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.

Who are the Major Contemporary Chinese Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painters?

Qin Feng (b. 1961) is a painter who draws back on the original connection between calligraphy and painting by trying to transform Chinese characters into paintings. After experimenting heavily with the synthesis of modern and traditional methods in younger years, he developed a style that is characterized by the use of luscious black ink and rapid brush movement. The intention of metaphorically blending Western and Eastern cultures through art even shows in his way of preparing the paper, which he often dyes with tea and coffee. Drawn with large-scaled tools, his works appear like explosions of ink. His untitled work from 2008, for instance, not only conveys vitality through the powerful flow, but also expresses tension due to the high contrast between light and dark areas.

Chen Shaoxiong (b. 1962) does not only limit himself to ink and wash painting, but also indulges in photography and video art. Formerly belonging to the Big Tail Elephant Group, he is one of the founders of a contemporary art scene in his hometown Guangzhou. Most of his works deal with urban infrastructure, traffic, architecture and individuals. His recent work “Ink History” (2008-09) is almost emblematic for the synthesis of modern and traditional elements. By turning photography into ink paintings, he picks up two art genre and combines them in a harmonic way. Even more, he transforms ink painting through the choice of subject instead of experimental brushwork. Then again, with his project “Collective Memories” (2004 – 2008), he explores the possibilities in his choice of painting tools. Those works, which depict urban landscapes and well-known Beijing buildings, consist completely of the artist’s fingerprints.

Zhang Yu (b. 1959) rejects the idea of being called and ink and wash painter, although many of his works include this kind of technique and material. It is mostly because of his wish to engage freely in art, without being classified, that he rejects to be labeled and thus limited in his freedom. Being trained in painting and printmaking, he pushes boundaries when abandoning the brush and concentrating on ink itself, applying it in layers onto paper by using other tools apart from the brush. By projecting abstract forms in gradually changing shades of ink, his works appear solemn and clam.

Liu Qinghe (刘庆和 b. 1961) tries to build a bridge between old and new by his choice of subjects. In his paintings, he often follows the tradition of figure painting, but depicts middle-class people with an even grotesque realism. His figures are often placed in cold and empty sceneries embody distance and cold, which reflects Li’s view of society. He plays with the contraries between dark, wet ink washes and dryly ecextuted brushstrokes. The backgrounds of his pictures are often completely filled out, as opposed to the usual way of leaving a blank space.