Framing a new journey

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Exhibition brings together artists of the Chang'an school and their unique brushwork, Lin Qi reports.

In October 1961, six painters from the China Artists' Association's branch in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, held a group exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing to show their "exercise works" in the style of classical Chinese ink painting.

Neither the artists nor cultural circles at the time anticipated the exhibition would become a phenomenon, giving rise to a new style in Chinese ink art, the "Chang'an school of painting", after the old name of Xi'an.

The paintings on show impressed people with a refreshing representation that was rooted in the rich history and culture of Northwest China, as well as exhibiting a modern temperament and an innovative spirit.

The new look presented by the school is summarized by critics as "learning from tradition on one hand and sourcing inspiration from life on the other".

Six decades have passed and the principle is still held dear by a number of ink artists hailing from or now based in Shaanxi.

A Journey From Chang'an, a show that started on Nov 11 at the National Art Museum of China and runs through Nov 21, is a reenactment of the history 60 years ago. It brings together the works of the six founding painters and more than 100 paintings by 32 artists who continue to paint in the style.

The exhibition expresses the features of the school-"renovating while based on traditions and keeping up with the time", says Deng Feng, a senior curator of classical Chinese paintings at the museum.

He says the school rose to prominence when the style of classical Chinese painting underwent changes in the 1950s and '60s to meet cultural demand.

The school provides a vivid portrayal of the natural environment of the northwest and the people laboring on the land, "rendering such motifs an atmosphere of revolutionary romanticism", he adds.

"The school was driven by an effort to make breakthroughs in traditional brushwork combined with a quest for the truth of life."

Later, generations of artists held on to the spirit to develop more dimensions of the style, Deng says.

A distinctive feature of the school is the use of references to the northwestern region as being shaped by the Yellow River and the Loess Plateau in depictions of majestic and desolate landscapes. One can also see the different approaches to the landscapes by two generations of painters.

Deng says those born in the 1930s and '40s prefer a "quasi-realistic" style to present the panoramic views of the mountains and water, by which they accentuate a historical narrative and symbolic expressions in their artworks. While young and middle-aged painters reduce the presentation of details, but favor showing the beauty of forms in which they hint at the mentality of modern people.

"When the six painters left for Beijing 60 years ago, carrying their works from Xi'an, they were paving a way to connect the fine art circles of Shaanxi with the outside world," says Xing Qingren, director of the Shaanxi Province Art Museum in Xi'an which holds in its collection dozens of the paintings on show.

"They lit up the sky and pictured a collective image of people in the northwest, and their paintings joined to form a grand new work to voice their awe for art and love of life," says Xing, who is himself a pioneering artist of the Chang'an school.

He says the torch has now been passed on to the younger generations and the current exhibition is like a "second journey" of equal significance to the one in 1961, "a platform where people can discover future master painters".

After Beijing, the exhibition will travel to Nanjing, Jiangsu province, where it will be held at the Jiangsu Art Museum from Dec 1 to 8, and return to the Shaanxi Province Art Museum from Dec 18 to Feb 20.

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