Oriental Art. Chinese Painting, January, 2012, p.1-2, p.10-53
By Li Xiaoshan
Without doubt, Zhu Wei and his work have become a mirror of contemporary Chinese art. Zhu Wei has penetrated the depths of reality with his extraordinary wit and sharpness, and opened a new door for the public to acquaint themselves with Chinese contemporary art through his works, which are lively and rich in visual tension. I have written an article which focuses on the following observation: the reason why Zhu Wei reigns supreme in the Chinese contemporary art scene is that, unlike other short-sighted artists who sacrifice their artistic ideal as a result of temptations of all sorts, Zhu Wei kept raising his artistic platform until it reached a height which is unsurpassed by others. Amazingly, he might be subtle and introverted in temperament, yet in art he is like a fighter charging ahead, seizing a foothold in the various fields of ink painting, printmaking and sculpture. Some of his works are already classics of our time, assuming an unchallengeable historical position. If my prediction is right, these works shall become monuments of artistic creation.
As an artist, a contemporary Chinese artist in particular, many complicated factors have been transformed outwardly into the set design behind the work. People seem to enjoy and be enamored of the ornaments in the set. To quote Li Xianting: “What is important is not the art” - but what is? Many years ago I was involved in a discussion with several art critics about some strange phenomena in Chinese contemporary art. We all came to the conclusion that, because of outside disturbances and inborn anaemia, our artists generally suffer from malnutrition; not because they lack talent or have devoted too little effort; it would certainly be unfair to ask that they strive to make up their inborn limitations. If at all there is a problem with the artists, it’s because the soil which nurtures them is barren. The limitations are pre-set and it’s not difficult to trace the root-cause of all kinds of narrations. Still, there is an exception to everything and a few members of the cream of China’s contemporary art scene seem to possess a kind of self-sufficiency. This element of self-sufficiency is rooted in their genius and vision, which transports them beyond pre-set limitations.
One day, some years ago, I had a chat with Zhu Wei about the relation between the fame of an artist and artistic creation, and I discovered, to my surprise, how low-keyed he is. Then I remembered someone once told me Zhu Wei is an interesting subject - one can always uncover something out of the ordinary from him. I have received material on him, from the artist himself, in which there is no lack of records of excellence. Yet I could see his effort in trying to conceal those records. Westerners like to say that your character is your fate. Many people do not know how to treat their fate; Zhu Wei never flaunts his achievement or outlines a grand panorama of his vision for the future. To quote him, he just “labours silently like a hard-working farmer.”
In the grip of summer heat Zhu Wei arrived in Nanjing on a tour. During our conversation we hit on the idea of recording the content of our casual chat. Should something worthwhile emerge, we would compile it into a collection of dialogues on art and life. The dialogue went on for nine days and basically our thoughts and positions conveyed in the process were well captured in the recording. We titled the recording ‘Talk of Nine Days’ to give it a temporal dimension. It was perhaps the first time Zhu Wei had delved deep into things he seldom had touched on in ordinary life, and I discovered a passion in him for the expression of feelings hidden underneath his linguistic simplicity and self-repression. Despite his low-keyed style and unwillingness to get into verbal flourish, I believe I captured his linguistic buoy. His talent and perseverance are illustrated not only in his paintings - he has an immense inner strength which is amazing.
In his discussion of the artistic traits of artists, Taine emphasized: “There is a ‘family’ behind all the artists.” To me it means no artist can avoid a certain inherent restraint on him/her. I discovered an interesting fact in my reading of some of the critiques of Zhu Wei by critics outside China: these critics (including art curators) inevitably hold a common stand in their interpretation of contemporary Chinese art - they try their very best to crack the ‘secret political code’ hidden in the work of Chinese artists; with thoughts turned to a political linkage even in seemingly ordinary scenes or depictions. I think the political interest in the Chinese artists has obviously been exaggerated - even demonized - by some Westerners. Yet, from an ideological and psychological perspective, this phenomenon is enhanced by a relationship of mutual dependence. Zhu Wei’s art is the product of this age and, to quote Taine again, a member of the “family”. The question is: can we find artistic expressions that are deeper in nature, given the fact that all are typical works of the same age? What’s contained in some representative works of Zhu Wei is neither a statement nor cynicism or play; its implications are different from ‘political pop’. Here I would like to add that there is often a basis to the political complex of the Chinese artists, whose thread is clearly discernable. Prompted by a desire to give vent to personal feelings, artists are unanimously attracted to common subjects and themes; the effect of the‘family’ is evident. In handling his subjects, Zhu Wei skillfully turns a certain collective unconsciousness into a unique personal viewpoint. In his work he ingeniously interweaves his childhood dreams with real-life circumstances, constructing a virtual reality that runs parallel to life; a reality that is filled with all sorts of contradictory contrasts which dissolve unenthusiastically into harmony, and which mirrors a pain in the depths of his spirit. At the same time, the pain reflects his genuine concern for society and humanity.
Zhu Wei has repeatedly emphasized to me the essence of “humanity” rather than the so-called “political complex”. As far as the issue of humanity is concerned, specific concern can be demonstrated only within the scope of a specific linguistic context, since there is no pure, abstract humanity. However, his concern for humanity makes Zhu Wei more mature than his contemporaries. Zhu Wei does not explicitly reveal the ‘humanity’ aspect but keeps his feelings condensed at the level of sensibilities which, for an artist, happens to be a solid and effective gesture. I wish to elaborate that ‘humanity’ in the eyes of Zhu Wei is interpreted variedly from the lengthy and laborious one offered by the intellectuals. He approaches it from the soil of existence stripped of all frills. Humanity is pervasive while political complex changes with time. That Zhu Wei is able to deepen his themes on the basis of humanity is a crafty act. I have seen quite a large number of Zhu Wei’s works and realized that the myriad themes are but contours of expressions for him; what lies at the core of these works is his superb grasp of man’s situation in life. Be it a work that impresses outwardly as politically-inclined or one that reflects his personal experiences, the common thread which runs through them is evident.
Ink painting is the main medium utilized by Zhu Wei, who has also created a considerable number of sculptures and prints. Wherever one might find his ink pieces, it is obvious, from motif to expressiveness; the artist has exploited to the full the expressive powers of the medium. One might say that in his hands ink painting is no longer an art medium but a deft mother-tongue, a tool which he wields to perfection. I have seen too many shoddy works and works which showcase petty acts; there are indeed many painters around us who win fame and fortune by gimmicky feats; such a trend tends to threaten, to erode, all the artists inside the circle. Zhu Wei doesn’t mind if he is considered an insider or not - he counters the erosion almost by a kind of self-exile. His ink paintings are much sought after by a considerable number of collectors, but I think few among them truly comprehend the meaning of his works. I have written an article titled From Chinese Painting to Ink in which I state that the change in concept is actually a change in standpoint. The endless debates on ‘Chinese Painting’ are due to the ambiguity in concept, while ‘Ink’ is a medium. Hence it is highly flexible, in terms of the scope and form of its expression. Zhu Wei doesn’t care much for the kind of expressive (xie yi) ink paintings which are casually composed, and rejects others which are shabbily painted on the spur of the moment. An American researcher of Chinese art history has asserted that the rise of the expressive (xie yi) painting halted the development of Chinese art history. Putting aside the issue of whether this is bigotry, his judgment was formed on account of the phenomenon he observed. Chinese painters are fond of saying “One should follow the spirit of the ancients and not their way.” This rather reverses the correct order of things. From the works of many contemporary artists one can see that much of the way of the ancients has been used with the “spirit” thrown to the wind. Zhu Wei makes no bones about his love of gongbi (fine-lined traditional style) painting. In his work, the mode of gongbi as a form of expression serves to bring out the idea and atmosphere of his imagery. His use of line, colour and texture shows continuity of the traditional practice, but because his conceptualization originates from reality, a flavour of contemporary time is palpable in his works. In the creation of imagery I would say he has surpassed the ancients. And I must again emphasize the contemporary flavour of his imagery - note that many contemporary artists love to resort to the externalization of self-image, but in Zhu’s work, its handling has become a symbol of the times. Many years later, the images in his painting shall be the visual code with which people can distinguish our era.
At one time there were heated discussions among Chinese art critics about the limitations of the expressive power of ink painting, which obviously runs counter to the present situation of contemporary art. Take Zhu Wei for example: whether ink painting, printmaking or sculpting, genre and medium are of no significance - when the time is ripe an artist will give life to whatever form of art when spurred by a creative impulse. The prints of Zhu Wei take on the characteristics of his ink painting: abbreviated, pure and simple, and full of visual tension. Furthermore, the nature of the print material serves to enhance the form quality of his imagery. Zhu Wei’s sculptures are scattered in various regions outside of China, which makes it difficult for the mainland viewers to view them. I have told Zhu Wei that sculpture is quite an impressive component of his repertoire and that I would like to invite him to participate in a forth-coming exhibition of architecture and sculpture which I am planning. I think the fact that Zhu’s works have captured the fancy of overseas organizations and individual collectors also gives an international dimension to his art, and adds a demonstrative value to it.
Dictated by his habits and predilections, Zhu Wei moves forward, step-by-step, remaining as low-keyed and earthy as he has always been. I have reasons to believe that he is growing and heading for his zenith, and that of our times. Today, more and more people have a clear view of his gigantic stature. This is the triumph of time - just like they say: “Time is the final judge.”
Born in 1957, Li Xiaoshan is one of the leading characters of Chinese contemporary art. His articles and activities has already been an important part of Chinese contemporary art history. His major publications include: History of Modern Chinese Painting, Attitude toward Criticism & Translation, The New China, Provocation In A Battlefield and What We Are Facing. Now he is the director of Graduate School of Contemporary Art (Nanjing Arts Institute) and Nanjing Square Museum of Contemporary Art.
Tradition into Reality
Date: December 15, 2011
Venue: Zhu Wei's Studio
People: Zhu Wei, Deng Xin
Deng Xin (hereinafter referred to as Deng): In recent years, the term of "contemporary ink and wash" frequently appears in domestic exhibitions or seminars of art, and various opinions linger in our ears. Currently, we should say that the contemporary ink and wash is relatively popular--some art galleries began to collect them and some collectors started to treat them as investment orientation. However, no one can tell the future of "contemporary ink and wash" for sure. What do you think of this phenomenon?
Zhu Wei (hereinafter referred to as Zhu): Whatever form the "contemporary ink and wash" takes to appear is no surprise. That proved the return and people's recognition of local painting pattern. We have realized its value, which means that we started to have a little confidence in our own cultures, including traditional cultures.
Deng: We have finally found the long lost confidence in local art in culture after China's economic power significantly increased. Over the 30 years since reform and opening up, the changes of political, economic and cultural environments have influenced and promoted the development of Chinese paintings. In the 1980s, the initial period of the reform and opening up, under the influence of western culture, Chinese traditional cultures and thoughts went through the impacts of westernization trend, which made it share similarity with the May 4th New Cultural Movement; in the 1990s, with the deepening of the reform, art creations began to pay attention to the combination of real life, local culture's return and cultural identity's identification; that trend continued in the first decade of the 20th century. Chinese contemporary ink and wash has developed for 30 years. As an ink and wash painter, how do you feel about it?
Zhu: In the recent hundred years, China had been influenced by various kinds of capitalism and socialism thoughts, theories and economic development modes from the west, including the Soviet Union, which fiercely hit the Chinese society again and again. Up till now, none of the things around us, including the days we are living, is developed by ourselves or inherited from our ancestors. The May 4th Movement was just a little beginning and latter several movements were much more violent and consistent with some even lasted for a decade. Such a most resolute and complete self-denial spirit could be found nowhere else in any other country. Sooner or later, history would ask: what kind of people are we? Who we really are?
Deng: Contemporary ink and wash changed the standardized expression methods of traditional ink and wash, representing diversified features: in the aspect of content, they strive to show vivid social life and emotion, which is at pace with the time; in technique, they are more tolerant in the requirements of brushstroke and materials; in visual aspect, the pictures carry more messages. In the above mentioned aspects, diversification promoted the development of Chinese paintings.
Zhu: The biggest difference between contemporary ink and wash and traditional one is that the former has got rid of the influences of court paintings and literati paintings, no more focusing on individuals, groaning, whining and way too emotional. Instead, they have become involved in the development process of society, with flesh and blood, tear and laughter and understanding of you and me.
Deng: Contemporary ink and wash is no longer just about individual thoughts expressed by literati painters, but they pay more attention to the real problems in society and are closer to life. In your works from the 1990s to present, there are both realism and expressionism colors fully displayed. Can you talk about your feelings?
Zhu: First, I want to make it clear that there are no literati or literati painting in China after several disconnected social periods but only people who look like literati or paintings similar to literati paintings. It's definitely impossible for literati or literati paintings to suddenly appear among the generations after 1980s and 1990s. That may happen after several decades. Then, we are lucky to live in this turbulent era, though it's not easy to live, we are all witnesses of the history. As an artist, it's my duty to record and portrait the social evolution precisely. I've never painted a painting that is free from the social reality and I can't.
Deng: Traditional ink and wash emphasize aesthetic cultivation and hard work, and may even require the accumulation of "reading ten thousand books and walking ten thousand miles". While contemporary ink and wash put more stress on the pictures' visual effects and tension, and maybe less on lines, the quality of ink color and the approach in seal. Personally, I believe artists should keep their culture bottom line while doing art creations. Should contemporary ink and wash be rooted in tradition? Please talk about your opinions.
Zhu: Bottom line is out of the question. What you said are the basic requirements on a painter. It's not even important where the ink and wash are rooted. First of all, you need to make sure your painting is ink and wash. Secondly, you need to have confidence in the ink and wash you are drawing. You can't force yourself.
Deng: Are there any painters in Chinese painting history that have influenced you?
Zhu: Fan Kuan, Shi Tao and Zhu Da.
Deng: Many painters try to build fancy effects with materials in this material-rich era. From the 1990s to now, it seems that you have never changed your painting materials. You kept using rice paper, writing brush, Chinese painting pigment in creating the boneless meticulous paintings combining traditional culture and contemporary life. Compared to ink and wash, is that way more suitable to represent the nowadays social life? In the painting process, are there also problems in technique to solve?
Zhu: Drawing ink and wash has already become part of my life and a life style. I keep thinking about the possibilities of transforming all the visual pictures and images that I see every day into ink and wash. It's your patience that counts in the drawing process. It requires hard work and total concentration if you want to draw well. In a word, once you get distracted, the paintings are ruined.
Deng: In the 1990s, " Political Pop" was an important contemporary painting style in China, which was recognized by the international market then. You created quite a lot of influential representative works, and there were many great figures and soldiers painted among them. Does that have something to do with your soldier family background and your soldier life for more than ten years? Is it a coincidence in subject matter or you purposely did it?
Zhu: I was an artist of the same generation with those post-89 artists, among whom there were only two people reached out to the world with ink and wash. One was me, and the other was Wei Dong, who also draws meticulous ink and wash. We share the same subject matter and style. Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun and Wang Guangyi signed the Hanart Gallery; Wei Dong and I signed the Plum Blossoms Gallery; Yang Shaobin and Yue Minjun signed the Schoeni Art Gallery in the same year.
Deng: In early 1990s, contemporary ink and wash were still at the edge of the whole contemporary art circles. Under the context of globalization, Chinese painters realized the importance of culture identity. The local culture roots are indispensable in the identification of culture identity. As one of the earliest internationalized painters, did you ever encounter that problem?
Zhu: Yes. At that time, we appeared more as the weak and refugee. Being weak to call for sympathy and it didn't come to the level of cultural similarities and differences. I remember in a big individual ink and wash exhibition held abroad in 1994, I signed man's names after the ladies' and that brought me applauses, which means the artist from mainland China at least has the basic civilization and is unexpectedly a man of humane.
Deng: Maybe your work is based on your interests. Besides painting, you also finished many prints and sculpture works. Rock music became an indispensable part of your life in the 1990s and the series work named after the original song Eggs Left Over by the Red Flag written by old friend Cui Jian came into being. In China's art circles, few artists take various kinds of creations at the same time, and surely, it has something to do with personal energy and talent.
Zhu: In the ancient times, the people who draw ink and wash loved to make inscriptions after drawing, for their calligraphy are good and they are really talented. Sometimes, they would also take a shower, play an instrument, compose a piece of music or write some lyrics, etc, which are called refined interests or icing on the cake. I can't do all those things, but I can do the things that the ancient people had never been able to see, such as using computer, playing guitar, making MV or sculpture, etc, which may also be referred to as refined interests hundreds of years later.
I grew up listening to revolution songs and then rock music. I have more friends playing rock music than those who paint. I love rock music because they have to reflect reality. I always sign my paintings with rock music lyrics. Revolution songs influenced us and we in turn influenced them, and through our unremitting effort, rock music finally took place of the revolution songs.
The subject matters of all my works are realistic ones that criticize the reality. I did what the intellectuals should do incidentally with the passion of youth.
Deng: The transformation from revolution songs to rock music witnessed the transition of cultures. Your paintings reflected many social reality problems, among which there are also critical and cynical implications. In that point, they are consistent with Chinese rock music's spirits. Then, during the 20 years of Chinese rock music history, they absorbed the nutrition of traditional culture and customs in its development process. Being critical and rebelling, they are also embodied with idealism colors. They revealed various kinds of problems like culture stance, values and human nature in China's modernization process. You witnessed the development of Chinese rock music. Can you talk about its current development situation?
Zhu: Chinese rock music directly influenced my creations for decades. Like what I said in their seminars, its rebelling spirits are still there but not its idealism colors. It's becoming more and more internationalized, that is to say, increasingly losing its Chinese flavor.
Deng: Since you ended the contract with the Plum Blossoms Gallery, your painting creations had been remained at the state of stagnation or rest. When do you plan to start new creations?
Zhu: I cooperated with the Plum Blossoms Gallery for 14 years. It was my worldwide exclusive agent. I continued drawing from 26 to 41 and completed our contract satisfactorily, and that was a happy art creation period of my life. Up till now, I haven't painted anything for 4 or 5 years. I will resume painting in 2012, for there are several big exhibitions to be held and contracts are signed already.
Deng: Would you continue your old series or do you have any new ideas?
Zhu: I will change neither my creating ideas nor my techniques.
Using the Past to Serve the Present --Traditional Elements in the Art of Zhu Wei
By Alfreda Murck
Zhu Wei is famously a painter of political and social subjects who regularly draws on motifs from traditional Chinese painting. He juxtaposes ancient and unmistakably modern figures to offer reflections on Chinese life and society from the perspective of the era of reform and opening that began in the early 1980s. He also works with traditional media, but evolved his own ways of using them. There are clear connections to the period of the Cultural Revolution and quotations from the art of the imperial past marshaled to tell stories of the more recent past. The mood is gently ironic. Cadres in their Mao jackets and motifs from Song or Yuan dynasty paintings seem equally distant in both being part of history. Zhu Wei’s art reflects a culture and society that have changed dramatically, so we are prompted to ask: what is enduring in Chinese culture? And how we are to understand China’s history over the second half of the twentieth century?
Zhu Wei’s most recent work is a series of paintings under the title “Vernal Equinox,” which carries his art in a new direction. In “Vernal Equinox No. 3” (Fig. 1) weightless figures levitate against an undefined ground amid flowers and leaves. Their faces are impassive, but variously register glum indifference, distress, surprise, or satisfaction. Hands are tucked into pockets or folded into sleeves recalling the idea of passively “looking on with folded arms.” Scale varies, but not consistently enough to indicate recession or space. Hair whooshes up as though the figures are dropping, or blowing in the breeze like seeds of germinating trees. Looking rather like untethered balloons, the figures are unconnected, neither looking at each other or at us. At the lower left, a branch of peach blossoms in luxuriant bloom is larger than any of the figures and anchors the painting. This is a quotation from an anonymous small round fan of the Southern Song (960-1278), here painted much larger and on paper instead of silk (Fig. 2). On the left and right borders are impressions of large seals, deployed in the manner of collectors’ inventory seals, half on the painting and half on a now-missing mounting. One legend is “www,” an incomplete website address. In most of the paintings, we see the characters Zhu Wei, cut in half vertically. These are interspersed with smaller seals, with such legends as “Eight or Nine Out of Ten” (Shi you ba jiu), “Zhu Wei Authentication Seal” (Zhu Wei yin jian), or “www zhuweiartden com.” There is typically a small signature in a variant of ancient script that recalls the carved inscriptions on Northern Wei stele or the so-called lacquer script of Jin Nong ().
The series title reminds that it is spring and these floating figures may be falling in love. It is the traditional motif of the thickly blossoming peach blossoms that confirms the romantic connection. The poet Tao Qian (365-427) gave peach blossoms a measure of fame when he wrote the “Peach Blossom Spring Preface” about a remote valley far from the strife of a war-torn world. In later centuries peach blossoms were increasingly associated with sensual pleasure such as in the popular seventeenth century play Peach Blossom Fan. In Vernal Equinox No. 1, while peach blossoms communicate romance, the individual experience is inequitable. Some figures float in contentment; earth-bound figures are left merely to think about love, to dwell on memories or longings. The “Vernal Equinox” theme will cause some Chinese viewers to think of Dong Wenhua’s song “1992—Another Spring.” The song was inspired by Deng Xiaoping’s well-publicized southern tour that symbolically announced renewed efforts to carry forth economic and social reforms. The “new spring” led to the closing of unprofitable factories and the loss of certainty for many citizens. The “Vernal Equinox” series will have many more images. When it is complete, we may have a better idea of how these individual stories are resolved.
Like many of Zhu Wei’s works in recent years, the “Vernal Equinox” paintings are patinated and the colors made more nuanced by rinsing and further working the painting surface. How does Zhu Wei achieve this distinctive effect? Early in his painting career, Zhu Wei elected to work in the traditional media of soft-haired brush, ink and paper. He, however, manipulates them in unconventional ways. The mulberry-bark paper, which is made in Anhui province to his specifications, has to be strong and resilient to hold up under the repeated soakings. He antiques the paper by brushing on a mustard-colored wash. The paper being treated lies on a wooden grid or nubby carpet which creates interesting patterns as pigments puddle in the hollows of indentations. Zhu Wei keeps watch as the paper dries, sometimes soaking up or washing off unwanted pigments. He carefully considers the elements that will best express his thoughts, distilling designs from multiple sketches. For the key persona, model sketches (fenben 粉本) are made. The model sketch allows him to shift the figures around, to multiply them (the characters often appear in pairs), and to recombine them in different contexts. With the main elements in place, lines are inked with a traditional brush. In the modern era, because Chinese characters are written with pens, pencils and computers, the soft brush is no longer a necessity of daily life, but a aesthetic exercise. Zhu Wei inks such lines as are needed with a deft and light touch. The forms are primarily formed with color washes in both vivid and muted tones. Before finalizing the eyes and hair, he rinses the paper under the tap, crunching the painting here and there. It is a process that takes finesse, experience and a little courage because, more than once, the paper has given way, spoiling the painting. Despite the risk, it seems worth doing as the results are intriguing: an antiqued surface, mottled and cracked, with a distinctive texture and depth. The relatively slow pace at which he produces art, recalls the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu’s description of a contemporary who simply could not be rushed: “Ten days to paint a pine tree, five days to paint a rock.” This observation could equally apply to Zhu Wei’s preparation of materials and compositions.
Enhancing the connection with dynastic Chinese painting are the seals mentioned above and Zhu Wei’s calligraphy. He inscribes and signs his paintings in a distinctive hand that is inspired by the clerical script (li shu) of the third to first centuries BCE. When the inscriptions are written in white on vertical black panels, they form strong graphic elements in the composition and resemble the calligraphy on archaeologically-excavated wooden or bamboo slips. At other times the vertical rows seem to float like propaganda slogans that, during Zhu Wei’s youth, hung from balloons at major gatherings.
Zhu Wei’s art has been shaped by the unique circumstances of his age and life experience. Growing up in an army household, Zhu Wei was an impetuous youth with little inclination to do his parents’ bidding. In 1982 at age sixteen he enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army. At the time, the status of the army was in momentary decline. During the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, the PLA had enjoyed high position due to its having preserved China from devolving into a full-fledged civil war in 1967-1968. As the only government organization reliably loyal to the Central Government, the PLA had restored order after the chaos unleashed by the Red Guards. From the summer of 1968, the PLA was directing the Cultural Revolution with Mao’s wife Jiang Qing serving as the PLA’s cultural impresario. The arrest in 1976 of Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four (characters who would later appear in his paintings) and their conviction in 1981, tarnished the military’s heroic reputation. The momentous redirection of government policy to economic reform and engagement with the outside world further diminished the role of the army. Because his father was a soldier, Zhu Wei was aware of this shift in perception, but, given his interest in art, enlisting in the army trumped the alternative of following his mother into medicine.
After three years as a regular enlistee, Zhu was admitted to the PLA Art Academy in the Haidian district of Beijing, and his enthusiasm for all things visual was put to the test. The training was both rigorous and tedious. One exercise was to practice drawing lines and circles with a rolled up paper tube. The tip of the tube had to be inked just so. The arm had to be suspended above the paper; leaning an elbow on the table resulted in an uneven line. Too much pressure and the hollow tube would crunch and bend. Hours of drawing lines and circles with a squishy paper tube drove some young minds to distraction. If one lasted, then the discipline took hold and eventually provided precision, deftness of touch, patience, and a sense of pride. The study of approved literature and political thought provided another strand for Zhu Wei’s art: the poetry of Mao Zedong (1893-1976), and the recitation of official slogans such as Art must serve the people, The past should serve the present, Hold high the great red banner, Implement the Four Modernizations. At the same time, the restrictive atmosphere of the military encouraged day-dreaming and the creation of an imaginative world. Because of his decade-long association with the PLA, when he began painting, soldiers and officials frequently appear in his works as well as the mind-numbing tedium of meetings. Graduating from the Art Academy in 1989, Zhu drew an assignment that was not to his liking, so he turned to what would become a second major influence in his art, film.
In 1990 he enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy for three years and began to assemble in memory hundreds of classic films. At the end of 1992, in anticipation of completing the course and having to make a living, Zhu Wei began to think about painting as a career. For what he had to say, painting was the language with which he was most competent. The art of film making, however, gave him a unique perspective. The framing of many paintings resonates with a film shot or a full-screen close up; some compositions bear a resemblance to story boards, or to movie sets. More importantly, film informed the way that Zhu thought about painting as narration. He conceived of his paintings in terms of allegory and story telling. In any given series, the paintings communicate with each other like scenes in a film or like a succession of frames. However striking they are individually, the paintings are more revealing in aggregate. They are less like a traditional narrative handscroll, or a series of album leaves, and closer in mood to a sequence of film clips.
Popular culture contributed further contemporary influences. Elements from novels, plays and rock music appear in his paintings. Zhu Wei was captivated by the immediacy of rock music. Cui Jian, one of the key figures of China’s new music scene, wrote lyrics that became Zhu Wei’s text, providing inspiration for images and inscriptions. In the regular patterning of bars and bold ink dots in the series “Descended from the Red Flag” or “Story of sister Zhao,” one can sense the insistent beat of rock music.
CLASSICAL ALLUSIONS and ILLUSIONS
When Zhu Wei considers pictures of China’s rich visual past, he gravitates to the art of the imperial painting academies, especially the idealized realism of Song dynasty painting. His incorporation of traditional motifs from court works, however, does not mean that Zhu Wei could have won a position in an imperial painting academy. In dynastic China, serving as a court artist required not only technical facility, but also a certain disposition, a willingness to paint whatever the court required. Under emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1125) rigorous examinations were instituted to select painters. In skill and imagination, Zhu Wei would have passed with ease. More difficult would have been the requirement to conform to a style specified by the court. As one mid-twelfth century author wrote:
What was esteemed at that time was formal likeness alone. If anyone had personal attainments and could not avoid being expressive or free, then it would be said that he was not in accordance with the rules or that he did not continue the heritage of a master.
One suspects that Zhu Wei would not have made the cut, for although he paints with the precision and meticulous techniques of an academy painter, his style is uniquely his own. Zhu Wei is gifted and disciplined but also opinionated. During the reign of Emperor Huizong’s father Shenzong (r. 1068-1085) artists were recommended to the court rather than selected by examination and his father was more tolerant. After Emperor Shenzong ascended the throne, a famous painter named Cui Bai (active second half 11th c.) was summoned to court at the beginning of the Xining reign (1068-1077). Biographies relate that although Cui Bai was an exceptional painter, he was said to be overly casual and unable to fulfill his responsibilities. By circumstance and inclination, Zhu Wei has a bit of the independent personality of a Cui Bai.
While Song dynasty court painting has the greatest drawing power for Zhu Wei, his taste is admirably eclectics. He reveres Fan Kuan’s monumental landscape of about 1000 CE, Traveling among Streams and Mountains (hanging scroll, Taipei Palace Museum) with its breathtaking scale. He esteems the court paintings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, such as Water Studies by the court painter Ma Yuan (active ca. 1190-1230, handscroll, Beijing Palace Museum) and the Flower Basket by Li Song (active ca. 1190-1230) with its precise brushwork and balanced use of strong colors (Fig. 3). Zhu Wei is a particular fan of the work of the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911) individualists Zhu Da (Bada Shanren, 1626-1705) and Shitao (1642-1707), both of whom were descendents of the Ming dynasty imperial clan. Their idiosyncratic works defined life-long struggles to create identity and find acceptance under Manchu rule. In the dangerous world of the early Qing dynasty, when Ming loyalist generals were still battling Manchu forces, both Bada Shanren and Shitao hid their imperial lineage and were guarded in making friends. Bada’s paintings of birds and fish show a keen awareness of the dangers lurking in relationships. His birds anxiously eye each other, alert to hidden agendas (Fig. 4). This sense of caution informs the cast of characters that people Zhu Wei’s paintings and, beyond body language, it is the eyes that communicate emotions. While some appear self-satisfied or tolerant, many are watchful, wary, and still others are resigned, bitter, or vindictive. They all seem to be negotiating their way through social mine fields, careful not to misstep. The series of paintings of children performing on a tightrope is evocative of the paranoia that typified the aftermath of the era of class struggle in 1990s China. The children have the anxious expressions of kids who are accustomed to being punished but are not sure why. Earnestly concentrating on finding the right balance, they strive to please with a good performance.
His well-known series titled “Utopia” features huge heads on sturdy bodies participating in official meetings. In a sequence of as many as fifty paintings, party members listen with respect, with boredom, sometimes dutifully taking notes with stubby fountain pens. Because Zhu Wei has sat through many of these meetings, his portrayals are sympathetic for he knows what it is to struggle to keep attention. Small details are entertaining: a People’s Representative has an ear stud suggesting punk leanings; a large worm hole in a robust banana plant hints that it is past its prime. The meetings feature huge red flags and a cheerful floral display of the sort that graces the dais at every formal gathering (Fig. 5). The basket of flowers adapted from the Li Song album leaf of figure four fits well as an emblem of the modern court. The vivid fresh flowers form a contrast with the grizzled, vacuous, or attentive faces listening to the drone of speeches that will reveal the new party line.
Juxtaposition of polychrome realism and artful criticism is not new to the twentieth century. In Chinese painting history, although the writing brush was the implement of choice for scholars wishing to hint at discontent, vivid color was also employed to lodge silent complaints, especially in vegetable and flower paintings. Here “realism” does not mean fidelity to the phenomenological world but rather to psychological reality, the truth that is found in Zen Buddhist and literati monochrome ink painting.
Mixing ancient and modern elements often results in humorous and ironic pictures. In The Trials of a Long Journey No. 2 of 1994, for example, there is a visual quotation from the twelfth century handscroll The Night Revels of Han Xizai (Beijing Palace Museum, attributed to Gu Hongzhong of the tenth century). The Night Revels was said to have been commissioned to record the rakish Minister Han Xizai’s evening soirees. In the Song dynasty handscroll, the women provide the full-range of entertainment from music and dance to sexual favors. In the background of Zhu Wei’s painting, one sees a pair of figures from The Night Revels composition: a man with his arm around the shoulder of a young girl urges her off to a tryst. The irony (and irreverence) of Zhu Wei’s work comes from the series title, “The Trials of a Long Journey,” or in Chinese “a thousand mountains, ten thousand rivers,” a reference to the Long March.
Another traditional source tapped by Zhu Wei is the lore of the horse. In dynastic Chinese literature and painting, horses were frequent metaphors for human talent in all its variety. The noble stallion, the lazy mount, the abused steed, the starving nag all appear in literary allegories and paintings. Horses are depicted responding to their riders in the excitement of the hunt, interacting with their handlers, enjoying or enduring the existence that it is their lot. The intelligence and awareness of such horses, is captured in a well-known wall painting in the tomb of Lou Rui, the prince of Dongan of the Northern Qi (550-577). Among the equestriennes parading on the walls, a few steeds startle us as they look askance or directly out at the viewer. The wall painter seems to tell us that these hard-working horses know that they are metaphors.
Why are horses wandering through Zhu Wei’s paintings? Often upstaged by foreground heads that partly obscure them, the horses seems to have personal meanings. One source that he has used multiple times is a horse and groom painting that is attributed to the great scholar, painter, and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). In “Training a Horse” (Fig. 6), the groom stands in the conventional position to the right of the horses’ head. What is unconventional is the stiff wind that whips the horse’s tail and mane as well as the groom’s sleeves, robe, and whiskers making the title of the painting ironic. How can one train a horse in a gale-force wind that swallows up all sound? Zhu Wei links the image to the military life that he had known for ten years. As in other series, he experimented with the horse and groom, rearranging them, juxtaposing them with other figures. In “Race Horse on a Rainy Night, No. 3,” the groom is replaced by a soldier who sits on the ground with a cloth-wrapped bundle of simple victuals next to him (Fig. 7). In the pinched expression on his face we can feel the wind’s cold bite. In another version, “Race Horse on a Rainy Night, No. 5” (1998), the “groom” is a female cadre with her head wrapped in scarf, while the horse’s long tail is blown around her shoulder (Fig. 8). Because Zhu Wei was born in the year of the horse (in the Chinese vernacular, he belongs to horse, is a horse), we cannot discount the possibility that some of these steeds represent the artist himself. This connection is made more likely in “Race Horse on a Rainy Night, No. 5” where the otherwise rarely-seen sprigs of bamboo (zhu 竹) makes a homophonic pun on the artist’s surname. Again, ancient and recent past are deployed to serve the present.
WEIGHT and WEIGHTLESSNESS
The poet Tao Yuanming, who was cited above as the author of “Peach Blossom Spring Preface,” had a lack of patience for the pomposity of rank and class airs. Tao had the talent to serve in a government position and took a post at his wife’s insistent urging. Less than three months into his service, Tao was told that, to receive a visiting official of higher rank, he had to don a particular robe and belt as a sign of respect. To Tao, the arbitrary distinction was cause for resignation just eighty days after taking office. The event made him realize that rural poverty was preferable to the onerous - if well compensated - protocol of bureaucracy. Zhu Wei can identify with this attitude.
Although not trained as a sculptor, Zhu Wei has been inspired by difficulties of expression in his two-dimensional art to create witty and stylish three-dimensional paintings. (If China can have “silent poetry,” then it should be possible to have “three-dimensional painting.”) Zhu Wei’s monumental bronze figures of Party cadres lean forward about to tip over. Their bulky physicality expresses things that could not be easily conveyed on paper. First created in 1999 at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, the pair of enormous figures in politically-correct Mao jackets stand at attention with shoulders back, arms at their sides, heads raised. They are rooted to the ground even as they eagerly press forward 往前进. The solidity bespeaks unflinching confidence; the uplifted heads suggest respect for higher authority, while the absence of eyes suggests blind, unthinking obedience.
The surface is the most fragile aspect of the sculptures, and a telling feature. The bronze (or in some cases, painted fiberglass) figures have a dusty encrustation created with sandy mud from the banks of the Yangtze River. They look like freshly-excavated objects: they resemble artifacts to be housed in a museum and studied as historical relics as part of China’s cultural heritage. When a pair was shown in the atrium of the IBM Building in New York, the installers did not understand that the patination was part of the sculpture and scrubbed them clean. The earthen patination situates these sculptures with tomb figurines as examples of the ideal servant in the afterlife - silent, loyal, sycophantic. This cynical interpretation does not credit the reality that the CCP has many hardworking members who actively contribute to society: cadres are a weighty presence and wield great power. Like these immobile bronze behemoths, they are impossible to dismiss.
Zhu Wei’s creation of art is an unusual amalgam of past and present. Visually, his paintings are more easily associated with the professional class of painters in dynastic China and yet the messages of empathy and social criticism are very clearly in the tradition of the educated elite. His awareness of the weight that words and images have carried in both traditional and modern China make his art both fascinating and obscure: messages are deeply imbedded in layered allusions and small details. As he enters his forties, Zhu Wei continues his keen observations of self and society, interested in a broad range of cultural issues. His commentaries are tempered with humor, the edginess is softened with humanity. In the best tradition of Chinese expressive art, Zhu Wei’s paintings record quickly changing social norms, human foibles, and political absurdities, in short, the life that he is witnessing and the history that is unfolding before us.
1. Zhu Wei, “Vernal Equinox No. 3,” ink and color on paper, 121 x 143 cm.
2. Anonymous, Song dynasty, “Peach Blossoms,” round fan, ink and color on silk, 24.8 x 27 cm. Beijing Palace Museum. From Nie Chongzheng ed., Gugong bowuyuan cang wenwu zhenpin daxi: Jin Tang liang Song huihua: huaniao zoujin (Shanghai: Kexue jishu, 2004), pl. 49. 佚名《碧涛图》
3. Zhu Da (1626-1705), “Lotus and Birds,” ca. 1690, detail, handscroll, ink on satin, 27.3 x 205.1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of John M. Crawford, Jr. 1988. 朱耷《莲池禽鸟图》
4. Li Song (active ca. 1190-1230), “Flower Basket,” album leaf, ink and colors on silk, 19.1 x 26.5 cm. Beijing Palace Museum. 李嵩《花篮图》
5. Zhu Wei, “Utopia No. 46,” 2005, ink and color on paper, 120 x 120 cm. 朱伟《乌?邦四十六号》
6. Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), “Training a Horse,” album leaf, ink on paper, 22.7 x 49 cm. Taipei Palace Museum. From National Palace Museum, Hua ma ming pin tezhan tulu (Taipei: National Palace Museum, 1990), p. 33. 赵孟?《调良图》
7. Zhu Wei, “Race Horse on a Rainy Night, No. 3,” ink and color on paper, 1997, 66 x 66 cm, Private Collection. From Zhu Wei’s Diary (Hong Kong, Plum Blossoms Ltd, 2000), p. 214.
8. Zhu Wei, “Race Horse on a Rainy Night, No. 5,” ink and color on paper, 1998, 131 x 131 cm, Private Collection. From Zhu Wei’s Diary (Hong Kong, Plum Blossoms Ltd, 2000), p. 216.
 Tao Yuanming (365-427), “The Peach Blossom Spring,” James Robert Hightower, translated and annotated, The Poetry of T’ao Ch’ien (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), pp. 254-256. Kong Shangren (1648), The Peach Blossom Fan, trans. Chen Shih-hsiang and Harold Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan by K’ung Shang-jen (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California, 1976).
 Zhu Jingxuan (active mid 9th c.), Tang chao minghua lu (early 840s), quoting the appraisal of the painter Wang Zai by Du Fu (712-770).
 For example see Plum Blossoms Ltd., Zhu Wei Diary (Hong Kong: Plum Blossoms International, 2000), New Positions in the Brocade Battle, no. 3, p. 79, Box No. 3, p. 274.
 Deng Chun, Hua ji, juan 10, in Huashi congshu edition, vol. 1, p. 347.
 Alfreda Murck, "Paintings of Stem Lettuce, Cabbage, and Weeds: Allusions to Tu Fu's Garden", Archives of Asian Art (亚洲艺术档案) 48 (1995), 32-47. 中译: 姜斐德《以莴苣、白菜和野草为画——杜甫菜园的隐喻》《清华美术》, 2005-12.
 《万水千山二号》, Plum Blossoms Ltd., Zhu Wei Diary (Hong Kong: Plum Blossoms International, 2000), p. 47.
 Lou Rui tomb wall painting, detail, Northern Qi (550-577), Shanxi Province Cultural Heritage Research Institute. From Bei Qi Dongan wang Lou Rui mu (Beijing: Cultural Relics，2006), color plate 32.
Alfreda Murck earned a PhD at Princeton University in Chinese art and archaeology with an emphasis on the history of Chinese painting. She worked in the Asian Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from 1979-1991. Since 1991 she has lived with her husband Christian Murck in Taipei and Beijing. She has published articles on Chinese art and a book on how eleventh century scholars used poetry in painting to express dissent: Poetry and Painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent (Harvard University Asia Center, 2000). She is a lecturer at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and is a researcher in the Palace Museum’s Painting and Calligraphy Research Center and a consultant to the Palace Museum’s English web-page.
尽管宋朝画院绘画对朱伟有强烈影响，他的趣味并不拘泥于此。他将范宽那幅创作于公元十一世纪的经典《溪山行旅图》（手卷，台北故宫博物院藏）改成了尺寸惊人的新作。他看重十二、 三世纪的宫廷画作，因为它们有细密的笔法和富丽的色彩（图3），譬如宫廷画家马远的《水图》（手卷，北京故宫博物院藏，马远活跃于1190~1230年）和李嵩（活跃于1190~1230年）的《花篮图》。朱伟尤其欣赏明末清初的个人主义者朱耷（八大山人，1626-1705）和石涛（1642-1707），这两人均为明皇室的后裔。二人奇僻的画风勾勒出他们长达一生的挣扎——那是在满洲统治下不断确认自我、寻求认同的挣扎。清朝前期，社会动荡，明朝遗老遗少仍处在与满清的斗争中，八大山人和石涛不得不隐藏他们的皇族血统，甚至连交友都受监视。八大笔下的鸟和鱼总显示出对周遭环境的敏锐知觉。他的鸟儿紧张地注视彼此，警觉地隐藏起他们的动机（图4）。这种谨小慎微让人想起朱伟笔下的人物，那些人物不是用身体语言，而是他们的眼睛暴露出了他们的感情。尽管这些人中的一些看起来踌躇满志，或是顺从忍耐，有些人则警觉而机敏，但是，其它人还是得听天由命、愁眉苦脸、怨气冲冲。他们似乎都在社会这个地雷阵里踽踽前行，生怕走错一步。《孩子走钢丝》这一系列作品很容易将我们带回到阶级斗争之后的九十年代，这些孩子们面上挂着习惯了被莫名惩罚时才有的神情，他们正全神贯注于找到钢丝上的平衡， 竭尽全力用尽善尽美的表演来取悦于人。
1. 朱伟，《开春图三号》，水墨设色纸本，121 x 143厘米]
2. 佚名，宋代，《桃花图》，团扇，水墨设色绢本，24.8 x 2厘米，北京故宫博物院藏。摘自《故宫博物院藏文物珍品大系：晋唐两宋绘画·花鸟走兽》（上海科学技术出版社2004年出版），聂崇正编纂，pl. 49，佚名《碧涛图》
3. 朱耷（1626-1705），《莲池禽鸟图》，1690年，详情，卷轴，水墨缎本，27.3 x 205.1厘米。大都会艺术博物馆藏，纽约，小John M. Crawford于1988年遗产捐赠。
4. 李嵩（活跃于公元1190-1230年），《花篮图》，册页，水墨设色绢本，19.1 x 26.5厘米。北京故宫博物院藏。
5. 朱伟，《乌托邦五十号》，2005年，水墨设色纸本，120 x 103厘米
6. 赵孟俯（1254-1322），《调良图》，册页，水墨纸本，22.7 x 49厘米。台北故宫博物院藏。摘自国立故宫博物院《画马名品特展图录》（台北：国立故宫博物院1990年出版），p. 33。
7. 朱伟，《雨夜跑马图三号》，水墨设色纸本，1997年，66 x 66厘米，私人收藏。摘自《朱伟日记》（香港：Plum Blossoms有限公司2000年出版），p. 214。
8. 朱伟，《雨夜跑马图五号》，水墨设色纸本，1998年，131 x 131厘米，私人收藏。摘自《朱伟日记》（香港：Plum Blossoms有限公司2000年出版），p. 216。
 陶渊明（365-427），《桃花源记》，James Robert Hightower翻译成英文并注释，选自《陶潜诗作》（The Poetry of T’ao Ch’ien）（牛津：Clarendon出版，1970），pp. 254-256。孔尚任（1648-1718），《桃花扇》，Chen Shih-hsiang与Harold Acton翻译成英文，选自《孔尚任的桃花扇》（The Peach Blossom Fan by K’ung Shang-jen）（伯克利与洛杉矶：加利福尼亚大学出版，1976）。
 参考朱景玄（约公元9世纪中期）《唐朝名画录》（9世纪40年代前期）妙品上八人, 杜甫对王宰的评价：“十日画一松，五日画一石”.
 例如万玉堂有限公司出版的《朱伟日记》（香港：万玉堂国际公司出版，2000），新编花营锦阵三号，p. 79，盒子三号，p. 274。
 邓椿《画继》卷十，(收入《画史丛书》第一册，255－356页), 273页。
 Alfreda Murck, "Paintings of Stem Lettuce, Cabbage, and Weeds: Allusions to Tu Fu's Garden", Archives of Asian Art (亚洲艺术档案) 48 (1995), 32-47. 中译: 姜斐德《以莴苣、白菜和野草为画——杜甫菜园的隐喻》《清华美术》, 2005-12.
 《万水千山二号》, Plum Blossoms Ltd., Zhu Wei Diary (Hong Kong: Plum Blossoms International, 2000), 47页.
 Lou Rui tomb wall painting, detail, Northern Qi (550-577), Shanxi Province Cultural Heritage Research Institute.《北齐东安王娄睿墓》 (北京：文物出版社，2006), 32彩色图.