The Question of Abstraction in Contemporary Chinese Art

Simone Schuiten and Xiaoman Li

The Question of Abstraction in Contemporary Chinese Art

 With a view to developing the common features between Far-Eastern and Western spirituality we will look to understand how the two aesthetics are coming together in their relation to representation.

In order to situate the problematics of abstraction within the framework of interculturality we will refer to China’s age-old aesthetics on the one hand and to the appearance of abstract painting in the West in the early years of the 20th century on the other hand. The focus will be laid on the essential conditions and stakes making the transcultural meeting and dialogue possible.

Let us go first to what distinguishes the two aesthetic systems. The first characteristics of Chinese art show a series of strokes, wash drawings and paintings forming a harmonious ensemble in space. The work reveals the artist’s spirituality which makes itself permeable to the dynamism of nature and strives to fuse with it in an effort to participate intimately in the cosmic movement and rhythm. This artistic practice incorporates the energy involved in the relationship between earth and sky. It includes a mode of being through mediation, intuition and inspiration. Focused as he is on the essential or on the sole brush stroke the artist attains to the vital dynamism of what he perceives. In harmony with his environment, he manages to bring out its main lines. Detached from appearance, concentrating on the void, he expresses himself in the austerity and simplicity of an instantaneous gesture, drawn without any pentimento. The gesture, foregrounded in the art of painting and of writing, will therefore command our entire attention in this chapter. With it come the various tendencies to abstraction.

Parallel to the Chinese aesthetic deployment, we will have to situate the main landmarks of the Western system based on the representation of reality. For centuries Western culture has developed a mode of expression centred on resemblance and mimesis, in other words on the faithful representation of reality. From the Renaissance on, the modern spirit promoted a break between mankind and the world. Nature became an ‘object’ separated from a human ‘subject’ which became increasingly dominant  and efficient thanks to the new sciences and technologies acquired since Copernicus. In this context the painter exerted his mastery by detaching himself from the primordial ground : phusis, that is nature before any human intervention.

As we know, any communication or sharing of criteria between the Far-Eastern and Western cultures was inconceivable for centuries on end. It so happens that since the early 20th century mindsets have changed, after a long process of emancipation. In the West the impressionist movements contributed to a first breakthrough away from the grids of reading of a system of interpretation based on a supposed mastery of reality. After this, the Russian painter Kandinsky, considered as the harbinger of abstract painting, would be among the first to institute non figurative configurations and to associate them to a spiritual quest. Moreover he considered the need to free colour from representation in order to connect it to the pulse of the world. He had to break with the modern pursuit and to give painting back to itself, in other words to grant it some autonomy. The formal dimension of the world was then exceeded in favour of a dynamics referring to the invisible. Music with its ‘abstract’ arrangement has since then played a significant role in the researches of non figurative artists.

In China during the same period, i.e. after the last dynasty, contact with Western art intensified and interest in modern techniques kept increasing. As early as 1911 artists in China started broadening their aesthetic horizon by using the technique of oil painting, finding an inspiration in live model and in the resources of Western studies in anatomy.

On each of the two sides, in China and in the West, mentalities changed owing to or thanks to the crises endured by destabilised societies. Between the two world wars in Europe, artists disgusted by the conflicts between their nations sought to break with the rational logic of a way of thinking which they considered to be absurd and fossilised. Some of them chose to follow the approach of the Impressionists. Well aware already of the art of the stroke and of Japanese etchings, they modified the composition of their paintings. Going far beyond an exoticist interest in the other, they opened themselves to the practice of the asymmetry, the ink wash drawings and the atmospheric perspective of Chinese landscape painting. They took a liking to the dynamic nature of the brush stroke, which opens the door to the artist’s interiority and reveals it. People then talked of meditative paintings and writings giving back to mankind the intimacy which the modern infatuation had obliterated. This access to Far-Eastern spirituality led them to Chan Buddhism.

It is through that spirituality that Western aesthetics came to encounter a language and a practice that are indifferent to the tangible world. Opening oneself to the ungraspable through a consciousness of the void brought the detachment that allowed Western painters to free themselves from academic, or even from social and cultural constraints. This route, peculiar to Chinese Buddhism, was taken by artist monks so that they could express their relationship to the world. This philosophy’s practice is a visual, meditative one, and it involves a quest for concentration, striving for illumination. This liberation also concerns the sacred texts and writings in general, and it is essentially of a sensory nature. In China, from the 10th century on, a type of painting called ‘Yi-p’in’ introduced the practice of splashed ink. This incorrect use of ink is entirely spontaneous, expressive. The gesture, freed from all rules and constraints, expresses the vital energy made possible by the void. As early as the 8th century landscape painting in China showed the spirituality of a painter who uses ink to express his need for a fusion with the rhythm of nature. Some eccentrics made use of their fingers and their hair to paint without restraint. Among those artists was Liang Kai (1140-1210) who painted the famous Immortal in Splashed Ink. Reputed as a “madman” he quitted the Imperial Court to practice Chan Buddhism. For him, awakening leads to a sudden and instantaneous process. Free style focuses on speed and economy of means. The artist is concentred on the meaning of his subject.

These practices were not addressed in the West before the beginning of the 20th century. They then began to interest artists inasmuch as they brought a quite different relationship to the world, which was not a matter of objective cognition, and differed from traditional techniques. The artists, such as Marquet, Picasso, Masson, Degottex, Dotremont, to mention the best-known examples, were able to meet and to comprehend the Chinese painter’s state of mind, as he expresses himself intuitively in the dazzling intensity of the instant, when he is inspired. Already in the final years of the 19th century Gauguin, Bonnard, Van Gogh made themselves available to the dynamics of the ink stroke and to the vibration of calligraphic signs. Those artists ushered in the practice of interculturality by valuing in a thorough and genuinely interested manner the Far-Eastern ink techniques. Since then both artists and art amateurs have drawn power from the various cultures they encounter, based on what circulates among art dealers and in world fairs.

Henri Matisse for his part showed in his writings and in his letters the need to give way to the void by composing starting from an essential, simple line. Others followed on, such as Klee, Michaux, Soulages, who, interested as they were in Far-Eastern drawing, gave themselves the means to turn to abstraction.

The U.S. artist Mark Tobey lived in China and Japan in 1934: there he practised calligraphy and painting in order to assimilate the impulse and the impetus from the wrist to the artwork by way of the lettered person’s treasures:  brush, ink and water. Mark Tobey did not seek to paint in the Chinese manner, but he immersed himself in it in order to produce his drawings and developments. Based on his background, he absorbed the energy of the gesture which he transformed in his canvases, wishing to imprint his own spirituality.

Frenchman André Masson, associated to the tribulations of Dada and Surrealism, practised automatic writing. It was a small step for him to come closer to the spontaneity of the cursive writing, the unbridled writing called ‘herbe folle’ [‘wild grass’]. Forgoing the benefits and certainties of ordinary language, he transgressed all limits and conventions to go in search of other modes of communication. He then discovered in the art of the stroke a vital spatial respiration, and the void leading to the infinite and the ineffable. Western artist were fascinated in those days by the openness, transparency and fluidity at work in Far-Eastern aesthetics.

As for Henri Michaux, he lived in China in 1930: he too was overwhelmed by the spontaneity of the gesture and by the body dynamics that goes with it, expressing the artist’s inner being.

This artistic expression of calligraphists and painters presented as eccentrics turns out to be very close to what people in the U.S. are beginning to call abstract expressionism. The spontaneity of a gesture allowing the movement of the cosmos to appear or to manifest itself shows some resemblance to the painting of the young U.S. artist Pollock. Of course Pollock didn’t use brushes, as he wanted to make way for chance, while working hard physically. He therefore favoured gestures producing works projected on to the floor.

A gesture, through movement, rhythm, dynamics and its energy, produces a work that escapes control by reason. The work then exists in its most frantic force. We can see increasingly significant convergences emerge between different continents. Some of them are not conscious, most of them give evidence of a conscious, deliberate mutual contribution which allows us now to appreciate the richness of this aesthetic questioning.

The aim of this paper is therefore to foreground and develop this observation: Chinese artists like their Western counterparts have — albeit often unwittingly — helped and strengthened one another. The Chinese art of the stroke is still exerting an influence on Western aesthetics, and likewise, since the 19th century Western aesthetics is influencing Chinese art. This is a beneficial input, which no doubt breaks down the barriers and stereotypes about the other. In a word, art ‘emancipates’ us from the weight of prejudice.

Within the framework of the multiple exchanges made possible by globalisation and the communication between specificities, it remains for us to develop the field of our gaze. This will involve the dialogue we will carry on between Chinese and Western abstract artists.