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The Mind Soaring Free From Material Things—Appreciating Wang Huangsheng's Chinese Paintings

Wu Hongliang
Director of Art Museum of Beijing Fine Academy

The curator Wang Huangsheng, is a busy man as well as a capable man. He is "busy" for he has many things to deal with, and "capable" for he can manage all those things well at the same time, which is indeed the impression he left on me. In his early years, Wang made exhibition, collection and publishing of the Guangdong Museum of Art quite influential nationwide, and he also led the Central Academy of Fine Arts Gallery into a new track with significant achievements after being appointed as its curator in recent years. As for Wang Huangsheng's identity as a painter and his paintings, just like many other people, I'm not quite familiar with. Several years ago, I only saw few of them in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. The theme was "Big Flower", generally speaking, it feels quite different from the exhibitions he held with vanguard nature. From the astonishingly abundant "classic" factors, taste of brush and ink, the refined and elegant layout and coloring, I found a Wang Huangsheng I did never know before. 

Last November, I held the exhibition Observe for two of my friends in  Today Art Museum, which showcased only hand scroll and album of paintings, trying to demonstrate the elegant tastes of the ancient Chinese in public space like art museums, and further discussing the relations between the appreciation method of Chinese art and modern art museums. I invited curator Wang to come, but I didn't raise my hope high as he is always so busy, anyway, he came unexpectedly. During our viewing period, Wang said that he had a hand scroll and I'm welcomed to view it. So, one afternoon in this spring, I saw the long scroll of Thousand-Mile Yangtze Map in his Sunshine Studio locates at Wangjing. Thousand-Mile Yangtze Map painted by Xia Gui collected in Taipei Palace Museum, was the origin then Wu Wei in the Ming Dynasty, Wang Hui in the Qing Dynasty, Zhang Daqian in the modern times and Wu Guanzhong in the contemporary era, all made masterpieces under this same motive. I was astonished at the connotations built by its traditional brush and ink as well as the space and the free from affectation of adding new things into our ancestors' interest and charm. Finished in the 1970s when Wang Huangsheng was in his 20s, the completion of such a masterpiece called for not only ability but ambition and courage as well. 

From my conversation with Wang while drinking tea, I learned that he was born in 1956 and his father Wang Lanruo was a famous traditional Chinese painter in the Guangdong province, and he is erudite through paternal teaching and influence. Receiving traditional Chinese education since childhood, he was strictly taught by his parents. He started painting when he was five or six years old, when he was still at primary school, his work was selected in the international Children's Art Exhibition sponsored by Song Qing ling Foundation (SCLF) and exhibited in Finland. His special endowments can be perceived in the correct modeling and complete layout in the work may be we can call it Duck Tending Map created in 1964. Cucurbit and Landscape painted at 10 were already with some taste of Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong. As a result of political movements, his father was deemed to be a Rightist and was sent back to his hometown Shantou, which made Wang Huangsheng realize the vicissitudes of the times and the hardship of life at an early age. Without the chances of receiving normal education, his father hired scholar CaiQixian to teach his son verses and ditties. TheHuajian Lyrics—Wang Huangsheng's Color Ink Arts published in 2005 is probably benefited from his that period of learning. "For the old stories of rise and fall, only the moon could tell the sadness"[1] though depicted old times, it's also a portrayal of his verdant youth. For family reasons, he wasn't able to finish high school and become a worker in a small factory at an early age. After the resumption of the college entrance examination, he experienced three failures, but there are also some lucky things, in 1974, he had the opportunity of travelling to Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shandong province, Hebei province, Henan province, Hunan province and Guangxi province, etc. Such experiences broadened his mind and vision. In Beijing, in particular, he met Liu Xiaodian, and through whom he met the misty poets and avant-garde painters of the "Stars Painting Society" such as Jiang He, Yang Lian, Ma Desheng and Huang Rui. Though their exchanges are limited, "their care for society, reflection on culture, critical spirit pervaded in their works and remarks and the rebelling gesture had a great impact on Wang Huangsheng." [2] Things finally turned for the good in 1987, with his good learning and cultivation of art theories and excellent academic grade, he was admitted directly as a graduate student in Nanjing Arts Institute. Learning "theories of ancient Chinese paintings" from Mr. Zhou Jiyin, he became a scholar of art history. Up till now, the book about Chen Hongshou he wrote is still quite influential. After graduation, he first went to Lingnan Publishing House in 1990 and then to Guangdong Painting Institute. In 1996, he was appointed as vice-director of Guangdong Museum of Art and became the director in 2000.  It is also worth mentioning that Wang Huangsheng is the first art museum director specialized in history of art. Hereafter, he gradually became the curator with abundant achievements in art history and art theory and leading art management skills that we know about, but we ignored the Wang Huangsheng as a painter and whose works had been selected in the National Art Exhibition [3] for many times. The exhibition in the Round Hall of the National Art Museum of China in 2006 enabled us to get a relatively overall understanding of painter Wang Huangsheng again. That exhibition was named as Heaven and Earth ? Carefree?aWang Huangsheng's World of Ink and Wash Painting, mainly displayed his works of "Carefree among Heaven and Earth" and "Big Flower" series. [4]

"Carefree among Heaven and Earth"series can be regarded as works with pretty much philosophical ideas in the 1990s. The conception of this series began in his studying period in Nanjing, and all the way continued to 2006 just before the exhibition. In the postscript for Carefree Heaven and Earth No.2, he wrote, "I always draw old style home stuff, for it seems that I can savor the flavor of the traditional culture among them". And he also included sentences from Li Bai, Han Yu, Zhu Qingyu and made comments. Such a masterpiece was created in the summer of 1994, "among the cement and iron frame with extreme heat".  Maybe, that's the state for Wang Huangsheng then, "among the cement and iron frame", he has more sensible care for nature. If we regard house as the six directions (east, west, north, south, heaven and earth), or universe, the drawn house is in essence the world that the thoughts reach. In this painting, Wang Huangsheng regarded clouds as roof, and brought bright moon, stars and great waves around the writing desk. The key of being "carefree" among "the heaven and earth" lies in the breadth of mind and attitudes. Indeed, being a "real recluse" requires other talents. From the names of this series' works, Lying to Watch the Clouds Floating in the Sky, Bamboo Shadows Dancing with Clouds, Reading the Book of Changes by the Window, the Clear Moon Once in My Dream, which are all portrayal of meditation under the sky, the painter's leisure and pursuit can be perceived. 

From the perspective of schema, this series of works borrowed specific frame structures such as partition board, screen, bamboo curtain splint and enclosure to join the "construction" configuration method, interspersed with such cultural symbols as profound scholar portrait、scroll, writing desk and inkstone, with the nature images of reed, lotus leaves and rain drifting among them. So many ideas have been orderly put in a nutshell of rich and strong ink by the painter, added with the application of the technique of ink accumulation, his goal of getting rid of "prescription of traditional schema"and creating a schema of his own" was highlighted. He stressed that: "this schema has rich connotations, and can bear the knowledge that you'd like to express or own, or reflections of life, experience of culture, etc.[5] Consequently, the "Carefree among Heaven and Earth" series was created at that period of time trying to express his exploration of deeper problems through such a heavy theme and "several rickety houses". Though the painting method of confining one's feelings to objective things that may originated from the ancient people, the new and directional metaphors are Wang Huangsheng's creations. This method is still a valuable exploration even viewed in today. 

After 2000, as a curator, Wang Huangsheng perhaps was too busy to create works with relatively heavy themes and large dimension. Several small dimension works in the "Big Flower" series rose in response to the proper time and conditions. Those works are square composition on half of a 4 feet rice paper, linking the nowadays lives. They are basically in the pattern of one bottle with one bunch of flowers, seeking abundance and relaxation in simplicity, and they leave you the first impression of being beautiful. This, perhaps, is the relaxation of his soul besides heavy and complicated works, leisure of emotions besides logics and procedures. To be sure, the requirement of layout, brush and ink and coloring as creation itself has already been in the grasp of his potential consciousness. In this series, he also intentionally avoided the flowers such as plum blossom or orchid which give people stereotyped images, dodging "broken branch" gestures which could bring certain forlornness feelings, he painted those  flowers that are more of their own images, some works have even broken the constraint of specific flower forms, but borrowed the flower's image to paint freely. Now, the things come out of his brush and ink are no longer just flowers, but also flexible and loose lines, clear and bright colors and slowly emitting fragrance. 

Surely"the flowers painted by Wang Huangsheng are not  all self-amusing short sketches. He would also inject sad tune themes in his works when his emotions and thoughts are put in place and time is sufficient, creating several serious works. Wang Huangsheng now is no longer avoiding the fetters of fixed images, but confronting questions and demonstrating his new interpretations of objects. In 2010, in his work Once Hearing Wind and Rain, the original noble and unsullied and delicate lotus was represented as forcefully beautiful with large dimension. Through the flickering of lotus leaves and seedpod of the lotus, the symphony of the sound of wind and rain and lotus pond has been strengthened. In it, there is not only the shock of "Cold Both in Bone and Heart"in Zhou Sicong's later years' works, but also the lasting struggle and solemn and stirring of "Neither cry nor laugh when sadness comes, no one in the world knows my heart"in the mixing of the music and sound in the Songs of the Earthby  Mahler. In the work Watching the Star, the sunflowers in the dim light of night he depicted showed some kind of exquisite feelings, without sunlight, the sunflowers exhibited more grace of tranquility rather than the vigorousness of the daytime. "The tranquil and remote night, the calm and frozen star", by poem, Wang Huangsheng coagulated the picture's atmosphere and expressed another image of sunflowers. The work Perhaps delivered the only message of seasons and fruits, while the specific images have become vague, with powerful lines, dense and thick red dots, the exploration toward abstraction became prelude of his another "Moving Visions"   work series. 

Before we talk about his latest work series "Moving Visions", I would like to  say a few words about his paintings from life, the foundation of an artist's creation and daily practice flowed from heart and brush and ink when confronting nature. We can say that paintings from life accompanied him in every period of art creating. 

Since the 1980s, Wang Huangsheng had been to the Three Gorges, Beijing, Shantou, Hainan Island, walking the Silk Road that coves a long distance from Gausu province to Xinjiang province. That half-China walking tour can be regarded as his first phase of painting from life. The scenery in his paintings, whether the deposition of the Great Wall, the withered grass of the old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan Garden), or the thick tropical forests, all are not only the portrait of subjects, but injected his personal attitudes intentionally and rationally. Moreover, the kinetic potential of pictures and depth of space have been strengthened through transformation. In the 1990s, he had an opportunity to go to Italy, where he created paintings from life "Italy Mantova Impression", in which the organization of pictures more constructed and colors more subjective. In 2008 at the new century, in the Yellow Mountain, he expressed emotions instead of simply portraying subjects in his painting from life, adding more creativity to it. Just like what Huang Binhong had said: "besides the form of landscape, painting from life can only get the airs of the landscape by meditation with closed eyes and its spirits grasped." The works Deep and Remote Mountain Bamboo Groves after the Rain and Hearing Wind and Rain, Playing the Instrument and Crying Out had directly spiritualized the bamboos in the rain. With less management of objects and structures, there are more first hand deep feelings and emotions.  

 "Sketching" the "life" of nature, while "Sketch" is strange, "life" is fresh, changing with states and structures, not falling into conventional pattern, and has its own vitality. From Sketching subjects to the joy of life, from the objects of now to the emotions of now" through intimate contact with nature, he opened the path from nature to soul. So, after leaving the Yellow Mountain, when he draws the bamboo in the Yellow Mountain again, he inscribes:"there's no need to visit other mountains after returning from the Yellow Mountain, and it also holds true to the bamboos."  In which there is another meaning that the bamboos have already get rooted in his mind. 
 "Moving Visions"series is his latest works. The viewers may feel lost where to begin telling though with thousands of words in mind, when facing those messy lines with unbroken ties of love. It reminds us of what Lao Zi (philosopher in the Spring and Autumn Period, founder of Taoism) had said, "Who can the nature tell about Tao? Our sight it flies, our touch as well""in this sense, nature in our sight and touch is the visualized embodiment of "Tao". Corresponding to this series' works, we can feel that at this moment, Wang Huangsheng have shaken off so many fetters that he can directly state his understanding of "Tao".

The Chinese art has been simplifying objects, to seek change in the meaning of objects, reluctant to jump the fence of image concept. It's like what Qi Baishi described as "between similarity and non-similarity". He can even draw a fish with three strokes, with two black points as eyes and one light ink as body, but with the lotus leaves as context, we can still figure out that's fish in the water. Though Chinese painting and calligraphy put great emphasis on the changing beauty of lines, they still require the attachment of objects and words, and therefore not pure concept of form. 

 As the gradual progress of lines, from the Ancient silk line of GuKaizhi to "Orchid leave line"ofWuDaozi, at least 50%  attention to Chinese art form have been devoted to the pursuit of the beauty of lines. The pressing down and lifting up of the writing brush on paper,  the hidden depth on the surface constructed by central brush, and the forthrightness of side brush, all became the exercise the Chinese painters  keep  practicing  their whole life. In the modern times, the lines from Wu Changshuo are like golden pot, in Qi Baishi's late years, the lines are like immortals, and Li Keran's plain and clumsy forms with "linking dots to from lines", they all left the traces of pursuing the perfected use of lines. The predecessors' creations left us inspirations as well as insurmountable high walls. 

If the creations of "line" and even "Chinese painting" are still confined to Chinese art paper, writing brush and ink, will there be new possibilities? Can we benefit from our ancestors' brush and ink experience as resources instead of burdens? I'm afraid those are the questions that every engaged artist should consider about. Surely, we can properly desert them like Wu Guanzhong, and set forms and constructions originated from the west as our pursuing goals, which is actually a road. It's easy to "do as one pleases", but it's hard to "conform to standards". Currently, as a result of so many people who do whatever they want and mix the genuine with the fictitious, there are so many works that are hard to judge. In particular, some explorations entered the abstract world adopting "pure form" as the only expression method, without the constrain of image concept, you would find them disappointing. The way too large abstract space hindered the depth they can reach and often unendurable. All these problems made many artists' works like a phantoscope, ever-changing at first, but you would find the central theme remains the same and get bored easily. 

The "Moving Visions"series was created in his 50s, when he "knows the will of heaven" and "does as he pleases without going beyond the law" and it's an controllable passion experiment. As a painter, scholar in art history, critics and art manager, with his learning, cultivation and rich experience, he knows well about art history and the risks, difficult points and key points in creation. He is no longer a green hand youth, for him, reform is just the gradual change after refinement, but revolution, requires the resolution. The clarification of tradition and modeling in the "Moving Visions" series are the results of being "resolute". However, this kind of "resolution" is more surprising when shown in pictures. With little difference in width and shade of lines, he gave up the rhythmic beauty that can relatively easy get with opening, developing, changing and concluding (the four steps of Chinese regulated classic writing); with little change in the light and shade of different groups of lines, he gave up the effects of chrominance comparison; using only black and white, he gave up the splendid colors. What is he seeking after giving up so much? Such works may even generate dread after being liberalized, and plenty doubts about the any possible possibility.

Wang Huangsheng has his own concepts and tactics. First of all, it's nature. The objects in the "Moving Visions"series first originated in a lump of electric wires in the real world before his eyes, and the schema brought about are the variant of nature. Secondly, it's tradition. The extending and winding lines are tribute paid to tradition. Therefore, "Moving Visions"series has its roots in the orient, and Wang Huangsheng hopes to create an internationalized vocabulary through it. In the visual aspect, he hopes to have a "chop off" with simple tradition, and return to the "original point", which itself is an internationalization process. For instance, the pronunciation "Ma" of "mother, requires no explanation within the whole world. This is what he is thinking about, "how to make Chinese ink generate a more internationalized language, and directly to think questions in a more internationalized language or word order instead of just pushing forward or absorbing western language in the Chinese context." [6]

During our conversation, Wang Huangsheng pointed out that he has been sticking to the ink and brush skill acquired since his childhood, injecting the lingering charm of brush to the rice paper through brush tip, which is a genetic and inheritable interest. He said jokingly: "It is easy to get tired when drawing those kinds of paintings, for you have to keep a certain state." In fact, the pure and unchanging lines are the hardest to draw. The first item in the "five strokes" put forward by Huang Binhong is "flat", drawing "flat" lines being the most difficult thing to do with soft Chinese writing brush. Therefore, to achieve the state of "silk line", not only years of hard practice are required, but also particular concentration. It can only be completed with "absolute concentration". However, the concentration mentioned doesn't mean rigidity. The pleasure and taste between something controllable and uncontrollable is stressed in Chinese painting art. The shade and width of the lines and how the lines go are also decided between immediate casualty and the control of trend. He also said that he completes works with them set level on the desk or earth no matter how large the dimension is. Drawing on level set paper or hanging paper"maybe can be regarded as personal habits, but also revealed the drawer's origin. The details told the origin of him as a Chinese painter. 

Besides moving lines, in this series, the construction pattern is basically dark around the four sides with light center, as if the light comes from afar, or attracting the viewers to view the distant place. The comet-like smudged tailing in the background are probably the gathering of light and search of the unknown. The Moving Visions series No. 5 more fully presented this feeling, overlying lines mingled together with background, you cannot help but think of the opening sentences of  Inquiry of  Heaven  written by Qu Yuan. "To talk about the very beginning of the world"who passed on the Tao? Without any shape in heaven and earth"From who could we get things approved?In the dense darkness"who could gone to the end of it"as emptiness was the only thing in the universe, how could we know it?the day is bright and the night is dark, what's the reason?"therefore, this series of works surely have the natural and unrestrained state of "wandering one's mind at the very beginning of things"like the Moving Visions series No. 25, in my perspective, however, they are more about the rational inquiry of many ultimate questions through "greatest image" of "no shape", which in essence, is expression of the attention paid to and respect of "Dao". It's like "Dao can be achieved but not pursued" proposed by Su Dongpo, and can be further understood as another state of the inquiry.

There is an unavoidable doubt when confronting these works featuring lines as the main body. What's the difference between these lines and those of the Pollock's and Wu Guanzhong's? The so called abstract expressionism lines of Pollock put more stress on the sporadic feature in actions, and the entirety of works lie in the grasp of construction concepts. For Mr. Wu Guanzhong, that's exactly where his lines come from, grafted upon the oriental branches, and formed the vocabulary linking the west to east. Like what we have pointed out, the starting point for Wang Huangsheng is from the east. He emphasized the tradition born with the lines, "the skill attained as a kid" attached to him like genes. He knows well that "I have fairly good skills and have pretty good sense about brush and ink,  and these things cannot be chopped off, but if the inertia of mentality and expression can be chopped off, that's what I'd like to do." [7] Whether "inherit" or "change", they are all "causes", the works are "results", and the "result" can turn out to be another "cause". "Moving Visions"series is just a new beginning for Wang Huangsheng.

The "Carefree Among Heaven AndEarth"work series seem to be the questions and answers between human and heaven and earth. The starting point is a meditating human by the windowsill in the dim light of night, while lotus pond, screen, partition board and clouds and mists in the mountains are the support of heart, and there are many aspirations to get rid of the burdens brought by physical objects. "Motion Vision"series maybe another sublimation in Wang Huangsheng's "heart", the so called "chop off" by him is to put the so many burdens down gently. carefree among heaven and earth"is to seek ease in "objects", while "Motion Vision" in "object" of "formless". Whether "carefree" in "heaven and earth" or "free one's thoughts and feelings" of  "Motion Vision", all are a pond of clean water left to himself  by Wang Huangsheng. I remember that Qi Baishi has a seal, on which inscribed "The Mind Soaring Free from Material Things". I would like to give those words to curator Wang Huangsheng as an artist, for they suit him best. 

May 2, 2012, at Wangjing

[1] Niannujiao Overlooking at Jiao Mountain in Ganlu Temple in the Rain, published in Huajianci—Wang Huangsheng's Color Ink Arts, Shuyi Publishing House, 2005, p.14.
[2]Sun Xiaofeng: You Have An Ideal—About Wang Huangsheng
[3] The One Who Opened the Window (co-created with Li Dongwei), 100×160cm, selected in "the eighth national art exhibition"(1994); Hand Down Education Generation by Generation, 170×185cm
[4] WangHuangsheng classified "carefree heaven and earth" series into "heaven and earth", "big flower" into "carefree", did reorganize and interpretation in the exhibition. In this article, the former classification was reserved for the convenience of stating.
[5] Niannujiao Overlooking at Jiao Mountain in Ganlu Temple in the Rain, published in Huajian Lyrics—Wang Huangsheng's color painting arts,  Shuyi Publishing House 2005, p.14.
[6] the Road of Freedom--the interview of Wang Huangsheng, published in  China Peoples  Famous calligraphers and Painters,2012,1 p.10.
[7] the Road of Freedom--the interview of Wang Huangsheng, published in  China Peoples  Famous calligraphers and Painters,2012, 1, p.14.