Chinese Painting from No Name to Abstraction: Collection Ralf Laier
The story of contemporary painting in China begins during the Cultural Revolution, when young people met in the parks of Beijing to escape the climate of political repression and paint small landscape pictures. Art academies were closed, Western art was hardly known, and so the paintings of this group around Zhang Wei, Ma Kelu, Li Shan, and Zheng Ziyan became testimonies of personal freedom. Exhibitions were clandestine until 1979, when they introduced themselves to the public as the No Name Group. After this breakthrough, the various personalities quickly developed their own trajectories, and in the 1980s some painters found their way to abstraction, among them again Zhang Wei and Ma Kelu, as well as Zhu Jinshi, Feng Guodong, and Tang Pingang. They each developed their own visual language between color planes and often minimal gestures, abstract expressionism and Chinese ink painting.
No Name and the Beijing abstractionists are at the heart of the collection of Ralf Laier presented here. The collector himself talks about his passion for art and personal encounters in China in a conversation with Feng Xi. Texts by Kuiyi Shen and Paul Moorhouse provide the background for understanding each of these eras. And an extended appendix of notes by the artists on their own work and background as well as other relevant sources provide an inside perspective on these paintings of a different modernity.
OBSCURE DEPTHS: ABSTRACTION IN CHINESE ART, 1979–1986
During the early 1980s, a small group of painters living in Beijing instigated nothing less than a revolution in Chinese art. The radical nature of the changes that they brought about, and the relative swiftness with which these developments occurred, may be grasped in an early figurative painting on wood made in 1978 by Zhu Jinshi, one of the pioneers of the so-called Beijing Abstraction Movement. This intimate still-life comprises a jug and a pair of apples enclosed within the folds of a piece of cloth. The painter’s indebtedness to Paul Cézanne is clear in the carefully constructed composition and firm modeling of the objects. However, this modest image is on the reverse of the panel. In 1982, Zhu used the other side to create an entirely different kind of painting. In Nolde Blue, he relinquished recognizable subject matter completely. Instead, the entire surface comprises agitated brushstrokes—primary blue, ultramarine, and white—that appear animated, as if in constant motion. The influence of Emil Nolde—another master of Western Modernism—may be detected in Zhu’s use of glowing colors. But, unlike Nolde, the medium and movement of paint alone form the work’s ostensible subject, defining Zhu’s advance into the new territory of abstraction.
As this comparison suggests, within four years Zhu had reinvented his approach. Having in the earlier painting embraced figuration reminiscent of Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, with Nolde Blue he began to explore non-descriptive expression in an entirely personal and distinctive way. This transformation is remarkable given that, according to Zhu’s own account, until the late 1970s he was unaware of Western Modernism. Nor was he alone in embarking on this exploration of hitherto unsuspected territory. The painters Zhang Wei, Ma Kelu, Tang Pinggang, Qin Yufen, and Feng Guodong were kindred spirits. In common with Zhu, they also abandoned observation and iconic representation for an engagement with abstraction, creating paintings that had no obvious roots in nature. Collectively, they would take Chinese art in a new direction. This, however, raises questions: How had this advance come about? And what is the significance of the innovative works that they produced?
These artists’ exposure to Western Modernism, as well as a profound involvement with their own culture, underpins the complex development of their work and its highly idiosyncratic nature. During the 1930s, an earlier generation of Chinese artists had studied in Paris, forging close links with the city’s avant-garde. During the Cultural Revolution, however, this changed when connections with Western art were completely severed. Produced in defiance of official restrictions, the light-filled landscape paintings made by Zhang Wei and Ma Kelu during the 1970s were, for that reason, a vital lifeline. In the absence of direct contact, and even lacking reference books or catalogues, the links they maintained with impressionist models evidently drew on whatever material and knowledge survived from their Chinese predecessors’ heyday. Following the political and economic reforms spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping after 1978, the cultural landscape in China then underwent a further convulsion. Renewed contact with the West led to the availability of texts that shed light on the Modernist canon.
Among the books that now appeared in translation, the most influential was Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting (1959). Referring to “the moment of liberation” when Western artists relinquished their historic allegiance to depicting the observed world in literal terms, Read observed: “Art has always been abstract and symbolic, appealing to human sensibility by its organization of visual and tactile sensations. But the vital difference consists in whether the artist in order to agitate the human sensibility proceeds from perception to representation; or whether he proceeds from perception to imagination, breaking down the perceptual images in order to re-combine them in a non-representational (rational or conceptual) structure.” In his account of the extraordinary developments that occurred at the end of the century’s first decade, Read evoked the prospect of an art that would exist on its own terms, freed from description, with an immediately expressive character. For those Chinese artists who had longed for liberation from the strictures of Socialist Realism, this vision of abstract art, characterized as “images that can be freely organized to appeal directly to human sensibility,” appears to have been incendiary. Indeed, the movement that would become known as Beijing Abstraction may be seen in the light of the progressive impulse that Read described. Although each of the artists within its orbit would pursue an individual path, their shared commitment to the creation of non-representational structures, and direct engagement with “human sensibility,” are defining characteristics of the paintings they made…