Watercolours make a splash
By Zhu Linyong (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-10-18 06:01

Chinese watercolourist Guan Weixin recently held a solo exhibition in North America and his works sold for between US$30,000-US$50,000 each piece, as the artist from Northeast China's Jilin Province claimed. Although money may not be an important criterion in judging the success of art, it does reflect the popularity of the art genre.

Watercolour art has not always enjoyed such a rosy market over the past century since its introduction from the West and has really only blossomed in the past 20 years. The story of watercolour painting in China can be seen in a gigantic retrospective show being held in Beijing.

It is the largest and most inclusive art show of watercolour paintings on the Chinese mainland.

Gala of watercolours

The 306 selected works on display are on loan from private collectors and Chinese art institutions including Tianjin Municipal Museum, Guangzhou Art Museum and Jiangsu Art Museum.

"After three years' preparation, the watercolour paintings by the most renowned and representative artists in China, including those from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, have finally been put on show," said Huang Tieshan, a veteran watercolourist and director of Chinese Watercolour Art Committee under the Chinese Artists Association.

Watercolour art was first introduced in China by Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) in 1715. However, education in watercolour art for Chinese didn't begin until 1867, when the Tushanwan Painting Academy was founded by French Catholic missionaries in Shanghai. Painting became a means to spread their religious beliefs, according to Beijing-based art historian and watercolourist Wang Chunli.

In master Chinese painter Xu Beihong's paper "New Chinese Art Movement: History and Future," published in 1942, Xu called the painting academy "the cradle of the earliest Western art on Chinese soil." Most art historians agree.

Watercolour art started its embryonic stage between 1867-1911 when China was experiencing the most gruesome and painful transition from a feudal society to a modern one.

Representative artists of this period include Xu Yongqing (1880-1953), Li Tiefu (1869-1952), Li Shutong (1880-1942) and Wang Yuezhi (1894-1937).

During his first year as an art major in Japan in 1905, Li Shutong, a celebrated, versatile artist better known as Buddhist master Hong Yi to most Chinese, sent back a postcard to his family in Tianjin.

On the back of that postcard, Li painted a small, poetic watercoloured landscape. That watercolour painting is widely believed to be the earliest, mature piece of that art genre, created by a modern Chinese artist and available to today's viewers.

As most of these artists were well-versed both in traditional Chinese art and Western art, their works of watercolour may always amuse the viewers for their strong poetic atmosphere and lingering aftertaste and an intimate resemblance with traditional, coloured ink paintings in terms of visual effects and composition.

This tendency is best illustrated by Li Tiefu's signature work "Chrysanthemums in a Vase," which has for decades been widely recognized as one of the best Chinese watercolour paintings ever created.

The artwork is used for the invitation card, the posters for this exhibition and the cover picture for the newly published catalogue entitled "A Hundred Years of Chinese Watercolours" by the People's Fine Arts Publishing House.

The ensuing May 4th Movements in 1919 helped bring about drastic rethinking of traditional Chinese culture and Western ideas and techniques. Western art genres were introduced to Chinese society on a massive scale, said Wang Chunli.

Watercolour entered its growing stage in China from 1911-49 and the most famous artists of this period were Zhang Chongren (1907-98), Pan Sitong (1904-81), and Situ Qiao (1902-58).

In the first few decades of the 20th century, watercolour gained a huge popularity among Chinese people. In the 1920-30s, the so-called yuefenpai (calendar) paintings, created by local artists on the basis of both Western watercolour skills and Chinese gongbi or fine-brush painting, became a favourite collectable among millions of Chinese households.

The yuefenpai paintings usually featured then popular singers and movie stars or legendary beauties from Chinese literary classics.

Meanwhile, more and more Chinese youths were trained in the art of watercolour with the establishment of a couple of art education bodies, including Shanghai Art School (in 1912 by Liu Haisu), Peking Art School (in 1918 by Zhen Jin), the National Art College (in 1928 by Lin Fengmian), and the founding of watercolour societies in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou from 1912-36.

During the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), many Chinese watercolour artists, such as Li Jianchen (1900-2002) and Li Keran (1907-89) expressed their rage on Japanese occupation of their native land and the atrocities committed by invading Japanese troops.

Watercolour works at this time were created with Western techniques but also a clear awareness of Chinese folk and ethnic art, pointed out Tao Shihu, an art historian and watercolourist from Shandong Province.

For instance, master painters Situ Qiao travelled to Xinjiang, Ni Yide visited Miao and Zhuang ethnic groups in Guangxi and Guizhou in the 1930s to seek inspirations, Tao said.

From 1949-78, watercolour gained rapid growth in New China since the art genre was favoured by both professionals and amateurs across the country, explained Huang Tieshan, adding that teaching watercolour to Chinese primary school pupils has no doubt played an important role in promoting the art.

However, during the catastrophic "cultural revolution" (1966-76), watercolour was marginalized as it was considered not suitable for expressing political ideologies, pointed out Huang.

The representative artists of this era include Wang Weixing, Guan Weixin, Chen Juju, Zhang Kerang, and Huang Tieshan.

Golden age

It is not until the early 1980s that emerged the golden age of watercolour in China.

Particularly, "over the past two decades or so, watercolour has made dramatic headway," pointed out Ma Shulin, vice-director of National Art Museum of China, a key organizer of the exhibition.

Since 1984, the art genre of watercolour has been put under an independent category in the biennial Nationwide Fine Art Exhibition and Competition.

It is estimated that at least 3,000 well-trained Chinese artists from across the nation have engaged themselves in watercolour painting.

And some Chinese artists have even won fans from overseas art markets.

Nowadays, watercolour is taught in most primary schools and in at least 20 universities and art academies in China. And numerous watercolour societies have been set up in almost all the Chinese provinces and autonomous regions, except Tibet and Qinghai, according to Ma Shulin. "The number could be much bigger if taking into account the amateurs," said Ma, admitting that oil painting, most probably because of its stronger visual impact, remains the most popular art genre in China.

"Generations of Chinese watercolourists have pushed forward the boundaries of the art genre and injected the Chinese factor into it," said veteran artist Chen Juju, 70, whose work "Oil Seed Rape Flowers " is selected for the exhibition.

Over the past few yeas, she has noticed that younger artists have tried their hands on different directions of watercolour art, drawing from other art genre in terms of techniques and ideas while seeking inspirations from traditional Chinese art and culture.

However, to attain a better position in Chinese art scene, Chinese watercolourists should try even harder, critics say.

"Chinese watercolour works are by no means inferior to other art genres in terms of technical sophistication and the scope of subject matters," said Wu Jian, a young watercolourist who has come from Sichuan Province to watch the art show. However, "most Chinese watercolour works do not seem appealing to contemporary viewers due to the artists' insensibility to social changes and their slow reaction to new ideas and trends in contemporary art arena," said Wu.

The exhibition runs until October 27.

(China Daily 10/18/2006 page13)