Calligraphy and the Accidental Cartoonist

On the surface, the works of the late Chinese painter Huang Yao seem playful and sometimes even childlike. But this accessible surface hides something much more meaningful: the life of an artist steeped in culture, literature, and thousands of years of the Chinese traditions of ink painting and calligraphy. 

Huang was born in 1917 into an intellectual family in Shanghai. From a young age he was introduced to his father’s social circle of the city’s literati. He studied literature, history, and philosophy, as well as calligraphy and painting, copying his family’s art collection for practice.  

Despite this formal education, Huang’s career took an unexpected turn when he was a very young man. By the time he was a teen, his skill as a painter was evident, and in 1934 he created Niubizi, a cartoon character that would become one of the stars of China’s golden age of cartoons as a symbol (and defender) of the common Chinese man. Despite his success, Huang considered himself a painter by vocation and a cartoonist by accident.  

Later in his career, Huang returned to his first love of painting. These delightful works of ink on rice paper—which can be seen at Singapore’s Ode to Art gallery—pull from all aspects of the artist’s multi-faceted life and wide range of interests. Landscapes, such as To Chirp–Landscape, call to mind traditional Chinese ink painting; experiments with calligraphy turn text into near abstraction; and then of course there are those lively children reminiscent of Huang’s work in cartoons. As Huang himself once said: “An artist must learn the skills and aspirations of the old masters, study what is available in the world, and then create something new yet enduring to be enjoyed by all in peace and prosperity.” In the works he left behind, Huang managed to do just that.

Huang Yao” is on view at Ode to Art, Singapore, through December 31.

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