Chinese painting draws from a lot of inspiration from nature, religion and history. When examining Chinese ink and wash paintings, one will realize that there are a number of motifs which are repeated over and over again. There is a broad canon of numerous painting subjects – too many to be listed here. The following text shall give you a brief overview about the most important subjects in Chinese ink and wash painting.
The Life and Times of Qi Baishi (齐白石/Ch’i Pai-shih)
When looking at Qi Baishi’s vita, one might be surprised that someone with originally no connection to painting should become one of the greatest and most famous ink painters of modern times. Although taking painting very seriously throughout his life, it seems as if fame did not come to him until the last decade of his life.
Xu Wei must be one of the most tragic figures in the whole of Chinese painting history, who suffered a number of setbacks during his lifetime: When he was 14, his mother died. His first wife, whom he married at the age of 21, died five years later. Xu attempted to enter civil services, but failed the examinations eight times. He nevertheless managed to serve among the coastal guards, but when his leader got arrested, Xu Wei feared for his life. His mental imbalance – academics today believe that it was caused by Bipolar Disorder – led him to attempt suicide nine times and to kill his second wife, being paranoid that she would betray him. He was imprisoned for seven years and freed at the age of 53. He later applied himself to painting, poetry, and his work as a playwright.
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.