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Reform and Development in Chinese Oil Painting

 A key reason for the greater attention Chinese oil painting has received from the outside art world has to do with the role of traditional realism in modern Chinese art. In the West, realism was neglected for over half a century, and it is only in the last decade that, under the influence of postmodernism, it has come back into favour. But, inevitably, traditional oil painting technique in the West has suffered from this long period of neglect, and it cannot be expected that technical facility in the realist style can be regained in such a short time. In the nineteen-fifties and sixties students in the major art academies in Paris, for example, were not required to take classes in human figure drawing: the school authorities rejected this basic training method as belonging to an outmoded academic system. Not until the nineteen-seventies did they come to acknowledge once again that traditional realist painting technique should be acquired by every painter. Yet, even though human figure drawing has been largely reinstated in European academies, both the students and teachers still seem unaccustomed to drawing from life. Evidence of this fact is that even though there are still plenty of excellent Western oil painters in the realist style, generally speaking realism has not yet emerged from its low point ­there have been no new breakthroughs. But it is a very different case in China .

Since the May 4th movement in the early 20th century, oil painting in China has undergone many changes. Generally speaking, however, throughout the history of Chinese oil painting, realism has played a dominant role, and continues to do so today. With the advent of the 20th century, the great differences in historical, social and cultural backgrounds of East and West caused their art to develop in different directions. The modern school of art in the West rejected the imitation of nature and the natural harmony of form. They were more concerned with abstraction and conceptual expression. Ironically, in China the traditional artists had also been concerned with the abstract expression-of ideas, but an expression based on the funda­mental philosophy of Chinese culture - the expression of the inner spirit, or qi. Little importance was attached to the faithful reproduction of appearances. As a result, the cultural reform movement in China which developed out of the May 4th movement went in the opposite direction to that in the West: it came to stress the realistic portrayal of life and, concomitantly, the technique of realism in painting.

That Western realist oil painting came to be regarded as a symbol of new cultural reform is due to the belief that realism was the truest artistic expression of the spirit of Western democracy and science, so much emulated by the artists and intellectuals of the time. In the nineteen ­twenties and thirties numerous aspiring Chinese oil painters studied in France , Belgium , and Japan and brought back to China traditional oil painting technique, emphasizing realism. Later, in the nineteen-fifties, the trend toward realism was further enhanced by the influence of Russian oil painting, with Russian oil painters invited to teach in China and Chinese art students sent to study in Russia . As a result, traditional oil painting technique in China was further expanded and developed.

Because of their enthusiasm and serious commitment to the study of Western realism in painting, Chinese oil painters have reached a level of technical mastery that has enabled them to go beyond a superficial mimicry and, both consciously and unconsciously, to inject into the language of oil painting some of their own aesthetic vocabulary. In other words, Chinese oil painters are able to stress mood, emotion and inner spirit in their approach to realism. Even when it comes to the language of form we are able to introduce something of our own approach to composition and colour. As a result, Chinese oil painting has gained stature on the inter­national art scene as providing a unique new face to oil painting.

Of course there are still many questions facing Chinese oil painting circles. One that has concerned us from the beginning is how to deal with the major changes in the Western art world: should we continue to pursue traditional oil painting or embrace the latest contemporary Western trends?

Among the older generation of oil painters, there were two main attitudes toward this ques­tion, represented by the schools of Xu Bei-hong and Lin Feng-mian. Xu Bei-hong emphasized the study and continuance of the classical oil painting tradition from the Rennaissance up to, but not necessarily including, Impressionism. (He was tolerant of the work of only a very few of the Impressionist painters and regarded the modern post-Impressionist school as iconoclastic and extreme). As for Lin Feng-mian, while he respected the tradition of realism, he believed that Chinese oil painting should pay greater attention to trends in the post-Impressionist art world. He felt that the modem school of art was itself a natural extension of traditional realism, and as a painter he was quite modem in his sensibilities. As a result, in the past fifty years there have been two different approaches to the teaching of oil painting in China . One school puts more emphasis on academic realism, the other on the expression of ideas. This divergence has in fact been healthy for the development of oil painting in China , giving it greater richness and variety than it otherwise may have had.

It is important that Chinese oil painting continue to move in both directions in order to develop artistically and to be able to satisfy the different needs of society. If we do not continue to seriously study and master the fundamental techniques of realism, Chinese oil painting not only will be unable to maintain its progress, it will lose its original character. On the other hand, we should not be satisfied only with practicing traditional Western oil painting technique, for in this century the dramatic changes in Western art are the result of changes in Western society, and of new developments in their science and technology, and parallels Western concerns in philosophy, aesthetics and the language system of art, which is by its nature organically subject to change. We cannot ignore the positive side of these changes and should study and embrace new art concepts so as to push the modernisation of our own oil painting vocabulary.

Before the nineteen-eighties, our society was more closed and we had little contact with modem Western art. Since the eighties, the latest trends in contemporary Western art have reached us through increased cultural exchange and more widespread access to art information. The younger generation of artists has been very enthusiastic about the language and technology of contemporary Western art: they have imitated it and emulated it. The strongest expression of this emulation came with the avant~arde trends in the mid-eighties, particularly in the burst of avant-garde activity labelled the "Trend of '85." Though criticised as overly aggressive and radical at the time, today the work of that period has gradually become more accepted and recognized as having artistic value. At the same time, the inevitability of the appearance of the "Trend of '85" and the stimulating influence it had on Chinese art have become more apparent. Chinese artists have now realised a truth - what matters in a work of art is not whether it is in a traditional or a more avant-garde style, but whether it reflects the Chinese spiritual and cultural identity, the .characteristics of the times, and a fresh individuality. Realism in Chinese oil painting must go beyond imitation, and modernism beyond the amateurish.

In order to achieve this, in recent years Chinese oil painters have been giving concentrated study to the rules of form and composition, with artistic standards in oil painting receiving greater attention. The major art academies are playing a leading role, nurturing generation after generation of accomplished young artists. This signals the deeper changes taking place in Chinese oil painting. Every year at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in Chongqing, the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang, the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, and other major art academies, Oil Painting Department students emerge who are young, sensitive, and eager to learn. They have the advantages of rigourous academic training: strong drawing skills and composition technique and a solid liberal arts background that assists them in developing a grounded understanding of society and life. They are the new vanguard of Chinese oil painting.

Since 1979 there have been major stylistic changes in oil painting in China . Many new movements have come into play: grass-roots realism, wounded art, photo-realism, objective realism, etc. Younger artists have played a central role in these movements. Of course not all the talented young artists in China today are academy graduates; but it cannot be overlooked that the young teachers and students of the art academies have been in the forefront of these influential trends.

A few years ago it was said that the academies were too conservative, and that it was im­possible to produce a modem artist within academy walls. Today this statement is open to challenge. To overcome conservatism and prevent stagnation in teaching methods, academies have to combine steadiness and continuity in teaching with open-mindedness in approach to fully develop students' individual creativity. It seems to me that the art academies in China pay close attention to these issues.

The Central Academy of Fine Arts proposed an integrated art studies system which would include traditional and modem, Eastern and Western - an extremely far-sighted proposal In the Chinese oil painting of the last few years we can see a resulting richness and variety in style, concept, and composition, demonstrating that academic teaching under the present climate of reform and open-mindedness has brought new vitality to Chinese art.

A further indication of the academies' importance in the oil painting world is the dynamic group of academy oil painting professors who have shown devotion and commitment in promoting and improving the standards of oil painting activities. These include the members of the Oil Painting Committee: core members Zhan Jian-jun, Jin Shang-yi, and Wen Li-peng, all of whom are academy professors; the elder generation of teachers and painters such as Wu Guan-zhong,

Luo Gong-liu, and Ai Zhong-xinj and academy leaders such as Xiao Feng, Guo Ming-tong, Jin Shan-shi, Song Hui-min, Ren Meng-zhang, Shang Yang, Tuo Mu-si, and Pan Shi-xun. All continue to make strong contributions to the creative development of Chinese oil painting and all are committed to the Committee's guiding principle of utilizing a variety of channels to raise the academic and artistic standards of Chinese oil painting. In 1987, the Oil Painting Com­mittee organised the Shanghai First Chinese Oil Painting Exhibition with great success. In 1991, they supported and acted as advisors for the 1991 First Annual Exhibition of Chinese Oil Painting jointly organized by China Oil Painting Magazine, the The ]iangsu Pictorial Art Monthly, Beijing's Oriental Oil Painting Gallery, and the Qimei Art Company. In both exhibitions, the selection of paintings and presentation of awards stressed the academic/technical excellence and creative virtuosity of the artists. This is also true of the First Annual Exhibition of Chinese Oil Painting in Hong Kong , which incorporates many of the paintings from the 1991 exhibition. As distinguished painter Zhan Jian-jun, Chairman of the Committee of the Annual Exhibition of Chinese Oil Painting has said, this exhibition represents the highest standards in recent history, and embraces the major trends in the changing face of Chinese oil painting.

For example, the two gold medal winners, "The Seductress" by Li Tian-yuan and "Ming Style" by Wang Huai-qing have powerful, distinctive styles, excellent technique, and strong artistic charm. 'The Seductress" depicts a young girl trying on make-up. It is not only a strong example of technical skill in portraiture, but is a sensitive, animated portrayal: the picture has depth and mood, the young girl's expression is very natural and lively, the brushwork is subtle and delicate, and the colour quiet and refined. The effect is sweet but not cloyingly sweet, and demonstrates the artist's professionalism, sensitivity and power of expression.

"Ming Style" skillfully and intelligently incorporates elements of calligraphy and ink paint­ing into a composition that is at once abstract and realistic. This painting and the artist's other recent works in this style represent a breakthrough in Chinese oil painting language. The pioneering creative spirit of this work is testimony to the increasing self-confidence and courage of Chinese artists and reflects our society's new spirit of reform and openness.

China and the Asia Pacific region are in a period of economic growth that will help to provide a favourable environment for Chinese oil painting. Chinese people's broader encounter with and deepening understanding of the world outside China will also enable our artists to gain a greater grasp of the inner spirit of traditional Western art. At the same time, the artists' deeper awareness of China 's own traditional culture and art will continue to add a rich dimension of Chinese cultural identity to their work. As Chinese artists continue to breathe the air of more open, progressive reform, their creative work will take on new spirit and greater creative vitality, allowing Chinese oil painting to go beyond the old rules to develop a unique and exciting style that is truly its own.

 


 
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