China / Society

Brushes with life

By Han Bingbin (China Daily) Updated: 2012-11-22 18:39

His brush gives life to the orchids. His brush brings out the soul of spring. Where his brush fondles, the rain appears to kiss a lotus flower.

Painter Yan Keqin reveals a rhythmical and twinkling world of mountains and flowers with a flexible and mythical mixture of only ink and water.

"It's very difficult to paint all in ink. Nowadays many people don't even dare to try. In the pursuit of the highest realm of ink painting, he has bravely used black ink to portray a world of colors," comments Xing Shaochen, chief researcher with the China National Academy of Painting.

Based in Wuxi of Jiangsu province, home to a panel of master artists who've made up a tower of strength for Chinese art, Yan Keqin is continuously inspired by the city's cultural heritage and charming sceneries. He is never tired of rendering his reflections down on paper in the past decades.

But surprisingly, Yan has barely received professional training in painting. The head of Wuxi broadcasting corporation's recent ink painting exhibition at the National Art Museum of China wowed critics, who say he has outstripped professional level. More importantly, as many agree, he has manifested the spirit of Chinese literati painting.

The so-called literati painting originated in the middle of Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and reached its climax in Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

It used to refer to art works created by literati or scholar-bureaucrats. That's how it got its name. But the definition has expanded as it becomes a more established genre of art. Literati painting, according to Peking University's professor of aesthetics Zhu Liangzhi, is now a reference to artworks that convey a "unique literary mood".

The subjects of literati painting are often natural images such as orchids, bamboos and mountains, from which Chinese poets of all times traditionally find a spiritual resonance. Unlike professionally-trained artisan-painters who paint for the market, literati paint to solely express their philosophical reflections about life. Led by their instantaneous inspirations rather than skills, they care more about how their paintings feel than how they look.

Therefore, their creations often appear as freehand brush stokes without necessarily looking exactly like the original objects they attempt to portray. Just like in Chinese calligraphy, the painter's mood, temperament and personality are reflected through the rhythm of the strokes that vary in strength, thickness and density.

This impressionistic and liberal style -- or xieyi in Chinese -- has been one of Chinese art's most important aesthetics traditions. But since the early 20th century, Chinese artists have been noticeably divided as to whether it's necessary to incorporate or even fully apply Western realistic painting skills during art education and creation.

The introduction of new materials, techniques and ideas has surely enriched Chinese painting, says China Artists Association's chairman Liu Dawei. He says he feels sad that xieyi is losing its charm and position. But he respects Yan, who has given xieyi a glimpse of hope as he persisted in inheriting the traditional values of Chinese ink brush painting.

Yan says simplicity is the core value of xieyi as it lies in the spiritually ethereal world of ancient literati, who believe that the whole world could be reflected in a single flower. He says nature is traditionally a source of inspiration for literati painters and thus a close contact with the nature is essential.

But Peking University's professor Zhu sees more in Yan's art creations.

"Yan's understanding of ancient Chinese philosophy and art is definitely one of the best among contemporary painters. He often impresses me with his knowledge on ancient art like calligraphy and gardening. This has surely contributed to his achievement in painting," Zhu adds.

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