Chinese Oil Paintings: Traces of Time, Land, and Emotion
Oil painting originally was introduced to
China from the West in the 19th century through three main channels: Christian missionaries, East-West trade, and Chinese students returning from study abroad. The earliest examples of Chinese oil painting are the so-called South-coast "China Trade" paintings of the mid-to-Iate Qing. In these works by early Cantonese oil painters such as Guan Zuo-lin and Guan Qiao-chang, we can see that, whether through effort or accident, even at an early stage this foreign art form was beginning to take on a curiously Chinese identity.
Though serious oil painting has gone on in
China for less than a century, in looking back over the work done in this time one can already sense something of
China 's historical and social environment as well as of the artists' individual sensibilities in the paintings. These traces of time, land and emotion are much stronger in oil painting than in traditional literati paintings. For future audiences seeking to understand, through art, the psychological and historical tenor of our times, oil painting is more adapted than other current forms of painting to communicate this information through its richly varied and visually concrete imagery.
At certain times in our oil painting tradition, this information has been presented in a distorted form, which reflected an outside emotional and intellectual control imposed upon the artists. This was a typical state of affairs from the mid-sixties up to the end of the Cultural Revolution - a period of time when oil paintings were full of a standardised, false sentiment. In the past decade or so this distorted approach to art has largely been abandoned. On the other hand, even this controlled,. repressed art is not completely without value, as it is in its way representative of the psychological state of the Chinese people in that time.
Chinese oil painting of the eighties, in terms of style, composition, technique and subject matter, is far richer and more varied. This is a natural result of the new possibilities for creative art provided by the open-door reform policies of the last decade. From a historical perspective, even if one is not in full agreement with these policies, one has to admit that the past ten years have been the richest and most exciting decade for Chinese oil painting in this century. It is a decade which creatively spanned the whole spectrum from the old to the transitional to the new. Oil painters who made their reputations in the first half of the century were still active and held in great esteem by younger painters. Painters of the fifties, who opened up a new era in Chinese oil painting by first making the leap from imitation to innovation, were still a major force. Following these two groups came a younger generation of post-Cultural Revolution painters, most of them students of the major art academies. Compared with the older painters, these young artists have a stronger, more distinct individuality, and actively seek to develop a "signature" style in their work. They are also willing to expose themselves emotionally. They do not adhere to the nihilistic view of Chinese culture so popular in certain quarters: their attitude toward
China 's five thousand years of history, tradition, and culture - even including ancient superstitions and religious sentiment - is an interested and caring one, especially when com­pared to the youth of the fifties and sixties. This concern and interest is often intentionally given exaggerated play in their paintings.
The impact of modern Western art on Chinese painting is a common topic of discussion in Chinese art circles. Though a number of art critics have expressed great concern about this, oil painters today do not share this fear of enslavement to Western art. Their wholesale use of a Western style or technique, or their selective use of various elements, is now for them a matter of conscious choice, and one made with self-confidence. To prove that Chinese art is conceptually lagging behind the West, many pundits like to measure Chinese art against the historical and stylistic evolution of art in the West. It is an understandable effort, but not one that is likely to yield any meaningful conclusion. The historical circumstances, cultural environment and psychology of the artists are too different. This constant value judgement based on developments in the West is very popular among
Hong Kong and
Taiwan critics just as it was also popular among Chinese painters working in Western media in the thirties, when the imitators of Surrealism laughed at the imitators of Fauvism.
Chinese oil painters of the 20th century do not have to plot their creative activity according to the philosophical, aesthetic or stylistic developments of art in the West. Even the most philosophically-prone painter should put aside his philosophy when he paints. Award winning painters Wang Huai-qing and Ding Yi-lin have put the point quite succinctly: "All the words seem to have been used up by the theorists" says Wang, "What's left is the artist's endless experimentation with his paintings." "Artists have their own mission:" says Ding, "to spend time on the canvas." The excellent work in this First Annual Exhibition of Chinese Oil Painting is the product of this simple and forthright attitude. We may perceive outside artistic influences in much of the work, but these influences serve as points of departure and do not define the paintings. Generally speaking, though stylistically and technically, modern Chinese oil painting owes much to the West, the overall execution and the inner spirit of the paintings are very Chinese. And the works in this exhibition in which a Chinese spirit and identity is created most successfully, tend to be by the painters who "spend time on the canvas."
The paintings in this exhibition also express the selection committee's evaluation and understanding of key stylistic developments in Chinese oil painting. Some have criticized the works selected as solid but unadventurous. In view of recent, more avant-garde activity in the Chinese art world this may be true: but if one considers the actual impact of the evaluation process it is not a fair statement. The awarding of the exhibition's gold medals to Wang Huaiqing's "Ming Style" and Li Tian-yuan's "The Seductress" was in itself a daring action and a confirmation of the strong achievements of experimentation in oil painting in recent years. Unlike the award winners in the majority of national exhibitions, these two paintings have and will continue to generate discussion and new interest in Chinese oil painting development. What is more, compared to the previous major national exhibitions and competitions, the First Annual Exhibition of Chinese Oil Painting represents a breakthrough in terms of breadth of subject matter and variety of compositional styles - and as such it has gone a long way toward reducing the gap between art critics and artists.
Other award-winning paintings which exhibit creative innovation and strong individual approaches include Chen Shu-xia's "Pink Flowers," Shi Chong's "Dried Fish," and Zhou Xianglin's "
November 12, 1969 ." These paintings may not be perfect, but by reflecting something of both the inner and the outer worlds of the individual Chinese artist they and many of the other paintings in this exhibition have achieved a unique step forward. Through their achievements, the Chinese oil painting of today is sure to develop a strong visual language that will speak to future generations, of our time, our land and our emotions.