Cross-cultural influence in Chinese art: “The Art World Becomes One” Christie’s panel talk

Cross-cultural influences in artistic creation was the theme explored in Christie’s art forum “The Art World Becomes One”.

Held in Hong Kong on 23 November 2012, the panel discussion was part of a second series of events organised by Christie’s to coincide with its autumn auctions, building on the success of its inaugural art forum in October 2012.

Panel for Christie's art forum "The Art World Becomes One". Image by Art Radar.

Panel for Christie's art forum "The Art World Becomes One". Image by Art Radar.

“The Art World Becomes One” focused on artistic dialogue between the East and the West in the past century. The speakers themselves reflected the growing acuteness of such cross-cultural exchanges:

  • Ken Yeh, the Chairman of Christie’s Asia, was born and raised in Taipei. A specialist in Impressionist and Modern Art, he moved to Manhattan and set up his own gallery in 1988, and later joined Christie’s New York as an art adviser for Asian clients.
  • Eric Chang, the International Director of Twentieth Century Chinese Art and Asian Contemporary Art, was approached by Christie’s when he worked as a paintings dealer in Taiwan and later moved to Hong Kong.

The art forum focused on two groups of Chinese modern and contemporary artists: the second generation artists, including Chu Teh-chun and Zao Wou-ki, and the post-1989 generation of contemporary Chinese artists, most notably Zeng Fanzhi.

Innovations in abstract art: Chu Teh-chun

One of the most significant fruits of cross-cultural dialogue has been innovation in the realm of abstract art. The panellists began by presenting a side-by-side comparison of a work of Chu Teh-chun and Jackson Pollock’s Lavender/Mist No.51 (1950).

Chu Teh-chun, 'La foret blanche II', 1987, oil on canvas, diptych measuring 1.3 x 3.9 metres.

Chu Teh-chun, 'La foret blanche II', 1987, oil on canvas, diptych, 1.3 x 3.9 metres.

Jackson Pollock, 'Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)', 1950, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.

Jackson Pollock, 'Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)', 1950, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.

A native of Jiangsu province, Chu received his early education in art at the prestigious Hangzhou National College of Art, then under the directorship of Lin Fengmian, a leading figure in modern Chinese painting whose style, according to The New York Times, is “prized for being distinctively Chinese despite his use of Western visual language”. The two speakers commended Chu for his unique ability to merge Eastern landscape themes with Western abstract expressionism. He successfully combines traditional Chinese landscape paintings with the brilliance of oil pigments, a technique that gives his works an exceptional aura of depth and energy.

La Foret Blanche II (1987) best represents works completed during the height of Chu’s creative career. In the painting, the artist presents a beautiful evocation of a snow-laden winter landscape. He was moved, Eric Chang suggested, by the impulse to capture the elemental forces of nature that had similarly inspired Pollock. Both constructed their paintings layer upon layer to create a special spatial effect. Pollock is well known for his innovative technique in pouring, dripping and spattering paint on the canvas, his whole body being engaged in the flowing, dance-like movements of the creative process. Chu’s training in the classical Chinese art of calligraphy, however, helped him to achieve something very different. Although the lines and strokes in his paintings appear to be the results of free-flowing motion, they are in fact highly precise and deliberate, the creation of hands well trained in the controlled and delicate art of calligraphy.

While he successfully broke open a new path in the abstract expressionist movement, Chu’s first-hand encounter with Western influences in fact came from Europe when he moved to France in 1955. He attended the Paris Spring Salon in 1956, winning the Silver Prize, and had his first solo exhibition there a year later. In 1999, he was formally inducted into l’Institute de France, Academie des Beaux-Arts. Ken Yeh found worthy comparisons to be made between Chu and Claude Monet. The French impressionist master is known for his approach to artistic creation: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever… merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it gives you your own naive impression of the scene before you.”

Claude Monet, 'Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond', c. 1920, 200 × 1,276 cm, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

This emphasis, Yeh suggested, is comparable to the attention paid in Chinese aesthetics to capturing the spirit and atmosphere of nature rather than the reproduction of the appearance of specific landscapes. Yeh recounted with relish his first encounter with Monet’s Water Lilies at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. “I didn’t realise then that the museum housed such an important piece of work,” he remembered. “When I first looked at it I didn’t know what the painting was about. I just saw patches of luminous colour. When I stood at a distance, I saw at once what Monet was trying to paint. They were water lilies.” Put side by side to Monet’s masterpiece, Chu’s La Foret Blanche II reflects also the power and dynamism achievable within the Chinese tradition of monochromatic painting. The piece was sold for HKD60 million (USD7.7 million) at the Christie’s Hong Kong auction on November 24, setting a new record for Chu whose previous top price was USD5.9 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2009.

Symbols of home: Zao Wou-ki

Another second-generation Chinese artist that successfully created a new artistic language based on reconciling Chinese and European aesthetics is Zao Wou-ki. According to critic François Cheng, “Zao gave birth to a truly co-generative and co-existing art form that found place in the canon of both Chinese and Occidental art.” One of the most sought-after artists in the market today, Zao’s works accounted for over half of the top ten lots in Christie’s autumn 2009 auctions. In 2010, his works fetched a combined HKD332.3 million (USD43 million) in a two-day sale.

Like his contemporary Chu Teh-chun, Zao was born in China and studied fine arts in Hangzhou, a year above Chu and two years above famous artist Wu Guanzhong. He practised Chinese calligraphy since he was six, but believed that Chinese painting had steadily lost its creativity since the sixteenth century as artists became solely preoccupied with imitating art works produced in the Han and Song Dynasties. He moved to Paris in 1948, and there became exposed to European artists including Joan Miró, Paul Klee and Alberto Giacometti.

Klee’s works, with their strong Eastern characteristics, inspired Zao, but it was with Miró that Zao would share the most distinct similarities. Both men experienced separation from their homeland in different periods in their lives. Zao left China for France and later went through a divorce with his wife in the mid-1950s. Miró left Spain for France in 1919, but his habitual returns home were halted by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). His life in France was again interrupted in 1940 with the German invasion of Varengeville, a village in northern France where Miró settled.

Zao Wou-ki, 'Suspended Village', oil on canvas, 58.4 x 50.8 cm, painted in 1956.

Zao Wou-ki, 'Suspended Village', 1956, oil on canvas, 58.4 x 50.8 cm.

Zao Wou-ki, 'Untitled', oil on canvas, 59 x 72.4 cm, painted in 1951.

Zao Wou-ki, 'Untitled', 1951, oil on canvas, 59 x 72.4 cm.

Miro, 'Constellation: Toward the Rainbow', 1941, gouache and oil wash on paper, 45.7 x 38.1cm; 91.1 x 64.1 x 3.2 cm (frame).

Miro, 'Constellation: Toward the Rainbow', 1941, gouache and oil wash on paper, 45.7 x 38.1cm; 91.1 x 64.1 x 3.2 cm (frame).

A longing for home could be detected in both artists’ works. This is evident in Zao’s Suspended Village (1956). The village’s suspension in mid-air, Chang explained, shows the artist’s nostalgia for his home in China. Symbols are widely employed in both artists’ works, as seen in Zao’s Untitled (1951) and Miró’s Constellation series, consisting of 23 gouaches completed over the course of January 1940 to September 1941. For Miró, the symbols of stars, eyes and other geometric figures may have represented his “deep desire to escape” the terrors of war through evoking a fantastical landscape, as admitted by the artist himself in a 1939 interview. The language of symbols, both Yeh and Chang pointed out, is universal. Chinese characters, in fact, were developed from pictorial representations which became more abstract. Symbols straddle the boundaries between nationalities and are capable of communicating the most direct, most elemental sentiments. They also represent a simplicity and purity that reflect a child-like heart.

Portraits of rapidly changing times

From these second-generation artists, the two panellists led the audience to Chinese contemporary art. They introduced Zeng Fanzhi, known for painting men and women wearing masks. They compared his works with those of American artist Andy Warhol, the pioneer of the pop art movement. Both artists were working under the condition of rapid social and economic change. The United States in the 1960s and 70s and China in the 1990s both witnessed spectacular transformation. Warhol experienced the rising popularity of the discotheque and the flourishing of celebrity culture. Zeng lived through the reform and opening up of China in the late 1970s and 1980s, the 1989 Tiananmen tragedy, as well as the acceleration of economic growth since the early 1990s.

Andy Warhol, 'Mao: one plate (F. & S. II.91)', screenprint in colors, 1972, on Beckett High White, signed in ball-point pen on the reverse, stamp-numbered 238/250 (there were also 50 artist's proofs), co-published by Castelli Graphics and Multiples, Inc., New York, with the artist's copyright inkstamp on the reverse, the full sheet, generally in very good condition, framed, 36 x 36 in.

Andy Warhol, 'Mao: one plate (F. & S. II.91)', 1972, screenprint in colour, 36 x 36 in.

Zhang Xiaogang, The Big Family (Bloodlines Series), 49 x 57 in., painted in 2006.

Zhang Xiaogang, 'The Big Family (Bloodlines Series)' 2006, 49 x 57 in.

Living through similar periods of rapid change, the artists produced very different portraits. Warhol produced a celebrity series that include portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor reproduced in different colours. He also painted Mao Zedong, but he was seen not as a political figure but as someone famous. Zeng, in contrast, covered the faces of his men and women with masks. “The eyes were the most important feature for interpersonal communication,” Chang pointed out. “By covering the eyes of his figures Zeng Fanzhi led viewers to ask what he was trying to conceal. Might it be discontentment with reality?”

Zeng Fanzhi, “Mask Series", 1999, Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale), Lot: 32, 217.5 x 327.5 cm, oil on canvas.

Zeng Fanzhi, 'Mask Series', 1999, oil on canvas, 217.5 x 327.5 cm.

Another contemporary Chinese artist famous for his portraits was Zhang Xiaogang. Unlike Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang does not attempt to cover up the eyes of his figures but their eyes are strikingly devoid of emotion and appear enigmatically unreadable. “Viewers can see the full face of the figures, but are prevented from communication and from understanding what is being expressed.” Instead, like Warhol, Zhang also used colour to express emotions. Some of his figures are painted in red, yellow and other vivid colours, conveying an intensity of emotion.

Comparisons can also be drawn between Zeng Fanzhi and another artist brought to fame by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat was an African-American born and raised in New York City. A graffitist since his teenage years, Basquiat was discovered and lifted from obscurity by Warhol when the two met in 1980. His works became known for their raw intensity and vibrant colours, as exemplified in the piece Cabeza (1982). Like Basquiat, Zeng Fanzhi uses an intense palette of red, yellow, blue, white and black in his paintings to capture China’s rapidly changing social landscapes under modernisation. Both artists, Chang observes, deal with similar themes of racial and cultural identification.

China’s Monets and Pollocks

The forum closes with the thought-provoking question: Will China produce its own Monet and its own Pollock? Eric Chang’s response was immediate and straightforward: “Most definitely so”. Chang argues that a nation’s creative power and international stature will rise with economic strength and that with China’s continuously rising GDP, it is only a matter of time before it becomes the world’s creative powerhouse, cultivating its own artistic geniuses. The determining test, Chang points out, is whether Chinese artists can put forward something with unique cultural value that enables them to enter into productive dialogue with Western aesthetic philosophies and traditions. Fifty years later, the panellists proposed with laughter, we should all come together again to appraise the progress of the Chinese art world.

Do you agree with Eric Chang’s answer? Leave a comment below with your opinion on whether China will one day produce its own Monet or Pollock.


Related Topics: classic/contemporary art, globalisation of art, lectures and talks, Chinese artists

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Cross-cultural influence in Chinese art: “The Art World Becomes One” Christie’s panel talk — 3 Comments

  1. I am lecturing on Asian influences in American art this afternoon. Gracias! Merci! XieXie! Shukran! Thank you very much.

  2. Just looking at your illustrations proves the absurdity of whether China can produce its own Monet or Pollock. The Chinese “versions” are imitative and bad. And Chinese Art will continue to be imitative and bad until America no longer exports its “International” pop culture. Psy is the only Aisian to have made it in the west and he reveals not one shred of distinctive Korean culture. He’s international ie, American. He’s Elvis. Nam June Paik is another Korean who did well in the west, but in what way is an installation of televisions Korean? When the Chinese make a blockbuster movie that the world wants to see, I’ll revisit the issue.

  3. Pingback: Cross-cultural influence in Chinese art: “The Art World Becomes One” Christie’s panel talk | Art Radar Asia «

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