. It focuses on continuing the pursuit of traditional Chinese painting, and consciously maintains a distance from western artistic forms. Under the influence of the Shanghai school, from the early to mid 20th century Qi Baishi, Pan Tianshou, and Zhang Daqian can be taken as representative of the most acclaimed Chinese painters; Huang Binhong and Li Keran were masters of landscape painting. Qi Baishi was a master directly influenced by Wu Changshuo; but he shifted his painting style in his fifties. This painter who began as an artisan worked on the subject of quotidian birds and flowers throughout his career. He used his own painting style - “drawing ten thousand insects and expressing the spirit of myriad birds” - to summarize his practice. Because his works were popular among the public, he gathered an audience unprecedented in the field of Chinese painting. Qi Baishi also became the most recognized artist in Chinese history. Huang Binhong and Qi Baishi were often referred to as “Southern Huang and Northern Qi”. Qi was influenced by the spirit of the One Hundred Days reform, and realized the principle of “survival for those who are willing to reform” in his art. While following the tradition from their masters, they have also made their own accomplishments. Their paintings have demonstrated the possible renaissance of literati painting and the entire Chinese painting tradition through the exchange between sentiments and ideas as well as, reforms in its artistic language.
Opposed to this is another school consisting of “returned” artists from overseas studies - from the end of the Qing dynasty to the Republican era, there was a group of artists who studied abroad for their professional training in oil painting. These included Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, etc. They returned to China with training in Western composition, and hoped to reform Chinese painting by appropriating the strengths of western art. They felt they could advance and rescue Chinese painting that had been imitating tradition and lacking creativity since the end of the Qing. On the issue of reforming Chinese painting, their thinking and experimentation have had a great impact on the development of Chinese painting throughout the twentieth century. Xu Beihong’s earlier years were spent studying in art academies in Paris. Once he returned, he became an art professor at the Central University; in 1949, he was appointed as the first principal of the Central Academy of Fine Art. Xu Beihong’s stance on realist painting provided the direction of art education in the 1950’s for all art academies. “Sketching and drawing from life” became the foundation for education in and creation of Chinese painting. This has had a direct influence on the creative practice of Chinese painting even today. Looking at his works, Xu Beihong’s views of art were related to his own concern for observing reality, bemoaning the state, and pitying the fate of mankind and nation. Lin Fengmian’s personality, on the other hand, is somewhat tender - it is very rare to discover a distinct creative intent in his works, rather he took the desired impression and creative interest as his primary factors. At the same time, in rendering his subjects and executing color effects, Lin had clearly absorbed techniques from western oil painting. In his writing of The Future of Eastern and Western Art, Lin Fengmian pointed out, “In Western art practices, the construction of form leans toward the subjective. This leads to formal inadequacy and a lack of emotional expression … whereas in art of the East, the metaphysical tends to be subjective, and due to the inadequacy of form there is often a lack of expressing what needs to be conveyed emotionally. Art is degraded to a leisure activity meant to exhaust time.”
The constant reform in Western contemporary art has brought about a revolution of stylistic language at the formal level, however in the wave of formal revolution, there has also been change in ideology and spirit, in attitudes towards life and values. In the latter half of the twentieth century, most artists were “confused” and in the exploratory stage in regards to the future of Chinese painting. For instance, artists like Qi Baishi, Huang Binhong, Li Keran peaked creatively around the 1950’s and 1960’s, the “seventeen years” between the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the eruption of the “Cultural Revolution”. This was one of the most active periods for the art world since the founding of the People’s Republic.
However, in the chronology of the progress of Chinese painting since the founding of the PRC, the so-called “leftist” and “rightist” extreme art waves hindered and distorted the evolution of Chinese painting, moreover, the ‘movements’ that erupted during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution at all levels of Chinese society affected many artists’ creative practice. At the end of the Qing dynasty, the Shanghai school gained its success through the market, whereas from the mid-50’s to the 1980’s, Chinese painting primarily served as a tool for political purposes. During this period, many artists of Chinese painting shifted their focus to landscape painting that did not easily spark conflict or debate, whether intentionally to escape or simply part of their instinctive pursuit of art. In the fifties and sixties, schools representing the new landscape emerged in large numbers, for instance, the Jiangsu school represented by Fu Baoshi and Qian Songyan, the Chang’an school represented by five artists including Shi Lu, Zhao Wangyun, and He Haixia, and the rebirth of the Lingnan school represented by its second generation artists like Li Xiongcai, and Guan Shanyue, etc.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the development of Chinese art history was mostly studied according to historical period. In July 1949, the first conference of cultural representatives was held in Beijing. During the conference, the National Association of Art Workers was founded. Premier Zhou Enlai proposed the editing of former art and literature according to Mao Zedong’s thoughts on art and literature. In the inaugural issue of People’s Art in 1950, a series of essays were published to promote “The Movement of New Chinese Painting - The Movement to Reform Chinese Painting”. In the early 1950’s, fierce discussion revolved around how to “promote the old and invent the new” in Chinese painting. This caused a clamor of national nihilism, and changed the name of Chinese painting to “ color and ink painting”. In the early stages of the founding of the republic, the fate of “reformed” Chinese painting influenced people’s understanding of the national art tradition. Confronted with the tumult of history, the future of Chinese painting in the new era became a chronic disease infecting the art world.
1978 was an important year in Chinese history. On May 11, the Guangming Daily issued a special editorial entitled “Experimentation is the Only Standard to Test the Truth”. At the CCP’s Third Plenary session at the 11th Conference of the Central Committee held in December 1979, the working focus toward the building of modernization was reestablished, marking the end of the extreme “leftist” political line that had characterized the Cultural Revolution. This was the beginning of the emancipation of Chinese society. From the late 1980’s, Chinese ink painting began to ride the wave of reform, its initial motivation came from the influence of artists from the classical tradition who were living in a rapidly changing Chinese society, and whose feelings and actual environment differed from masters of the past. At a more profound level, it was due to the present being out of sync with tradition - Chinese painting needed to expand with diversity from within to respond to the impact of the dominant western culture. In 1992, the artist Wu Guanzhong published a short piece entitled “Brush and Ink are Zero” in the Mingbo Weekly in Hong Kong, sparking the most intense discussion on the value of Chinese ink painting in recent years and stirring up waves in the art world. This was an essay written after Wu’s discussion with professor Wan Qingli from the Art Department of Hong Kong University on the topic of brush and ink. Wang Qingli responded to this essay with “No Brush and No Ink Equates to Zero”, following which, many artists and critics such as Guan Shanyue, Wang Bomin, Lang Shaojun, Liu Xiaochun, and Qu Mo became involved in the discussion. Such a debate on the already quite rigid issue of brush and ink in Chinese painting did not yield any effective impulses, but evoked more thinking about how Chinese painting can overcome its formulaic setbacks.