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Transtemporal and Cross-Border Alignment: The Redisicovery of Yimin Ink Painting in Modern China, 1900 – 1949

Yanfei Zhu [The Ohio State University]
Ittleson Fellow, 2011 – 2013


Shitao, Riverbank of Peach Blossoms, leaf from the
album Wilderness Colors, c. 1700. The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York, The Sackler Fund, 1972

Modern Chinese ink painting is an amalgam of traditional and modern values. Its hybridity was especially heightened in the early twentieth century, when theorists and practitioners struggled to reconcile contemporaneous Western models and movements, seen as modern, with their own distinctive visual traditions, notably in ink painting. Often misconstrued as conservative, ink painters of this era pursued innovations based on their particular understandings of the Chinese tradition. To them, the legacy of China’s past was both comparable and precursory to modernist tendencies in the West. Revealing the fundamental ways in which Chinese ink painting was modernized, my project traces how Chinese artists in the first half of the twentieth century popularized, commodified, and philosophically and formalistically appropriated the work of seventeenth-century individualist yimin masters — painting seen as idiosyncratic and experimental — to create modern ink painting.

In this context, the term “yimin art” (in which yimin refers to remnant subjects, or those loyal to a previous dynasty) designates ink paintings by a group of late Ming and early Qing individualist masters, whose styles often appear expressive or abstract to the modern viewer. The most famous yimin individualists include Shitao (1642 – 1707), Bada Shanren (1625 – 1705), and Gong Xian (1618 – 1689). The eccentricity of their personalities and art served as a vessel for all sorts of later readings and interpretations. In the Republic of China (1912 – 1945), they represented nonconformism, in contrast to the orthodox “Four Wang” school of the early Qing. Their loyalist status further echoed the plight of Chinese painters in the early twentieth century, who could be considered the residual literati guarding the country’s rich and ponderous cultural tradition and fearing its annihilation by aggressive Westernization. Their individualism, in both artistic and theoretical accomplishments, buttressed modern painters’ belief in the vigor and potential of Chinese ink painting.

Two chapters of my dissertation examine, from philosophical and formalistic angles respectively, Republican Chinese artists’ approaches to studying Shitao, the most sought-after yimin artistic model. Specifically, I investigate the modern implications of Shitao’s art and theory through the visions of five painters: He Tianjian (1890 – 1977), Liu Haisu (1896 – 1994), Pan Tianshou (1897 – 1971), Zhang Daqian (1899 – 1983), and Fu Baoshi (1904 – 1965). Shitao’s artistic creativity and autonomy were a source of inspiration and confidence for early twentieth-century Chinese artists who were anxious to establish the modernity of Chinese ink painting. He Tianjian’s hermeneutic reading of Shitao’s Huayulu (Treatise on Painting) imbued the individualist’s abstruse writing with modern vernacular legibility. Fu Baoshi promoted the nationalistic interpretation of Shitao and other loyalist painters, although ironically his research on Shitao’s biography was driven by the desire to compete with Japanese scholarship on the same subject. To Liu Haisu and his peers, who practiced with both ink and oil media, Shitao was a bridge that connected the incompatible artistic values of China and the West, allowing artists to mix or not to mix the two systems in order to create the best of modern painting. To Zhang Daqian, Pan Tianshou, and their contemporaries, whose work is considered to represent innovation within tradition, Shitao represented a power in Chinese tradition that was renewable and, in modern parlance, progressive.

This is not to say that the ink painters’ appreciation and appropriation of Shitao was unrelated to their awareness of Western modernism, whether they acknowledged it or not. Zhang Daqian’s exposure to abstract expressionism as well as the professional necessity of appealing to Western buyers contributed to his beautiful splashed-ink and color painting. Moreover, his forgeries of Shitao’s paintings resulted from and contributed to the popularization of the individualist master in the twentieth century. Consciously separating Chinese from Western painting, Pan Tianshou employed Shitao’s art and theory to resolve the modern concerns of ink painting. The rediscovery of Shitao therefore allowed Chinese ink painters to internalize or localize the issues of modernizing traditional art while competing with their Western counterparts.

In addition to the chapters that I wrote in residence at CASVA this year, I reworked three previously finished chapters to shape my dissertation into a book manuscript. The revised chapters address the modern rediscovery of yimin painting from the perspectives of print culture and of Chinese and Japanese historiography. I am deeply grateful for my CASVA colleagues’ constructive criticism of my work and the convenience of accessing materials in the collections and library of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Yanfei Zhu will be a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the department of art history and archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis for academic year 2013 – 2014.

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