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Freehand Ink Artists Deconstruct to Paint the Future

A traditional freehand ink painting has ink and calligraphic brushwork applied and is made up of simple composition. This is to create a free and natural mood, and an artist of this form is usually more unrestrained, more casual, more self-indulgent.

He is more likely to 'accomplish a composition in one breath' than those creating gongbi hua (meticulous-style paintings), decorative paintings or craftworks.

The above are the thoughts of Liu Xiaochun, a researcher with the Fine Art Research Institute of the China Art Academy in Beijing.

Academically supported by the institute, the nation's first large-scale exhibition that explores the development of freehand ink paintings in the contemporary age is taking place at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) from October 26 to 31 and a national-level symposium on the topic is to be held at the museum today and tomorrow.

"The 'xieyi shuimo', or freehand ink painting, is a popular traditional form of Chinese paintings and is one of the most greatly challenged disciplines in the modern world," said Beijing-based artist and critic Nan Qi.

Nan Qi and Dang Zhongguo, who is also a Beijing-based artist/critic, are curators of the exhibition and sponsors include the Singapore-based China Art Foundation and the Yisulang Art Gallery.

The showcase features 75 works by 25 artists from around the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong as well as Singapore, who can best represent the various trends in the development of freehand ink paintings, said researcher Liu, who is the academic chairman of the exhibition and the symposium.

The artists say they are creating "new freehand ink paintings." But this bold claim has been challenged by some art historians.

"How 'new' can our 'freehand' be today, after freehand reached its peak at the time of master artist Xu Wei (1521-93) and Zhu Da (1626-1705)? It's really a difficult problem," remarked Liu Xilin, a researcher with the NAMOC.

"New innovations can be found in freehand brushwork of all eras," said Liu.

Freehand ink painting has changed over time, from artists such as Su Shi (1036-1101) and Mi Fu (1051-1107) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), to Huang Gongwang (1269-1354) and Wang Meng (1308-85) of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), from Zhu Da and Wu Changshuo (1844-1927) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to Huang Binhong (1865-1955) of the modern time, he added.

"But none of these masters experienced such a deconstruction of the traditional lifestyles and ideas as we are having today," said curator Nan.

Calligraphic brushwork, which was applied to create traditional freehand, could be easily echoed by all those educated in a time when everyone wrote with a brush, said Xu Peijun, critic and editor of the Beijing-based Art Observation magazine.

As calligraphy becomes almost a privilege among artists and calligraphers, an art lover may find it difficult to notice, not to mention understand, the calligraphic strokes in a freehand ink painting, he added.

"The fundamental change lies in people's attitude towards life, including the artists," said Nan.

"A traditional ink painter is a quiet, mellow artist who expresses himself calmly, but now few artists can have that undisturbed heart. Meanwhile the audience want something more fun, more stimulating, more eye-catching and good-looking," he added.

The first attempts of ink painters to catch up with modern times were made four decades ago by artists including Wu Guannan and Cui Zifan. They added strong colours in their pictures, as displayed at the exhibition, while largely preserving the brushwork and compositions of traditional freehand ink paintings.

"Such application of dazzling colors was forbidden by ancient artists, who were more interested in the rich and subtle changes of the ink. They said 'the black ink has five colors,' and reduced the application of strong colors as to be out of an impetuous mind instead of a quiet heart," said an art historian who wanted to remain anonymous.

"But such works are popular now," he added.

After Wu and Cui, both over 60, emerged a generation of artists of more variety.

Among them Jia Youfu and Zeng Mi filled the whole picture with powerful calligraphic strokes, which made an imposing visual effect.

"It was important in traditional ink painting to leave large areas blank to make the picture look more casual and natural," said curator Nan.

One of Nan's works displayed was a close-up view of a tiger's head. The kind of view, which would never be seen in traditional ink paintings, was most eye-catching, and to enlarge the effect, Nan used different shades of gray and large dots as backgrounds for the black tiger.

Artist Tian Liming strives to achieve transient effects of light and color in his works, which, as the traditional ink paintings did, reveal a beauty that grows out of the Chinese Taoist or Chan (also known as Zen Buddhism) traditions.

The young artists involved at the exhibition bring a great change to traditional art. At first glance visitors may feel strange to see the avant-garde pieces by Li Xiaoxuan, Liu Qinghe and Li Jin at a show of "freehand ink paintings."

With traditional brushwork the three depicted human body urges, and somewhat rudely in the eyes of some traditional Chinese, as self-expression was made in a more reserved manner in a typical ink painting.

A further step away was made by Shao Ge, who abandoned the paper and painted on acrylic canvas, and by Hai Rihan. Both have maintained little about traditional freehand ink paintings in their works.

When asked whether some artists involved would finally kick everything about freehand ink paintings out of their works, Nan said: "Yes, it's possible of all traditional arts, some artists may only retain the so-called Chinese elements."

(China Daily October 27, 2004)

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