Blog post

Landscapes from the Soul

Explore fusions of Chinese pictorial traditions and Western abstraction

by
Benoit Dercy (opens in new window) (Musée départemental des arts asiatiques à Nice)

Until February 13, 2022 the Asian Arts Museum in Nice is holding an exhibition entitled Landscapes from the Soul presenting 25 works produced by 11 artists from Taiwan and China. Dating from the 1960s to the present day, these creations operate a fusion between Chinese millennial pictorial tradition and Western abstraction.

At the end of the 1940s, Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, Chuang Che, Hu Chi-Chung and Fong Chung-Ray discovered Western abstraction in Paris or Taiwan echoing shanshui, or Chinese landscape painting, in which the artist does not formally represent nature, but soaks up the landscape to release its own interpretation and convey the intangible. They drew inspiration to paint in a new way. They also decided to introduce themselves to the Western world by travelling to Europe and the United States.

Two tutelary figures

Influenced by the artistic universe of Paul Klee (1879-1940), Zao Wou-Ki 趙無極 (1920-2013), incorporated motifs inspired by archaic ideograms on luminous background in his first abstract works. Towards the end of the 1950s, these signs tended to fade. In his later works, the artist extended his chromatic palette, endeavoring to render light and transparency so as to paint the breath of life and movement.

Chu The-Chun 朱德群 (1920-2014) studied Western art in the Chinese Academy of Arts in Hangzhou and taught Western painting in Taiwan from 1949 to 1955. He discovered in France the Parisian abstract painting with the “Nouvelle École de Paris” and the work of Nicolas de Staël (1913-1955) in 1956, which prompted him to reflect on the concept of non-figuration. Nature is omnipresent in his works, a cosmic nature where the elements intertwine, where light springs from the fusion of colors. By its warm tones the oil on canvas Song of joy (2006) evokes the contemplation of nature at sunset, and by its title, the inspiration that the artist constantly drew from classical music.

Oil on canvas, 130 x 195 cm © Adagp, Paris, 2021. Courtesy Fondation Chu Teh-Chun.

Pioneers from Taiwan

In Taiwan two avant-garde movements were created in 1956. They renewed the practice of painting by striking a subtle balance between international trends - in which abstraction was becoming a common language - and the expression of Chinese identity.

Hu Chi-Chung 胡奇中 (1928-2012), Fong Chung-Ray 馮鐘睿 (b. 1934) and Chuang Che 莊喆 (b. 1934) were all members of the Fifth Moon Group (Wuyue huahui 五月畫會). The first two artists experimented with new techniques, such as incorporating sand into their oils. Hu Chi-Chung, who discovered pictural abstraction through the works of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), presents colorful and dreamlike landscapes full of vitality and joy.

Fong Chung-Ray gives a rougher aspect to his flat tints with a brush made of rush fibers. Gradually, he turned to Buddhist spirituality and explored the notion of temporality, endeavoring to render the effects of time on matter or resorting to collages and prints.

Fong Chung-Ray, Untitled, 1964, Ink on paper, 59 x 119 cm, © Luc Pâris

Chuang Che, enraptured by the grand landscapes of Michigan, offers chaotic scenes on large formats, made of bright colors, turbulent shapes and material effects, from which, however, joy and harmony spring up.

Chuang Che, Composition, 1984, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 98.5 x 98.5 cm, © Luc Pâris

Hsiao Ming-Hsien 蕭明賢 (b. 1936) was the youngest of the founding members of the Ton Fan Group (Dongfang huahui 東方畫會), which favoured a more geometric abstraction. His free, spontaneous style is intimately linked to his love for classical music, conveying rhythm to his paintings.

Hsiao Ming-Hsien, Black Forest, 1963, Ink on paper, 39,5 x 108,5 cm © Luc Pâris

The new Chinese generation

In China, after more than 30 years of Socialist Realism, a new generation of artists revisited tradition through "experimental ink" and digital media. Their landscapes revived the innovative approach initiated more than half a century before.

Wucius Wong 王無邪 (b. 1936), who studied Western painting in the United States, seeks to regain the greatness of the Song Dynasty painters. He was one of the first to renew the practice of ink in compositions full of chromatic variations, in which geometric shapes and lines disrupt the rules of scale and distance.

Wucius Wong, Seclusion, 1975, Ink on paper, 102 x 184 cm © Luc Pâris

Li Chevalier 詩藍 (b. 1961), after learning the techniques of the Quattrocento masters in Italy, drew inspiration from Far East aesthestics and culture. Her techniques include mixing ink with sand, pigments and mineral shavings, or applying collages on canvas. Her landscapes inspired by the desert, where silence, space and breath vibrate, invite the spectator on an inner journey.

Zheng Chongbin 鄭重賓 (b. 1961) experiments with the expressive power of ink on paper by integrating white acrylic into it, to develop new chromatic nuances and shades of grey. Through new media such as videos and installations, he seeks to capture the breath, the cosmos, the visible and the invisible, and evokes the place of man within nature.

The youngest artist featured in the exhibition, Yang Yongliang 楊泳梁 (b. 1980), provides another example of the transposition of classical shanshui works through digital media. His photomontages, videos and installations integrate nature in a resolutely urban context. They re-envision the relationship between man and nature, which was present in traditional painting, while raising the economic, social and environmental problems caused by the rampant urbanisation and industrialisation, not only in China but also around the world.

Yang Yongliang, Endless Streams, 2017, 4K Vidéo, 7’00”, 90 x 156 cm © Yang Yongliang. Courtesy Galerie PARIS-B

Rao Fu 傅饒 (b. 1978) borrows multiple references from classical German painting, interweaving past and present eras in landscapes with the Chinese triple perspective. The ghostly, almost transparent figures that inhabit them blend into an environment that becomes, according to the artist, the mirror of his inner world, while it remains free of interpretation.

Rao Fu, Follow wind III, 2015, Bitumen and pigment on paper, 50 x 128 cm © Rao Fu.

The crossbreeding which gave rise to the works of the artists presented in this exhibition stems above all from a choice guided by their sensitivity and circumstances. This meeting of cultures and the relationship to their own identity gives birth to the traditions of tomorrow.

Tradition, far from being based simply on a principle of conservation, manifests a singular capacity for variation. Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun led the way, others followed. Their works, considered "modern" today, may one day become the paradigms of the "tradition" of the Chinese landscape.

Globalisation and the undergoing Chinese path toward predominance put the landscape motif in the process of asserting itself as a marker of sinity, and we can expect to find this motif more and more frequently in global art with the emergence of ever-increasing Chinese artists at the forefront of innovation. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, but also performances, immersive installations and new media show a Chinese landscape vector of meaning, reappropriation and discourse on the world.