Ink and paper lie at the origin and are a vital force in the painting tradition of East Asia, as well as being common denominator among overseas Chinese artists. Nowhere else is this more evident than when considering the work of artists who travelled to France in the early to mid-20th century, such as Lin Fengmian, Pan Yuliang, Sanyu, ZaoWou-ki, Chu Teh-Chun, Wu Guanzhong and T’ang Haywen, or US-based Chao Chun-Hsiang. At no point in their artistic careers did they abandon from Chinese ink painting; on the contrary, they injected new meaning into this medium. These artists not only drew inspiration from this traditional medium, but also developed the use of oil paint in their practice. These Chinese artist sought to advance this tradition by combining their understanding of both Western and traditional Chinese art, their own personal life experience, and a fresh perspective to explore new styles of ink. Like runners in a relay race, they took the baton passed on by their forbearers, contributing their own strength to break boundaries.
The revolution of 20th century ink painting in mainland China began in the 1920s.In 1926, not long after returning from his study in Europe, as Lin Fengmian wrote, in The Prospect of Chinese and Western Arts, that in fact, the shortcomings of Western Arts are exactly where the strengths of Eastern Art lie, and the strengths of Western Arts are also where the shortcomings of Eastern Arts lie. Complementing each other produces the world’s new arts. Lin also pointed out that “Development of national culture comes from the creation of a new era by the absorption of other cultures while drawing from one’s own culture, and the whole process goes on and on.” (wrote Lin Fengmian in New Theory of Chinese Painting 1929). Lin’s plan to reform 20th century Chinese art was through teaching about Chinese and Western art side by side. In his own artistic career, Lin Fengmian attempted to reform ink painting through incorporating elements from western painting, such as light, colour, and perspective, combining this with the essence of traditional Chinese visual art, such as calligraphic strokes or the misty quality of layering ink washes. Lin Fengmian’s heavily painted work on square format began in the 1940s, bringing a fresh creative spirit to Chinese ink painting in the 1950s and 1960s.
The revolution of Chinese ink painting was not limited to China. Overseas Chinese artists also began to quietly developed ink painting in cities abroad. In France, Chinese artist T’ang Haywen changed the face of Chinese ink painting. He crossed the boundaries and explored the full potential of the expressiveness of ink medium, elevating it into a universal language.
T’ang Haywen and ZaoWou-ki arrived in France in the same year in 1948, and Chu Teh-Chun arriving in1955. Unlike Zao and Chu who studied under Lin Fengmian at the National Hangzhou Art School (now ‘China Academy of Art’), T’ang Haywen had not received formal artistic training before his arrival in France. He had however learned ink painting and calligraphy as a child from his grandfather in China and then later studied painting at the L'Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. He immersed himself in art by visiting museums and galleries. In spite of their different backgrounds, T’ang, Zao and Chu all worked to deconstruct the confines of tradition in the new environment of a different culture. His early works share a common starting point of figurative painting, only later heading towards non-representational art to express their artistic sentiments.
It was not oil painting but rather ink painting that T’ang Haywen chose as his artistic path, and from the 1960s he focused on developing this medium. His innovation made him a pioneer of modern Chinese ink painting outside China. Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and Wu Guanzhong worked in both oil and ink throughout their careers. Particularly in the 1970s, Zao and Wu began to pay special attention to ink painting.
T’ang Haywen saw Chinese ink painting as a mode of free expression. In fact, he did not deliberate over which categories his works should fall into; he once said “My painting is neither figurative nor abstract, nor does it belong to the neo-figurative school. Such classifications seem to me too limited. I seek an art free from constraint, within which I feel free to evolve.”2
In a discussion on Eastern and Western concepts of abstraction, curator Jeffrey Wechsler, an expert on Asian American artists commented, “the spiritually based East had all the technical and philosophical inclinations toward abstraction for centuries; but the Eastern artists did not move into pure non-objectivity because they saw no need to do so. The more individualistic and literal-minded Western aesthetic viewed abstraction more a pictorial achievement, a further step on an assumed road of artistic progress.” Such perspective suggests that when approaching the artwork of T’angHaywen, we cannot simply brand his paintings as abstract art; rather we should understand them as an extension of an Eastern approach to painting, with its emphasis on sentiment and spirit – yet different from traditional ink painting.
It was T’ang Haywen who ventured into new territory with the medium and format, painting on 3 millimetre thick paper board.
Below comment from Chu Teh-Chun expresses how difficult to find Xuan paper in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I wanted to get back into calligraphy and painting, but at that time there was nowhere in Paris or even in the whole of Europe where I could buy the sort of Xuan paper needed for doing calligraphy and ink and wash painting. […] Then, one day in 1976, Jingzhao came back home with some meat she had just bought, and I suddenly noticed that the type of French paper used for wrapping meat is very similar to Chinese Tiger-stripe-patterned Xuan paper […] I fetched my ink and brush and began writing on the non-greasy side of the paper – wow, the result was amazing! The way the ink spread across the page and soaked into the paper, it honestly could have passed for Xuan paper. […] I went out and bought a big bunch right away, headed straight back to my studio with my brush in hand and poured my heart and soul onto the page in the form of Tang poems and Song lyrics.”
The passion of T’ang initiated him to overcome the limited resources and invent a new format for his creation.
Indeed T’ang was using sheets of 70 x 50 cm and assembled them in a diptych format of 70 x 100 cm. Smaller sheets formed diptychs of 29.7 x 42 cm. Untitled (Lot 51) at this auction was completed on a sheet of 100 cm. high and 70 cm. wide cardboard. This size work, in which two images join to form the main picture in a single-sheet format, is quite rare.
With its bright yellow background, and T’ang Haywen’s gem blue, brown and white lines, the points of colour in Untitled form its picture. One row of brown lines suggests range upon range of mountains, suggesting the unlimited inspiration the artist draws from natural vistas. Tang’s unique spiral brushwork displays energy, vitality and speed. Free brush strokes and vivid colours charge the picture with freedom, sunshine and brightness.
T’ang Haywen was an avid philosopher. He had a profound understanding of Taoist thought and later in his life became a follower of Catholicism. T’ang’s works are an exploration of his subconscious mind, embodying his understanding of life. They occupy the space between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the mysterious, and amidst their tranquillity they impart to the viewer with a sense of mystery. Chinese literati injected their aspirations into landscape painting; T’ang however freed himself from landscape, expressing his emotion through brushstrokes. T’ang’s paintings are the territory of mysterious profundity showing the essence of Chinese philosophy – heaven and man are one, nature and man come together, and heart and mind-unite, that shows a desire to, but hardly distinguishes a private space.