A Touch of Red - Part II of IV

Updated: August 11, 2015

Part II:  On Modern Art—the language(s) of a globalized culture

Is it a bird? Maybe. Is it a plane? Possibly. It is a work of modern abstract art.

Appreciating modern art can be awkward to some. It does not come naturally. Modernism encompasses many styles, from abstract to expressionism, and often conveys messages that elude the general public. But this rather esoteric language (or languages) does have its virtues; and history, our culture, would not be the same without it.

Once upon a time there was an artist who was so skilled in painting meticulous forgeries that he sold them for exorbitant rates to some of the sharpest eyes on the market. This masterful artist was none other than Zhang Daqian (張大千) some works of whom, in 2011 alone, fetched over $506 million in auctions. Zhang was what they call a “Chinese Modernism painter.”

Simply put, Modernism—as it emerged in the Western world—erupted rebelliously against the status quo of established institutions of its time. In very much the same way Impressionism defied traditional ways of perception, much of Modern art pitted itself in opposition to political or social norms. That said, the expression of an art piece is always context-specific, and therefore inextricably unique.

It is the language we speak,
and the language our children will learn…

Example of 20th Century Chinese Modernism, Zhang Daqian’s “Garden of Eight Virtues.
Image Source: The Edge Galerie

At the same time, Chinese Modern artists were making their way into the international spotlight. Some of them, like Zao Wouki and Liu Guosong, became hugely famous. Because of the artists’ social environment, their works naturally appeared quite different than their Western counterparts. They simultaneously used the language of conventional aesthetics and challenged it. Case in point: Chinese paintings are characterized by abundant blank space, invoking imagination and mystery. This minimalistic aesthetic extended into Modern Art. So, combined with the longstanding tradition of Shanshui paintings, early 20th century Chinese painters adopted Western techniques and created works that also returned to their roots, rebelling against imperialism and industrialization.

Zao's oil "28.12.99"
Image Source: The New York Times

Here it was again, the Song renaissance resurfacing. Yet, it did so in a language quite dissimilar to traditional Chinese paintings. In the newly globalized world, it wasn’t a surprise that artists like Chinese-French painter Zao Wou-Ki possessed artistic styles that claimed footing in multiple cultures. Paintings like Zao’s “28.12.99” that express the duality of Western Modernism and Chinese Shanshui are what truly reflect the intersection of tradition and change; and of East and West.

The self-discovery of culture both past and current, however, is far from complete. In looking back, we are also looking forward. Artists today like Chang Yi and Loretta H. Yang shoulder this responsibility of sharing culture and expression—a responsibility that can be carried through appreciation. This is the language we speak, and the language our children will learn—one reflective of tradition, and embracing of change.

 

(To be continued…)

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