Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

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Modern Chinese Paintings: The Reyes Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A catalogue of Chinese paintings from the Reyes Collection by Shelagh Vainker (published Oxford, 1996).

Modern Chinese Paintings: The Reyes Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford by Shelagh Vainker


Map of China. © Ashmolean Museum Map of China.

The Reyes Collection of modern Chinese paintings covers the period from the middle of the 19th century until late 1995 when the collection was presented to the Ashmolean Museum. Artistically this period includes paintings strictly in the classical tradition and paintings which seek to update that tradition, as well as works embodying a response to Japanese or to Western art and works which reflect international art movements of the late 20th century. Politically it is a period that began under the Qing dynasty which witnessed the founding of the Republic in 1911 and the establishment in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China; it was also a period punctuated by unrest in the form of widescale rebellion, the Sino-Japanese (1937-45) war, civil war and, most recently, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). A further challenge to politicians, intellectuals and artists alike over the last century-and-a-half has been that of how to respond to the West, and this dilemma has added to the complexity of the history of modern Chinese painting. The plurality of artistic styles that arose in these circumstances, together with the ongoing tension between China’s illustrious past and international present, has precluded the decisive formulation of a mainstream in Chinese painting; the Reyes collection, in representing the conservative as well as the innovative painters of each generation, is in keeping with most major collections, public or private, in this field.

The classical artistic tradition which endured so much upheaval originated in the 11th century during the Northern Song (966-1127) dynasty, when the art of calligraphy flourished and the theory and practice of landscape painting developed. The greatest calligraphers of the period — Cai Xiang (1012-67), Su Dongpo (1037-1101), Huang Tingjian (1045-1105) and Mi Fu (1052-1107) - were also writers and officials, and the association of calligraphy with a high degree of formal education in fact persisted from its inception as an art form in the 4th century right up until the 20th century [EA1995.295.a and EA1995.295.b]. The severely controlled use of the brush for even the most expressive calligraphy provided the basis for painting landscapes in essentially calligraphic style; ink, with the addition of only a very little colour, was brushed onto paper not just to convey the qualities of the writer, but also to construct monumental landscapes which might embody a philosophical view of nature and man’s place in the universe, or possibly his own responses to those. The closeness of painting to calligraphy is the reason why signatures on Chinese works of art may be preceded by the character for “written”, “drawn”, or “painted”, used almost interchangeably.

This calligraphic method contrasted sharply with the linear style of both landscape and figure painting in the preceding Tang (618-906) dynasty, when mineral colours and silk, rather than the more responsive paper, had been the standard media. The latter style remained evident however in the Northern Song Imperial Painting Academy, where the use of outline and colour on silk, particularly to produce bird and flower paintings, formed the origins of what is known as decorative painting style. Thus were established the two principal styles of “traditional” Chinese painting; while the decorative survived into modern times [EA1995.173 and EA1995.275] there is no doubt that calligraphic painting, almost exclusively landscape, has always in China been highly regarded as the principal form of serious painting. It is known as wenrenhua, “literati painting”, the work of scholars and officials exchanged as gifts or for favours, as opposed to the “professional” painting produced for sale. The precision of such a distinction between one style and practice and another is of course open to scrutiny, but historically the difference between the literati and the professionals has been expressed, repeatedly. In the 20th century, paintings continuing the wenren literati tradition are known as guohua or “national painting” and these form the nucleus of the Reyes Collection, as indeed also of the Ashmolean’s earlier collection of modern paintings.

Landscape and literature

Landscape subjects may have developed partly as a vehicle for depicting broader thoughts, but their prominence in the classical tradition has been continually reinforced by the reality of China’s mountains and rivers. China is a vast country, incorporating mountainous and desert regions as well as fertile plains [EA1995.210 and EA1995.233] and tropical areas. Certain mountains have acquired historical associations [EA1995.174] and religious significance and throughout centuries artists have added to their fame by visiting these imposing sites, and subsequently painting them. Huangshan (Mount Huang) in Anhui province [EA1995.204, EA1995.216, EA1995.219, and EA1995.245] is perhaps the most renowned for dramatic scenery while Lushan in Jiangxi [EA1995.246], though not a religious site, is famous for the poems as well as the paintings it has inspired. The influence of landscape on painters however goes beyond the depiction of famous places and rivers [EA1995.207, EA1995.295.a, and EA1995.295.b]; the empty backgrounds in the animal paintings of Wu Zuoren [EA1995.257] for example, particularly his camels and yaks, appear only after his visit to Dunhuang, where the vast expanse of the Gobi desert changed his perceptions of space and distance.

Dunhuang is an influential site in the history of Chinese painting. Now a small oasis town in Gansu province in the northwest of China, in the Tang (618—906) dynasty it was a major trading city on the Silk Route, at the point where the road from the Tang capital divided north and south of the Taklamakan desert; the nearby Mogao cave temples are one of the principal Buddhist sites in China. Excavated and enlarged from the 4th century to the 13th, it was in the Tang dynasty that they flourished, and the murals and painted ceilings in colourful linear style form the largest surviving group of Tang painting. The site was largely neglected until early in the 20th century, when it was discovered by foreign archaeologists and explorers, and throughout this century numerous artists have travelled there to see the paintings. Zhang Daqian in particular was impressed by the sculpture and murals of Dunhuang, spending the two years following his 1942 visit producing several hundred figure and landscape paintings copied from or inspired by the cave paintings [EA1995.276 and EA1995.279].

The Tang dynasty, and especially the first half of the 8th century, was a period of great achievement in all aspects of Chinese arts and literature, and many of these have been evident in the paintings of subsequent dynasties. Figure paintings in particular have been indebted to Tang style, while subjects taken from Tang history [EA1995.227] and popular literature [EA1995.226, EA1995.180, EA1995.268, EA1995.269, and EA1995.270] remain current in the late 20th century. Poetry has been even more influential; couplets [EA1995.188] or whole poems are often inscribed on paintings which may themselves illustrate a famous poem [EA1995.226], and many more verses, it not actually transcriptions of Tang poems, follow the twenty-eight character format of four seven-syllable lines established in that period. The poetry and calligraphy of the Song (960-1279) dynasty likewise remain prominent in inscriptions and subject matter, even on works which are not obviously in the classical tradition. These tend to refer to painting methods [EA1995.244, EA1995.255.a, EA1995.255.b, and EA1995.285] and calligraphic style [EA1995.238 and EA1995.299] rather than the historical incidents and figures favoured in the Tang period.

The presence of China's literary and historical past in the paintings of the modern period is thus by no means limited to works which adhere strictly to the tenets of literati painting; the latter are the clearest manifestations of an ancient and apparently almost inescapable past which is implicit in the brushwork and subject matter even of some recent paintings [EA1995.286 and EA1995.294], and explicit in the inscriptions of many more [EA1995.296].

The literati tradition after 1800

The painting style prevalent at the beginning of the 19th century was a conservative continuation of the classical tradition, deriving ultimately from the literati painting of the Song and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties. The vigour of that tradition had by the 16th century begun to wane, prompting the painter and theorist Dong Qichang (1555—1636), in a grand survey of all previous Chinese painting masterpieces, to state methods not only for appreciating landscapes but also for creating them; he also drew a clear distinction between types of painting that might be regarded as cultivated and types which must be considered vulgar. Dong Qichang's theories were so compelling that few subsequent historians of Chinese painting have escaped their influence, even into modern times.

Those 17th century painters who followed his theories have become known as the Orthodox School, and its principal exponents were Wang Shimin (1592-1680), Wang Jian (1598-1652), Wang Hui (1632-1717), Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715), Wu Li (1632-1718) and Yun Shouping (1633-90).Throughout the 19th century there were many painters who worked in the disciplined techniques of the Orthodox School, regarding themselves explicitly as part of a lineage that extended through Wang Shimin or Wang Hui to the Yuan masters and their Song predecessors. Such painters, particularly earlier in the 19th century but also later, learnt calligraphy and painting from private tutors and family collections, or collections to which they had access through family connections. In conjunction with a classical education, such training equipped a young artist tor employment in government and the life of a scholar- official, or literatus.

Beijing (Peking), as the capital city and centre of government, was a prominent literary and artistic centre throughout the Qing (1644-1911) dynasty, attracting artists from the provinces in addition to the groups of painters already associated with the court. The latter dwindled in number throughout the turbulent years of the 19th century yet it was in Beijing that the most conservative artists of the early 20th century established their painting associations. Foremost amongst these was the Hu She association founded by Jin Cheng (1878-1926), dedicated to the perpetuation of literati painting through imitation of Song and Yuan masters. Artists active in various other associations included Chen Shaomei (1909-54) [EA1995.171 and EA1995.172], Yu Fei’an (1889-1959) [EA1995.275], Xiao Sun (1883-1944) [EA1995.258] and Chen Hengke (1876-1923) [EA1995.169, EA1995.170.a, and EA1995.170.b]. Chen Hengke, though from a Jiangxi literati family, was not as intensely traditional as some other artists; he was interested in the 17th century Individualist painters rather than their Orthodox contemporaries and helped establish the career of Qi Baishi (1863-1957), who nowadays is usually associated with the Shanghai School. Shanghai, opened as a treaty port in 1842, was in the 19th century a centre of innovative painting, but also attracted literati painters (see below) including Wu Guxiang (1848-1903) [EA1995.253] and later the prominent connoisseur and collector Wu Hufan (1894-1968) [EA1995.254 and EA1995.290].

The Shanghai School

The term “Shanghai School” is used to denote a group of artists whose connections with that city vary from native to tenuous, but whose paintings and working methods share a common break with established early 19th century painting style.

The early Qing Individualists who dissented from the art historical theory of painting propounded by Dong Qichang sought instead to recapture the essence of Song painting by responding to nature directly, and the most influential of these was to be Shi Tao (1642-1707), also known as Dao Ji. This personal method was taken up in the 18th century by painters associated with the city of Yangzhou, and it is these artists whose circumstances and paintings may be compared to those of the Shanghai School.

Yangzhou, on the north bank of the Yangzi, was a flourishing port as early as the Tang dynasty and in the 18th century it prospered again, as a centre of the salt trade. Its rich merchant population, keen to patronise artists but often lacking education in painting and calligraphy, were receptive to unconventional styles and content to buy direct. These precedents were developed further in Shanghai, a city founded on trade and which moreover accommodated by the mid-19th century a wide mix of nationalities and social classes. In addition to Chinese and foreign merchants and entrepreneurs, Shanghai’s population included refugees from the Taiping Rebellion which raged across east China during the 1850s. The mild, fertile eastern provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang have brought forth the most elegant and erudite scholars of most eras of Chinese history; those migrating to late Qing Shanghai thus included traditional painters seeking safety from unrest as well as painters from an even wider geographical area attracted by the commercial possibilities of the most prosperous and cosmopolitan of the new treaty ports.

The earlier painters associated with the Shanghai School include Zhao Zhiqian (1829-84), Ren Xiong (1820-57) [EA1995.236] and Xu Gu (1823-96) [EA1995.266 and EA1995.267]. Zhao Zhiqian came from a literati family in Zhejiang, Ren Xiong was an artist from the Shanghai area and Xu Gu belonged to a military family from Yangzhou, providing a link between the Eccentric painters and their artistic heirs. Xu Gu is known for a reserved painting style and while his subjects — squirrels, goldfish, plants, vegetables — all have antecedents as far back in some cases as Song court painting, his handling of them in large formats and a combination of dry and loose brushwork represents a new departure. Ren Yi (1840-95) [EA1995.237], the leading artist in late 19th century Shanghai, is renowned for enlarging the subject repertoire, painting heroes from popular literature and legend, often in exaggerated or distorted style, in addition to traditional bird and plant subjects. Such breaking of the boundaries between decorative and literati subjects and brushwork, and their re-configuration to embrace painting forms previously considered vulgar, form the principal contribution of the so-called Shanghai School to the development of modern Chinese painting. The widespread sale of paintings within Shanghai was also at odds with literati practice and Ren Yi, who enjoyed great commercial success, was as well-known for the wealth he accumulated as for the paintings from which it derived. His pupil Wu Changshuo (1844-1927), as a highly trained painter and calligrapher with a particular interest in seal-carving, succeeded in tempering the low regard in which Ren and others were held; he also carried forward the new style to another generation of painters.

Modernization 1900-1949

The first half of the 20th century was a period in which approaches to painting underwent great change. Not only had the events of the 19th century weakened the role of traditionalism, but the circumstances in which artists worked and paintings became known broadened enormously.

Publishing houses, in Shanghai particularly, began producing magazines and journals in the early years of the century; pictorial publications increased steadily and in the 1930s paintings were regularly reproduced in newspapers. Previously, calligraphy and paintings had been accessible only to those who owned them and their acquaintances, and were reproducible only in the principally monochrome forms of stone rubbings or woodcuts. Photographic reproduction made it possible for people from all levels of society to develop an interest in the subject, and this popularization was reinforced by the introduction of the art exhibition. Before the 20th century, paintings were not displayed in public, but viewed privately by groups of collectors, and there were no museums or art galleries. The first exhibitions were held in the British and French concessions in Shanghai, and in the second decade of the century exhibitions of contemporary paintings were held in Beijing as well. New artists seeking sales, who in the past had only been able to leave their work at mounting shops, now submitted it for exhibition and although the paintings might not be viewed by large crowds, they probably would be reviewed in magazines and newspapers.

New opportunities for artistic training also arose in this period. The first art school in China was opened in 1912 in Shanghai by Liu Haisu; Liu was sixteen years old at the time and the school consisted of perhaps a dozen members, but within ten years had several hundred students. At around the same time several universities set up art departments, so that the study of painting became a possibility for all students able to contemplate a university education.

Art publishing, education and exhibitions were not confined to Shanghai for in the treaty port of Canton, all these activities were initiated by Gao Jianfu (1879-1951) [EA1995.189]. Gao had at the turn of the century studied in Japan, where he encountered both the movement to revitalize Japanese painting through synthesis with Western models, and the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen, with whose political movement he became involved. After the Revolution of 1911 Gao Jianfu, his brother Gao Qifeng (1889-1933) and Chen Shuren (1883-1948) founded a movement called “New National Painting”, which sought not only to invigorate traditional painting through the introduction of chiaroscuro, perspective and other Western watercolour techniques, but also to modernize it by depicting symbols of modern technology in their landscapes. The movement, based in Canton, became known as the Lingnan School [EA1995.189, EA1995.194, EA1995.212, EA1995.282.a, EA1995.282.b, EA1995.283.a, EA1995.283.b, and EA1995.249], and remains active.

Gao Jianfu was amongst the earliest of many Chinese painters to study in Japan. Others went to Europe, so that by the third decade of the 20th century the influence on Chinese painting may be said to have been truly international. Foreign influence became in part institutionalized by the invitations extended to many returned students to head art academies and university art departments. Three prominent European-trained artists all of whom studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris were Xu Beihong (1898-1953) [EA1995.262, EA1995.263, EA1995.264, and EA1995.265], Lin Fengmian (1900-91) [EA1995.213, EA1995.214, and EA1995.215], and Liu Haisu (1896-1994) [EA1995.216]. Unsurprisingly, each took up a different aspect of European painting, and assimilated Western style into their works to varying extents. Xu Beihong was impressed with Academic Realism and spent much time with Dagnan-Bouveret. He worked hard at life drawing, and on his return to China produced several large scale didactic oil paintings in the manner of grand historical painting in Europe. Lin Fengmian was sympathetic to the view of the early Republican intellectual leader Cai Yuanpei that art should replace religion, and he was attracted to the epic qualities of Renaissance art; in his own paintings however, the colours and structures of Matisse, the Fauves and the Parisian avant-garde are to the fore. His works are the most colourful of all 20th century Chinese paintings, yet he often retains elements of traditional composition. Liu Haisu preferred Cézanne and Van Gogh, and indeed for many years worked principally in oils rather than the Chinese medium. When he did address traditional painting, he assimilated his understanding of oil painting and colours to great effect. A painter who was similarly successful in absorbing Western colour techniques into traditional painting, though he never studied in Europe, was Zhu Qizhan [EA1995.287 and EA1995.288].

Liu Haisu returned to teach in Shanghai, while Lin Fengmian was appointed head of the new National Art Academy in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province and Xu Beihong was given posts in Shanghai and subsequently Nanjing and Beijing. Their different theories of how to reform Chinese painting, and the fact that students in art academies were now exposed to many teachers and styles of painting, rather than a single tutor, vastly increased the possibilities for artistic renewal.

During the upheavals of the decade 1928-37, Nanjing became the seat of the Nationalist Government. The Lingnan School, unaffected, continued to evolve its own criteria for painting while many of the conservative traditionalists in Beijing remained there. These included Pu Xinyu (1896-1963) [EA1995.227, EA1995.228, and EA1995.229], a member of the Qing Imperial family who finally moved in the late 1940s to Taiwan where he became the leading classical painter. Nanjing became an important centre for painting, with the art department of National Central University headed by Fu Baoshi (1904-65) [EA1995.184, EA1995.185, EA1995.186, EA1995.187, and EA1995.188], recently returned from studying in Japan and who, after Huang Binhong (1864-1955) [EA1995.195 and EA1995.196], is the leading literati painter of this century.

At the onset of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 the University, along with numerous other institutions and professional individuals, moved to west China and was based at Chongqing in Sichuan province. For the following eight years there was a concentration of painters in Sichuan, including Lin Fengmian, Ding Yanyong, Xu Beihong, Fu Baoshi and Zhang Daqian, and numerous exhibitions were held [EA1995.262]. The dramatic scenery of Sichuan may have impressed some artists [EA1995.187] while others took the opportunity to travel from Sichuan to other areas of western China [EA1995.264, EA1995.276, and EA1995.279] but on the whole, the painters appear to have developed the styles they were already practising rather than being profoundly influenced by local conditions.

Those artists who were more politically involved, in the anti-Japanese campaign and the Communist struggle, travelled the country during this period, painting war pictures and producing propaganda. Much of this took the form of woodcuts, both because this was the medium of Käthe Kollwitz and other international socialist artists first introduced to China by the novelist and reformer Lu Xun, and because it related to New Year prints, the only form of pictorial art familiar to the illiterate country-dwellers whose support the socialists were seeking to enlist. These artists included Shi Lu [EA1995.242 and EA1995.243] and Li Keran [EA1995.208, EA1995.209, EA1995.210, EA1995.211, EA1995.295.a, and EA1995.295.b], both of whom were to be involved in the development of painting practices after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

Painting in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-

When the Communists established the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, they regarded the work of artists as approaching that of writers in its potential to affect people’s thoughts. The educational opportunities, artistic choices and economic freedom that had become available to Chinese painters in the first half of the 20th century all gradually became subject to government control, and it was increasingly difficult for a painter to sell his work. By the mid-1950s most artists, like everyone else, were employed by the state for a fixed wage and their work belonged to the state. Art schools were directed only to teach officially sanctioned styles, thereby controlling each new generation of artists. Established painters could only function through state-run agencies, the local, regional and national artists associations run by the carefully vetted members themselves in accordance with political directives from ultimately, the government.

The ideology that drove these reforms was Mao’s view, stated at the Yan’an Forum on Art and Literature in 1942, that art should serve the masses; writers and artists should be spokesmen for the masses and also educators of the masses, in effect by presenting to them that which had been determined by the Communist Party on their behalf. The fact that most artists worked in Western media or the traditional Chinese mode presented a problem of style; Western painting was feudal in origin while traditional Chinese style carried the stigma of the privilege associated with literati painting. The solutions included work inspired by Soviet socialist realist painting, and pictures based on New Year prints and other folk art. The extent to which the individualism of literati or Western style painting was in fact tolerated varied throughout the 1950s, and although some painters were assigned to produce commercial art, there certainly did appear paintings which were not obviously distinguishable from works of the previous decade [EA1995.275].

In 1956 came the Hundred Flowers campaign, named after Confucius’ saying “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend”, promising an unprecedented degree of artistic freedom and which has been viewed both as part of a longer-running attempt to carry intellectuals with the Party rather than resort to overt censorship, and as a ploy to reveal disloyalty to the Party. In 1958 this freedom was curtailed by the Anti-Rightist campaign, the first of a succession of campaigns in which intellectuals might be branded enemies of the state, and the beginning of a period of great suffering for many artists. Painting content and style were subjected to intense political scrutiny, and it was in this period that overt political allusions, such as landscapes dominated by red, began to proliferate in works of art, and yet this period of difficulty during the late 1950s was followed by a few years in the early 1960s when artists once again enjoyed recognition and a certain amount of freedom, and some of the most sensitive guohua landscapes of the late 20th century were painted [EA1995.186].

In 1966 Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. In the ten years that followed, it became almost impossible for artists to work, and little teaching took place. The painting collections, libraries and work of many of the painters represented in this catalogue were destroyed, with the artists in some cases being driven to do this themselves. Though many of them survived, younger painters are now deracinated from the tradition that was already under strain from political events; to the tensions of past and present, Chinese and Western, must be added that between younger and older artists. After 1979, when government control over art was loosened and it became once more possible for artists to sell their work, many younger artists enjoyed the possibility for self-expression by following Western artistic trends, including installation and performance art. The repression which followed the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 eventually gave rise to movements such as Political Pop and Cynical Realism [EA1995.291]. There is once again an art market in China, and painters increasingly sell their work in Hong Kong and throughout the Far East, Europe and America as well. Some paintings are geared to those markets but, just as conservative and innovative styles existed together in an earlier period, it is true that within China today, unexposed, ink paintings and calligraphy continue to be exchanged amongst friends.


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