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Contemporary Chinese Art and its Histories

This will be the first in a series of posts on contemporary Chinese art in its historical context, in order to counter the prevalent tendency to discuss contemporary Chinese art primarily in terms of European and American influences rather than its engagement with multiple art traditions.

In 1981, Zhang Hongtu, a contemporary Chinese artist who has lived in New York for over thirty years, spent one month in Dunhuang in northwest China studying the murals of the Mogao caves. Though geographically remote, these nearly five hundred painted and sculpted Buddhist cave temples carved into the cliff face over the span of a thousand years constitute some of the most important artistic heritage in China.  Zhang wrote of the experience:

"For the first time I was awed by the paintings outside of the orthodox (Court and scholar paintings). The fusion, in early Dunhuang murals, of traditional Chinese techniques and images with those from India and central Asia has influenced my later works. Equally unforgettable to me were the sand dunes around Dunhuang, the transparent nightly blue sky, and the moon and stars which you could almost touch with your hands."

The orthodox court and scholar paintings to which Zhang refers are probably what most people envision when they think of traditional Chinese art—characteristically ink-and-wash paintings, usually calligraphy and landscapes, on paper or silk, mounted into hanging or hand scroll formats. This scholarly (also called “literati”) tradition that prized calligraphy, landscape, and genre painting served as the cornerstone of most artistic education for centuries in China. As many contemporary artists look backward, seeking to construct a relationship with an artistic heritage after a century during which China had a deeply troubled relationship with its art, the scholarly art tradition continues to dominate how artists relate to the past. Importantly though, this view of Chinese art can be too monolithic, threatening to eclipse the varied, multi-ethnic and religious traditions of art, architecture and craft that have thrived in China for thousands of years. Zhang’s wonderment at the murals of Dunhuang is just one example of an increasingly common encounter contemporary Chinese artists are having with the broader scope of Chinese artistic heritage, Buddhist art with roots traceable to Indian, Tibetan and Central Asian traditions.

Zhang perhaps saw the limitations of the Chinese painting tradition for the first time at Dunhuang since (while copying polychrome religious images produced by anonymous artisan painters) his painting took a new direction. His 1981 ink and gouache Dunhuang Study No. 7, part of the China Institute’s “Inspired by Dunhuang” exhibition, is a copy after a 6th century wall mural of the Eight Beggars Who Went to See the Buddha. Zhang recreates the colors of the faded mineral pigments and the spiky, stylized mountains that block out narrative spaces in the mural, as well as the sixth-century painting style of broad, round lines on top of flat planes of color, animating the energetic figures that seem to dance on the mountaintops. At the same time, he renders the figures slightly more slender and elegant. Though it is a direct replica of the mural, in Zhang’s hand the copy incorporates a modern imagination, complete with Chagall-like hybrid creatures, suggesting his personal connection with the centuries-old image.

Since his Dunhuang expedition, Zhang has continued to embrace copying both as a practice and as subject matter. For him, copying is a strategy to push against the constraints of both Chinese and Western artistic tradition in his ongoing Shan Shui series, oil paintings which remake masterpieces of Chinese painting in the style of Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh. Through the series, he explores the enduring power of images in paintings that are at once beautiful and tongue-in-cheek.

-Madeleine Boucher, Researcher, The Art Genome Project