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The History of Black and White: 50 Years of Evolution of Ink and Wash
Pi Daojian

In the 1950s, soon after the founding of the People's Republic of China, there began a debate on the reform of Chinese painting. The debate centered on the "wild, strange, chaotic and black" ink brush techniques of Shi Lu, the painter who perhaps best represented the Chang An style. Continuing into the 1960s, the debate began to result in considerations on the question of how to evolve modern ink and wash painting. The debate on the question of the impact of Western culture on ink and wash and how it should respond, a question that had begun in the first half of the century, now began to turn back from its outward orientation to inner reflection. It evolved from a socio-political level of discussion to a more substantial level of cultural and psychological exploration.

Set against the backdrop of China's policy of reform and openness in the 80's, Li Xiaoshan's "My View of Contemporary Chinese Painting" kicked off renewed debate on the subject of ink and wash painting. Unprecedented in scale and scope, the debate centered on what consituted "Chinese painting" or "national painting" and as was the case over the last 50 years, the definitions of these two concepts seemed to drift closer to closer to becoming one with ink and wash. More and more people considered "ink and wash" to be "Chinese Painting" in as much as ink and wash was the modern embodiment of traditional Chinese painting.

Looking back on this debate, it now seems clear that the real driving force behind this debate came from within Chinese society and Chinese culture - Art had consciously accepted the mission bestowed upon it by a society in transition. As to the experimental works in ink wash that appeared as a result of this debate, Western concepts and techniques served merely as borrowed tools, a means to an end and nothing more. Progress in ink and wash, including the flurry of activity in abstract and expressive styles, derived from the dynamic relationship linking social and cultural modernization taking place in China.

Discussions on ink and wash paintings in the 1990s no longer focus on the question of whether a work is a "Chinese painting" or an "ink and wash painting." Rather the focus now is on what consitutes "modern ink and wash art." Thus, we see cultural change in accordance with the times. The boundary between traditional "Chinese paintings" and "ink and wash paintings" is already indistinct. Western art methods (installations, performances, conceptual art and video) have become more visible as young vanguard artists begin to employ them in their work. The permeation and influx of concepts and techniques from Western modern and postmodern art into traditional Chinese ink art is also increasingly common. However, use of the medium of "ink" as a symbolic mark of China's tradition, spirit and culture, remains firmly rooted in China.

Looking back over the last 100 years of Chinese culture, one can not only see many thought-provoking aspects of ink and wash paintings, but can also see the great accomplishments made by ink and wash art through self transformation and development. The foremost of these accomplishments has been the formation of a pluralist structure in ink and wash; Within this structure, three distinct styles have emerged: traditional ink brush paintings that strive to carry on the pure tradition of ink and wash painting; academic ink and wash art that looks to the languages employed by Western realist and modernist art for inspiration; and, experimental ink and wash that freely appropriates from Western modern and post-modern experience.

Within this structure, the relative power of the three styles or directions is still uneven. Traditional inkbrush painting is relatively weak compared to other styles. The academic ink and wash style remains the mainstay of ink and wash while experimental ink and wash is still considered marginal even if it is no longer alternative. The boundaries between the three styles are ill defined and indistinct. In each there are traces of the others. But their differences are obvious enough, and it is precisely these differences that create the tension driving ink and wash towards modernization: the traditional inkbrush style draws from traditional culture and remains, in and of itself, a cultural source; academic style ink and wash broadly melds the ancient and modern, as well as the Chinese and the Western; Experimental ink counter balances in its "other" role in relation to traditional ink brush painting. In fact, ink and wash not only remains central to Chinese cultural tradition, but is also achieving a unique identity and status within Chinese contemporary art, as well, especially vis a vis pure Western styles. Ink and wash is not only a torch-bearer of sorts in contemporary art. The distinctive character of ink and wash as an artistic language represents a distinct area within Chinese contemporary art, a form of expression that is both long-running and profound.

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Lai Chusheng
Ink on paper
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Ye Qianyu
"Autumn on the Xia River"
1962
Ink on paper

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Huang Zhou
"Herd of Donkeys"
1980
84 x 76 cm
Ink on paper

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Wang Ziwu
"Small Portrait of Cao Xueqin"
1978
55.3 x 68.3 cm
Ink on paper


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Xu Beihong
"Galloping Horses"
1953
Ink on paper

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Liu Haisu
"Peak-Filled Sky of Yellow Mountain"
Ink on paper
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Lin Fengmian
"Imperial Pallace Maid"
Ink on paper
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Jiang Zhaohe
"Figures"
Ink on paper
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Guan Liang
"Phoenix Woman"
Ink on paper
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Fu Baoshi
"West Wind Blowing Down Red Rain"
1956
Ink on paper

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Pan Tianshou
1962
Ink on paper
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Li Keran
"Autumn Colors at Emei"
1956
Ink on paper

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Zhao Wangyun
"Wind and Rain Returning the Herd"
68 x 46 cm
1962
Ink on paper

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Li Kuchan
"Painting of Midsummer"
198 x 200 cm
Ink on paper

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Shi Lu
"Evening Glow in Northern Shaanxi"
21.5 x 30 cm
Ink on paper

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Feature
History of Black and White: 50 Years of Evolution of Ink and Wash
by Pi Daojian
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Post '89 Essay
My Life, My Decision: The Political Nature of Chinese Contemporary Art
by Pi Li
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Interview
Getting Close to the Times: A Look at Chinese Contemporary Art After the Move from the Yuan Ming Yuan Artist Colony to Song Zhuang
by Yang Wei

*Map of Song Zhuang
*Map of Yuan Mingyuan
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Chinese Contemporary Photography and Video Art: Interview with Toshio Shimizu
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