This article was originally published in http://www.wenming.cn/.
Painting is the Only Thing I Have to Do
When the new China was established in 1949, a thousand things were waiting to be done. At that time, one of my father’s friends was working at the National Peiping Art School, where students studied in the school at public expense and ate for free. My family was poor at that time, and I loved painting, so my dad’s friend suggested that I applied for the National Beiping Art School, which was renamed to the Central Academy of Fine Arts (abbr. CAFA). I have never received any professional training before the entrance exam that required each candidate to draw a sketch. During the examination, I used charcoal to draw, using the wetted steamed bread as an eraser, which helped me to finally succeed. After I entered the school, I gradually fell in love with painting, and considered it as a part of my life. I still find that painting is the only thing that I have to do. The “Soviet Union Exhibition Hall” was built in Beijing in 1954, and exhibited many oil paintings by the artists from the Soviet Union. I was so excited to see the original pieces, which were difficult to be seen at that time, and it was the first time for me to come in close contact with oil paintings. The school decided to allow the graduate students to visit the exhibition hall and choose a piece to copy. I chose to copy the portrait created by Максимов.K.M from the Soviet Union, and Максимов.K.M who I admired and coincidentally became my teacher.
I was admitted to the training class in oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1955, and Максимов.K.M was the teacher. He was good at teaching, and proposed focusing on the structure and human structures. He accurately revised our paintings, and the body, skeletal and muscles were immediately shaped by him after revising a student’s drawing of a male nude.
Максимов.K.M often painted together with us. I still remember that we lived in the suburbs within a home for a month’s sketching course. In order to seize every moment to draw, he never took a nap. After many years, when I was too tired to paint, I occasionally remembered the spirit of my teacher, and this memory has become one of the motivations that drive me to persevere on the road to painting.
“Going Out” Brought Artistic Inspiration
I stayed in the school to teach after graduation, shifting from the teaching of the Department of Printmaking to the teaching in the First Studio of the Department of Oil Painting. Learning while teaching, my skills of drawing were increasingly improved.
In 1981, I visited and sketched in Xinjiang for nearly three months, of which more than a month was spent in the Tajik Autonomous County of Taxkorgan, Kashgar region, which laid a good foundation for the creation of the “Tajik Bride”. In early 1982, I went to the United States to visit relatives for one year, and I visited the major local museums, carefully studying the development of western paintings. By comparison and reflection, I found that my paintings had not yet become three-dimensional. I succeeded in drawing a human body lying on the grass three-dimensionally and dignified in a classical form after I returned to China. My colleagues felt that my style changed after seeing it. Subsequently, I combined the experience of grassroots life to create the “Tajik Bride”, which caused a sensation in China, and many people said that I started the neoclassicalism of Chinese oil painting, but in fact it is only the final presentation of my experience of grassroots life as well as drawing on my experience of foreign oil painting. Only when the art is open can new artistic inspiration be produced. Our country now emphasizes the concept of the development of innovation, coordination, greenness, openness and sharing, which can also be applied to the arts.
Creating the Oil Painting with “Chinese Characteristics”
Only by taking root in the essence of the ancient culture of our country can we revitalize the various categories of art. Painting is certainly not an exception. Oil painting was from the West, and we have to think of how to make a “Chinese” oil painting. The elder generation of Chinese oil painters including Xu Beihong, Dong Xiwen, Luo Gongliu, were all engaged in this task.
In the 1990s, I began to try to absorb the characteristics of Chinese murals in the oil paintings and created the works such as “Painter Huang Yongyu” and “The Returned Overseas Chinese”. I later saw a book entitled “Huang Binhong’s Paintings of Discovering the Invisible Things” by chance, collecting many landscape paintings created by Huang Binhong. I was inspired by it and tried to combine oil painting with ink painting. I chose the two painters, Huang Binhong and Kuncan, because they were landscape painters, and their paintings are thick, black and easy to be combined with oil painting.
It is difficult to blend the freehand ink painting with oil painting, because it requires both a Chinese style and the advantages of oil painting. When the painting is completed, it has both the advantages of modeling and color, as well as the cultural spirit embodied in Chinese painting, and it is the oil painting that truly has a Chinese flavor. These paintings use the language of oil painting to show the world the artistic pursuit and good image of Chinese painters.
I Want to Draw Portraits for Chinese People
When I travelled in the United States, some local galleries wanted me to stay in the United States and would have applied for a green card for me as a technician in 1982, but I rejected this offer. Although the domestic living standard was low at that time, I wanted to draw subjects I was interested in. I often tell the students that I am Chinese and I am going to draw portraits for Chinese people, all my life, and to show Chinese people’s moral qualities in the creation of oil painting.
During history, art was used to perform the things of the upper classes. After the founding of New China, the literature and art focused on reflecting the grassroots and workers. This principle also brought a change of style to the painting circles. The overall style of the domestic art scene was simple, healthy and lively. I think this change was a progress in the art history of the world.
When the creation course of the school organized students to go deep into life, it was the first time for me to come into contact with the workers in 1950. We moved from the Sifang Locomotive and Vehicle Plant in Qingdao to Puzhen Locomotive Plant in Nanjing, working and taking a break together with the workers, and I drew posters for them in my spare time. It was the hottest ever summer in Puzhen, where “malaria” was prevalent. I was later infected with the disease, and my body alternated between hot and cold, and I felt weak. When the worker saw I was in a serious condition, they carried me on foot to the hospital which was far away. Luckily, I quickly recovered due to the timely treatment.
This experience gave me a deep feeling for the grassroots workers. Therefore, I often use the elegant language of oil painting to vividly perform everyday appearances.
Keeping Pace with the Times to Record the Times
After the reform and opening up, the national economy has rapidly developed, and social life has undergone great changes. Apart from appreciating the changes in society, as an artist, painters, especially young people, do not understand the reality and find it very difficult to express contemporary art. As I get older and older, I have fewer opportunities to meet young people. But I am going to invite many young people to chat and understand their thoughts, feelings and ideas when I want to create. Following the pace of the times, constantly adjusting our own art forms and combining the art with the times. Even using individual portraits, we can still record the times. My work entitled “On the Way”, presents three people including the 40-year-old middle-aged boss, a 30-year-old woman, and a 20-year-old college student, in the painting, who are all busy. I outlined the status of several representative figures in society, portraying the changes of people in a rapidly developing society.
Although my paintings are sold at high prices, I prefer to donate lots of works to art museums because I always think that the finest destination for art works is the art museum, and only in art museums can they meet the masses, which is the most important value for artworks. I will never paint in order to sell paintings and I will not be moved by changes of the art market.
The basic problem determines the artistic level. I have been painting for decades, which has always been to lay the foundation for oil painting. Until now, I am still studying the basic problems of modeling, color, thickness, abstract beauty and hue. If I am asked what I have achieved, I think I have taken over the older generation of painters and worked hard to lay the deep foundation for Chinese oil painting.