Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Artworks and Masters – Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿 / Hsü Pei-hung): Reviving Old Traditions


A Short Biography of Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿 / Hsü Pei-hung)

Xu Beihong (1895 – 1953) belonged to the strongest painters in modern Chinese ink and wash painting. He was sent to France in 1919 by the Ministry of Education to study Art at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After graduation in 1923, he stayed in Europe and traveled around, examining the art of Berlin, Vienna and Zurich. He returned to Beijing in 1928 and became professor at numerous art institutions in Nanjing and Beijing. Until 1949, years were filled with exhibitions in China and in foreign countries. In 1953, he died of tuberculosis of only 57.

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History of Sumi-e – Art and Painting in China in the Qing Dynasty (清朝/Qing Chao/Ch’ing Ch’ao)


Continuity and Routine in Chinese Painting during the Qing Dynasty

The fall of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) and enthronization of the Manchu rulers did not, at least at the beginning, cause a disruption for artists and scholars as it had happened with the beginning of foreign rule during the Yuan Dynasty. In fact, the Manchu, now calling themselves Qing, took over all cultural institutions of the Ming and thus ensured stability. In art, conservatism ruled.  No interruption of painting traditions occurred, with many painters continuing to paint in a variety of styles and ideals as laid out by Dong Qichang in the 16th century. The “Four Wangs” are the most notable group of artists in the Qing Dynasty, who followed Dong’s premise to imitate the older masters’ styles. However, this attitude did slowly, but steadily become a burden for painters, and boundaries between the Northern and Southern School blurred, when painters of the latter put more emphasis on technique and skill than painting in the free and spontaneous manner of that of the Southern School.

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Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Artworks and Masters – Shen Zhou (沈周/Shen Chou/Qinan)


A Brief Biography of Shen Zhou (沈周/Shen Chou/Qinan)

Shen Zhou was born into a wealthy family of tax collectors, which allowed him to receive a thorough education. Since his family was rich enough to live from its work as tax collectors, Shen did not have to seek for a government post, but could freely devote himself to painting, poetry and traveling. Even after the death of his father, who had been the head of the family, Shen did not strive after an official career, but devoted himself to the care of his mother.

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History of Sumi-e – Art and Painting in China in the 20th Century


Chinese Painting Between Curiosity and Disruption

After the events that came with the downfall of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912), China found itself troubled between maintaining traditions and striving for modernization on all possible levels. In painting, various directions were taken. Painters from the Shanghai area , led by Ren Xiong, who had developed an own style since the middle of the 19th century -, saw the Qing Dynasty individualists as their role models and followed their attitude of adding personal styles to the picture, instead of sticking to canonical painting techniques. At the beginning of the 20th century, many Chinese painters were sent abroad to study art education, oil painting and western graphics. Some of them, like Xu Beihong, even managed to have works displayed in foreign exhibitions. The first art department that taught western painting belonged to the Nanjing High Normal School and was opened in 1906. Strong European influences in painting started to show with the use of oil paint. The increasing influence of European painting methods led to a counter movement by artists who found it important to distance themselves from western techniques and to pursue traditional ones.  Fu Baoshi found inspiration in the Japanese nihonga movement, Pan Tianshou followed the paintings of Zhu Da and Shi Tao.

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History of Sumi-e – Chinese Ink and Wash Painting and Sumi-e in the 21st Century


The Contemporary Arts Movement in China

In 1985, Chinese art critic Li Xiaoshan stated in his article “My View of Contemporary Chinese Painting” (Dangdai zhongguohua zhi wojian) that ink and wash painting (Link: Basic Information article) had reached a “dead end”. Indeed the question for modern ink painters has been how to define “Chinese painting” (中国画zhongguohua) or “national painting” (国画guohua). In the last decades it is has not only been the question how to define “Chinese” and which place ink and wash painting takes in nowadays art world. It has become common to try and categorize ink and wash painting created after the Cultural Revolution into types like customary, expressionist, documentary, or experimental; each one according to the techniques or traditions they use and are based on. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, however, Chinese art has been interfused with other genres such as performance, photography and video, with artists being occupied with more than one field of artistic interest. Dividing contemporary Chinese painting into four dogmatic categories thus proves to be a problem, especially since growing globalism in the art world pushed the amalgamation of art even further.

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