Exploring the Development of Painting in China through the UMAG Collection
Text: Shing-Kwan Chan, Kenneth

Chinese painting as a form of art has its own distinctive traditions and history. Some believe that Chinese painting has its origins intimately intertwined with the invention of the written script, in the actions of the primeval god Fuxi (伏羲), who at the dawn of time systematized images that were present in nature. Between the Han (漢朝; 202 BC - AD 220) and Sui (隋朝; 581-618) dynasties, artists started to create elaborate, detailed images of the royal and feudal courts. Some of the earliest works depicting court lives of emperors and lords, their ladies, and the officials have been preserved in burial sites and tombs. During this time, individual artists such as Gu Kaizhi (顧愷之; c. 344–406) began to emerge.

Widely considered as the golden age of Chinese art and civilization, painting progressed dramatically in both technique and subject matter between the Tang (唐朝; 618-907) and Yuan (元朝; 1271-1368) dynasties. The Tang dynasty witnessed the development and growing popularity of the landscape painting tradition otherwise known as shanshui (山水畫) painting, which became popularly practiced by amateur 'literati' painters. The stylistic and technical advancements also had a lasting influence in other parts of East Asia.

 

After decades of active growth and expansion, the collection at UMAG now encompasses Chinese paintings which span a period of more than 500 years. Like a stroll through the historical development of the painted art in China, the painting collection at UMAG takes us from the major schools of the Ming and Qing period to the experimental works of twentieth-century artists, providing a rich and unique experience of exploring China's painting traditions of more than half a millennium. 

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

In the Ming dynasty (明朝; 1368-1644), painting in China further developed upon the achievements made in the Song and Yuan dynasties. Painters of the Wu school (吳門畫派) experimented with the expressive calligraphic styles of Yuan literati painters who emphasized self-cultivation and restraint. Zhang Hong's (張宏; 1585–1664) Landscape (c. 1619) from the UMAG collection embodies the style and characteristics of the literati paintings of the Wu School, who idealized the concepts of personalizing works and integrating the artists into their paintings. Zhang’s art is remarked by its bird’s-eye perspectives, shifting ground planes, and topographical elements. Art historian James Cahill argues that Zhang Hong’s unusual treatments of space show remarkable similarities to early modern European city views that were brought to China by Jesuit missionaries.

 

On the other hand, Zhe School (浙派) painters like Lan Ying (藍瑛; 1585–1664) kept on with the ink-wash, meticulous style of the Southern Song with great technical finesse, as can be seen in Bamboo and Rock from the UMAG collection. Together with Dai Jin (戴進; 1388-1462) and Wu Wei (吳偉; 1459-1508), Lan Ying was celebrated as one of the "Three Great Masters of the Zhe School" (浙派三大家). Lan's oeuvre and eclectic style had a great influence on the artistic development in Northern China during the late Ming and early Qing period.

Zhang Hong 張宏, Landscape 山水, c. 1619. Ink and color on silk. From the UMAG collection

Zhang Hong 張宏, Landscape 山水, c. 1619. Ink and color on silk. From the UMAG collection

Lan Ying 藍瑛, Bamboo and Rock 竹石圖, c. 17th century. Ink on silk. From the UMAG collection

Lan Ying 藍瑛, Bamboo and Rock 竹石圖, c. 17th century. Ink on silk. From the UMAG collection

Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)

During the Qing dynasty (清朝; 1644-1912), Chinese painting progressed further upon the achievements that were made in the past dynasties. There were three main groups of artists in the Qing era: the individualists who sought to achieve individualistic, original styles by transcending the tradition; the traditionalists who endeavored to revitalize the painted art through the creative reinterpretations of previous aesthetic and visual models; and the officials and professional artists who served at the Manchu court. 

The opening of Canton (now Guangdong) as a trading port in the mid-Qing period contributed to a revolutionary change in the creative practice of art in that area, which was accompanied by the emergence of Canton painters, such as Li Jian (黎簡; 1747–1799). Li was best known for being one of the 'Four Painters of Canton' (粵東四大家) during his time. Li's painting Landscape (c. 1793) from the UMAG collection is an epitome of the artist's refined techniques. The inscription on this work includes the name 'Village of Red Flowers', a village in Foshan not far from Guangzhou, where it was likely painted.

Li Jian 黎簡, Landscape 青綠山水, c. 1793. Ink and color on silk. From the UMAG collection

Li Jian 黎簡, Landscape 青綠山水, c. 1793. Ink and color on silk. From the UMAG collection

From the middle of the eighteenth century, trade increased between China, America and Europe for tea, porcelain, silk, and other goods, leading to an increasing curiosity about the life and culture in the 'exotic' Far East. Trade paintings like Ten Scenes Illustrating the Growing and Processing of Tea from the UMAG collection offered a glimpse of the culture, trade, and topography of the Orient to Americans and Europeans, who were eager to learn more about the distant land. Other sets of Paintings of Tea Production with similar yet slightly different composition have been found — a clear evidence that the images of tea production were likely traced from other copies or copybooks.

Ten Scenes Illustrating the Growing and Processing of Tea 種茶製茶圖十幅,  c. 1800s. Gouache on paper. From the UMAG collection

Ten Scenes Illustrating the Growing and Processing of Tea 種茶製茶圖十幅, 
c. 1800s. Gouache on paper. From the UMAG collection

The Republican Era 
(1912-1949)

As the feudalistic structure dissolved with the collapse of the Manchu court in the early twentieth century, traditional art forms started to lose their appeal, and artists began to experiment with new subjects, techniques, and media. Liu Haisu (劉海粟; 1896-1994) was one of the pioneers of Chinese modern art who earned the title of 'The Four Great Academy Presidents' (四大校長), together with Yan Wenliang (顏文樑; 1893-1988), Lin Fengmian (林風眠; 1900-1991), and Xu Beihong (徐悲鴻; 1895-1953). Liu went to Japan in October 1920 to attend the opening ceremony of Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Tokyo, and after he returned, he wrote 'Biography of Jean-François Millet' and 'Biography of Paul Cézanne' to bring knowledge about Western art into China. He visited Japan again in 1927 and made the acquaintance of numerous Japanese artists. Painted two years before his second voyage to Japan, Liu's Winter Landscape (1925) from the UMAG collection illustrates a wondrous wintry scene. According to the inscription of the painting, Liu struggled to make a fire in his home under heavy snow and was forced to paint with stiff, frozen arms.

Liu Haisu 劉海粟, Winter Landscape 雪景山水(山水徐將軍), 1925.   Ink on silk. From the UMAG collection
Xu Beihong 徐悲鴻,,Playing Music 演奏, 1938. Ink and color on paper.  From the UMAG collection

Liu Haisu 劉海粟, Winter Landscape 雪景山水(山水徐將軍), 1925. 

Ink on silk. From the UMAG collection

Xu Beihong 徐悲鴻,,Song of the Pipa 琵琶行, 1938. Ink and color on paper.

From the UMAG collection

During the time, a group of young Chinese artists participated in the 'work-study' scheme — part of the Republic's New Cultural Movement (新文化運動) campaign, and traveled abroad to study under state or familial sponsorship. Japan and France, in particular, were many Chinese artists’ destinations. These diasporic artists, including Xu Beihong, created prominent bodies of work that revolutionized the art world. Xu was regarded as one of the first artists to create monumental oil paintings with epic Chinese themes. During his sojourn to Hong Kong, Xu presented Song of the Pipa (1938) as a gift to the Chinese Society of the University of Hong Kong on the occasion of an exhibition of his works at the Fung Ping Shan Library in 1938. Depicting a scene from Pipa Xing, a poem by the esteemed Tang poet Bai Juyi (白居易; 772–846), this painting epitomizes Xu's belief in blending Western techniques with Chinese subject matters to achieve a new form of Chinese modern painting.

The Contemporary Era 
(1949-Now)

Many artists in Hong Kong and Mainland China experimented with different materials, subjects, styles, and techniques in the contemporary era. Intrinsically linked to the milieu of postwar Hong Kong, the New Ink Movement (新水墨運動), led by Lui Shou-Kwan (呂壽琨; 1919-1975), was an avant-garde movement that had far-reaching influence on ink art in the second half of the twentieth century. Lui had a profound knowledge of classical Chinese and Western painting theory and philosophy. He integrated abstraction to develop his characteristic ink paintings, exercising an indelible influence on the development of ink art in Hong Kong. The 'Zen painting' series, such as this example from the UMAG collection, is most representative of Lui's abstract work. Lui inspired innumerable ink artists such as Irene Chou (周綠雲; 1924-2011), Wucius Wong (王無邪, b. 1936), and Wesley Tongson (唐家偉; 1957-2012). 

Irene Chou was one of the most influential exponents of the New Ink Art Movement in Hong Kong. The progressive theories on art and ink painting of her peer Lui Shou-Kwan inspired her to experiment with different styles, techniques ,and various types of paint, such as oil, acrylic and watercolor. Her works in the 1980s, including Abstract Composition (c. 1980s) from the UMAG collection, demonstrate her mastery of a range of techniques associated with both the 'impact structural strokes' – the artist’s distinctive, violent brushstrokes and dots associated with her Impact series style, in addition to the dense ink reminiscent of her 'Dark Painting' style developed in the late 1970s.

Lui Shou-kwan 呂壽琨, Zen 禪, 1970. Ink and color on silk.  From the UMAG collection
Irene Chou 周綠雲, Abstract Composition 抽象畫, c. 1980s.  Ink and color on silk. From the UMAG collection

Lui Shou-kwan 呂壽琨, Zen 禪, 1970. Ink and color on silk.

From the UMAG collection

Irene Chou 周綠雲, Abstract Composition 抽象畫, c. 1980s. 
Ink and color on silk. From the UMAG collection

Regarded as one of the great masters of contemporary Chinese ink art, Hou Beiren (侯北人; b. 1917-) has made many achievements throughout his artistic career of more than 70 years. After migrating to the United States in the 1950s, Hou maintained close contacts with other Chinese painting masters such as Zhang Daqian (‎張大千; 1899-1983) and Zhu Qizhan (朱屺瞻; 1892-1996), and has left many valuable correspondence records and works. Rafts on the Spring River (2018) from the UMAG collection was painted with various shades of ink, upon with layers of ochre, khaki and beige, delicately expressing the different textures of mountains and water bodies beheld while rafting on the Spring River. The light clouds of ink smoke reveal the lush vegetation underneath, exposing the pine trees which are looming under the clouds, presenting a semi-abstract scenery. 

In the late-twentieth century, Deng Xiaoping's Reform and Opening-up of China policy initiated in 1978 brought a hitherto unknown flood of new ideas and theories which stirred up the art circles in Mainland China, inspiring many artists to experiment with new forms of art. Based in Beijing, Zeng Fanzhi (曾梵志; b. 1964) is one of the contemporary Chinese artists who endeavors to push the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo . 

 

From the earliest stage of his career, his works have been marked by their emotional sincerity, visual intensity, the artist's intuitive psychological sense, and his carefully calibrated expressionistic technique. Moving from his hometown to Beijing in the early 1990s, Zeng's art displayed an immediate shift, responding to his immersion in a more urban and commercialized environment. His seminal Mask series displays the tensions between the artist's dominant existential concerns, and an ironic treatment of the pomposity and posturing inherent to his new urban life in the capital city of China. Human Flesh (c. 1993) from the UMAG collection is one of the earlier works created by Zeng before he started his record-breaking Mask series. Amply exuding a raw and unadulterated energy, the blood-soaked, jaw-dropping composition of Human Flesh reflects the economic and social milieu of China's increasingly consumption-driven economy in the early 1990s.

Hou Beiren 侯北人, Rafts on the Spring River 春光泛舟圖, 2018. Ink and color on paper  From the UMAG collection
​Zeng Fangzhi 曾梵志, Human Flesh 人類與肉類, 1993.  Oil on canvas. From the UMAG collection

Zeng Fangzhi 曾梵志, Human Flesh 人類與肉類, 1993. 
Oil on canvas. From the UMAG collection

Hou Beiren 侯北人, Rafts on the Spring River 春光泛舟圖, 2018. Ink and color on paper

From the UMAG collection

Bibliography: 

Barnhart, Richard M., et al. Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven CT: Yale UP, 1997.

Cahill, James. The Compelling Image: Nature and Style in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Painting, Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1982

Clunas , Craig. Chinese Painting and its Audiences. Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 2017.

Webber, Pauline. “A souvenir from Guangzhou” in the V&A Conservation Journal (Autumn 2004: Number 48)