“Must it be? It must be! It must be!” declared Beethoven, under the introductory chords of the last movement in his String Quartet No. 16 in F major. These words, written into the last substantial work that the composer completed before his death, boldly proclaim his acceptance of fate, and his own role in the grand scheme of the universe. This message is fully expressed in the grandeur of the music, played to listeners who will never hear the words spoken during a performance.
Like Beethoven, Ding Fang uses his art as a means of expressing his personal philosophies towards life. His work is filled with an emotional truth and grandeur that is designed to express the artist’s perspectives on the universe at large, imparting a clear message to the viewer. A classical Greek saying states that, “Flesh is of the earth, but the spirit is a flame.” Ding Fang’s work seeks to capture both aspects, grounding his work in the physical and corporeal while also conveying a distinct energy and spiritual vitality.
On the Path Towards Faith: Resurrection showcases the influence of Western Expressionism on Ding’s work; the coarse brush that Ding used to apply the heavy pigment across the canvas surface captures both the texture of the mountainous landscape, as well as the muscular form of the figure that emerges from it. Man and mountain carry the same weight and gravitas, while the diagonal composition and radiating lines draw the audience’s attention firmly towards the centre of the painting. Although the title of the work evokes inevitable associations with Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus, Ding’s work may be explored in the context of themes that transcend faith, as we witness the emergence of a human figure from the folds of the earth.
In his graduation dissertation, Ding wrote, “When, bit by bit, you blend shades of red, yellow, blue and green so that they disappear here and reappear there, the colours begin to devour, digest and blend with one another, weeding each other out, resulting in a mixture that is capable of expressing deliberate and profound emotion.” This sensitivity towards colour, and interest in the dramatic interplay of contrasting elements is clearly evident in Ding’s work, heightening the drama that we observe depicted in the painting. Resurrection appears to capture the titanic struggle of a human figure trying to free himself from the mountains that weigh him down, recalling the drama and tragic heroism expressed in the dramatic frescoes painted by Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco. Orozco’s depiction of Prometheus – a demi-god from Greek mythology who was punished for giving humanity fire – uses a similarly bold and graphic style of painting, depicting monumental struggle as a means of celebrating and expressing a greater hope for humanity.
In the spring of 1989, the landmark exhibition “China/Avant Garde” was held at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. As the first major exhibition of works by Chinese avant-garde artists organized after the ‘85 Movement, the show served as a major landmark in the history of contemporary art in China, and included Ding Fang’s four-part series On the Path Towards Faith. The work not only marks a turning point in Ding’s own creative output and artistic career, but it also alludes to the rebirth of contemporary Chinese art. The valiant struggle of Ding’s figure suggests the historic struggle of China’s artists, as they sought to carve out a new path within the modern art landscape.
Ding Fang’s work profoundly captures the spirit of the tragic hero whom we both pity and admire, exploring the broad universality of concepts such as faith and resurrection. Men, mountains and cities are all depicted in the same plane of existence, yet each exerts its own distinct presence on the overall composition. Every one of Ding’s brushstrokes is filled with the artist’s conviction in his own beliefs, resulting in a work that proudly and boldly states the universal truth that, “It must be!”