Au Ho-nien: A Bold Brush in Chinese Art

Eagles Perching on a Pine Tree (1986) by Au Ho-nien (b 1935), ink and colours on paper Collection of Yicui Shantan Β© Au Ho-nien

The Taiwanese artist Au Ho-nien is one of the present third-generation masters of the Lingnan (South of the Mountains) School of painting which originated in the Guangdong area of southern China at the end of the 19th century. Lingnan is basically an ink-wash school of painting in which this artist somehow combines classical elements and composition with a modern feel of an immediacy of nature, the source of much of his inspiration, and Western elements of composition.

This is in keeping with traditional means of depicting spatial arrangements. His compositions are frequently bare of background, which the human eye does not treat as an absence, but rather as a lens through which emphasises the subject at hand. Where background is depicted, it appears as a very pale background or well-placed, shaped areas of blank space to represent it in its absence.

Sense of Daoist Balance in Taiwanese Artist Au Ho-nien’s Work

This is a very Daoist yin-yang expression of balancing the mystical combination of positive and negative, of existence and non-existence. In essence, the driving force of the school is an attempt to meld the traditional ways of late Imperial ink painting by incorporating unconventional influences from around the world, and in the case of this artist, calculated eccentricity.

Not only did his brush create landscapes and genre subjects, he often depicted animals, especially tigers and African lions, an unexpected subject for a Chinese artist, because he would sit at zoos for hours sketching them. This being said, these images of wild felines, in comparison to the inventiveness of his landscape and genre paintings, come acrossΒ as trite.

The Lingnan School

Before the coalescence of the Lingnan School, its shadowy antecedents existed in southern China as early as the 17th century and its prominence was such that its influence was felt outside of China. In late the Ming dynasty, artists and art scholars divided styles of Chinese paintings into two categories, northern painting and southern painting. The northern was the orthodox branch in which painters were classically trained while the southern branch was unorthodox, painting in a free and expressive manner.

Japanese were forbidden to leave the country, but Japanese artists could see these southern works in imported Chinese books and actual paintings. This radical influence gained immediate purchase in the minds of Japanese artists and caused the creation of a like-thinking school in Japan, centred in Kyoto and Osaka, known as Nanga/southern painting, or Butsuga/scholar paintings.

Japanese Nanga Artists

This is why the works of Japanese Nanga artists like Tani Buncho (1763-1840), Ike no Taiga (1723-1776), and Tanomura Chikuden (1777-1835) look so strikingly similar to paintings in this exhibition of Taiwanese artists Au Ho-nien.Β One brilliant example of separating spaces is with ink. Another was emphasising the β€˜frame’ by contriving to spread the composition with several separate paintings to create a panorama, here represented by his 1986 Eagles Perching on a Pine Tree.

The multi-scroll scene is a horizontally meandering branch of an ancient pine on which perch a pair of eagles. The effect is almost startling in its proportions. The use of multiple hanging scrolls to create a single image is not new, but had traditionally been applied to multiples such as sets of flowers or genre scenes, but never before for a single object, in this case the pine branch that is contiguous across the four scrolls. This is another example of this artist’s ability to conceive compositions in such an unorthodox manner.

Compositions of Taiwanese artist Au Ho-nien

In his compositions that include human beings, he can depict his own sense of quirkiness and sly humour. One is his 2018 Scenery Around Taroko Gorge, a strongly vertical hanging scroll with a road below where an automobile is incongruously depicted, upsetting the placidity of what can be considered β€˜nature’ at its most contemplative.

The use of red as a bold statement and focal point appears once again in his 2018 Bodhidharma in Red Robe. The 6th-century Daoist monk who is credited for crossing the Yangtse River while standing on a reed to bring Chan Buddhism to China, is seated on a meditation mat beneath a rocky overhang depicted contrastingly in slashes, pools and streaks of black ink.

Taiwanese artist Au Ho-nien has successfully mastered the sometimes-idiosyncratic juxtaposition, contrast and impressionistic handling of a variety of artistic skills by which he has successfully depicted the natural both as it is and how it might be. Five of the paintings of this Taiwanese art were especially created for the exhibition and have since been given as gifts to the museum.


Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, from 31 May to 25 August,