Art Critic, Diana Roman


Return to nature - Chinese Masters’ Artworks by Diana Roman

December 23,2019

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Return to nature - Chinese Masters’ Artworks by Diana Roman

Shanghai’s art scene was very rich in interesting exhibitions during the summer, but the one that I call a “jewel” was definitely “Return to nature – Chinese Masters’ Artworks” showcased by “WS Space” and “Je Fine Art Space” Shanghai (23.06 – 25.08.2019).


       Displayed in a minimalist designed space, the exhibition featured the 4 masters of Chinese vanguard art, the famous Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-Chun, T’ang Haywen and Walasse Ting. This very interesting project shows the beginnings of the externalization of the Chinese art in Paris, Amsterdam, and New York, and the crystallization of the Chinese Modern Painting, but apart from the beautiful display of the artworks, it is important to briefly examine the artistic context of that period. In this respect, the description of those times made by the researcher Chie Lee is very revealing: “To understand the relationship between avant-garde art and cultural identity in China, a basic understanding of the historical and cultural contexts is essential. The Cultural Revolution in China did not begin after Mao took power in 1949—it began with the May 4th movement of 1919. The movement, led by students and intellectuals, proclaimed that if China was to survive in the 20th century with any integrity as a country, the Confucian traditional values had to be rejected. China must openly adopt Western political, economic, and social values in order to modernize and bring about a new China. This was the beginning of the quest for a new cultural and political identity” (Lee, Chie. Chinese Avant-Garde Art: Body and Spirit Struggle for a New Cultural Identity. Psychological Perspectives. 56/ 2013, pages 455-466. 10.1080/00332925.2013.843994).

       Therefore, since the 1920s, many artists from China were acquainted with the cultural milieu of Paris, mixing Chinese and Western aesthetics and giving expression to ideas that could never have been possible back home.

       For the artistic career of Zao Wou Ki and Chu Teh-Chun the contact with Lin Fengmian (returned from Paris in 1926), their teacher at the Art Academy in Hangzhou, and a pivotal figure in shaping the development of Western art training in China, was essential. The other two artists present in the show, T’ang Haywen and Walasse Ting, received no formal training in art (Ting briefly attended the Art Academy in Shanghai), but had an immense ambition to become painters and to participate in the cultural environment of their time.



       Arriving in Paris almost at the same time (Zao Wou-Ki and T’ang Haywen in 1948, Walasse Ting in 1950, and Chu Teh-Chun in 1955), the 4 artists made contact with the center of intellectual and cultural achievements, where avant-garde movements contested old artistic traditions. All of them became aware that their art should abandon the Chinese heritage and acquire new forms of expression pertaining to the Western visual language. Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and T’ang Haywen decided to explore abstraction, whilst Walasse Ting approached a figurative manner of painting, with very bright colors and black contours similar to Henri Matisse’s painting. Strongly influenced by the Parisian artistic milieu, they decided to reform Chinese tradition of painting, each following his path through abstraction or figurative art.

       Visiting the exhibition, the artist who first caught my eye was definitely T’ang Haywen. His ink paintings reveal his desire to create abstraction based on the solid knowledge of calligraphy received in his childhood. 



       There is drama in his gestures; the brush strokes are energetic, textured, fluid and full of sensitivity. T’ang Haywen’s ink paintings are unrestrained, flooding the pictorial space with forms and signs belonging to the aesthetics of traditional Chinese painting, but displayed with force and sensibility in an undefined spatial dimension. T’ang Haywen’s “personal feature” of the middle sized artworks. is the “diptych format”, the juxtaposition of two sheets of paper displayed as one, creating for his works a recognizable visual identity.


       Another characteristic feature of T'ang's works lies in the calligraphy of his signature: It combines Roman letters to Chinese ideograms which for T'ang acts as a metaphor for his life and his work. Usually painted in red, like the traditional seal, it becomes part of T'ang's composition. It is elegant, dynamic and conveys energy and substance. From Asia to Europe, he repeatedly returned to his tradition so as to enrich and modernize it. (Jean-Francois Jarrige, T'Ang Haywen: Les Chemins De L'Encre/Paths of Ink, Museum Guimet, Paris, 2002, p.147)



       Influenced by the Taoist philosophy that praises the individual as a founding principle of all harmony, T’ang’s compositions reflect his unique visions on nature, life, and reality. He often asserted that his intention was “to go beyond the conscious world, to identify with the forces of nature and materialize them through painting”.

       Arrived in Paris, Chu Teh-Chun visited a retrospective of the abstract painter Nicolas de Staël, and that was the moment for deciding to abandon figurative painting and start a new direction in his art.  But his powerful traditional background was still there, his entire childhood being marked by his grandfather’s collection of ink painting, calligraphy scrolls and poetry. Chu Teh Chun’s education in traditional calligraphy enabled him to specialize in caoshu craft, a technique of writing the characters in an uninterrupted brush-stroke, therefore, this spontaneity and flowing gesture was intensely used in his abstract paintings.



       Being a poetry lover, Chu The-Chun created painted poems in which he illustrated the direct expression of his individual emotions through amorphous compositions to which he added the calligraphic linearity and the dynamic gesture of Tachisme.



       Chu Teh-Chun was a painter of nature, depicting its harmony in bright colors with vibrant and fluctuating signs and accents, with energetic brush-strokes and fluid color wash. In my opinion, his paintings showcased in this exhibition reveal more a Kandinskyan influence rather than De Stael’s, because the Chinese master also referred to the spiritual nature, to the inner existence of each element found in nature, and Kandinsky’s theory from “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” is in close relationship to one of the notions of Chinese traditional painting, that of the Qiyunshengdong - “inner spirit, vivid and graceful charm, which is full of vitality” (François Jullien, La Grande image n’a pas de forme, Paris, Seuil, 2003, p. 147).

       Famous for his abstract paintings, Zao Wou-ki also created watercolors and prints, being called by the specialists “a traditional painter-printer”. His desire to experiment and to find new ways of expression determined him to approach printmaking as another distinct medium, not as preparatory study. His lithographs reveal the search for spontaneity, transparency and translucency, experimenting continuously and inventing “an unusual lithographic technique”. Zao Wou-ki disclosed, in an interview, his initial experiments in printmaking: “The idea of throwing color on a large white porous stone, like on China paper, pleased me. I used a lot of water, which is not at all to be recommended. Edmond Desjobert, a remarkably skilful lithographer, criticized me for it and told me the outcome would be poor, because one could not mix so much water with the lithographic ink. Even so, I tried, and while the proofs were being printed he became enthusiastic”.


       Influenced by the works of Pierre Soulages and Paul Klee, the Chinese master approached a bolder style in his prints, and the lithograph exhibited in the show remarkably illustrates this stage of his creation (‘70s-‘80s). Bright red, dark brown and deep black show bold contrasts and energetic gestures, same as in his paintings.

       But the most colorful artworks of the exhibition are undoubtedly the ones created by Walasse Ting, well-known for his very bright and fluorescent pigments, describing mostly women in “boudoir” interiors, but also flowers, cats, birds. These subjects remind us of the Chinese court painting (women, flowers, birds, and fish), staged in a seductive, and bright atmosphere. “When I see a beautiful woman, I see flowers. Its beauty makes me feel intangible, melancholy, love, refreshed, different and reborn. I want to use different colors to express my inner feelings and emotions in my paintings. I’ve spent all my life painting, to express a sense of freshness just like a new spring. Women, cats, flowers, and birds in my paintings all represent the beauty in that freshness”, the artist once said.






       Travelling back and forth between Europe and United States, Walasse Ting encounters many artistic directions, such as Abstract Expressionism, Cobra Movement, Action Painting which influenced his creations; however, he never abandoned Chinese ink painting which enabled him to create his highly individualistic style, recognizable in the manner of depicting his subjects: black contour of the forms, describing in a very synthetic and lively way the chosen themes, very bright colors on large, flat areas similar to Matisse’s painting. Compared to the French master, what is different in Walasse Ting’s art is the fact that the contour is fading in contrast with the colored zones, and sometimes the painter even hides it with the brush strokes with the frenzy of the creator liberated of any constraints. And this freedom is more obvious in the sensual/ erotic “boudoir” scenes with beautiful women, nudes or barely dressed, rendered by simple traits and bold color, creating a seductive, magical world of sensory pleasure.

       “Return to Nature” was not only a documentary project regarding the Chinese Avant-garde Painting, but also an exhibition aiming to reveal 4 different ways of seeing, feeling and rendering Nature. Supporting this idea, I quote Chu Teh-Chun’s words: “The artist absorbs what he sees in nature and refines it in his mind, and it is the power of the artist’s imagination, his sensibility, and his inner character, that are revealed on the canvas. This is where the concepts behind Chinese painting and abstract painting very neatly come together.”