PRINT April 1982


THE QUESTION OF ABSTRACT ART is the new topic of discussion nowadays in China’s art world. When I was a student in Paris in the ’40s, I saw many abstract paintings and greatly delighted in those of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Joan Miró. I myself was not laboring in the fields of the “non-figurative” school. But did I “understand” what the painters were getting at? Not really. I just felt that the paintings were tightly structured and organized, that the juxtapositions of the shapes, lines, and colors were unusual and striking, often giving one an unexpected sense of recognition, and that they were very beautiful. At that same time I was still intoxicated by the works of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent Van Gogh.

From the time when the Empress Ci Xi (1835–1908) closed the door on the West, the Chinese were out of touch with it. The May 4th Movement (1919) brought in some contemporary Western culture, but contemporary Western painting was still considered to be utterly alien and was met with great resistance, in spite of the efforts made by Feng Min, Liu Hai-li, and a few others to introduce it. In the early period of Liberation, i.e. post 1949, even the Impressionists were the objects of criticism, let alone the Abstractionists.

“He eats the food of the South but his heart is in the North”: This is thought to be the sign of someone disloyal. I am eating food grown by Chinese peasants and am willing with all my heart to be of service to them, to add another brick to build the great edifice of the new culture of the Chinese people. But as a painter and in my work of teaching painting, I’m always coming up against many troubling contradictions. People here often blindly reject all contemporary Western painting, and this insistent rejection causes the younger generation to have the opposite reaction and some of them will start to worship it to an extreme.

At one time I stayed in a village and lived in a villager’s house where I was treated as one of the family. Whenever I finished a painting I showed it to the women of the house first. If they looked at it in bewilderment, then my joy went away and I would try hard to make them accept it. When they said that a painting’s likeness was very profound it was high praise from them, but I felt uncomfortable, because in those cases, just as only the fish in the water know whether the water is hot or cold, I knew that it wasn’t a very good painting and I didn’t want to deceive these honest people. When I was more satisfied with what I’d painted their reaction also seemed to be intensified. “How beautiful this is!” From these very straightforward words of praise, “beautiful” and “likeness,” I realized that the country people truly had an unaffected esthetic judgment. Although they were illiterate they were not necessarily esthetically illiterate. Of course one should not use their opinions of esthetics as the only standard. What I privately hope for my work is that the masses will nod their heads in assent and the experts applaud. “Likeness” is the external appearance of an object; it is realism. “Beauty” is according to the laws of form hidden within reality; comparatively speaking, it is abstract. A perfect likeness isn’t necessarily beautiful. Whether it’s beautiful or not is decided by whether or not the reality encompasses the abstract factors of beauty of form.

The intelligent Chinese knew long ago how to appreciate abstract beauty from the revelations of nature. The people discovered beautiful pieces of variegated marble and then displayed them in palaces and meeting halls. The results of past generations of artists’ explorations in abstract beauty have accumulated, from the designs painted on pottery in ancient times to the creation of gardens with artificial hills and rocks. Abstract beauty controlled Chinese arts and crafts, architecture and design, yet some people today say that the Chinese don’t understand abstract beauty and insist that calligraphy doesn’t belong to abstract art, as though abstract beauty was a terrible ghost! Indeed it is a ghost which we must catch and analyze, because it is the controlling force behind beauty of form. It is its essence, and we must bare it scientifically and investigate its components. This will be to the great advantage of the creation of artistic beauty.

You’ve seen Chinese painters painting classical Chinese pictures, particularly when they are using the splash-ink technique and freehand brushwork. At the beginning black ink falls on white paper forming round blobs or crisscrossing lines of ink . . . the onlookers wonder: is he painting lotus flowers? Stones? An eagle? Then it turns out to be Qu Yuan (a poet and statesman who drowned himself in the 3rd century B.C. after having been falsely accused and as a protest against the corruption of the government; he is commemorated annually in a popular festival). Sometimes after just a few strokes when there is nothing even worth mentioning yet, the painter says it’s no good and tears the paper up at once. A melody not yet written starts from feelings, an image starts from form. It has to be clear whether it’s an eagle or a swallow, and the crucial point in determining whether the picture is beautiful or not is the figure and rhythm of movement of the eagle or the swallow. The painter has already grasped the laws of beauty and ugliness in the abstract form of the ink before the bird is delineated. When people, mountains and streams, cattle and sheep, etc., are put into a painting, it must be because, under definite circumstances and conditions, they reveal a certain kind of esthetic feeling. Through specific material objects the painter grasps the structural relationship between abstract and the figurative. High, low, convex, concave, square, round, crooked, straight, the coldness and warmth of colors, calls and answers, density and diffusion, and so on––only the organization of these components determines whether the painting is ugly or beautiful, or whether the meaning comes to life or not.

“Two yellow orioles chirp in the bright green willow, a line of white herons soar to the blue sky”: when the poet Du Fu (712–770 A.D.) wrote this, what he was feeling was in fact the beauty of a painting. He couldn't paint so he used words to convey beauty of form. There are the green lines of the rhythmic movements of the willow, decorated by the mischievous yellow dots of the orioles. The esthetic feeling created by that group of bright green lines and the two yellow dots is simply that of an abstract painting. In the same way, between the line of white herons and the blue sky there also exists an abstract relationship of the white moving lines to the blue ground. Chinese freehand brushwork painting does not depart completely from external appearance, but at the same time it tightly grasps the components of abstract beauty within the object. While it completely expresses the many appearances of the green willow and the contrast of the beauty of form in the yellow oriole's swift movements, it still tries to make the spectators recognize that this is a green willow and these are yellow orioles. Thus it takes care of both aspects, realism and abstraction, and could be said to be half-abstract work, somewhere in between realistic and abstract. One of the most influential Chinese painters of modern times was Qi Bai-shi (1863–1957); in his work he captured the vitality of his subjects––birds, shrimp, flowers, and insects––while paring them down to the barest essentials. He declared that the value of paintings lay in between likeness and unlikeness. “Likeness” indicates not losing realistic characteristics. “Unlikeness” actually indicates that one cannot break the laws of abstract beauty in order to yield to the external appearance of an object. It seems that Western Abstractionists no longer yield to the aspect of “likeness” as being directly connected with reality. Their works are not a recapitulation or refinement of a specific object and may be, instead, many kinds of interlocking combinations of emotions felt at different times. An artist's each and every emotion comes from individual direct or indirect experiences, even if there is a great, great distance between these life experiences and the finished work. Often even the artist has forgotten the distance of the journey! Coarse grain finely prepared is still easily recognizable as such. Although alcohol is made from grain or fruit it's no longer grain or fruit.

Modern Western painting discovered the beauty of structural for from Cézanne. This was a great advance. Then people advanced even further to reject the constraints of the external appearances of objects. From structural form they explored the independent nature of abstract beauty. The rise of the Cubists and the Abstractionists was the inevitable result of exploring the laws of beauty of form, and it played a scientific and active role in acquainting people with the process of art, making a historical contribution. I have been unfamiliar with the Western world for thirty years and no longer know anything about concrete conditions there, but in my explorations of Chinese traditional and folk art over the past thirty years, I have discovered that this law of abstract beauty already existed a long, long time ago. If more study were made of contemporary Western abstract works of excellence it would definitely be advantageous, and would include many problems, such as people getting used to it, appreciating it, and so on.

Promising artists certainly don't stay in the imitative stage. The discoveries of predecessors are valuable nourishment for their successors. Of course, art cannot be divorced from the people; it must be the language for exchanging emotions among the people. When Qi Bai-shi said that the value of paintings lay in between likeness and unlikeness he was respecting the laws of art. He went on to say, “Too great a likeness is vulgar; an unlikeness is to deceive the public.” He was not willing to be distanced from the people. It's unnecessary to argue over different methods of creation and levels of skillfulness. Specific works should be specifically analyzed, and true and false are always enemies!

Wu Guan-zhong, a noted Chinese painter, graduated from the National Arts College and studied in France. He returned to China in 1950 and is now a professor of the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts in Beijing (Peking).

Translated from the Chinese by Madeleine Lynn. The Pinyin romanization has been used throughout.