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.

In genre, landscapes became less popular, giving more space to genres such as birds, flowers and figure painting. Literati painting came to an end, with Qi Baishi as the last representative. Although Qi used strong colors for his works, his abbreviated, simplified and strong brushwork as well as the use of thick, black ink reminds of paintings done by Mu Xi or Liang Kai.

Political Repression and Censorship in Chinese Painting

With increasing political circumstances in the second half of the 20th century, artists saw themselves confronted with critical changes concerning their work. The Socialist movement and the employment of Socialist Realism called for media which could be easily reproduced, such as woodblock prints, poster and the like. The years from 1950 to 1960 were characterized by a growing trend towards mass-production of prints and posters, like everywhere in the world, and were now declared as high art. Traditional media and formats were seen as old-fashioned and out-dated. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, ink painting in particular was considered the epitome of the “Four Olds”, symbolizing everything that was antiquated and obsolete. Party officials did, however, realize the use of the artists’ skills. Painters were forced to create paintings according to the Party’s ideas, which often resulted in large-scaled, western-influenced works of propagandistic nature.

From Relaxation to Confrontation

The last decades of the 20th century brought more political and artistic relaxation in China. The arrival of Cubism occurred, painters turned away from the propagandistic Socialist Realism to truly realistic oil painting. The rehabilitation of painters that had been denunciated in the previous years helped to recreate a stable and more creative art scene. Traditional arts like ink and wash painting did indeed seem like a safe harbor when a strong avant-garde movement arose in the middle of the 1980s. The newly-found liberty of artists was frowned upon by the government, with exhibitions being closed and artists being labeled as “low in moral”. Following the events of Tiananmen in 1989, many painters fled China; others who stayed followed western styles, with Pop Art as the main influence.