Michael Goedhuis puts his case for the importance of Chinese ink painting

We recently visited the show of the works of Yang Yanping ,an important exponent of the art of Chinese ink painting, organised by Michael Goedhuis for Asian Art in London. As part of the excellent published material associated with the exhibition, there was an elegantly produced manifesto, written by Goedhuis himself, elucidating the reasoning behind his views on the growing importance of Chinese ink artists.

He strongly believes that Chinese ink artists are profoundly relevant to contemporary Chinese society but until  recently have been largely neglected by curators and critics alike, with prices therefore undervalued. Although Mr Goedhuis has a clear and declared interest in promoting Chinese ink painting (and, indeed, has been showing it for more than 20 years), we think this document is well argued and is important in its relevance to the appreciation of contemporary Chinese art We are pleased to be able to reproduce it here with the permission of Michael Goedhuis.

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From the Yang Yanping exhibition.  Photo courtesy Michael Goedhuis

Chinese ink artists are important  as representing the link between China’s great past and the galloping  pace towards her future. Their work incorporates a deep understanding of classical Chinese culture which they believe to be essential in their  quest to create a new pictorial language which expresses the  fundamentals of today’s world. I believe therefore that the new  generation of collectors in China and the diaspora will look at this  area of the art-market as the most significant contemporary  manifestation of Chinese civilization, with all that that will mean for  price levels.

 Our view can be summarized in the following points:

A.    Ink painting and calligraphy is the supreme art of China.

B.    As such it has had enormous prestige not only for the educated elite but also for the Chinese in general.

C.    The Chinese are deeply sensitive to the loss of much of their cultural  heritage extracted from them by the colonial powers in the 19th century  and are now aggressive buyers. 

D.   The exponential increase in wealth allied to an annual proliferation of new museums can only lead to an intensification of buying, and contemporary in China, as in the rest of the world, is… or will shortly be… cool. 

E.    Ink art is the quintessential art-form of Chinese civilization and its  contemporary version, rooted in works of unquestioned virtuosity and  quality, will provide the new buyers with a foothold not only in what is fashionable but what is meaningful as a continuation of the vitality of Chinese culture.

F.    Finally leaving aside the all-important China factor, it is evident, as we see  in the current museum programs and auction-house initiatives, that ink  is attracting the attention of both in a big way, with all that implies  for its new status in the art-world at large.

 
1. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

China is the oldest surviving civilization on earth and it is our contention that Chinese  contemporary ink works, from calligraphy and painting to photography and video, express the continuation of this vast past in ways which are  meaningful for society today both in China and the West.

 

Visitors to China  today will have noticed that, unlike in India, virtually no historical  monuments, let alone country houses, literati pavilions or even old  villages, still exist. The architectural heritage of the past has been  extinguished and now we are only left with what  has been built in the past 100 years or less. This is a phenomenon  virtually unique to China and is relevant to why the moral and spiritual life of the Chinese became embodied, not in  their materiel heritage, but principally in works of the written word…  in calligraphy and painting.

This dissolution of China’s architectural legacy is not just due to the ravages of her many violent dynastic conflicts. Much indeed was destroyed by the Taiping  insurrection in the mid-19th century and even more devastation was  inflicted by the Cultural Revolution, during which many cities lost  almost every historic and cultural relic forever. But the main reason,  unlike in monuments from ancient Egypt to the modern West which were  built to last, has been the perishable and fragile materials used which  decay rapidly and require frequent rebuilding.

 

The reason why this is pertinent to our study of contemporary ink art is that we have  to understand that in Chinese society it has never been the survival of  monuments that has counted… it is the survival of a ‘past of the mind…  the only truly enduring embodiment of eternal human experience are  LITERARY ones’… as F.W. Mote has so eloquently expressed it.

 

2. CALLIGRAPHY: THE SUBLIME AND CENTRAL ACHIEVEMENT OF CHINA

It has been almost  impossible until recently for westerners to grasp the significance of  calligraphy for the Chinese. It has been the foundation-stone of their  society since the dawn of civilization. As Simon Leys has written ‘it is the most elite of all arts… practiced by emperors, aesthetes, monks and poets’ throughout history but also ostentatiously alive today in  advertisements cinema posters, restaurants, tea-houses, railway  stations, temples and on rough peasant village doors and walls.

The original  purpose of Chinese script, which goes back c.3700 years and appears on  tortoise shells and shoulder blades of oxen, was to forecast all major  decisions of state: harvest and hunting, war and peace. Gradually  however, from the latter part of the Han period (3rd century AD), its  original purpose was eclipsed by a growing interest in its aesthetic  character and in its role as a conduit for the calligrapher’s individual creativity. And from then on it became the most important of all the  arts, with painting as its intimate but subservient partner.

Calligraphy is  executed in ink on silk or paper, with a brush. In order to master this  brush on the absorbent paper, which tolerates no error or correction,  the artist has to achieve a high degree of concentration, balance and  control. It is these qualities, allied to intuition and intelligence,  that make his art, like the other three major arts of china, painting,  poetry and music (of the ‘Qin’ or zither) one of interpretation. In this respect the calligrapher can be compared to the pianist who interprets  the composer but whose every touch, like every brush-stroke by a great  calligrapher, becomes an extension of the interpreters mind.

Although  calligraphy became the preeminent and elite art of China, with its  masters, critics, connoisseurs and collectors, it has also been  practiced for hundreds of years by literally millions of Chinese for  whom it is a method for achieving the harmonious integration of mind and body, the key to supreme enlightenment.

But as its high  status evolved, it was its indissoluble association with the  scholar-gentleman and his mastery of the art that established it as  manifesting the core concept of Chinese civilization… HARMONY… whether  it pertains to the structure of society or to the individual’s alignment with the universal rhythms of the universe. And so it became the  purpose of civilized man, of the gentleman, to become part of the  dynamic rhythm of creation and to contribute to the coherent ordering of society. So this elite of scholars became perhaps the most cultivated  elite the world has known… intent on practicing the arts of  calligraphy, painting, poetry and music in order to realize their own  humanity by cultivating and developing the inner life. The rich  intellectual and spiritual life of these literati has been captured in  many enchanting paintings depicting their gatherings in shaded garden  pavilions, drinking wine, composing poetry, practicing and enjoying  calligraphy and painting, as well as refining the art of convivial  conversation.

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From the Yang Yanping exhibition   Photo courtesy Michael Goedhuis

3. PAINTING

Painting, together  with calligraphy, poetry and music, constitutes one of the four key  traditional arts of China and is an extension of the art of calligraphy. It is therefore, like calligraphy, linked to the sacred prestige of the WRITTEN WORD. One’s first encounter with a Chinese painting will  immediately betray its literary nature. Unlike a western painting that  hangs on a wall, the Chinese work is mounted in the form of a scroll,  which by its nature is related to the world of books. It belongs to the  realm of the written word.

A further  distinction that has made it difficult for western art lovers to fully  appreciate Chinese painting is that the Chinese is simply not interested in transcribing or depicting reality. His objective is rather to ‘write the meaning of things’… to express the IDEA. Thus the role of the  painting is to incorporate the minimum visual codes or clues to inspire  its full and invisible fruition in the viewer’s IMAGINATION.

Again, the Chinese  aesthetic is very different to that of the West. The prime purpose for  the scholar is the cultivation of an inner life, the ultimate aim of  which is to perfect one’s character in order to attain the moral stature befitting one’s status as a gentleman. Thus the notion of beauty as  such is irrelevant, indeed is often considered to be a superficial  distraction from the purpose of nourishing the energy of the gentleman  in capturing the spirit or essence of nature. In fact the ultimate  ‘beauty’ of a work does not depend on its beauty. It is the result of  its inner ‘truth’ and it is this moral concept that is at the heart of  all Chinese aesthetics.

The above  background is I hope helpful in coming to understand that art for the  Chinese is part and parcel of their concept of morality and of how to  live ones life and how to order society. And it is the written word (the word in ink)  that is the binding agent constituting the continuity of  the revered civilization and essential for understanding Chinese society past and present.

4. CONTEMPORARY LITERATI ART: INK ART

The successors of  the gentleman-scholars described above are today’s ink artists. They are deeply aware of the classical canon and its aesthetic and moral  imperatives and have carefully studied the old masters. However, just as Picasso and Cezanne studied Raphael, Poussin, Velasquez and others in  order to create THEIR revolutionary pictorial language, so the new  literati are doing the same in order to formulate their own revolution  for their work to be relevant to, and meaningful for, the world of  today. And revolutionary and culturally subversive it is. More subtle  than the contemporary oil painters with their abrasive handling of  overtly political themes, the ink painters embody their revolutionary  message in works that are not afraid to take account of the past in  order to make sense of the present.

Very many different stylistic approaches have therefore evolved over the past 30 years. Works now range from those that at first sight look quite traditional but in fact embody powerful fresh aesthetic initiatives by artists like Liu Dan, Li Xubai, Li Huayi and Yang Yanping, to those that are unambiguously  avant-garde seen in the works of Yang Jiechang, Qiu Anxiong, Qiu Zhijie  and others.

But all of the best contemporary practitioners have a common purpose… to create works that  do not jettison the great cultural legacy of the past in formulating a  language that addresses the intellectual cultural and social issues of  today.

It is our view  therefore that these few (only 50 or so of international stature)  artists are poised to assume a historic relevance as the cultural  conduit between China’s great past and her future. And as such they are  likely to shortly become the target of the new generation of collectors  and museums in China and the diaspora who, in their new-found national  pride and following the global fashion that only contemporary is cool,  will be hungry for contemporary manifestations of their country’s  enduring civilization.

5. THE MARKET

We have been  collecting and dealing in contemporary Chinese art since the early  nineties and have increasingly focused on ink works which until recently have been largely neglected by curators and critics and are still  commercially very undervalued.

Contemporary  Chinese art, including ink painting, was a niche product from the early  nineties to 2004 when an explosion of interest from a small but intense  coterie of buyers emerged from first Europe and then America which drove prices to five times their then value in three years. Ink painting was  part of this movement but rose much less dramatically in price, yielding popularity to the oil painters’ titillating political themes that  attracted a somewhat gullible western audience. Many of the minor stars  in the latter field have witnessed a sharp fall in their prices due to a belated re-evaluation by collectors and of course to the economic  crisis, which affected western buying.

Now however, as the art-market regains momentum and connoisseurship becomes more mature, there is a growing groundswell of interest in ink art both because of its inherent quality and because of its relevance to the  society of China today and by extension to the art-world in general.

The three major auction houses in the West and the two leading houses in China are all now involved in creating specific ink art sales platforms… both via  conventional auctions and private treaty sales. This is a new and  significant development which is allied to the series of ambitious ink  exhibitions that have been taking place in western museums over the past two years (MFA Boston, British Museum, Musée Guimet, Ashmolean Museum  in Oxford and others, with a major initiative planned for an opening at  the Metropolitan Museum this December).

All of this has of course begun to affect price levels and now,  for a handful of artists (Liu Dan, Li Huayi and Xu Lei are examples),  prices are hitting the hundreds and thousands of US dollars. But the  remaining best practitioners, of whom there are only approximately forty or so in the world of recognized international stature, can still be  acquired for $100,000 downwards. It is worth noting here that this  generations’ ink painting predecessors… artists who have died in the  last few years… are now fetching up to $50 million at auction in China, where the demand for modern ink painting is reaching ever new heights…!

6. CONCLUSION

As stated in the  beginning of this brief survey, we believe that it is almost inevitable  that the new generation of Chinese museum and private art-buyers,  fuelled by increasing wealth and renewed national pride, as well as the  for them aggravating competition from the exhibitions taking place in  WESTERN institutions, will shortly turn their attention to this  quintessential current manifestation of Chinese civilization. And this  will have a dramatic effect on the price levels of the relatively few  works of art produced in any one year by the handful of ink artists that can be ranked as world-class. Watch this space.

 

Michael Goedhuis

Goedhuis opens Yang Yanping show in London

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Lotus Heaven

One of China’s leading artists, and a pioneer in the field of contemporary ink paintings, has her one woman show opening October 30 in London with China specialist Michael Goedhuis. Yang Yanping’s exhibition, entitled Lotus Heaven, comes in the wake of her 2013 major retrospective exhibition at The Art Museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy. There are 20 paintings in the exhibition opening October 30 and closing November 8 at 66 St. James’ Place.

Michael Sullivan, the late authority on modern Chinese art, recounted how Yang Yanping one beautiful day in the fall of 1978, free at last from the humiliating excesses of the Cultural Revolution, came upon a farm with a long neglected lotus pond in which the plants were fast fading but still alive. With her primitive pen she drew them on a sheet of a coarse yellow paper. This chance encounter ignited a life-long immersion in the subject matter, symbolism and pictorial language of the lotus flower. Into the theme she has poured her thoughts, feelings and memories. ‘The twists and turns of every stem’, she later wrote, ‘were a testimony of a stubborn fight against the passage of nature’.

The theme of the lotus flower is the dominant subject of this exhibition and has been an enduring, as well as sustaining source of inspiration for Yang over many years. But it serves not as a subject in itself, but a convenient catalyst for her to express her weltanschaung – her reading, her experience in life, her knowledge, and her complete intellectual hinterland.

In the early years after Mao’s death, Yang painted a series of lotus as its glory ebbs away in autumn and winter. This was a way to express the deep melancholy and frustration of the intellectual class witnessing the precariousness of man’s freedom of spirit during the trauma of the past quarter century. In her words, the sight of the flower ‘set in the glowing light of an autumn sun seemed to reveal the lotus as a representation of all living things, with all its different destinies, some weaker, some stronger’.

Since then Yang has become a pivotal international figure in the dialectic emanating from cultural life in China for a century or more. In essence, the story is one in which artists or intellectuals grapple with how to revitalize Chinese culture. Are they to jettison the rich but burdensome legacy of China’s glorious past and adopt Western ideas? Or should they dig into the fertile sub-soil of their own culture for guidance and meaning? Or even better, incorporate some of the invigorating currents from the assertive West and link them into their own vision, conditioned as it was by a rigid but sophisticated orthodoxy on the one hand and an intelligent awareness of their world absorbing momentous changes on the other?

As Godehuis point out, ‘these are implacable issues and are still in doubt although the battle lines have been more clearly delineated. Broadly speaking there are four main tendencies in Chinese art today. First is the strenuously conservative backlash adhering ever more tenaciously to the great classical traditions, with just the occasional meaningless nod in the direction of modernism. Then there is the vast factory of artists trained in Western social-realist oil-painting in the Maoist era who left a legacy of technically accomplished painting that can be seen all over China. Thirdly there is an avant-garde movement, which has annexed much of the more provocative work of the Western cutting-edge, without often having truly assimilated the conditions in which it is being produced. And finally there is a minority of artists, of whom Yang is one of the most successful, who see themselves as re-animating those elements of Chinese painting that, together with a multiplicity of other influences can now best convey contemporary reality in all its accelerating and confusing complexity.’

Michael Goedhuis has dealt in Asian art for around 30 years and is currently focusing on contemporary Chinese ink works. This present exhibition coincides with and is part of the wider event, Asian Art in London.

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Exhibition: 30th October – 8th November 2014

Michael Goedhuis, 66 St James’s Place, London SW1A 1NE