Professor Zhang Gan, Deputy Dean of the Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University

At 6:30 pm on March 29, 2018, Professor Zhang Gan, Deputy Dean of the Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University, was invited to give a speech on “The Re-evaluation of the Value of Academism and A Review of the Influence of Xu Beihong on the Education of Chinese Academies of Art” at the Auditorium of CAFA Art Museum, and it was presided over by Associate Professor Guo Hongmei, Director of Theoretical Publishing Department at CAFA Art Museum. It was the third round of the series of lectures for the “Celebration of the Centennial of Central Academy of Fine Arts: Xu Beihong–Living Art Forever”. In the lecture, Prof. Zhang Gan started from the definition of “academy” and the historical development to research and elaborate the relationship between contemporary art and the academies. Finally, he reassessed the significance on the teaching of painting of the academy school, and also reviewed Xu Beihong’s contribution on the teaching of Chinese academies of art.

At the beginning of the lecture, Prof. Zhang Gan directly pointed out that when contemporary art flourished, we had to revise many concepts, such as what is contemporary art? What is the academy? Is there a contradiction between them? So Prof. Zhang Gan interpreted the history and significance of contemporary art and the Western academies of fine arts at the beginning of the lecture. He believed that it was a narrow distinction and doubtful that contemporary art was defined as avant-garde art or exploratory art or an artistic exploration in style and language. In his opinion, all the arts created in the contemporary period constitute contemporary art. Current contemporary art is different from the past and future contemporary art, so that the concept of “contemporary art” is changing and can’t be defined. The term “academy” originated from the “Academy of Plato” as established in Athens by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. At the beginning of the 15th century, the academies represented a new humanistic spirit embodying what people emphasized as classical literature, philosophy, and scholarship at that time. Later, the “ACADEMIA” appeared in Leonardo da Vinci’s copper engravings. However, no one knew what the academy was studying. Accademia di San Luca was founded in 1577, and it began to explore the issues of painting & sculpture. In 1582, the Accademia di Belle Arti di Bologna, which was established by Annibale Carracci, formed the teaching system of the academy and the paintings and sculptures reflected the influence of the anatomy class at that time.

Professor Zhang Gan, Deputy Dean of the Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University and Associate Professor Guo Hongmei, Director of Theoretical Publishing Department at CAFA Art Museum

After elaborately reviewing the history of the development of the Western Academy of Fine Arts, Prof. Zhang Gan further explained the relationship between the academy and contemporary art and also made his own analysis of the development of Chinese contemporary art. Prof. Zhang Gan used the development of oil painting as an example. Xu Beihong and his generation of artists studying in Europe brought the systematic education back to China. After returning to China, they experienced the warlord system, anti-Japanese wars, and civil wars. The art world began to learn from the Soviet Union after the liberation of New China, so the artists hardly settled down to explore the language of art. It has directly led to the fact that the level of Chinese realistic painting was lower than the level of the Western art academies. Prof. Zhang Gan said that more than 90% of Chinese artists neither grasped the performance of the physical structure when they painted major historical subjects, nor grasped the performance of a spatial relationship, and they did not fully understand the perspective and anatomy. Therefore, Prof. Zhang Gan pointed out that realistic art still had great vitality and possibilities to develop in China. It is necessary to discuss the teaching model of the academic schools today when the so-called contemporary art is prevailing.

Prof. Zhang Gan then took the achievements of Western academy paintings as an example to explain that the skills trained in the academy were important to the expression of ideas. He believed that many expressions of art in the past were not the same as the things that we understand at present, some features of art itself have also changed, but the essence of things has never changed, and it is also necessary for art to convey beautiful things. In the opinion of Prof. Zhang Gan, the most fundamental skill is taught in the academy. The process of training skills of drawing and sketching of plaster sculptures is just like the development of language. We have never invented a new language, but learned to use different ways to express language.

View of the lecture

While researching the development of Western education in the academies, Prof. Zhang found that the academies were not a pure land or a place without any hardships. Along with the development of the times, the subjects of painting in modern art have also taken on a variety of forms. The teaching model of the academy school is inevitably digested by young people, and increasingly people are beginning to express their ideas of the world around them and the real world. However, throughout this period of history, some of the most important contemporary artists also graduated from the academies of fine arts. The outstanding contemporary artists in China, such as Xu Bing and Fang Lijun, were all trained by the Academy of Fine Arts. The academy has cultivated the ability to convey ideas in visual language. In general, Prof. Zhang Gan has a positive attitude toward academy teaching. He believes that academy education was able to offer artists rigorous training and better opportunities.

At last, Prof. Zhang Gan reviewed the influence of Xu Beihong on the Chinese academy of fine arts from the perspective of the historical development of the Western academies and the significance of the current academy. He believed that Xu Beihong who hoped to change the art of China, shouldered such a mission of the times and was finally determined to choose the path of realism, because Chinese art did not only face an issue of artistic exploration during those times, but was also facing a national salvation. Realism is a painting language that meets the needs of the times.

Prof. Zhang then made a reassessment of the value of the academy school based on the relationship between contemporary art and the academies. He said that the Academy of Fine Arts couldn’t teach an idea, because an artist gradually offered a concept in his later creations and his life. It is necessary for an artist to explore and build on his concepts. Therefore, the academy of fine arts could only teach techniques, and it is a skill and ability to present their own ideas using visual forms. It is also the artists’ ability to observe problems and solve problems.

At the end of the lecture, the audiences actively asked questions and interacted with the speaker around the issue of the developmental model of the academic education and the painting school. The host of the lecture, Associate Professor Guo Hongmei gave a final summary of the lecture. She said Prof. Zhang Gan had repeatedly emphasized that the value, significance and essence of the academy school was the visual language, and the visual language determined that the art could exist in the cognitive world forever, and Xu Beihong was someone who firmly grasped the language of art.

Text by Yang Zhonghui, translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Photo by Li Biao/CAFA Art Museum

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