Chinese Ink Paintings


The exhibition, Ink in Motion, at the Musée Cernuschi is an exceptional undertaking. According to the curators, Director Eric Lefebvre and Chief Curator Mael Bellec: ‘It is drawn from one of the largest and most important collections in this field, and there is no other place in Europe, apart from the Ashmolean Museum, where you can see such a comprehensive range of 20th-century Chinese painting. Since they have not been shown for years, we thought it was timely to do so’.

The holding, which includes both works by early masters active in China as well as outstanding figures of the diaspora who ventured abroad, is the result of some 70 years of acquisitions. The curators explained, ‘In 1953, we received an important gift by Guo Youshou (1901-1978). In one go and with a few other later gifts, he granted us with a collection in which all the important Chinese artists of the first half of the 20th century were represented. Thanks to him and to the relationships established between the two directors of the museum, René Grousset (1885-1952) and Vadime Elisseeff (1918-2002), with Chinese artists working in France or in China, we were able to include contemporary art throughout the second half of the 20th century’.

Advent of the Chinese Republic

Following the disastrous encounters with the West in the preceding century, the advent of the Chinese Republic in 1912 ushered in an age of tumultuous change. The paintings have been selected to contextualise the country’s transition from the warlord era and civil war in the 1920s and 30s to the Second World War, and from the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 and after. During much of this time, China was preoccupied with reform and with how it might emerge a modern nation on par with those in the West. Chinese ‘traditional’ culture was widely seen as an obstacle to its own advancement, while the classical culture of the elite, such as its calligraphic and pictorial art were being questioned.

Ink, brush, and paper were fundamental to Chinese calligraphy and the art of painting was developed from shared principles. Towards the end of the 19th century, there were visible signs suggesting a new approach to modernise language and writing was imminent. It was distinguished by the revival of ancient calligraphic styles found on archaic bronze vessels and stone engravings from China’s antiquarian past. Their inscriptions preserved on jinshi, ‘metal and stone’ stelae were early script forms with a distinctive style of writing that posed an alternative to the classical scholar-official script. At the same time, they stimulated an interest in the seal script and went on to reinforce the ancient links between calligraphy, painting and seal carving.

The artist Wu Changshuo (1844-1927) was an exponent of the oldest inscriptions known, which were found on stone drums. A devotee of seal carving, he was partial to the greater seal script and applied it in an epigraphic manner to his paintings. They were dominated by powerful calligraphic brushwork using bold strokes as a direct form of expression.

Kang Youwei (1858-1927)

One of the earliest advocates of calligraphic reform was the renowned political reformer Kang Youwei (1858-1927). He was convinced that only the study of the seal script on medieval, pre-Tang (618-906) stelae provided clues about its nature and offered insights about its origins, which might bring about the renewal of calligraphy. An accomplished calligrapher, Kang thus refrained from using the classical style in favour of a vigorous dynamic in his calligraphic scroll, Memory of Lady Qiao – Reminiscence of the Red Cliff ( circa 1920s), which has the distinction of being the first 20th century work of art to enter the museum’s collections, and was executed for French diplomat Georges Lecomte in Hankou and gifted to the museum in 1947. Kang had insisted on institutional reform, among other things, to modernise China and advocated a separation of powers in the Western mode. He prevailed upon the Guangxu emperor to launch his reform programme, but when it was rejected by the Empress Dowager Cixi, who wanted him executed, Kang escaped to Japan.

Political, cultural and artistic exchanges between Japan and China had been entertained already before the turn of the century. Japan was an ‘advanced’ nation that had taken the lead in Asia in modernising art. Following the Meiji Restoration, the Tokyo School of Fine Arts established in 1876 had been offering courses on Western-style oil painting. Chinese artists in Japan also turned to Nihonga, ‘Japanese painting’, a convention dedicated to revive local subjects and traditions with foreign contributions such as perspective and shading, to which they adapted.

The Chinese dialogue with Japan produced important results. The artists, Gao Jianfu (1879-1951), his brother Gao Qifeng (1889-1933), and Chen Shuren (1883-1949), who studied in the country from 1906-1911, became founders of the Lingnan school in their home province of Guangdong on their return home. In 1916, when Gao Jianfu merged elements from the Western perspective with Nihonga brush techniques in Chinese ink and colour on paper, he was credited with inaugurating a modern movement in Chinese art.

Fu Baoshi (1904-1965)

New visual aspects were also used to reinvigorate the Chinese ink tradition. Fu Baoshi’s (1904-1965) stay in Japan from 1933 to 1936 saw him employing new stylistic inking methods such as dots to create a poetic atmosphere as in Storm (1944). He simultaneously discovered Northern Song (960-1127) monumental landscapes on which he based his later paintings, as well as the Qing (1644-1911) wandering monk-artist Shitao (1642-1707), about whom he wrote a book.

Meanwhile the teaching of Western art in China proceeded with much caution. As opposed to their Japanese counterparts, Chinese public institutions neither condoned European art nor viewed it as an avenue to modernisation. Although art schools in Beijing and Nanjing opened departments with Western-style instruction as early as 1906, it was Shanghai, the treaty port opened to the West after the Opium War, that went on in succeeding decades to dominate the arts in China as its most cosmopolitan city.

In 1912, the Shanghai Academy of Chinese Painting was privately founded by the sixteen-year old Liu Haisu (1896 -1994), who established it in the city’s French Concession. Liu, who went on to study in Japan, was responsible for the first known life-drawing class using a female nude at the Academy in 1920. Depiction of the nude human figure was taboo in China, and its institutional study was a painful subject that incited much theoretical debate about its relevance to modernising Chinese art. Conservative circles condemned Liu as a traitor to art and threatened to have him arrested. Still, he furthered his acquaintance with Western art when he left for Japan again in 1927. Liu was fond of post-Impressionism, advocated plein-air painting and embarked thereafter on a lifelong mission as an artist and art educator. Moreover the private studios that began springing up in the French Concession which were modelled along those in Paris, had come by way of Japan, and indirectly owed Liu a debt.

Pan Yuliang (1895-1977)

Despite being at the forefront of Chinese cultural life, 1930s Shanghai was still not ready for the work of Pan Yuliang (1895-1977), the only female artist on show. She had been educated at Liu Haisu’s Academy and in 1926, furthered her studies in Lyon, Paris and briefly also in Rome. Pan returned to Shanghai to be the first woman to paint in the Western style. To make her modernist work with nudes – sometimes using herself as a model – more acceptable, she executed them in ink and colour. While her daring was admired, it was criticised overwhelmingly as depraved, forcing her to leave for France in 1937, where she continued to experiment as seen in Seated Nude with Red Qipao (1955).

The momentum to modernise Chinese painting continued in fits and starts, when Europe proved an attractive alternative to Japan. The rare individuals who made their way there included Xu Beihong (1895-1953), who remains synonymous with prancing horses in the venerable Chinese ink-wash tradition. Xu was awarded the first government scholarship to study art in Paris and Berlin between 1919 and 1925, during which he dispensed with ink altogether and experimented with oils in the conventional salon style. His lofty aim to create a new Chinese ‘modern’ art by fusing elements from both China and the West, gained him a reputation as a major figure in this respect. Upon his return home, he went even further from the late 1920s onwards to imbue Chinese subjects from antiquity with elements of European realism, producing works on canvas of a monumental scale.

As opposed to most of his contemporaries, Lin Fengmian’s (1900-1991) time in Paris and Berlin gave him a reputation as a modernist. A pioneer who tried to harmonise qualities found in both China and the West, his hybrid work merged colourful local folk art with post-Impressionist qualities found in Matisse and Modigliani. Lin returned to China to become the director of the Hangzhou Academy in 1927.

The artistic dominance of Shanghai notwithstanding, a progressive shift from the eastern seaboard to the interior was discernible from the late 1930s onwards. Following the Manchurian incident of 1931, further Japanese military offensives forced the Republican capital at Nanjing to relocate to Chongqing, Sichuan, from 1937 to 1945. The wartime capital untouched by any exposure to Western culture, emerged an international platform housing an ‘exodus’ of artistic, cultural, educational and financial institutions. To a new captive audience, discovering the cultural perspective that this remote corner of China offered was somewhat challenging.

Ongoing Conflict with Japan

The ongoing conflict with Japan however was causing an acute re-appraisal of China’s past artistic traditions on its own terms. One of the most prodigious Chinese artists of the 20th century, the maverick Sichuan native, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), who had studied in Japan and Shanghai, was fully in his element in his birthplace. He was arguably the first to spend the two years, from 1941 to 1943, immersing himself in the study of ancient Buddhist mural paintings in the Dunhuang caves. They left a lasting impression on him. Zhang was also a collector who had earlier made an intensive study of famous Ming (1368-1644) and Qing artists, allowing him to copy and then successfully forge their work, for which he gained much notoriety. Later he was known for bocai, ‘splashed colour’ – identified with his prolific lotus paintings – whose abstract expressionist styles were reworked many times before he left China for Brazil.

Zhang’s experience in Sichuan changed forever the perception of what constituted the ‘Chinese’ in art. His contact with indigenous peoples broadened his canvas, leading him to depict unconventional, ‘non-Chinese’ subjects such as Two Tibetan Women with Mastiffs (1945). Previously unknown ethnic minorities also appealed to Pang Xunqin (1906-1985), who had studied in Paris from 1925 to 1930. When he ventured to Sichuan, he led a peripatetic life painting tribal minorities such as the Miao. Other artists who gravitated to Sichuan included Lin Fengmian, who traded his modernist credentials for its people and landscapes, which he executed with Chinese brush and ink. Fu Baoshi who lived in the area throughout the war years was said to have produced much prolific work.

China was being torn apart by the relentless civil war between the nationalists and the communists, and by the 1940s the latter was slowly gaining the upper hand. In 1942, at the Chinese Communist Party’s first intellectual rectification movement at its base in Yan’an, Mao Zedong delivered a speech at the Forum on Art and Literature, which laid out the official party dictates on aesthetics. The founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 saw art and art education effectively coming under Communist party control. A new socialist art was henceforth dedicated to serve communist ideology and the revolution, and subjects and styles were being popularised to reach the masses. China’s fraternal alliance with the Soviet Union, in its opening years, promoted oil painting modelled along the lines of Socialist Realism. In 1955, the Moscow academician Konstantin Maksimov arrived in Beijing to instruct local artists at the Central Academy and further exchanges were made between the two allies.

In subsequent decades, most artists remained anonymous and their work was unsigned. Subjected to self- as well as public criticism, their brief was to illustrate significant episodes in the evolving history of the new China: the Hundred Flowers Movement (1956-1957); the Anti Rightist Campaign; the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962); and the Socialist Education Campaign from 1962 onwards – all received full coverage. Propaganda art was a powerful force used throughout Maoist China and particularly during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), large numbers of posters inundated its cities extolling the merits of the cult of Mao. Chinese woodcuts, an innocuous art form attributed to the great writer Lu Xun (1881-1936), were also a tool to portray suitable ‘revolutionary’ subjects for mass education, and emerged a popular type of graphic art.

Artists who were exhorted to learn from the peasants and from the countryside, were constantly watched in case they reverted to the ‘reactionary’ and feudal art of the past. Those who remained in China such as Xu Beihong now used their talents to depict the new heroes of the nascent socialist state, workers and peasants. Fu Baoshi transferred his skills to illustrate government commissions of large-scale paintings. Lin Fengmian, imprisoned for four years during the Cultural Revolution for his artistic transgressions, finally relocated to Hong Kong in 1977.

Traditional Ink Painting

Traditional ink painting, associated with the pre-revolutionary era, was all but abandoned. Yet some artists were allowed to resist change. The early master Qi Baishi (1863-1957) was spared ‘re-education’ because of his credentials as an artist of peasant origin from Hunan. Free of outside influences, he continued to rely on brushwork in the style of xieyi, ‘writing the idea’. His subjects had no excesses, his motto being to execute them ‘between likeness and unlikeness’ in the gongbi, ‘fine brushwork with meticulous detail’ mode for flowers, fruit, plants and shrimps in an almost minimalist style as in Red Morning Glory (1950).

Those unlikely to be spared this indulgence include Pu Ru (1896-1963), also known as Pu Xinyu, the artist and cousin of the emperor Pu Yi, who relocated to Taiwan in 1950. Celebrated thereafter as its leading authority and indeed outside China, he remained steadfast throughout to the classical Chinese traditions, imbibed via his familiarity with the Manchu imperial collections. His refined literati landscapes were heavily influenced by the Song and Yuan (1279-1368) masters as in Two Sages (1940), executed in China and possibly a rare work that reached the West.

Zao Wouki 1920-2013)

Even before the Communist victory, Chinese artists had become increasingly aware of the huge constraints to their advancement in China. They knew their artistic horizons would remain unfulfilled if they stayed at home. However, unknown to them, outside efforts were simultaneously being made to promote the study and reception of Chinese avant-garde art. In Paris, significant moves to establish such fruitful relationships led Vadime Elisseeff, then Deputy Director of the Cernuschi to China in the 1940s. Visiting Chongqing in 1944, he met Dr Guo Youshou, who headed education in Sichuan and who was also an influential patron of the arts, cultivating strong personal ties with artists relocated there. In 1946 when Dr Guo arrived in Europe to represent China at UNESCO, he provided a large number of works for the Cernuschi’s landmark exhibition of contemporary Chinese painting. They formed the core of the show, where by far the lion’s share of 10 paintings and seven drawings belonged to one Zao Wouki (1920-2013). Sensing that there was ‘something deeply original’ about Zao, who ‘made Western techniques his own for an unmistakably Chinese result’, Elisseeff persuaded him to leave China for France.

Zao arrived in Paris in 1948. A student of Lin Fengmian in Hangzhou, he spent his early years there consciously avoiding traditional Chinese painting which he felt had ‘lost its creative impulse since the 16th century’. While he admired the work of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso, on discovering Klee in 1951, he began to experiment in earnest with the latter’s modernist aesthetic in drawings and prints. He also went on to make etchings, lithographs, and watercolours. Yet he remained fascinated by the ancient Shang-dynasty, oracle-bone, script – a part of his own heritage – which was integrated into his work in oil on canvas. As he explored form, colour and particularly light, treating it as ‘one of the defining properties of things’, Zao made the progression from figurative to abstract styles. What appeared as poetic ‘landscapes’ spanning East and West surfaced in the form of large diptychs and triptychs representing perhaps nature, or the universe.

Although Zao initially rejected the classical conventions of Chinese calligraphy, a visit to China in
1972 – after an absence of almost 25 years – rekindled his interest in the brush and ink. Rediscovering the visual elements created by the energy of the brush, he was subsequently encouraged to create conceptually abstract ink compositions such as Untitled (1989), on paper.

Another student of Lin Fengmian was Chu Teh Chun (1920-2014), who followed Zao’s footsteps and moved from Taiwan to Paris in 1955. He integrated Chinese painting techniques with Western abstraction and consigned figurative painting to oblivion, preferring to create his own style using bold strokes of colour to evoke Chinese calligraphy to forge a ‘third way’, which was neither Chinese nor Western by blurring the lines between Chinese elements and abstract expression. In 1956, he had been a founder member of the Fifth Moon Group in Taiwan and is still intent on modernising Chinese art. He left for New York in 1966 and continues working in an Expressionist style, by diluting oil and using it as he would Chinese ink.

These artists of the Chinese diaspora were exceptional figures who had been reinventing the dialogue between East and West since the mid-20th century. For future generations both within China and without, their singular achievement lies in making contemporary art which is unlike anything that was previously known, enabling it to open up even more possibilities.

This exhibition presents a rare opportunity to view important light sensitive paintings which may not be shown again in the foreseeable future. At the same time there are archival films on show to illustrate the challenges that masters continue to face as they demonstrate both their skills, and the links between ink, brush and paper.


Until 5 March, Ink in Motion – A History of Chinese Painting in the 20th Century, is at the Musée Cernuschi, Paris,

Read Asian Art Newspaper’s earlier article on contemporary Chinese ink paintings here