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An Ancient Garden Youthfully Abloom

Chinese art today

Modern Chinese Painting, 1860–1980: Selections from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Modern Chinese Painting, 1860–1980: Selections from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art

At an exhibition of early Picasso last year at the National Gallery in Washington, a woman in a red dress stood in front of a beautifully drawn nude and said with surprise: “Glory be! He was perfectly capable of painting people the way they look.”

Savvier viewers know that Picasso’s abstractions came of seeing reality so clearly that he could see past it; to them his literal early material is unsurprising. He had to be able to do some sort of realism in order to invent cubism. Realism was the point of origin.

Yet realist painters in the West are in an awkward position: for more than 100 years, many of them have chosen not to practice the form. A gift for representation is usually what gets them going as artists in the first place, when they are children. Later on, they ignore this physical talent or put it in the service of larger and often more intellectual goals. This seems to us normal: we see realism as the natural and only starting place for art. We therefore expect all other art to be derived from it. In other cultures, however, the starting point is very different.

Ink painting is the realism of China. It is the beginning and the end; it is the grand objective around which artistic practice is built. Calligraphy is the religious art of China. It carries value beyond what it conveys to the untutored eye. The verbal and the visual are much more richly entangled in the Chinese tradition than anywhere else, and realism, or what we would perceive as accurate depiction, is associated not with high art but with low-level court painting.

Indeed, classical Chinese artists trained not by working from nature or models but by imitating the work of past masters. The third dimension was not introduced into images. So artists trying to grapple with their past either had to make reference to the great calligraphic tradition or participate in it. A classical Chinese scholar would learn early to express himself with the brush; for such scholars, painting was not one step away from seeing but one step away from writing.

Just as literal realist technique enters into contemporary work by such diverse artists as Chuck Close, David Salle and Gerhard Richter, classical calligraphic technique — guohua,, or national painting — enters into the work of many contemporary Chinese artists. There, it mixes with recent ideas, Eastern and Western. Some contemporary Chinese artists are uninterested in the guohua, tradition, but most are, and theirs is the more interesting work: it is historically engaged, acknowledging its predecessors in one way or another.

This year, Americans have a rare opportunity to see in four exhibitions what happens when you mix calligraphic convention and modern times. Looking at them, it’s hard to believe that they all come from the same country or the same era; they seem like manifestations of totally unrelated cultures.

In July and August, the Metropolitan Museum of Art showed Robert Ellsworth’s collection of recent ink painting in the exhibition “Modern Chinese Painting, 1860-1980”; highlights from that show remain on view in the Douglas Dillon Galleries. The Yale University Art Gallery is currently showing the lovely paintings of Mu Xin, work that incorporates fresh ideas and European antecedents but retains a clear visual connection to classical China.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in Washington, has just opened a major exhibition of Xu Bing, one of modern China’s most original artists; he uses calligraphy as the basis for conceptual works that are both witty and profound. And the Dia Center for Contemporary Art has material by Feng Mengbo, China’s foremost computer artist, on its Web site. These all count as exhibitions of modern Chinese art — though Mr. Mu and Mr. Xu have both emigrated to the United States, they have relatively little in common, conceptually or stylistically.

Western and Japanese influences were strong in Shanghai by the late 19th century, and life drawing was taught at the Roman Catholic church there. Though some artists learned foreign techniques, many determined that they must work in the most traditional styles to safeguard China’s heritage. “If the painter cannot do calligraphy,” said Zhao Zhiqian, a painter who died in 1884 and is included in the Met exhibition, “his work will be vulgar.”

By the 20th century, change was on its way, and the artists’ mantra was “Chinese essential principles with Western practical knowledge.” After the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1911, the new minister of education declared that aesthetics should replace religion. The guohua, tradition was invigorated by new information and remained strong, even as some Chinese painters went to Paris and produced Impressionist or Western-style academic painting. Choice of style indicated political tendencies; isolationist and nationalist artists worked in guohua, while more liberal internationalist artists worked in Western styles. After 1949, the political meaning of such choices became stronger. The communist government favored Socialist Realism as practiced in the Soviet Union.

In a curious alliance, Maoists, avant-gardists and many Western critics have disparaged guohua, as reactionary, claiming that the tradition died between the end of the Qing Dynasty and the Cultural Revolution. The exhibition of recent guohua, at the Met Museum demonstrates that the style has retained vitality even as it has lost importance, and so recalls a really fine show of cowboy art or contemporary romantic landscapes.

Mu Xin, Autumn Colors at Jinling, 1977-9

Mu Xin, Autumn Colors at Jinling, 1977-9

Maxwell K. Hearn, curator of Chinese paintings at the Met, explains that the guohua, belongs in his department (which is where it may be seen) while the yanghua, or Western-influenced art, belongs in the department of 20th-century art, even though it may all have been made at the same time, in the same cities, by people the same ages.

The exhibition of Mu Xin at Yale occupies a fertile middle ground between guohua, and modernism. This is painting of such exquisite sophistication and such dazzling texture as to leave the greatest critics of Chinese art — several of whom have written for the exhibition’s lovely catalog — at a loss for superlatives.

Mr. Mu is classed as an ink painter by default. The surfaces of his pictures, which in many instances mix ink and gouache and possibly graphite, are worked and burnished to glow with intensity. Breaking with Chinese frontalism, they portray strange, enigmatic and powerful landscapes with considerable depth; though they are not quite realist, they have the plausible quality of dreamscapes.

Born in 1927 to an intellectual and aristocratic family, Mr. Mu grew up under the tutelage of private instructors, learning calligraphy and other elegant skills. One of his relatives was a leading thinker of the pre-communist period, who believed that China must incorporate Western ideas. Mr. Mu had access to his broad-ranging private library and there became versed not only in classical Chinese material but also in the great work of Western writers and artists.

In the 40’s, Mr. Mu supported Mao Zedong but soon became disillusioned and withdrew into a deliberate obscurity he has largely sustained. The humbleness of his activity in a craft collective was not sufficient to spare him from persecution in the Cultural Revolution, and he spent some of China’s most dire years at hard labor and more incarcerated. During this time, working by candlelight, he created the paintings now at Yale. “By day I was a slave,” he told the curator of the exhibition. “By night I was a prince.”

During 1971 and 1972, when he lived in an air-raid shelter in a “peoples’ prison,” nearly starving and in perpetual darkness, he obtained a precious 66 pieces of paper, intended for forced confessionals. Instead he covered them with minuscule characters, setting down his side of dialogues with the figures he most admired, a group that included not only the great Chinese classical scholars but also Leonardo, Tolstoy and Beethoven. In a Chinese purgatory, he strove to balance Eastern and Western artistic values. Both the notes and the paintings point toward a realm of imagination in which party politics is secondary to the humanism of Song Dynasty China (960-1279) and Renaissance Italy. It is no coincidence that most of this work has never been publicly exhibited; by inclination and necessity, Mr. Mu is self-mystifying and reclusive, though his published writing has a cultish following in the Chinese diaspora. (It is forbidden in China.)

While a debate has raged about whether modern guohua, is derivative, a parallel debate has suggested that Chinese artists who use Western devices are simply copying from a dominant culture to which they add little. This idea was substantially reinforced by the show of modern Chinese art mounted at the Guggenheim Downtown in 1998, an exhibition that, showing “representative” rather than distinguished work, obscured the accomplishments of recent artists. Modern Chinese artists who use Western information are no more copiers of Western styles than Western minimalists are copiers of Japanese Zen.

Xu Bing, Monkeys Grasping for the Moon,  lacquered Baltic birch wood, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Photo: Xu Bing.

Xu Bing, Monkeys Grasping for the Moon, lacquered Baltic birch wood, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Photo: Xu Bing.

More vital than the pure guohua, at the Met and less rarefied than the work of Mr. Mu is shiyan meishu, or experimental art. Xu Bing is one of the movement’s most impressive exponents; the Sackler exhibition, far and away the largest show of a living artist ever mounted there, seems to confirm his singular place in the United States.

Mr. Xu, the son of a librarian, was surrounded by books from an early age. When he was little — in the early 1960’s — he was unable to read them, and later he was not allowed to do so because the Cultural Revolution had forbidden everything but agitprop. After 1977, he became one of the youngest artists ever to teach in the Central Academy in Beijing. While he satisfied the authorities, he quietly developed his iconoclastic ideas and in 1988 stunned the art world and angered the authorities with his “Book From the Sky,” perhaps the single greatest icon of shiyan meishu.

For it, he invented more than 1,000 false characters, which appear legible but are in fact meaningless. He carved these into movable type, which he used to make four massive books, full of meaning but devoid of signification. During the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Xu had learned to be wary of words, but he could not break himself of a love for the form of them, and words have been the underlying subject of everything he has done. The “Book From the Sky” denotes the impossible weight of a Chinese tradition that no one can now understand; it evokes the perilous ignorance of a generation that went unschooled during the Cultural Revolution; it reflects on the futility of all communication; it is at once scholarly and atavistic.

The Communist Party reacted violently when the work was shown in 1989, and essays about Mr. Xu soon emerged saying, in one instance, that “to have no purpose at all is absurd and dissolute”; in another that Mr. Xu “came under the influence of foreign thought and abandoned art for the people”; and in yet another that “the capitalist artists want to state their lies as truths and display their nonstuff as art, to use lies to dupe the masses.” Under mounting pressure, Mr. Xu left China.

Though it is tempting to assume that work that attracted such criticism is about contemporary politics, Mr. Xu follows a very high Chinese tradition, established during the Song Dynasty, of voicing existential questions as a means of elegant dissent from the policies and social reality of his time. His life was in fact shaped by politics, but the work addresses the very source of politics rather than the policies of the Chinese government.

Feng Mengbo, Taxi Taxi! 1994

Feng Mengbo, Taxi Taxi! 1994

Feng Mengbo is China’s leading computer artist, a practitioner of perhaps the most exotic form of shiyan meishu. He is of the post-Cultural Revolution generation and has grown up in a consumerist China. On the Dia Web site, at, in a work called “Phantom Tales,” he recreates the slide shows that were a popular form of low-budget propaganda in the 1970’s.

The first two tales are drawn from storybooks. To a viewer unfamiliar with the popular narratives, the plot is hard to follow, but the material is still moving. A spotlight travels, like a child’s eye, across a succession of images, stopping at the most disturbing ones. The artist explained to me that he had set out to capture the traumatic experience of a childhood marked not only by violence in the streets but also by exposure to misery in this educational material.

In other works, Mr. Feng has connected such material from his childhood and the violent video games popular with contemporary Chinese children. The artist’s next major project is “Q4U,” a fully interactive video game to be launched by the Renaissance Society of Chicago University in January. Mr. Feng has incorporated a self-portrait into the popular video game Quake, and players engage in a struggle to kill or be killed by the artist. The installation will include play stations, but anyone with sufficient RAM and appropriate hardware and software will be able to play over the Internet.

Modern China mixes conservative and culturally distinctive Chinese ideas, high-flown antique elitism, radical ideas that are open to Western influence and original ideas that are modern and Chinese and unsourceable. Great things are accomplished within each of these mind-sets. To focus too specifically on any one of them is to underestimate China itself and to miss a rare chance to see a thousand flowers bloom.