Motifs full of poetry and philosophical speculation
By Velyamin Mitrokhin
Chinese painting has a long history. The Middle Ages saw the emergence of the picture-scroll genre and traditional fine art styles of ‘gunbi’ and ‘sei’. Precise outlines were typical of ‘gunbi’ (meaning ‘meticulous brush work’) so it was sometimes called ‘the clear lines style’. Having painted the outline, water-based mineral paints were used to complete an image. Meanwhile, ‘sei’ was less defined, with artists using ink on a wet brush to depict emotions and moods rather than particular details. It was called ‘coarse brush style’ or ‘the idea painting’.
The main painting genres still used today originated in the Middle Ages: landscape (‘shan shui’) and ‘flower-birds’ (‘huaniao’) are among the most enduringly popular in modern China. The past is not perceived as something distant and obsolete but as a model for the present, influencing and shaping contemporary designs. However, this reverence for the past does not interfere with the search for something new.
China boasts an inseparable union of painting and calligraphy — the art of drawing letters beautifully; it is the nation’s most significant fine arts tradition. Poets write with paintbrushes and drawing ink on paper or silk, as do artists.
The present exhibition is displaying picture-scrolls by contemporary masters Xu Beihong, Mi Wen Jie, Yang Fei Hung and Xiao Yu. They assign deep poetic meaning to every work — from monumental landscapes to small images of flowers and birds. Xiao Yu is fascinated by the modest beauty of autumn lotuses: the soft beauty of their form has a secret, inner life requiring a careful approach. They exude a sad poetry on the brevity of life.
Each work is captivating in its skilful, well-thought-out technique. Contemporary Chinese masters have discovered the subtle border which separates the poetic dream world from that of mundane existence. They are excellent ‘guo hua’ masters, able to reveal the whole through one small fragment, expressing the essence of a larger concept.