Modern Chinese Ink Paintings

Room 91 in the British Museum, past the Picasso exhibition (reviewed here), hosts the Modern Chinese Ink Paintings exhibition.

I love Chinese landscapes, the classical ones, always filled with mountains, waterfalls, trees and a man on a boat, but it is also the lines, the detail that I enjoy and this exhibition promised to drag me into the last hundred years.  Chinese ink painting is one of the longest painting traditions in world history, beginning over two thousand years ago.  So the forty works on display from 1913 onwards are grounded in a long and rich history.

Zhang Daqian opens the exhibition with landscape in blue and green.  Despite the dark colours the light blue waterfall makes it seem as if you are peeking through the foliage, you can almost hear the soft fall of the water and feel the spray on your face.  Zhang met Picasso in the 1950’s, and Picasso commented to Claude Roy “If I were born Chinese, I would not be a painter but a calligrapher, I would write my pictures”, you can only imagine how that would have turned out.

Peonies by Wu Changshi has bold firm strokes while in Wang Zhen’s Buddha Amitayus, infinite life the firm outlines and imprecise strokes contrast with the soft thin depiction of the Buddha, who almost seems to be in the background, until you focus, and his detailed outline forms up.
The scribbled outlines and lack of a background make the almost comical looking scholars stand out in Fu Baoshi’s Scholar’s suffering from hardship.  In Narcissus and Rock by Zhu Qihzan the bold strokes of the flower seem much more western compared to the soft indefinite rock, almost as if the flower has the strength and the rock the grace.

Wang Tiande mutates the art by painting a landscape in the traditional manner and then uses an incense stick to burn images into silk or paper placed over the top. The precisely titled Digital-no-8-mh70 is included in the exhibition and was a riot to look at, I tried to look at one level or the other, as both together confused my eyes.

My favourite works was Huang Yongu’s Two Owls.  Big bold eyes and the indefinite outlines stand out on the full blue background.  Neither is winking, a previous work by Yongyu featured a winking owl was ‘criticised’, these owls have wide open eyes.

Billed as the highlight of the exhbibition are works by Liu Dan.  His Poppy is beautifully drawn, all in black and white shades, even the shading is detailed.  Cloud Root, despite potentially being either of these things , looked like a root to me, again in black and white, it is almost an incomplete sketch.  Landcape is a long thin horizontal strip, a flame from the right blows across to condense and form a landscape in incredible detail.

Wu Guanzhong’s Paradise for Small Birds is the most abstract in the exhibition.  The banyan tree is a mass of black and grey ink, amongst which are scattered a few defined birds and splashes of bright colour.  Nearby the abstract is Boating Towards a Misty Valley by Huang Junbi.  A classical Chinese landscape with a waterfall, rocks, trees and fisherman in a house boat, all sketched and shaded with earthy colours with precise lines and blurred edges.

Qi Gong’s Calligraphy Couplet does exactly what it says on the tin, beautiful Calligraphy.  The first referring  to the image of  a white stupa on jasper flower island in Beihai park at sunset in Beijing and colourful boats on the pearl river under the mid autumn moon in Guangzhou.

Jin Cheng’s landscape fan with calligraphy on reverse render incredible detail on a small surface, in greens and greys while Pu Quan’s Jay Bird combines meticulous brushwork (Gongbi) with spontaneous strokes (xieyi), notably the Jay Bird itself is detailed with a blue under wing which stands out amongst the greens, greys and browns.

My last view of the exhibition was Sun and Moon, Floating? Sinking? by Liu Kuo-Sung.  A pinting of the cosmos (taikong hua) in which a round white disc has abstract dark blue mountainous shapes float against it.

Overall the exhibition is just the right size for a casual look round, particularly if you have an interest in painting or Chinese art and I’m planning on looking up a few of the artists soon to look at other works.  The exhibition is on until the 2nd of September 2012.

British Museum site here


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