“Black and White” and the Disappearance of the Modern Character

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Experimental ink and wash” has already a fairly long history. As a new cultural trend which rose in the 1990s, it is a rethinking about the “ink and wash” as the heart of “traditional Chinese painting“, and a re-examination of the basic principle and methods. It explores again all possibilities of “ink and wash” to transcend the discourse of “brushwork and ink-applying technique” in a bold way. In the context of globalization, it is worthwhile for us to try to get a deep understanding of the possibilities exhibited by the development of “experimental ink and wash”. “Traditional Chinese painting” is a classical concept with “modern” character. It is a whole set of knowledge and discourse system that began to form from the late Qing Dynasty to the early years of the Republic of China. It is a specific concept as opposed to “Western painting”, and it is in the modern culture as a whole that it symbolizes the peculiar value and special mode of expression of the traditional Chinese culture. In the opposition between modernity and tradition, it represents the existence of tradition. The existence of the concept of “traditional Chinese painting” is impossible in traditional Chinese society, for what is called the “traditional Chinese painting” in modern language was the only painting, as we understand it, in the traditional society. The influx of Western painting and the discourse with the “modern” character have changed the painting as we understand it into a token of “particularity”. The concept of “traditional Chinese painting” now has a peculiar meaning. There is a remarkable phenomenon in Chinese culture, that is, the break like that in the field of literature, where the “May 4th” new literature superseded the old literature and became the mainstream of the Chinese literature, has never appeared in the field of fine arts. In literature, no specific concept of “Chinese poetry” is used to denote old-style poetry. Old-style poetry and new verse are regarded as parts of the Chinese poetry as a whole, and “new” and “old” are used from the angle of time to denote their traditional and modern character respectively. In fine arts, however, the difference between “traditional Chinese painting” and “Western painting” has always been looked upon as a spatial difference. The debates about the theory of so-called “scattered-viewpoint perspective” and about the reform and innovation of “traditional Chinese painting” have reflected the subtlety of the “modern” interpretation of this special “spatial” mode of observation. The explorations of the modern character of “traditional Chinese painting”, such as those of Ren Bonian and Wu Changshuo, were not, like those in literary circles, thoroughly denied by the New Culture Movement in the period of the May 4th Movement of 1919. The problem of time the “traditional Chinese painting” is facing, that is, the problem of modernity and tradition, has been transformed to the spatial difference between Chinese and Western cultures. This seems to have no parallel anywhere. Since the late Qing Dynasty, no “great masters” have emerged from among poets and writers writing in the classical style, and old-style poems or traditional Chinese novels with each chapter headed by a couplet giving the gist of its content have been on the margin of culture. This shows that the premise of the knowledge and discourse of literature has radically changed. However, great masters have still emerged unceasingly in traditional way in the field of “traditional Chinese painting”, such as Qi Baishi and Zhang Daqian. “Traditional Chinese painting” has all along stood up to Western painting as an equal and has become one of the mainstreams of the Chinese art.

This difference between different fields of art gives us much food for thought. But it is indisputable that the way of transformation in the field of literature is clearly the orthodox mode of the “modern” Chinese discourse. The “modern character” of Chinese painting is embodied in the complex development of two major systems: one is the system of Western painting that adopts directly Western techniques, materials and ideas; the other is the system of traditional Chinese painting that takes over completely traditional materials, techniques and ideas. There is of course merging and mutual infiltration between these two systems, but the difference between them is obvious. The constant development of new techniques and the expanding of the range of subject matters lie at the core of the modern character of “traditional Chinese painting”, and the legitimacy of “brushwork and ink-applying technique” as the prerequisite of traditional Chinese painting has never been questioned. This modern character is not of the broken type but of the type of continuity, and is the modern character of an “alternative” kind. This “alternative” kind of modern character has never been suppressed as in the field of literature. The modern character in the field of Chinese painting, compared with that in the field of literature, is “unconventional” and “unorthodox”, because the break like that in the May 4th Movement has never occurred here. What has genuinely introduced the modern character of the “orthodox” and “broken” type like that of literature into the field of painting is the extraordinarily intense thesis by Li Xiaoshan, “Contemporary Traditional Chinese Painting in My Opinion”. The concept of so-called “preserving the genre of painting”, the entirely anti-traditional attitude and the craze for the “ordinary character” are very close to the view of literature of the period of the May 4th Movement. However, it happened nearly 70 years after the May 4th Movement. History has given the field of fine arts an “alternative” modern character, but the cultural trend of the 1980s demanded it to return to the “orthodoxy” of the modern character of China. This is the queerest phenomenon in the field of Chinese painting. It also shows that many problems in the history of the “modern character” of China have to be “left over” and to be solved in a new “post-modern” context. This makes the fate of “traditional Chinese painting” at present rather uncertain and leads to the gradual withdrawal of this concept from history. On the one hand, the strong desire of introducing the “orthodox” process like that in the field of literature into the field of painting has become the imagination of many radical artists. They often think that this “unconventional” and “unorthodox” modern character is the token of the fact that modernization has not been achieved in the field of painting. Therefore efforts have always been made to abandon traditional Chinese painting or destroy its position in the Chinese culture. On the other hand, some artists also begin to rethink about the possibilities of “traditional Chinese painting” and the basic discourse in traditional Chinese painting, “brushwork and ink-applying technique”, in the range of “post-modern” discourse and the globalized new cultural trend, and try to transcend the limitations of the discourse of “modern” traditional Chinese painting. What is called “experimental ink and wash” is just the token of this duality. It combines two different desires. In its initial stage, it seemed to have some connection with the break like that of Li Xiaoshan, while its value at present lies in the manifestation of the possibility of transcending the limitations of the “modern character” of brushwork and ink-applying technique. It tries to destroy the legitimacy of “brushwork and ink-applying technique” and manifest the unlimited possibilities of “black and white”; at the same time, it continues to use the original materials of traditional Chinese painting. If the break of Li Xiaoshan type is the denial of the traditional Chinese painting, then “experimental ink and wash” is the re-imagination about it, an imagination derived from the post-modern character. It is the cultural consequence of globalization, and almost all its imaginations and possibilities come from the new structure of global artistic production; in the meantime, it is also the natural result of the predicament and contradictions of the native “traditional Chinese painting”. Zhang Yu‘s Divine Light Series, for example, is such a exploration. It indicates the appearance of a new type, “post traditional Chinese painting”. It embodies a new cultural form of glocalization (global localization). Glocalization refers to different forms and tokens of “globalization” in different places. “Experimental ink and wash” is not to be identified with the “abstract” ink and wash movement in traditional Chinese painting. It has completely abandoned all the expressive potentialities with “brushwork and ink-applying technique” as the mainstay, and explores new possibilities of the traditional materials of “traditional Chinese painting”. “Black and white” has superseded “brushwork and ink-applying technique” and becomes the core of ink and wash. On the one hand, the experimental ink and wash has transcended the “modern” traditional Chinese painting; on the other hand, it has transcended all the possibilities of traditional Chinese painting. In this transcendence, “experimental ink and wash” has become an indisputable and special cultural token in this era of globalization. On the one hand, it refuses the simple and “universal” Western principles by adhering to traditional materials; on the other hand, it refuses the fatalism about the “particularity” of the “traditional Chinese painting” by transcending brushwork and ink-applying technique. It is a new mode of imagination transcending the opposition between modernity and tradition. It has manifested the high flexibility of the culture in an era in which “globalization” has superseded “modernization” and becomes the new key concept of the Chinese culture. In Zhang Yu and his fellow artists’ “black and white” images, we have found the appearance of the imaginative future of China and the disappearance of the modern character.

Zhang Yiwu – Professor at Beijing University, Tutor of Doctor’s Degree Candidates, Art Critic
Si ringrazia Red Gate Gallery per la collaborazione