Endless and Boundless Chinese Landscape Paintings By Li Xiaoshan

2012-01-16 11:17

I. Zhang Daqian once emotionally commented on how the post-Song-Dynasty landscape paintings symbolized the decline of our national spirit. I have been hearing similar comments consistently in different places. In my opinion, people tend to generalize about history, which is, as a matter of fact, very colorful and hard to generalize about. Undoubtedly, the ones of the Song Dynasty are only a part of Chinese landscape paintings and cannot stand for the landscape paintings of all time, as Renaissance paintings stand for only a part of European paintings. If the quality, style and form of a period’s paintings became a kind of norm and were used to normalize the paintings from other periods, painting would be at a dead end.

II. Without any doubt, the richness of the post-Song-Dynasty landscape paintings is the reason we bend over backwards to continue with landscape paintings. In a broad sense, Shi Tao is right in saying that brush and ink move with the times. The continuation and evolution of landscape paintings, however, prove that works from different times can have different meanings and values. Why did Huang Binhong prefer the styles of the Song Dynasty and the succeeding Yuan Dynasty? It was because the paintings of the two dynasties were of great value to him. I once saw Fan Kuan’s Snowy Forest in the Tianjin Art Museum and not long after that I saw a solo show of Shi Tao. By comparison, Shi Tao’s works are thin, fluid and little. Balthus said what’s important is universality, not personality. The comment applies here.

III. The pursuit of universality has been replaced by the pursuit of personality, which is the main stream. Our ethic, morality, norm and order have undergone radical changes. The role painting plays in the changes is that it has become a tool for unleashing personality. Therefore, personalization will be even more highlighted in the future. We can see from the evolution of landscape paintings that traditional landscape paintings had been largely isolated until the 20th century when landscape paintings began to evolve on the path of diversification. Painters began to attach more and more importance to their personality and personalized patterns. Li Haisu, Fu Baoshi and Li Keran were very good examples of this. Their successors bring this to a new height so much, that personalization and personalized patterns have even become something for the painters to brag about.

IV. All previous painting accomplishments are a guidance and enlightenment for the successors, meanwhile their barrier and trap. For this reason, the successors must break away from existing rules and orders to survive. The easiest way to break away is to put emphasis on personalized patterns. We have many examples in the landscape painting domain over the last 30 years. From Beijing to Jiangsu, to Zhejiang, to the northwest, to southern China, to other countries, almost all well-known landscape painters are developing along the path. It is the easiest way, but it is also the most desperate way, because personalized patterns depend too much on individuals’ talent, interest and knowledge. Eventually they will become purely personal and irrelevant to landscape paintings. Isn’t this a phenomenon worth thinking about?

V. There are three reasons why landscape paintings exist: They are, first, an emotional anchorage; second, a visual expression; and third, something to appreciate. The former glory of the landscape paintings is related to their current mediocrity. The substance of landscape paintings resides in the content. The form is secondary. Therefore, no matter how innovative the form is, without substantial contents, they are just paper and ink. It is always a dilemma for landscape painters. Here is the problem: Previous landscape paintings have almost exhausted all the contents that can ever be used. What contents can the landscape painters use today and in the future? With regard to emotional anchorage, present society provides us with many ways to emotionally experience it; with regard to visual expression, diversification has become almost a commonplace of public life; with regard to the ways to appreciate artworks, there are literally millions of ways to do that. So how can the landscape painting survive? In my opinion, the three factors will continue to be relevant in the future. Essentially, they are not just pertinent to the landscape paintings. They are pertinent to all things.

VI. Landscape paintings are not simply the relationship between human beings and nature. To a degree, the connection between landscape paintings and nature is transient and spiritual. An ancient painter said, “Learn from nature and activate your inner energy”. One’s inner energy is the source of art and the basis of universality. In 2009, I was amazed by Xu Longsen’s solo show in Brussels. The spirit of his works made the exhibition site very dramatic. In other words, he used the site as a stage and the leading characters, the landscape paintings, interacted closely with the public space. The leading characters and the stage can be put anywhere in the world and this is literally the definition of contemporary. Xu Longsen is a coincidence and cannot be regarded as a norm. The reason I use his example is that I think there is another possibility for landscape paintings: The kind of paintings that are suitable for the exhibition in a closed space can have the same success in a public space.

VII. The future is always an enigma. So, our prediction of the future is nothing but a joke. The joke, however, is unstoppable, because it is where we get momentum. The future of landscape paintings is not certain. Certainty is what enslaves us. The slaves, however, have an opportunity to be freed and they will start a new life.