Few artists have in the history of modern Chinese painting have played the role of leader or agent of change more thoroughly than Chen Cheng-po. A native of southern Taiwan, Chen spent a period in Shanghai that helped further cultivate his abilities, though he ultimately returned to Taiwan, where he used his new skills and artistic awareness to depict the scenic vistas of his native land. Chen Cheng-po's art exudes a unique warmth and infectiousness, and along with such contemporaries as Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian, he must be counted one of the most unique and masterful stylists to work in the oil medium during the modern period of Chinese art.
Chen Cheng-po and the Imperial Japanese Exhibition
Given his fine native talent and his hard-working outlook, Chen Cheng-po soon won recognition in Japan with several invitations to participate in the prestigious, officially-sponsored Imperial Japanese Exhibition. In 1926, his Jiayi Street Scene was shown in the 7th Imperial Exhibition, the first western-style oil by a Taiwanese artist to be chosen for an official Japanese exhibition. The following year, another work featuring the southern Taiwan city of Jiayi, the Street Scene, Summer, was shown in the 8th Imperial Exhibition. The history of the Imperial Exhibition, and its influence on modern Chinese art, began in 1907 with the holding of the first Japanese government Monbusho (Ministry of Education) Exhibition; in 1919, responsibility for the annual exhibition was transferred to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, after which it was known as the Imperial Japanese Exhibition. The Imperial Academy of Fine Arts was primarily responsible for administering and providing consultation on arts affairs and for mounting officially-sponsored exhibitions; its jury members were drawn mostly from the professorial ranks of Tokyo arts institutions. While no monetary prizes were attached to participation in the Imperial Exhibition, inclusion in the exhibition was a mark of professionalism that brought further benefits, including automatic entry or special presentations at later exhibitions; it was also a route toward becoming a member of the Exhibition's jury or garnering a teaching position at a Tokyo academy. As the largest and most authoritative of the officially-sponsored exhibitions in Japan, it was the highest goal many artists would achieve, and based on the number of times he participated, Chen Cheng-po was the modern Chinese artist who found the greatest favor at the Imperial Exhibition.
Research into records of Chen Cheng-po's depictions of West Lake scenes reveals that he was involved the study of Chinese landscapes, which he loved deeply. It was Chen's intense involvement with traditional landscapes that helped produce this Spring at West Lake. All the details of the painting communicate Chen's abundant feeling for his home and country, its land and its people: the shady forest groves, West Lake's "Broken Bridge," the rolling mountains enfolding the scene, the gentle covering of mist on the water, its shimmering reflections, and the human presence of the two figures enjoying the scene on the hill above. The view is a reflection of the special place that West Lake holds in the Chinese heart and Chen Cheng-po's genuine love and appreciation for his homeland and its peoples.
West Lake: Symbol of Serene, Eastern Beauty in Chinese Art and Literature
The "Broken Bridge" of West Lake
"I climbed, intoxicated, the white jade steps, while the east wind blew over melting snow. The waist of the bridge rose in a high arch, pavilions on the golden ridge framing a misty shore. Clear water flowed in the wells, dense clouds stooped low over the two peaks. There, a wintry wind brushed the plum blossom stamens, where my horse's hoof prints stretched across the leagues of snow."
"Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge" -Zhang Hu
The Broken Bridge is located at the east end of the Bai Causeway ("Bai Di") at Hangzhou's West Lake. According to the "West Lake Annals" of the Ming Dynasty, Broken Bridge is so named because the Bai Causeway from Gu Shan ("Solitary Island") ends there; in the Song it was known as the Bao You Bridge, after a Song ruler. It is said that during the Yuan Dynasty, a couple who lived by the bridge, winemakers with the name "Duan" (a homophone of the Chinese word for "broken"), so that the bridge became known as the "Duan Family Bridge." The present bridge structure dates from its rebuilding in 1924; to its east are the "Bright Cloud" pavilion and the "Snow on Broken Bridge" stele pavilion.
Broken Bridge, West Lake's most famous bridge, is one of the three "lovers' bridges" at West Lake. It is also the setting of one of China's enduring legends, the Tale of White Snake, in which Xu Xian meets Bai Suzhen (a snake goddess in human form) when they take the same boat and he lends her his umbrella. They fall in love, but many trials and tribulations ensue. Later, they again meet and are reconciled at Broken Bridge. In the Shaoxing opera "White Snake," Bai Suzhen says, "The West Lake scenery is as it was of old!KI see the 'Broken Bridge' is not broken, though my heart is; this love, I give to the eastward flowing stream!K." Visitors who know the White Snake story will enjoy even more the romantic and poetic atmosphere surrounding this legendary bridge.
"Lingering snow on Broken Bridge" describes a wintry scene that is one of ten famous West Lake sights. Situated between the Outer Lake and the North Inner Lake, the bridge faces away from the city and toward the mountains, offering an expansive view of the West Lake under the snows of winter. When the seasonal snows on the bridge begin to melt, they disappear first from topmost portion of the bridge, dividing it into two sections; viewed from Baoshi (Precious Stone) Hill, the bridge appears "broken" in two. Yet the remaining snows on the lower parts remain, and from some views, the bridge is not broken.
The stories behind Broken Bridge can be traced as far back as the Tang, when poet Zhang Hu penned the line, "moss roughs the surface of the Broken Bridge," conjuring up images of an already ancient stone bridge with patches of moss. This picturesque image of a moss-covered bridge covered by a snowfall is one of the classic, memorable scenes associated with West Lake.
Even more allusions to the Broken Bridge derive from the classic era of poetry and literature of the Ming, when Wang Ke-yu wrote a telling description in his "After Picking Flowers at West Lake": "The beauty of West Lake is best appreciated not on sunny days, but during rain, and even more so under moonlight. But most beautiful of all is West Lake in snow!K.Few there are who understand such beauty!" Given its location in Hangzhou, winters at West Lake are short and heavy snowfalls rare. But when the land is dressed in snowy white, the lake takes on a wintry beauty far different than it has in other seasons, and gazing north or west from the bridge at the Gu Shan and Ge Ling pagodas, one sees a scene that is somewhat cold and forbidding, but beautiful in its glittering radiance.
Likewise, Ming Dynasty painter Li Liufang, in the inscription on his painting, "West Lake Overview-Spring Outlook from Broken Bridge," wrote, "Journeying to West Lake and looking out from Broken Bridge brought a kind of ecstasy. The early sun on its waves is as beautiful as the light of dawn through a forest or the moon bright over a village. Its brilliance cannot be matched by any other body of water." Clearly, in addition to the lingering snows on Broken Bridge, West Lake has many other appealing features!
Descriptions of landscape in classical Chinese poetry frequently reflected the idea that "Of inner thoughts, little should show on the surface; a short sentence has the most feeling," an approach well-suited to bringing out the subtleties of the viewer's relationship and reaction to a particular scene. In their combinations of pithy phrases and historical allusions, the ancient poets invoked new perceptions of natural scenes, and landscape was for them a poetic device, one that unites the consciousnesses of ancient and modern people across great spans of history. If our sense of a poetic conception can be abstracted and reshaped into a visual conception, then the finest landscapes always join a visual conception with a poetic one.
In Spring at West Lake, Chen Cheng-po accentuates the harmony of the natural space in its passage through time, and the subtle shifts in color that accompany the changing seasons. "Lingering snow on the Broken Bridge" typifies the sensibilities of the ancient Chinese literati toward the scenes of nature, which were impressionistic and tended toward high vantage points and broad overviews. Through this type of perspective, Chen Cheng-po was able to create a scene with breadth, expansiveness, and character; this slightly lofty and detached point of view also points up the relationship between subject and object, between the artist and his depiction, and between the observer and those being observed. The choice of such an overview reflects the mood of the artist and helps to imbue the entire canvas with the character of this beautiful scene, and the expression of a literary, poetic conception here conveys a tender, softer side of this artist's character.
A look at Chen Cheng-po's depictions of West Lake dating from this period show that the majority feature close-up views of particular subjects. This Spring at West Lake can be seen as a work that combines his detailed investigations of individual scenes at the lake into a more impressive and large-scale work.
Shanghai in the 1920s
The first chapter in the story of modern arts education in China began with the founding of the Shanghai Academy of Painting and Fine Arts (later, the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts) in November 1912 by Liu Haisu and Wu Shiguang. The opening of this new type of school and its modern concepts in arts education represented the beginnings of a system advanced, modern art education for China. The Shanghai Academy laid the first stone in the foundation of Shanghai's preeminence in arts education in China during that era, and a host of other arts schools soon sprang up in that city. The trend soon spread in a chain reaction to the surrounding areas of Hangzhou, Suzhou, Beijing, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Chongqing. Also in 1920, artists returning home from abroad to promote the oil painting movement in Shanghai helped usher in a bright new era; those artists included Wang Yachen, Chen Baoyi, and Ding Yangyong returning from Japan, and artists such as Li Chaoshi and Pan Yuliang returning from Europe. And, from time to time Shanghai also enjoyed the presence of other great artists such as Su Beihong and Sanyu. In short, Shanghai at the end of the '20s was not only highly a highly developed commercial and economic center, a provider of banking and trade services; it was also a powerhouse in the arts and cultural arena. It was, at that time, the artistic capital of the East.
In 1929 Chen Cheng-po met Wang Jiyuan, who had also briefly studied in Japan before returning to Shanghai, where he helped found the Xinhua Art College with other artists. In 1929, at Wang's invitation, Chen traveled to Shanghai and became an instructor at Xinhua. At the same time, he served as director of the fine arts department of the Chang Ming Arts College, and then as honorary professor at the Yi Yuan Painting Association. Chen also received appointment from the Ministry of Education to the screening committees of the Fujian Province Fine Arts Exhibition and the Western Painting Group of the Shanghai National Arts Exhibition. In 1930 Chen became inspector to the painting department of Shanghai's system of secondary schools; he was also selected as one of "twelve representatives of great modern oil painting" by the Shanghai National Political Tutelage Fine Arts Exhibition and as representative to China's contemporary arts pavilion at the Chicago Exposition. Chen was also appointed by the Nationalist Government to a delegation studying the arts and handicrafts of Japan.
Chen's arrival in Shanghai in 1929 coincided with a period of thriving activity on the Shanghai art scene; in several of his extant works from this period, such as Shanghai Overpass and Clear Stream, we can see the influence of an academic style at work. His academic training gave him the ability to depict a sense of breadth in landforms and water surfaces, and to produce concise and stable compositional arrangements. During his Shanghai stay, Chen's concepts and expressive abilities made him perhaps the classic, representative painter of that period in the city's history, as his stay there encouraged the fullest exploration of his abilities.
At the end of 1933, Chen returned to Taiwan, where he was a co-founder of the Taiyang Fine Arts Association. His Spring at West Lake, which was completed the following year, once again earned him an invitation to the 15th Imperial Japanese Exhibition, at the end of 1934. Chen's period in the mainland had given him greater awareness of the technical and expressive capabilities of traditional Chinese painting, and elements from that tradition began to find reinterpretation in his work. The extensive influence of traditional Chinese landscape paintings on Chen's work mean, after his 1933 return to Taiwan, greater involvement in attempts to further extend and develop those influences. The evolution of Chen's style displays his unflagging search for an artistic stance somewhere between tradition and modernity, through which he would be able to better express his individual personality and his outlook as a truly modern Chinese artist.
Chen Cheng-po's Creativity and His Times
The birth and growth of the oil painting movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one of the principal forces which helped elevate and stimulate artistic development in East Asia in recent historical periods. As the largest country in that region, China was central to those developments, exerting an influence far surpassing what would be expected from any single nation or society and extending far into the southern regions known as Nanyang. In the historical sense, the term "Nanyang" can be traced to the late Qing era, when it referred to a region that encompassed the coastal regions from Jiangsu south, or from the lower reaches of the Yangtze River southwards, that is, from the central plains of the middle reaches of the Yellow River and southwards, which would include Shanghai, Fujian, Guangdong, Xiamen, and Taiwan. "Nanyang" thus has two meanings, the first of which is geographical, and refers to territories closely linked to the coastal regions of the South China Sea, while in ethnic terms, it represents the broader cultural diaspora of the peoples originally born in that region. In combination, the meanings embodied in those two definitions embraces much of the diversity of Chinese culture, its far-flung territories, and the unique inclusion of diverse regions within the structure of a larger Chinese society.
The modern art that was appearing in these southern regions in and around China, growing from the roots of cultural thought fundamentally Chinese, grew out of its rich and distinct regional characteristics, and with the further catalyst of mainstream western influences, produced decisive breakthroughs. One crucial concept involved employing the aesthetics of traditional Chinese art, which depended so much on line for its expressiveness and in which simple compositional structures were the vehicles for powerful conceptions, and adapting them to the spirit of this brand new age.
Chen Cheng-po the artist, like his paintings, had an innocent and unaffected character. The innocence reflected a sensitive emotional nature, and while the artist was on the one hand utterly absorbed by his creative work, he had larger concerns as well, especially in terms of his feelings for his native land and country.
During the 1920's, a number of important official exhibitions, including the National Taiwan Exhibition and the Taiyang Exhibition, made their appearance as part of Taiwan's fine arts scene. They stimulated local artists to further perfect their styles, and through the direction they set, encouraged them to produce works based on images of Taiwan; those artists were motivated as never before to discover styles and themes stamped with their unique personal character. In contrast with the Chinese mainland during this period, where news about artistic trends was limited and the burden of tradition heavy, in the southerly island of Taiwan there was stronger potential for development of a modern, Chinese style of art. Today, history shows how Chen Cheng-po and his Taiwanese compatriots, the inheritors of Chinese cultural traditions, successfully expressed the spirit of tradition even as they continued to push art toward new and creative developments.
The most important of the new exhibitions was the Taiyang Art Exhibition, first held on 12 November 1934 under the sponsorship of eight important artists, among them Liao Jichun, Chen Cheng-po, Yan Shuilong, and Yang Sanlang. Held at what was then the Taiwan Hall of Education, the first Taiyang Exhibition was an opportunity for Chen to exhibit some works previously completed in Shanghai, including the Spring at West Lake previously shown in the 15th Japanese Imperial Exhibition; Spring at West Lake naturally became the center of attention at that intial Taiyang Art Exhibition.
Allusions to Traditional Chinese Landscape Style
The landscape genre loomed large in Chen Chenbo's overall output: the fact that Chen almost invariably chose landscapes for showing in major competitions or exhibitions signaled his deep involvement with landscapes and the confidence he felt in his work. It was in the landscape, too, that the fruits of his artistic exploration would become most apparent, and in which he sought his creative breakthroughs. As opposed to his treatment of the subjects of figure studies or still-lifes, Chen displayed his greatest facility and individuality in his handling of space in landscapes, and the special use of line and color that gave his work so much vitality were also developed into personal stylistic traits as a result of his work with landscapes.
I have spent much time recently with the paintings of Ba-Da Shan-Ren and Ni Yunlin, and it has brought me to a turning point: the sense of movement in my paintings is built up from line, or from the type of brushstroke, to convey a mystery that can't be captured in words. This is what has been preoccupying me, because it's meaningless for us as easterners to simply swallow whole those western influences. In the past, the effect my lines produced wasn't strong enough; now I add stroke after stroke until the line disappears within the strokes. That kind of expressiveness suits my personal style-where lines and brushstrokes have complementary effects. It reflects a little of Renoir, and something of Van Gogh, but with a heavier eastern accent in terms of color and feeling, it becomes something unique and different from all those western painters.
("Brushwork that Conceals Line"; Chen Cheng-po, Taiwan New Min-pao, Fall 1934)
The five years he spent in Shanghai provided Chen with an outstanding environment in which to study the brushwork of the past great masters of Chinese landscape, and the way they gave shape to their conceptions. In particular, he devoted himself to fathoming the secrets of Ba-Da Shan-Ren and Ni Yunlin (also known as Ni Zan). The vitality of Ni Yunlin's work derived from its lines, whereas it was brushwork that created the imposing manner of Ba-Da Shan-Ren's art. The radically differing styles of those two artists spurred Chen to new insights that he would realize in his own work. China's ink-wash painting tradition thus worked its influence on Chen Cheng-po's artistic outlook, compelling him to introduce some elements of it into his western oil painting style, and to explore all the possibilities of combining the two. Spring at West Lake displays all of Chen's deep and nostalgic feeling for the native culture and folkways of China, and in it, traditional landscape techniques are echoed in the way the sloping shorelines play against each other to create the effect of distance. Hints of the distant Yuan Dyansty are echoed, too, in a special sense of line that might have belonged to Ni Yunlin, or in Ba-Da Shan-Ren's molding of space. This Chen Cheng-po work matches the seriousness of those artists and its conception reflects strongly its eastern origins.
Chen's 1934 Spring at West Lake has also taken on serious importance as a key subject of research into the shifts in this artist's stylistic evolution. It is the largest of Chen's remaining paintings on West Lake themes, and its composition and use of line and color display all the skill and confidence of the artist in his maturity.
The Conceptualization of Color
"Conceptualization of color" is a term that can be used to describe the special manipulation of basic features of visual perception. Our visual sense, for example, detects variations in light not by perfectly distinguishing different grades of brightness, but instead by grasping the relationship between the brightest and darkest points of the perceptual field or between its deepest and the lightest hues. In a work of art, any single color or simplified hue can be used as a conceptualized color, in order to highlight some feature of a real object or to capture and freeze a fleeting, momentary perception.
Color, in Chen Cheng-po's work, is conceptualized and represents emotional responses; he stresses the beauty of the colors themselves, and through them, the presentation of symbolic meanings lying beneath the surface. For Chen, art was meant to be strong, direct, and approachable, and instead of complex detail, his work brings together his basic impressions, ideas, and experiences into a strongly unified whole.
In the East, color has often been expressed with an extra degree of reserve and delicacy of feeling compared with the West, which is both the result of differing cultural backgrounds and of the fundamental expressive logic of eastern art. Color in traditional Chinese painting, along with line, has aided in presenting spatial conceptions rather than being emphasized as an independent element. But color was exceptionally important in Chen Cheng-po's work, where it communicates his incisive perception of spatial structures and serves to express his enthusiasm for native culture. In Spring at West Lake, Chen's color conveys a subjective interpretation of the objective landscape scene. Chen did view color as an independent element on the canvas, as is illustrated by his willingness to depart from its typical use in creating atmospheric perspective or light even in his earliest works. Chen's use of conceptualized color here shows him once again imbuing it with an independent and autonomous character, as a vehicle through which the structure of his composition is emphasized.
Point of View and Composition in Eastern and Western Art
Cezanne's painting held a key place in the evolution of western art, not least because he transcended the ordinary artistic handling of space. In Cezanne's work, space itself exerts a constant and compelling emotional power; without reference to any outside force, his works persuade with a steady, internal logic of their own derived from the artist's injection of mood and feeling in his own methodical way. What Cezanne does is simple, yet precisely managed; his conceptions are deep, but their basic, direct force compels viewers to accept the central logic of the painting. Cezanne emphasized structure and the aesthetics of architectural balance, and the method that views an object's various faces from multiple angles, and the importance of the vantage point chosen, were fundamental tenets of the 20th century's Cubist school of painting. Cezanne created a unique kind of space, belonging only to him and liberated from traditional methods of perspective, and his unusual vantage points created structures on the canvas that lead viewers into his personally constructed reality. These ideas help elucidate the importance, in modern western art, of shifts in perspective or multiple perspectives; Cezanne's paintings were seen as important for their departures from the established rules governing perspective. Juxtaposing visual objects on the canvas, Cezanne shifted perspective in response to the demands of a balanced composition, resulting in distortions of scenic objects or horizontal lines as was needed for a given painting, while also emphasizing the existence of an independent pictorial space.
Chen borrows and amplifies on a unique "framing" technique used by Cezanne, arranging the composition along several vertical axes in a way that brings order and rhythm to the canvas. In an echo of Chinese styles, however, Chen hides many of the work's main lines beneath the textures and sweeps of his brush, taking advantage of the viscosity and plasticity of oil pigments to push and squeeze colors from the brush in thick layers. In the process he adapts to his own use the textural strokes of Ba-Da Shan-Ren, though they are applied in longer, arcing strokes. At the same time the motions of the brush leave their traces in the thick pigments, so that the lines he creates are partly buried beneath the effects of the brush's movements. Chen's fondness for these arcing brushstrokes may also reflect the kind of dynamics of line found in Renoir's work, and Chen uses their suggestive fluidity and fullness to full advantage in depicting the trees and vegetation and the waters of the lake.
One of the first Chinese works of literature to contain broad, in-depth descriptions of landscape features and natural settings was the Chinese "Book of Odes," compiled over a period from the early Western Zhou Dynasty until the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period (roughly, the 12th to the 7th century BC). It has held a symbolic position in China's cultural, historical, and artistic development because it so clearly expresses the ideal of "lyrical articulation of what is in the mind." Its poets used descriptions of landscape features familiar from daily life to illuminate ideas about human life and personal feelings. What the "Book of Odes" expresses about the intermingling of human life with its surrounding natural settings shows how deeply these poets felt humanity's intimate and vital link with nature. This special view of nature moreover would stimulate veneration and respect among the Chinese toward the life-giving forces of nature.
In Chinese paintings of landscape and natural scenes, artists have used shifting perspective to create a visual continuum that coordinates the disparate elements on the canvas. As the painter's eye moves across a scene, aspects of the objects perceived become linked within the picture space, and, as often seen in Chinese landscapes, various forms are altered or connected as the gaze of the artist shifts up, down, and across the scene. A characteristic feature of those works is thus a highly subjective perception of the landscape. Space no longer receives a unitary presentation within the painting, but instead becomes a layering, a superposition, of separate scenes that have their own dimensions. These artists create a feeling of roving through the landscape, and their presentation of multiple perspectives is what allows them to pull all the scenic elements on the canvas together into a unified whole.
Traditional Chinese paintings structured space through the use of a "flatness, distance, depth, and stillness" concept, which finds a simple and direct expression here in Spring at West Lake. Multiple perspectives rearrange the pictorial space to allow the overall visual frame to contain a greater breadth of vision; the foreground is broadened horizontally but unified with the perspective from the level plane of view. This treatment also produces a foreshortening of depth, for an impression somewhat like that of a stage layout or a theater backdrop.
Chen employed a blend of eastern and western elements, though often transformed and juxtaposed in his work, to enhance his own unique painterly effects and his personal artistic language. Scholarly research into the work of this artist generally holds that the period after his trip to Shanghai in 1929 was a crucial and transformative one, and that he produced his best work after his return to Taiwan in 1934. This Spring at West Lake exemplifies Chen's approach at the time: the viewer looks down on the scene from a high vantage point on the left, while their eye is carried into the distance by the forest and buildings that curve along the lakeside, a compositional device derived from the similar layering of the view in traditional Chinese landscapes.
Chen Cheng-po's Influence and Inspiration in Modern Art
Chinese art has recently seen unprecedented conceptual shifts and new modes of expression: artists are seeing the world in new and different ways and seeking a powerful voice for the expression of their lives and times. Through the flat space of the canvas they allow us to experience their emotional response to the world and their concerns about society. In this context, the emotionalism of Chen Cheng-po's painting can be seen as focusing on visual perception as a means for both understanding nature and for structuring the composition on the canvas. Chen understood the importance of controlling the subjective experience embodied in the painting, which he accomplished through shifting viewpoints, distortions in perspective, and the modeling of forms, and he continually sought techniques for more fully projecting feelings into the canvas.
The various elements of modern oil landscapes and traditional Chinese paintings that have been pointed out above resonate and interact with one another; whereas one may stress outdoor painting from life and attention to environmental detail, and the other a more inspired and idealized expression, they share the use of natural elements to achieve a painterly ideal. Chen Cheng-po in particular, in early 20th-century China, built on a foundation of painting from life, but within such painted landscapes he also introduced elements of brushwork, line, and juxtapositions of form and empty space that were derived from Chinese ink-wash painting. In so doing, he helped initiate a new chapter in modern Chinese painting, one embodied in such works as Spring at West Lake.