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SURVEY OF WATERCOLOR PAINTING
IN THE 20TH CENTURY
A tribute to the first Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary International
EAST MEETS WEST
The traditional Chinese painting emphasizes on idea, spiritual quality, brush work, and ink tone. Paintings are done on exquisite thin unsized paper or silk. It is difficult to make changes; therefore, it must be executed with speed and spontaneity. The Western watercolor painting emphasizes on reality, physical likeness, light, and color. Paintings are done on sized heavy cotton or linen paper. It is possible to make changes; therefore they can be gradually built up by using glazing technique. Even with their differences, the Chinese traditional painting and the Western counterpart accomplish the same magical esthetic quality that set watercolor apart from any other painting medium. I visited the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1985. When President Hou Yimin and I were viewing an exhibition together he made a remark: “Nowadays, the Chinese
paintings are more and more becoming like the Western watercolor.”
In reality, there are numerous examples of the synthesis of traditional Chinese painting and Western watercolor. During the Qianlong reign (1736-1795) of the Qing Dynasty, many Western Jesuit missionaries were enticed by the emperor to become court painters. They occupied extraordinary positions in the immediate surrounding of the emperor, and worked in Yuan Ming Yuan, the magnificent summer palace containing many Western features. Among these artists, Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) was most well known to the Chinese. He painted in the traditional Chinese style, but incorporated the Western chiaroscuro to build up forms. Henry Matisse’s (1869-1954) bold calligraphic brush strokes and flat plane in his paintings were clearly an Eastern influence. In 1956 the Chinese contemporary master Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) visited Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). In his studio, Picasso showed Master Zhang five albums of
his Chinese painting in the style of another Chinese contemporary master Qi Baishi (1863-1957). Master Zhang was impressed by Picasso’s refreshing composition and powerful brushwork, but felt inadequate in his ink tone quality. German expressionist Emil Nolde (1867-1956) had painted watercolor on Chinese xuan paper with strong pure color. In recent years many American artists also adopted Chinese paper and brushes for their paintings.
The traditional Chinese boneless style paintings, which do not rely on ink calligraphic brushwork as foundation, are actually watercolors done on Chinese paper. The more recent masters such as Ren Bonian (1840-1895) and the Lingnan School artists were clearly influenced by the Western watercolor. The splash ink and color paintings of Zhang Daqian’s later years were the integration 7 of East and West painting concepts and processes. I have never seen Prof. Xu Beihong’s watercolors, but his famous painting “Spring Rain Over the Li River” which so superbly expresses the misty drizzling atmosphere, is considered a traditional Chinese painting, yet it could also be regarded as a watercolor painting done on Chinese xuan paper. The works of Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) have epitomized all the concepts, material, and processes of the East and West. His paintings, regardless landscape, figure, or still life, could be exhibited in any American watercolor exhibitions. Recently I saw some contemporary innovative Chinese style gouache paintings in books. Many of these paintings could mingle well with the contemporary Western watermedia paintings as milk with water. The senior Chinese American watercolorists Chen Chi (1912-2006), Dong Kingman (1911-2001), and Diana Kan (1926-) are the pioneers in synthesizing East and West. Inspired by them, I also have been exploring and experimenting with the ways to synthesize the concepts, materials, and processes in the past thirty years. Katherine Chang Liu’s recent paintings are mostly abstract, yet the beauty of her calligraphic lines and the poetic quality of her paintings reflect the Chinese cultural background. Although Zheng Liang Feng’s painting technique and his material are basically Western, a large proportion of his subject matter expresses the Chinese people, especially the minorities with the Chinese feeling.
Under closer examination, actually the traditional Chinese painting already possesses plurality. The Chinese painting emphasizes line quality, which has the abstract beauty of Chinese calligraphy. The Chinese instant style and the Zen and literati paintings are forerunners of expressionism. As far as the painting subject matter goes, the West stresses human activities, while the Chinese landscape, figure, still life and wildlife paintings were equally developed and had achieved maturity during the Tang and Song period (618-1279.)
Today’s Chinese artists have a better understanding of Western art, than of the western artists. However, the advances of transportation and information technologies have greatly shrunk the time and space that speeds up the international and cultural exchanges of the arts during the twenty-first century. I am certain that this will bring more integration of painting concepts and techniques of East and West, especially now that China has experienced unprecedented development and economic growth and is playing an increasingly important role on the world stage. Countries all over the world are showing increasing interest in learning the Chinese language and culture. It is not difficult to predict that this will speed up the process of pluralization. The prosperity of art needs economic support. To say that in the near future that Shanghai will become an important art center to rival New York is absolutely not unrealistic.
Cheng-Khee Chee. Southwest Impression. 76x102cm 1995
In science, newly proven theories replace the old ones to advance knowledge. In art, however, a new art form does not replace the old one. A new art form, concept, process, style or subject matter is only different from the others. Neither do I believe that one art form, concept, process, style, or subject matter is superior to others. It is the artistic excellence that can evoke a strong response and transform people’s lives that matters. Therefore, All arts should coexist and their 8 collective efforts enrich our lives. When we ontemplate upon the complexity of interconnectedness of human activities, we know that it is impossible for us to sever the ties between the past, present, and future. We need the revolutionary spirit of the avant-garde to explore new frontiers and propel art forward. We also need the guardians of the truth of traditional values, to transform the revolution into evolutionary and sustainable art. It is my belief that in a truly free world, artists should be allowed to express their unique visions and create their work in whatever art form, concept, style, media, process, or contents that are most true to their hearts and natural to their hands. After the Cold War, we thought that mankind had finally come to its senses to bury the hatchets and make peace only to see that we have fallen into chaos again and again. Only when mankind is enlightened enough to accept diversity can there be peace on earth. Only when artists can accept plurality and create work that is universally and eternally true can they bring mankind an enriched and bright future.
Cheng-Khee Chee (Xu Jingyi)
Associate Professor Emeritus, University of Minnesota, Duluth, USA
October 1, 2007
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