A Tradition Redefined: Modern and Contemporary Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-tsing Li Collection, 1950-2000

, Arthur M. Sackler Museum , Phoenix Art Museum , Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach , Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence
  • Landscape

    Landscape

    Sheer jagged cliffs and weathered rocks are juxtaposed with a vista of archipelagos receding deeply into space. Ink blotted onto the paper offers density and texture, while brushstrokes describe impossibly steep pathways and tiny cottages nestled at the foot of the rough peaks. Wang Jiqian’s landscapes have been termed “mountains of the mind” for their inventiveness and power. The modern look of his paintings results in part from his practice of applying ink with auxiliary papers or implements other than brushes. Yet his work also has classical references, seen here in the composition, which contrasts verticals on one side with horizontals on the other, a device used at least as early as the eighth century in Chinese landscape painting. Wang Jiqian was known throughout his career as a connoisseur and collector of classical Chinese paintings. Wang studied traditional landscape painting in Shangahi under Wu Hufan (1894–1968), but in the late 1940s he moved to New York, where he pursued Western drawing techniques. He developed a style that, while strikingly new, maintained its moorings in tradition.

  • Untitled

    Untitled

    A compelling contrast with Zeng’s Landscape of the same period, this work offers no overt suggestion of receding space. The foil, pigments, and ink present an abstract pattern that, though faintly geometric, avoids any fixed grid. Still, viewers may visualize landscape forms as their eyes fix on the surface textures of this exquisite work. After leaving China to settle in Honolulu, Zeng Youhe developed a distinctive technique she called dsui (pinyin zhui, meaning “patch” or “patchwork”) painting, inspired in part by traditional techniques for mounting Chinese works. Like other artists in Asia as well as Europe and America, she used this collage approach to explore surface effects in abstract compositions. Regarding her renderings of colors and textures, she cited as a source the irregular coloration of ancient jades, and guan ware, a ceramic with a crackled pale-bluish-gray glaze.

  • 1973-9

    1973-9

    What appears to be one dramatic gesture is really the result of a complex series of applications of splashed color and brushed ink. The circular format, always a challenge to compose, finds antecedents in the round painted fans of traditional China; the format here provides the perfect “non-window” for the artist’s nonrepresentational painting. Feng Zhongrui joined the Fifth Moon Group—an association of Taiwan artists concerned with the modernization of Chinese art—in 1961. Five years later his works were exhibited in the U.S. His spontaneous applications of layers of color and ink attracted great interest in this country, and in 1975 Feng relocated to the San Francisco area.

  • High Mountains and Magnificent Peaks

    High Mountains and Magnificent Peaks

    The horizontal format of this album allows the viewer physically to unfold an intricate vista that begins at the right with gentle hills and mist, builds toward a crescendo of towering peaks and scraggy trees, and concludes quietly with a flock of birds retreating into the distance. The musical rhythm of the composition is accented by repeating trees in positive and negative tones and distant shadows beyond the tall peaks. The otherworldly beauty of the scene recalls the Daoist lands of the immortals depicted by Wu Bin (active 1591–1643), in which fantasy and reality coalesce in a strange yet alluringly harmonic world. The close-up view of the mountains in this painting reveals the dry brushwork and “scorched ink” that have become Xia Yifu’s characteristic techniques. Despite the artist’s limited formal academic training in painting and calligraphy, his works display an air of elegance that reflects a classic aesthetic vision. In the words of Chu-tsing Li, “his rocks and mountains become symbols of human integrity and moral dignity [and] his trees and plants are depicted with such freshness and ingenuity that they seem like newly created objects.”

  • Diary of Silk Road Travels: Night

    Diary of Silk Road Travels: Night

    Eight square paintings featuring scenes evoking the dessert sands of China's remote northwest region are mounted on a wide hanging scroll and arranged in a grid pattern, with four paintings in a row above another row of four paintings below.

  • 1969-23

    1969-23

    Subtly varied in its earthy browns and celestial blues, and vigorously brushed in black ink, this horizontal composition shares some affinity with “landscapes” despite its nonobjective composition. An imaginary space asserts itself around some of the forms and offers a vaguely organic impression. Feng Zhongrui, who left China for Taiwan in 1949, was a member of the Fifth Moon Group. Like other members of the group, he developed a modernist style, incorporating elements inspired by Western abstract expressionism into Chinese painting. He achieved spontaneous effects by splashing and applying ink and color with a palm-fiber brush.

  • Autumn Hills

    Autumn Hills

    Delicate texture strokes of ink, as well as applications of pink, brown, and gray, create a monumental landscape in a large horizontal format. The palette suggests autumn, and the brushstrokes suggest rock surfaces eroded into pinnacles and boulders. Hong Xian used traditional Chinese brushwork in a composition that recalls Western format and picture space. Though not without precedent in Chinese art, the large horizontal format and the vantage point offering a panoramic view most likely have their sources in Western painting. Hong Xian left China for Taiwan in 1948, and there had the remarkable opportunity to study traditional Chinese painting with Pu Ru (1896–1963), the former Manchu prince, whose work preserved the noble court painting traditions of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). She also studied art at National Taiwan Normal University. In 1958 she came to the U.S., where she studied Western art at Northwestern University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She thus had training at the highest levels in both traditions.

  • Deep Ravine, Rushing Torrent

    Deep Ravine, Rushing Torrent

    A rugged mountain rises from a deep canyon, while water rushes down channels amid the rocks. Ink brushstrokes applied densely and tightly define craggy peaks, rock faces, and trees, the last seeming to grow against all odds from openings in the canyon walls. Yu Chengyao inscribed the painting, “Deep Ravine, Rushing Torrent. Gigantic rocks pile up on lofty peaks. Spring waters, green as jade, splash across dangerous paths. White clouds hover above the emerald valley. When can I return home?” “Home” for Yu was mainland China. He served as a general in the Chinese army during the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) and then moved to Taiwan with the Nationalist government in 1949. With no formal training in the arts, he took up painting in 1954. In technique, his paintings bear little relation to the brushwork of traditional Chinese masters, but in composition they approach the monumentality of the great landscapists of the Northern Song period (960–1127).

  • Small Is Beautiful, Less Is More

    Small Is Beautiful, Less Is More

    Chen’s album offers delicate renderings of animals, birds, fruits, and vegetables in the “boneless” style of past masters, in which ink or color washes are applied without outlines or distinct brushstrokes. The vivid color washes are rich and wet, accented by fine ink lines. Here the artist has created a personal miniature world in which living creatures exist apart from real time or space. And yet, upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that the creatures depicted are the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac for the cycle of years from 1984 to 1995. Standing in for the dragon is the appropriate Chinese character, rather than a depiction of the beast. The Chinese calendar dates appear on each page, as do puns or homonyms that refer to auspicious omens suggested by each animal.

  • Tour Group in a Landscape

    Tour Group in a Landscape

    In Tour Group, figures stare out of the painting as if posing for a photograph. Surrounding them are the elements of a classical garden, including lotus ponds, scholars’ pavilions, trees, and rocks. The shapes of the rocks and plants merge with the equally strange shapes of the human figures drawn in childlike fashion. In the “distance” at the top of the painting, a dark and remote landscape looms. Yu Peng’s childhood interests in puppetry and ink and oil painting led him to develop a style so eccentric that he was denied admission into any fine arts school. His search for his cultural roots took him from his native Taiwan to mainland China, where he visited Beijing, Hangzhou, and the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang, in Gansu province. He found elements of folk art that he incorporated into his paintings. Exaggeration, spatial fragmentation, and deliberate clumsiness yield a comic theatricality. While creating a kind of “archaic awkwardness,” or gu zhuo, that was a hallmark of literati painting, they also subvert the refinements of that genre, reflecting the displacement of the Chinese painting tradition in the modern world of Taiwan.

  • Landscape

    Landscape

    Ink applied in washes, dots, and rugged strokes defines a mountain vista seen as if from a shoreline path. A boat in quiet waters suggests tranquility amid grandeur. The scale of the distant mountains is heightened by the suggestion of mist—mostly areas of reserved paper. Using techniques he credited to China’s seventeenth-century masters, Huang Junbi developed a style in which he could portray actual landscapes, as opposed to the imagined landscapes or tradition-sanctioned compositions of pre-twentieth-century painting. After his move to Taiwan in 1949, he traveled the world and found an appreciative audience for his paintings of landmarks, especially waterfalls. His depictions of Victoria Falls in Africa and Iquacu Falls in South America won him international acclaim. This work, however, presents an ideal rather than a real landscape, in a classical composition that might please a connoisseur of historical Chinese painting. As the dedication indicates, it is “for the leisurely amusement of the honorable Chu-tsing and his wife, Yaowen.”

  • Wintry Mountains Covered with Snow

    Wintry Mountains Covered with Snow

    A grand peak rises above jagged cliffs, partially obscured by roiling winter storms. Reserved areas of paper create the illusion of snow, and white rifts in the brushwork convey the play of clouds over the mountain crags. These irregular gaps appear random and yet suggest a primordial fixity. To produce these effects, Liu Guosong paints on an artisanal paper in which long, coarse fibers are preserved near the paper’s surface. After applying ink to the paper with a brush and by other means, he pulls out selected filaments to achieve a pictorial effect that is simultaneously representational and abstract. Liu Guosong, founder of the Fifth Moon Group, came to prominence in Taipei in the 1950s and remained at the forefront of the movement. He had left mainland China for Taiwan in 1949. In recent years, Liu has exhibited on the mainland, and in 2007 his work was featured in the first solo exhibition ever given a living artist at the Palace Museum in Beijing. This painting was included in that landmark exhibition.

  • Moon on Snowy Mountains

    Moon on Snowy Mountains

    The bright moon floats above a remote, seemingly frozen setting of snow-covered mountains. The symmetrical composition gives the painting a formality reminiscent of a religious icon. Innovative use of collage and metallic paint heightens the icy atmosphere. This painting belongs to the celestial series Liu Guosong began after the Apollo 8 space mission. Liu, who founded the Fifth Moon Group in 1956, played an important role as a teacher in the arts. From his earliest teaching appointment in Taiwan in 1960, through his visiting appointments at universities in the U.S. and his senior teaching and administrative appointments in Hong Kong and Taiwan, he has shaped the development of painting and energized the interplay of Chinese and Western elements.

  • Green Mountains

    Green Mountains

    Colored washes evoke the idyllic blue-and-green landscapes of classical Chinese painting with a luminous clarity, yet the hue is untraditional. The varied tones of green give the work a more Western watercolor style, but the brushwork is unmistakably Chinese. An artist without formal training in painting and calligraphy, Xia Yifu developed an individual technique that could capture the monumentality of traditional landscapes. Chu-tsing Li said of Xia’s work: “We can see a reflection of the artist’s own inner nature, as well as the embodiment of the intricacies of nature, the desire for transcendence and release from mortal life, and a realm in which everything, including one’s self, is forgotten.”

  • Sketch on a Summer Day

    Sketch on a Summer Day

    Wet black ink layered over dry, staccato brushstrokes and splattered dots of black and brown form a large mountain mass at this composition’s center. A rickety staircase that climbs from the shore to the top of the mountain bisects the massive form and leads to a cluster of houses and whimsical trees. The thin gray ink washes that make up the sky and distant mountains impart a sense of gloom and yet are tempered by the bright yellow sun hovering above. The use of splashed ink in painting has a long tradition in China; many artists, both ancient and modern, have created a personal style through its unpredictability and spontaneity. Li Huasheng’s career has been dogged by politics: during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) he was forced to paint in secret, and then, during the Spiritual Pollution campaign in 1983, when the government criticized artists for their “decadence and impurity,” he was targeted as an enemy of the state.

  • Clearing after Snow

    Clearing after Snow

    Austerity and quietude pervade this landscape of angular forms with delicate lines for the barren trees and gentle shading on the massive, moonlit, snow-covered rocks and hills. Through rhythmic brushwork, the artist has created a structure of horizontals and verticals, layered to evoke a feeling of gentle movement. Wan Qingli’s work reflects his diverse background and training. Growing up in Beijing, he learned classical poetry and painting from Li Keran (1907–1989) and from Lu Yanshao (1909–1993). Yet his self-expressive means reveal a propensity for synthesizing old and new. This landscape is markedly different from classical snowscapes. A feeling of starkness and modernity pervades the otherwise timeless mountain scene. Reflections in the icy water create an impression of moonlight, and the low vantage point suggests the artist’s experimentation with picture space. The artist’s inscription alludes to painting on a moonlit, drizzly night and to his loneliness, since the work was painted while he was living in America. He dedicated the painting to his new teacher in America, Chu-tsing Li, and to his wife, Yao-wen Li.

  • Rugged Hills of North America

    Rugged Hills of North America

    The intense color and shading in undulating bands convey a lushness and musical resonance that together define a highly innovative approach to landscape painting. The artist’s inscription bears out this impression: “The strangeness of the rugged hills in North America is quite in line with the grandeur of landscapes painted by Song painters. But [they] had never seen these hills, so they did not establish this method. . . .” The implication is that a new landscape in a new world validates a new approach. Though Wan may have felt a cultural loneliness in America, he no doubt found the natural beauty of this continent of great inspiration. In 1989 Wan left America to teach in Hong Kong. Though Hong Kong’s culture is more familiar, urban life troubles him. He turns to nature for solace, as suggested by the second half of his inscription: “People today only follow the decadent school of ink painting and are, therefore, unaware of the true meaning of ink and brush. Grasping the outward appearance of nature leads to spiritual resonance with the divine power of the Creator, and this is the painting principle of both antiquity and the present.”

  • Landscape

    Landscape

    Three rocky land masses rise from the water, with a hint of mist surrounding the distant peak. An air of isolation, perhaps desolation, emerges from trees rendered with deliberate naïveté. The simple depictions of buildings convey honesty and integrity. The artist concludes her inscription with “Chu-tsing, my venerable brother, asked me to imitate the old style.” The first part of the inscription, however, expresses the dilemma of combining tradition with experimentation: “Some think bringing forth new ideas is good; others think relying on the past is good. I sing a new melody, but use the old tone. Am I neither here nor there?” Trained in Beijing by artists of the former Manchu court, Zeng mastered the classical tradition in both technique and spirit. After moving to Honolulu in 1949, she began to experiment with Western abstract painting and developed a distinctive modern style. This work, as the inscription indicates, is an attempt to capture the spirit of a traditional ink painting.

  • 1973-12

    1973-12

    Reds and pinks are juxtaposed with black ink and varied hues of brown. The resulting fiery contrast adds drama to the striking forms. Although there is a gestural power in these shapes, they are constructed deliberately, just as the layering of colors is calculated. While welcoming accident and spontaneity, the artist carefully controlled his process. Feng Zhongrui, who had moved from China to Taiwan in 1949, was active in the modernist movement led by members of the Fifth Moon Group. Together with Liu Guosong, he explored concepts of abstraction and nonobjective painting, taking inspiration in part from the American abstract expressionists and enlisting Chinese media in novel ways.

  • Untitled

    Untitled

    Streaks of red, black, and white vie for supremacy in this painting. Textures of thick pigment, mostly acrylic, add richness to the surface, while the composition seems to suggest a powerful striding figure. Within each of the layers, a calligraphic energy informs the brushwork. Zhuang Zhe, a native of Beijing, was the son of a prominent family of intellectuals who reestablished themselves in Taiwan in 1948. He graduated from National Taiwan Normal University and joined the Fifth Moon Group in 1958. With his wife, a ceramic artist, he resettled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and later moved to New York.

  • Landscape
  • Untitled
  • 1973-9
  • High Mountains and Magnificent Peaks
  • Diary of Silk Road Travels: Night
  • 1969-23
  • Autumn Hills
  • Deep Ravine, Rushing Torrent
  • Small Is Beautiful, Less Is More
  • Tour Group in a Landscape
  • Landscape
  • Wintry Mountains Covered with Snow
  • Moon on Snowy Mountains
  • Green Mountains
  • Sketch on a Summer Day
  • Clearing after Snow
  • Rugged Hills of North America
  • Landscape
  • 1973-12
  • Untitled
On View Arthur M. Sackler Museum Phoenix Art Museum Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence

Co-organized by Phoenix Art Museum and the Harvard Art Museum, this exhibition showcases more than 50 works from the collection of distinguished historian of Chinese art Chu-tsing Li—the most important and comprehensive collection of modern and contemporary Chinese ink paintings in the West. In the second half of the 20th century, many ink painters experimented with subjects, media, formats, and styles both traditional and modern, East Asian and Western. Focusing on those five decades—a heretofore neglected period—A Tradition Redefined demonstrates the dramatic evolution of Chinese painting in modern times and lays the foundation for a deeper understanding of the international-style works produced in China today. Featuring paintings by artists active in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and abroad, the exhibition is the first to present a comprehensive examination of works created across a broad geographical range and includes many paintings not previously exhibited in the United States. Organized by Robert D. Mowry, Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art, Harvard Art Museum; Janet Baker, curator of Asian art, Phoenix Art Museum; and Claudia Brown, professor of art history, Arizona State University, and research curator, Phoenix Art Museum.