Zong Zhou Wang Articles
Affection for the Plateau - Thoughts on Wang Zongzhou's Paintings
Guan Qige June 2010, Los Angeles
(Translated from the original Chinese)
Ive known Zongzhou for a long time. When I arrived at the Fine Arts Department of the Central Institution of Nationalities (now known as the Central University of Nationalities), Zongzhou had already become a faculty member after graduating there. Later on we worked in the same art studio for several years. He is highly gifted as an artist and hardworking at the same time. He was unassuming, sometime even taciturn, yet always for real. Serious as a teacher, active as an artist, he worked in the studio late into wee hours almost every day. With his new works finished frequently, he was known for his prolificacy. Because his works unique style and novel techniques, they were often selected into various exhibitions.
In the 1980s, he made a name in Beijings fine arts circle, and achieved great success. The path that Zongzhou took in his art can be generally divided into two periods. The first period comprises of his study and work in Beijing. An excellent artistic work environment, a rigorous technical training, a strong academic atmosphere including frequent in-person advice from fine-art masters laid the solid foundation of Zongzhous technique, realist styles and aesthetic philosophy. In this period, while working as an instructor in fine arts, he took various opportunities to tour regions where ethnic minorities are in order to experience first-hand their life and to collect material for his artistic creativity. He created a series of landscapes, paintings of scenes of local life and portraits of local residents. Among them, the painting titled "Spring Buds" and another titled "Chirping Birds and Singing Springs" are two most emblematic of his realist style works; they are also considered by the artistic community as emblematic of the school of countryside realist paintings.
"Spring Buds" depicts a scene of the prairie in early spring, with new grass having just germinated, the grassland gaining a hue of tender green. His elaborate portrayal of young shepherds, puppies and lambs made the themes lifelike and vivid; his use of soft colors gave a graceful harmony of the picture; at the same time, his delicate realist techniques, using the blade of painting knife to paint individual young grass leaves, made them look 3-d. The painting conveys the vivacity that permeates everything and everyone on the grassland, the grass, the cattle and herdsmen. It appeals to the love of the Mother Nature and the life. When the painting was first unveiled, it made news in several Beijings media, winning high praises and remarks from art critics.
In 1982, it won a prize in Beijing Fine Arts Expo, and now is in the collection of the Beijing Fine Artists Association. Most of Zongzhous oil paintings depicts themes of Tibetan life. He went to Tibetan areas in Tibet, Qinghai, Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan several times to gather experience and paint live scenes. There were places he went where automobiles couldnt reach. He would then bring his food, hitchhiking on caravans to remote mountainous villages. He lived in local Tibetan villagers homes, talked with them about their life, and painted them. Many years of Tibetan life experience and artistic accumulation formed a special link between him and Tibetans. "Chirping Birds" and "Singing Springs" was a large size realist oil piece, culminated after a trip to the Tibetan area on the bank of Jingsha River in Yunnan. At the top of the picture, a stream of crystalline spring water flows down from a wooden conduit; two young birds are chirping while standing on the conduit; beneath them, a Tibetan girl is scooping water from a water trough. He adopted a realist approach, focusing on the Tibetan girl and the young birds, at the same time elaborately portrayed the grass and the water trough. The fresh style and the bright and harmonious color tones gives its viewers an illusion, as if one can hear the waters gurgling and the mountain birds chirping. It makes a splendid picturesque representation of the tranquility in the mountainous woods in the Tibetan area and the simple lifestyle in the uncontaminated wilderness. No wonder it attracted high praises from peers in the art community! It won a prize in 1984 Beijing Fine Arts Expo, and is currently in the collection of the Beijing Fine Artists Association. In the same period, he also created a number of other similar styled paintings of figures and scenes such as "Girl on the Plateau", "Under the Sunshine", "Bountiful Harvest and Shajiaayi", etc.
The second period of Zongzhous painting can be characterized by the artistic exaggeration and transformation of the subject and color in his paintings. The emblematic work of this period is the painting "Red Path". Zonogzhous artistic creative philosophy has always been, any artistic approach should not exist in isolation; its existence must depend on the scene and sentiment the work conveys. "Red Path" explored a new art approach and form of representation. It utilizes various strokes, at times coarse, curvaceous, sparing and flowing, to form a picture of a remote of a Tibetan village where farming and pastoral life mixed. In the painting style is characterized by contrasting large bright color chunks in the picture: the bright crimson red for a small path and red clouds under the sunshine, the cerulean blue for the sky, emerald green for the grassland, canary yellow for the mountain slopes. At the same time, it exaggerates the figures and objects in the scene, making the color and lines in the picture even more coarse and ponderous, thus cause an strong visual impetus. It shows the unique natural and unadulterated beauty. As soon as this painting was unveiled, it has been applauded by peers in the art community. Many critics commented that it is Van Gogh-like in style.
In 1987, after its participation in Chinas First National Oil Painting Expo and the Seventh National Fine Arts Expo, the Red Path was selected as one of the top 100 works, from more than 600, to be shown in the renowned Haffner Gallery in New York. After that, he created the similar styled paintings such as "Tibetan Wind", "Kiss", "Going to the Fair", "Rolling Felt", "Delivering Milk", "Change of New Clothes", etc.
In the early 1990s, Zongzhou was invited to show his paintings in the US for the second time. That brought us into closer contact. During this period, besides actively participating in the various exhibitions held by the International Chinese Fine Artists Association, he also held several solo exhibitions as well as participated in other group exhibitions in Indianapolis, Washington, DC, New York, Pittsburgh, and in State of Georgia. During his stay in the US, Zongzhou continues to work hard, exploring and cultivating artistic innovation. His surroundings in America has broadened his artistic scope, made his creative landscape even more expansive, his themes more diverse. He has assimilated Western styles into his works and created paintings of American landscape and sceneries, portraits and "Series of Youth and Series of Nudes", etc. He also published illustrated books Lillian and the "Phoenix Fairy, The Chinese Alphabet Book D is for Dragon Dance".
His works is profoundly popular among American readers and won accolades from local art communities and news media. In 2007, for his achievement in propagating the Chinese culture in the American society, the International Chinese Fine Artists Association presented him an Artistic Achievement Award. In 2008, several of Zongzhous works participated in the Grand International Expo of Oil Paintings. They were widely admired by viewers from various nations and won their creator the worldwide attention. Id like to use this opportunity to congratulate Zongzhou for the publication of catalogue of his painting works.
Symphonies on Canvas: Pulses of Life and Rhythms of Nature
The Art of Oil Paintings of Wang Zongzhou By Xu Enchun
(Translated from the original Chinese)
Complexities in arts always run parallel, and relate closely, with those of the real world. The increasingly complex nature in contemporary arts is just a reflection of the reality of the modern world, that is the inner and outer pictures of "the Man and His World". One thing is certain, forms of paintings that have grown increasingly more complex and diverse, in the end, are rooted in the changes and transformations in the perception of the artists.
Because of this, contemporary paintings within the currents of globalization, have become more and more metaphorical of the relationship between the self and the world; Art has become a product of imagination and fiction by contemporary people; Artworks are in turn journeys of imagination and ventures of forms by individual artists. In such a sense, today's art has become a reflection of artists' "sense of intuition in drift". Of course, in real life, artists are not vagrants; they only "wander" ceaselessly in their artistic imagination.
This "drift" in the spiritual life certainly transforms into the form and substance in their artworks. It becomes the theme of their works, as well as the "inner vision" of them, and morphs into the pulses, rhythms and air of their aesthetic sense. Wang Zongzhou, an oil painting artist, has been consistently upholding his ideal in art creation during his artistic career of nearly 40 years. He has held to his only artistic motif: Man and his World. He has unswervingly guarded his spiritual homeland. Even after bidding farewell to his homeland, traveling to the other side of the Pacific, in a cultural environment that is "alien" to his own, he has never given up his pursuit and faith. Maybe in the comparison between the eastern and western cultures, his art has gradually transformed from thematic description to accentuation in form presentation, then progressed in stressing certain oriental painting elements and aesthetic characteristics, to form his own artistic personality and style.
It should be said, this is both a prudent reaction to the reality in the world of art, and, at the same time, it is also a risky self-challenge. In hindsight, Wang Zongzhou's works, while keeping the atmosphere of oriental poeticism, stress more the style and sentiment of life and its presentation in forms. Unlike the many chic, he did not fall into the trap of blindly chasing after fashions of western arts. He had no interest in presenting a fragmented world of experience and a reality that has only drift but no destiny. He guarded the spiritual ideal and the home of a man of the Orient. Hence, what remains intact is an art still aimed at a harmonic resonance between the pulse of the Life and the rhythm of the Nature; it is the objective of ideal and the realm to pursuit. He is able to utilize his spiritual resources to condensate his imagination into a certain picture of the world that possesses a certain "meaning of entirety", and pursue for a certain sense of forms and structure of forms, a grasp of the entirety of the world, based on feelings and experiences of his own life, using a rich repertoire of artistic techniques. Within it, the pulse of the Life, the rhythm of the Nature and the sentiment of the Life, the feelings towards humanity are presented to their maximal extents. At the same time, also shown are the artistic pursuit and aesthetic ideal of his self.
Hence, we have seen, Wang Zongzhou's works, from ones in the 1980s such as "The Red Road", "Spring Buds", "Changing of New Clothes", "The Shepherd Girl", "The Red Grassland", "A Pair of Hardworking Hands", to recent newer ones such as "Felting", "Long Clouds in Qinghai", "Girls of Grassland", "Morning Light", "Clear Springs", "Far Journey", "The Shepherd Girl", "Oroqen Kids", "Love of Snowy Mountains", "The Snow Peak of Yulong Mountain", and "The Color of Autumn", "Youth", "A Western Girl", "Sophia", "A Girl Rowing A Boat", "Farm In The Fall", "The Nap", "The Girl With A Red Scarf", etc., give their viewers a prominent feeling: With the same motif, in the same genre, there has been a shift in the structural focal point.
The "inner vision" has gradually become the focal point of the concern and the presentation; The superficial states as the outer phenomenon has taken a backseat. The Sentiment of Life and and the Light of Humanity generated by the harmonic resonance of the Pulse of Life and the Rhythm of the Nature have become the focal point of the structure and presentation. It in the end induced the emotionalization of the formal creation, and the artistification of the humanity implication. This is a fundamental transformation, as well as a deepening of the art. It means Wang Zongzhou's oil painting art is approaching the essence of Art.
Hence, in the deepening and the transformation of Wang Zongzhou's art, he got rid of his one time indulgence in superficial descriptions of idyllic countryside settings. His brush touches, colors, characters and themes are no longer targeted for mimicking the reality or storytelling. Instead, they go right into the center of one's heart and reach the sentiment, to present the essence of the humanity and the implication in depth that are of the broadest meaning. On the other hand, once the self artistic ideal and pursuit are clarified and determined, the artist strives to create the "meaningful forms" that are compatible. These have made his recent works show searches for and practices in the probability and openness of presentations and creations of forms, in stark contrast to the storytelling of his earlier works such as "The Workshop Propagandist", "Birds Chirping, Spring Singing", etc.
The unity of the "meaningful form" and the "formalized contents" is the most important topic in artistic creation since the 20th century. Wang Zongzhou's oil painting arts, while keeping an intimate relationship with the reality, abandoned the adherence to the superficial splendors in appearance. Instead, they reflect the pulses and sentiments of lives of people in the living world, injected with thoughts on the structure and the intrinsic logic in them, numerous possibilities that arise from the latter, and the forms that approach the essence of the Art.
In the 1980s, Wang Zongzhou, in creating "The Red Road", already showed his sensitivity and capability in the formal creation. The reality and appearance of life were simplified, inducted, generalized and exaggerated in his imaginative thinking with a subjective grasp. A fragmented, complex world was formalized and condensated into simple masses of colors and planar imageries on the canvas. Here, the Tibetan village, the exotic life style, the heaven, the earth, the people, the homestead and the nostalgia, etc., were formalized. The lines and colors under his skillful brush made the picture simple and pure, bright and splendid, yet at the same time still profound and substantial. The artist, using Van Gogh-esque curt and free brush touches, heightened a sense of motion of a tranquil picture: The sunshine on the mountains afar leaps out of a otherwise hefty picture with its gold-yellow brush strokes, brings the vitality and a vivacious sense to the flattened space and the decorative styled colors and the imagery. In the foreground a herd of cows and a Tibetan girl, her back facing the audience, walking into the depth of the picture, give an aboundance of the layering and the structure of the picture, as well as an illusion of space. This is a product of an inspired paintbrush, its imagery a real classic. In that times, when the relativity and fuzziness of the essence of the Art were still unheard of, "The Red Road" caused a sensation with its unexpected relativity and fuzziness. This is commendable. It also exemplified a good artistic sense and a spirit of exploration on the part of Wang Zongzhou.
Obviously, the form of Wang Zongzhou's oil painting works has never lost touch with the pulses of the Life and rhythms of the Nature. Characters of herdsmen on the Tibetan Plateau in his works of ethnic themes, were projected at a level of "Man and his World". He used the spatial structural relationship in the pictures to allegorize the eternality and relativity among the Heaven, the Earth and the Man. In his works, the time when he presents the pulses of the Life, the rhythms of the Nature and the sentiment of the Life to the fullest is whenever the relativity and fuzziness in characters, the environment and the atmosphere are stressed.
"The Man and his World" as an artistic motif, is of course comprised of the elements of Man and the Nature, Man and the Reality, Man and the History, Man and the Culture and Man and the Self, etc. In other words, everything in the world become vivid because of the Man. Wang Zongzhou firmly upholds this idea and never deviated from it. Therefore, his works always show the confluence of pulses, rhythm and forces, the fusion of the Nature, the Reality and the Humanity.
In "Felting", the artist astutely captured a snap of Tibetan common life, freezed and refined it into a specific form of visual art. The pircure unfolds horizontally; three men are showed in a largely planary stratum, with heads bowed and back stooped. Yet underneath such uniformity in their postures, the individuality in their characters are shown, albeit the differences are quite subtle. From the picture, we can see that the leftmost man is of an older age, his posture closer to the ground, his fingers, arms thicker and stronger, felting skillfully; the one in the middle has his posture lifted higher, his fingers and arms seem slimmer and more delicate, apparently a laborer of younger age, his vivid laboring demeanor a symbol of vitality; on the rightmost is a middle aged Tibetan, his pent up body radiates a force accumulated, a force on explosion, his fingers, arms thick, strong and dexterous, carrying the impression of an adept skillfulness. The three characters are carrying out the same actions, making the same postures, wearing the same clothing, have the same features and received the same artistic treatment. The repetition of the forms deepens the visual impression to the audience. Furthermore, the colors in the picture are simple and imposing: against an exaggerated scarlet backdrop, the black robes, black hats, white shirts, the yellowish-black arms and fingers, the yellow felt. The black and and colors present a kind of steadiness and heftiness, warm but not flashy. The white and yellow colors are bright and bouncing in the picture, giving the picture a stark contrast and vitality. The simple, crispy colors render the beauty of labor and the vitality. Pulses, rhythms, forces mingle in perfection, presenting the artist's vivid knowledge of the unadulterated local life, and his capability to form creation. Especially worth noting are the three felters, whose faces are purposely obscured by three hats as the artist presents them, absorbed in their labor with heads bowed. This made the artistic presentation more difficult, but increased the impact of the form presentation. Characters' facial expression, personality, age, temperament, all fused into the form, which gives the work a meaning that is both profound and hefty, and a sense of seamless totality.
"Felting" is a new work by Wang Zongzhou. It shows that he has turned into stress a roughness in the force of external forms and the enriched sublimity of internal spirituality. The forms he created have become simpler, purer. In the indulgent and rough points, lines, colors and blocks, one can detect a touch of melancholy. Doubtlessly, this is also a reflection of an aesthetic style with a modern implication.
Similar to German printmaker Kathe Kollwitz and Belgium oil painting artist Constant Permeke, whose works are famed by their expressionist painting styles, Wang Zongzhou's works also strived to shed the passive reliance to external objects and images. They stress the dialectic process of the interaction between the artistic internal rules and external conditions. He adapted from the formal languages of expressionism the high intensity, the simplistic exaggeration and transformation to convey feelings, to construct a presentation of sentiments from within. Because of this, Wang Zongzhou's works, while condensing the poetic facades of Tibetan life in the border areas, rather than being satisfied with the superficial pastoral pictures, instead use such as vehicles to focus on their survival, emotions and fate, pondering and serenading. From that, they gained their unique characters and unmistakable styles.
In such heft, clumsy, big, thick, strong and dark forms, the composition of picture is unconventional, breaking normal rules of composition. Sometimes, it shows geometric bodies in unusual combination, concurrence and dislocation, which give the works full of intrinsic intensity, and minimize the barrier of the perspective in the three-dimensional space, to produce a sense of presence and a sense of freedom with superposition of multiple spaces. For examples, in "Felting", "The Red Road", "The Red Grassland", etc, figures in the picture are burly as if cast in iron , their images simple and exaggerated, pure and crispy. Shedding many details and grasping the essentials made them look full and hefty. Objects in natural forms are restored to artistic plain and simple. Works such as "Felting", "The Red Road" and “The Red Grassland" show and embody Wang Zongzhou's artistic sensitivity, creative awareness and expressive capability. Through them, one can see the artist's character of being true to himself in his art. His unique artistic style gained fullness and substance because of its bittersweet appeal. These works all focus on their handling of the whole, instead of the nitty gritty details. With a candid confidence, the artists imprinted his real emotion using his brushes and colors.
Art history shows that good works are all expressions of artists with profound spiritual insight and meaning which transcend their subjects and contents. In other words, in these works, what we obtain is insights into spiritual orientation, the metaphysical spiritual nurturing on the nature, the life, the humanity, the sentimentality, etc. Such is the power of artistic form and aesthetic sense. Such is the spiritual bearing and the aesthetic charm of artistic works.
Some of the realistic works are also on the theme of Tibetan life. Perhaps, they did not build into a scene of greatness, but let us see the light of humanity through their exuberant poeticism, the implication of life and spirit through their common life style, and the harmony between people and the nature through the Tibetan living environment. In works such as "Spring Buds", "Birding Chirping and Spring Singing", "New Teacher", "Changing of New Clothes", "The Shepherd Girl", "The Morning Light", "Delivering Milk", "Weaving", "Little Wrestlers", and in new works such as "Girls of Grassland", "Long Clouds in Qinghai", and in works done in the US such as "Meditation", "Youth", "A Western Girl", "Sophia", "A Girl Rowing a Boat", "Farm in The Fall", "The Nap", "The Girl With A Red Scarf", etc, one can see a wide and broad vision, real and flowing living scene, which blow the air of contemporary life to the viewer. Here, the artist fills elements of human spirituality into common life, focusing on the spiritual implication of people. Also, the characters under his brush are expressive but unexaggerated, unpretentious and not gaudy. They show a life that is far away, wide open, quiet and sluggish. In the midst, there is the tenacity and optimism of shepherds on the plateau, happiness and fullness of laboring, as well as reality of life and spiritual longing in the West. Of course, what impress us most are the simplicity and heftiness of an undisturbed culture. For examples, "Spring Buds", "A Pair of Hardworking Hands", "Changing of New Clothes", "Long Clouds in Qinghai", "Girls of Grassland", "Kiss", "Under the Sun", "The Morning Light", "Clear Springs", "Far Journey", as well as "Journey to Snowy Mountains", "The Snowy Peak of Yulong Mountain", "Forest of Earth", "The Color of Autumn", "Plateau Girls", etc., all embody a sensitivity of romanticism. However, these works are injected with some sense of "homecoming" and "the Chinese experience", as well as the search of "the spiritual homeland". They are not just the simple reenactment of life of a frontier ethnic group, but a product of "returning to the spiritual homeland".
It's undeniable that Wang Zongzhou's oil painting work started as realist art. His early years' works were heavily influenced by the Russian tour school, the realist school in the former Soviet Union, as from the narrative of the theme, to imagery, color and content, they showed an ideological passion. However, they formed the foundation for Wang Zongzhou to observe and express the life. Later, French impressionist and Western expressionist and neo-classical styles gave him great inspiration and impact. What's important is that Wang Zongzhou didn't blindly worship these styles; instead he digested their experience and strength into his own works. He faces Western culture and a world of great abundance with "the Chinese experience". The above mentioned works can be used to illustrate this point.
In the above mentioned works, the artist stresses to convey "the intention beyond the image" and "the meaning beyond the picture". Even though depicting usual scenes in life, it conveys the poeticism of with its own life, intelligence and some romanticism. In the picture, the harmony of people and their environment, life and the nature weaves into leisurely slow moving rhythms and melodies and becomes a symbol, a metaphor in mythical colors, and gains abundant implications. These all are originated from Wang Zongzhou's creative vitality. Works such as "Morning Light", "Journey to Snowy Mountains", "Snowy Peak of Yulong Mountain", "Forest of Earth", "Kiss", etc., actually are not photographic restoration of real life scenes, but an emotionally vivid sublimation of life styles, an artistic crystallization after rigorous spiritual filtration. Because of that, his works can discover and reveal to the maximal extent the endless abundant implications from limited, individually perceived forms of life, which gives the viewer the inspiration, raises the latter to a higher plane through the transcendence of limited forms, discovering the self, becoming aesthetically moved.
Especially, Works with long lasting charms such as "Morning Light", "Faraway Journey", "Journey to Snowy Mountains", "Snowy Peak of Yulong Mountain", "Forest of Earth" marks the high point reached by Wang Zongzhou's artistic creation. Unhurried intrinsic rhythms, spatial relations, imagery creation and structural pulses are seamlessly dovetailed into the clarity, spaciousness, mysticism and fairness called for by the mood of humanity. Obviously, in these works, the artist showed his tremendous skills. The skillful execution of the picture and the the high themes all show a genius of artistic observance, imagination and expression. We firmly believe such bountiful artistic fruits can only be harvested by a relentless, hardworking searcher.
How one can marry "the Chinese experience" and Western oil painting tools and materials has always been a point hard to articulate. How oil painting works of "the Chinese experience" find their own spiritual individuality and artistic form is an important subject facing all contemporary Chinese oil painting artists.
The decades of artistic searching by Wang Zongzhou, has been focused more on the theme, form, structure, language of his artistic practice. He has found new elements in oil painting with a searching eyesight, and then used them creatively in his own artistic practice. Therefore, in his works, the traces of influence and adaptation of artistic fashions in recent years are obvious. It is in such absorption of fresh experience and artistic techniques; he made the communication between "the Chinese experience", "local subjects" and the foreign environment, reaching the current level. This is because, when comprehending Wang Zongzhou's oil painting arts, we discovered that he ponders the question of "the Chinese experience" and artworks within the big picture of the trends of the world art. As has been proven by real experience, various artistic ideal and creative styles have their own basis, can all express certain aspects of life using certain forms. Without a conscious artistic vision and conscious pursuit, an artist can hardly reach the top realm of art. Wang Zongzhou is an artist with strong pursuit and conscious ideal, his art is characterized by the observance of human nature, the tribute to life, the admiration of Mother Nature, its viewpoint a poetic understanding to the world and humanistic feelings. From that, he has always kept the endless creative impulse and spiritual implications.
It should be said that, the more recent, the more Wang Zongzhou's works embody the contemplation of the pulse of life, the rhythm of nature and the light of humanity, the more diverse and abundant the interpretation of the motif of the heaven, the earth and the man in his oil paintings. Obviously, years of living in a foreign land haven't changed the artist's mentality, ideal and confidence. He knows that a man doesn't so much need to fear being changed as he does the forgetting of the "home spirit". Wang Zongzhou consistently shows his understanding of life and living. Because of that, his works all show meaning, spaciousness and gracefulness. This is what he does: conveying in a unique way the beauty of pulse of life and the rhythm of nature.
Art is not reality, but can't avoid the destiny of being. So, where does Wang Zongzhou draw his spiritual force? How do his works gain their beauty and charm? Certainly, other than the hard work of the artist, they grew out of a deeply held awe to life, nature and humanity. Only this can explain his breadth and the quality of his artworks. Otherwise, facing the same motif for decades, one cannot so passionately, with high spirit, full of inspirations, uphold one's own unique aesthetic interest and pursuit, multiplying aesthetic sense and the intensity of structural forms, building an imaginary space that's so close to reality, yet transcending beyond the existing world. This shows the intrinsic mood and aesthetic orientation within Wang Zongzhou's works, as well as his broad vision in his ardent love to the life and art.
The snowy mountains, grassland, and shepherds ... under Wang Zongzhou's paintbrush, they are his "spiritual homeland", and ours, too!
(Note: Mr. Xu Encun - art historian, painter, Tsinghua University, Wu Guanzhong Art Center researcher nation painting, vice president of the Central University for Nationalities Oriental Art Culture Research Institute, the Chinese national fine arts magazine editor)