Art is about life and modern art reflects modern history. At the dawn of the 20th century, China was still known as the Great Qing Empire ruled by Manchu emperors. Up until that time, Chinese paintings were about expressive calligraphy ink and colors on silk or paper. With the collapse of the empire and the advent of a more globalized world, artists’ trajectories also become more transnational. Traditional Eastern and newly introduced Western influences merge as modern art in the sense we know start to develop. These eight Chinese artists span a hundred or so years and represent part of an important connection between classical traditions and contemporary practices.
Zao Wou-ki: Chinese Artist Who Mastered Colors
Zao Wou-ki deserves the laurel of the most well-known Chinese artists in today’s world. Born in Beijing in 1921 into a well-to-do family, Zao studied in Hangzhou with teachers such as Ling Fengmian and Wu Dayu, the latter trained at Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts himself. He received recognition domestically as a young Chinese artist before moving to France in 1951 where he would become a naturalized citizen and spend the remainder of his long and illustrious career. Zao is known for his large-scale abstract works blending together a masterful use of colors and powerful control of brushstrokes.
Although we could say, in the words of 6th-century art critic Xie He, that he aims to unleash on his dynamic canvases some kind of “spirit resonance,” it would be too simplistic to say that Zao’s work is centered around abstraction. From his early esteem of Impressionism and the Klee period to later oracle and calligraphic periods, Zao’s work is full of specific references that inspire him. The painter successfully created a universal language through his brushes, now unanimously appreciated and achieving monumental prices at auction in recent years.
Qi Baishi: Expressive Calligraphy Painter
Born in 1864 into a peasant family in Hunan in central China, painter Qi Baishi started out as a carpenter. He is a late-blooming autodidact painter and learned by observing and working from painting manuals. He later settled and worked in Beijing. Qi Baishi was influenced by Chinese artists of traditional ink painting such as the eccentric Zhu Da, known as Bada Shanren (c. 1626-1705), or Ming dynasty painter Xu Wei (1521-1593). Similarly, his own practice included a set of skills closer to that of an earlier Chinese scholar painter than his younger peers who studied in Europe. Qi was a painter and calligrapher, as well as a seal carver.
Nevertheless, his paintings are extremely creative and full of expressive vitality and humor. He depicted a wide range of subjects. We find in his oeuvre scenes including plants and flowers, insects, marine life, and birds, as well as also portraits and landscapes. Qi was a keen observer of animals and this is reflected in his paintings of even the smallest insects. When Qi Baishi passed away in 1957 at age 93, the prolific painter was already famed and collected internationally.
Sanyu: Bohemian Figurative Art
A native of Sichuan province, Sanyu was born in 1895 into a wealthy family and studied art in Shanghai after his initiation into traditional Chinese ink painting. He was one of the earliest Chinese art students to go to Paris in the 1920s. Completely absorbed into the Parisian bohemian art circle of Montparnasse, he would spend the rest of his life there until his death in 1966. Sanyu incarnated in sorts the life of the well-to-do dandy, never quite at ease or cared about with dealers, who plundered his inheritance and gradually sobered into difficulty.
Sanyu’s art is decidedly figurative. Even though his works were exhibited quite extensively during his lifetime both in Europe and internationally, the Chinese artist’s fame gained great momentum only recently, especially with very impressive prices achieved lately at auction. Sanyu is known for his paintings of female nudes and works depicting subjects including flowers and animals. His work often features bold but fluid, powerful, and expressive. They also feature what some might call calligraphic, dark outline brushstrokes delineating simplified shapes. The color palette is often greatly reduced to a couple of shades to bring out strong contrast.
Xu Beihong: Combining Eastern And Western Styles
Painter Xu Beihong (sometimes also spelled as Ju Péon) was born before the turn of the century in 1895 in Jiangsu province. The son of a literati, Xu was introduced to poetry and painting at an early age. Recognized for his talent in art, Xu Beihong moved to Shanghai where he studied French and fine arts at Aurora University. Later, he studied in Japan and in France. Since his return to China in 1927, Xu taught at numerous universities in Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanjing. He died in 1953 and donated most of his works to the country. They are now housed in the Xu Beihong Memorial Hall in Beijing.
Skilled in drawing as well as Chinese ink and Western oil painting, he advocated for the combination of expressive Chinese brushstrokes with Western techniques. Xu Beihong’s works are full of explosive vitality and dynamism. He is well-known for his painting of horses that show both mastery of anatomical details and extreme liveliness.
Zhang Daqian: An Eclectic Oeuvre
Zhang Daqian was born in Sichuan province in 1899 and started painting in the classical Chinese ink style at a young age. He studied in Japan briefly with his brother in his youth. Zhang was mainly influenced by classical Asian art sources not only including painters like Bada Shanren, but also other inspirations like the famous Dunhuang cave frescoes and Ajanta caves sculptures. Though he never studied abroad, Zhang Daqian would live in South America and California and rubbed shoulders with other great masters of his day such as Picasso. He later settled in Taiwan where he passed away in 1983.
Zhang Daqian’s oeuvre includes many stylistic variants and subject matters. The Chinese artist mastered both the expressive ink wash style and the infinitely precise Gongbi method. For the former, we have many of the monumental blue and green landscapes inspired by Tang Dynasty (618-907) works and for the latter a great number of meticulous portraits of beauties. Like many traditional Chinese painters, Zhang Daqian made (really good) copies of earlier masterpieces. Some are believed to have entered important museum collections as genuine works and this remains a controversial issue.
Pan Yuliang: A Dramatic Life And Full Career
The only woman of this cohort, Pan Yuliang was a native of Yangzhou. Orphaned at an early age, she was sold (to a brothel according to rumors) by her uncle before becoming a concubine to her future husband Pan Zanhua. She took his last name and studied art in Shanghai, Lyon, Paris, and Rome. A talented painter, the Chinese artist exhibited extensively at an international level during her lifetime and taught for some time in Shanghai. Pan Yuliang passed away in Paris in 1977 and she rests today in the Cimetière Montparnasse. Most of her works are in the permanent collection of the Anhui Provincial Museum, home of her husband Pan Zanhua. Her dramatic life inspired novels and films.
Pan was a figurative painter and sculptor. She was a versatile artist and also worked in other media such as etching and drawing. Her paintings feature subjects like female nudes or portraits for which she is most well-known. She also painted many self-portraits. Others depict still lifes or landscape. Pan lived through the rise and blossoming of modernism in Europe and her style reflects that experience. Her works are extremely painterly and incorporate bold colors. Most of her sculptures are busts.
Lin Fengmian: Classical Training And Western Influences
Born in 1900, painter Lin Fengmian hails from Guangzhou province. At the age of 19, he embarked on a long journey west to France, where he first studied in Dijon and later at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Though his training is classical, art movements such as Impressionism and Fauvism influenced him deeply. Lin returned to China in 1926 and taught in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai before moving to Hong Kong where he passed away in 1997.
In his work, Lin Fengmian explored since the 1930s how to combine European and Chinese practices, experimenting with perspective and colors. This is reflected in his introduction of works by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne to his students in China. Neither does Lin shy away from classical inspiration such as Song Dynasty porcelain and primitive rock paintings. Subject matters represented in his own artworks are extremely diverse and versatile, ranging from Chinese opera characters to still-life and landscape. The Chinese artist lived a long but movement life, resulting in many of his works on paper or on canvas being destroyed during his lifetime. Some of his notable students include Wu Guanzhong, Chu Teh-Chun, and Zao Wou-ki.
Chu Teh-Chun: Chinese Artist In France
Other than Zao, Chu Teh-Chun is an additional pillar of great modernists bridging France and China. Born in 1920 in Jiangsu province, Chu trained at Hangzhou’s National School of Fine Arts as a student of Wu Dayu and Pan Tianshou in his younger days, like his peer Zao. However, his coming to France happened much later. Chu taught in Taiwan from 1949 until his move to Paris in 1955, where he would become a naturalized citizen and spend the rest of his career, eventually becoming the first member of Chinese origin at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Working from France and gradually transitioning into a more abstract but still calligraphic style, Chu Teh-Chun became recognized internationally. His works are poetic, rhythmic, and colorful. Through his nuanced brushes, different blocks of color blend and dance around each other to achieve on the canvas the effect of light and harmony. The Chinese artist drew his inspiration from everything surrounding him, and he aimed to bring out the essence by using his imagination. For him, this approach was a combination of Chinese painting and Western abstract art. His works are housed in permanent collections internationally and many major exhibitions are regularly dedicated to his work.