Exhibition Date: Thurs. Jan. 24 - Thurs. Feb. 7 (10AM - 6PM EST) | Location: 39 West 56th Street, New York, NY 10019
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Known under the literary name of Bada Shanren (literally translated as Man of Eight Mountains), Zhu Da had in his thinking on the art of painting the naturalistic freehand style inherited from Xu Wei, a painter of the Ming dynasty. This naturalistic philosophy had, in turn, come from Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu’s openness thinking. Xu Wei was born with an open mind, unbridled character and free will, bent on having things his own way. He regarded his own true temperament and Lao Tzu’s natural philosophy as twin brothers, seamlessly integrated in his application to painting and calligraphy. In Xu Wei’s calligraphy, his wild cursive is like both the Pegasus flying in the sky and the Yangtze River in its tortuous, persistent and majestic style and its willful, natural dance, with the momentum and ink running in an unstrained torrent. This revelation of his true feeling, when imbedded in his creation, produced a graceful charm that undoubtedly matches that of Zhang Xu of the Tang dynasty, widely known as the Wild Cursive Saint. Nonetheless, Xu Wei appraised his own skills of artistic creation in a pecking order of (1) calligraphy, (2) poetry/prose, and (3) painting. By putting his skills at calligraphy and poetry/prose before those at painting, which come third, he meant that he was quite satisfied with the works of calligraphy and poetry that he had created but felt that his "splash ink freehand" style of painting had yet to reach his expected ideal state, with room and unfinished expression for further efforts and fulfillment. And this space and unfilled gap was tapped and filled, through inheritance and furtherance, by Zhu Da or Bada Shanren who adored the splash-ink technique.
Bada Shanren’s early landscape works that have survived till this very day had been influenced by the "Four Artists of Yuan Dynasty", especially Huang Gongwang and Wang Meng. Soon afterwards, he changed the thinking and style, and embarked on Xu Wei's path of stemmed flowers in splash ink and natural freehand. Lao Tzu's philosophy of “following nature” is in tune with the life of Zhu Da (Man of Eight Mountains), who was a monk then. He was a descendant of Prince Zhu Quan of Ning, the 17th son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming dynasty, always on the run from the hot pursuit of the Qing army and accustomed to leaving his fate to God and resigning himself to the cause of nature. For this reason, he wrote the autograph of his literary name of (Man of Eight Mountains) in a self-created Chinese word character that looks like 哭 (the Chinese character for "cry") and 笑 (the character for “smile”) at the same time. This was because he believed that as a former aristocrat with blue blood running in his veins, he had now been reduced to a poor monk, a fugitive on a daily run from the searching Qing troops ready to catch and kill him, He found himself in this sad, unsheltered state, left alone to face the chilly rain and merciless wind─a desolate state in which he could neither cry nor smile.
His paintings were inspired by Xu Zhi's stemmed flowers and birds. And he re-created in a simplified fashion the flowers and birds in his own unique style of “aloofness”. Often, he would paint on paper only a single flower to indicate his drifting life of loneliness. At times, he would paint a one-eyed fish turning up the white of its eye in a look of disdain at the world, or a one-eyed bird that looks up into the sky in haughtiness, ignoring the mortal world, or a bird which hides under lotus leaves as shelter from the wind and rain. All these are portrayals of his personal feelings and experiences in life, of the strong personality that had been developed from the life-and-death struggle with the Qing regime, and his benevolence towards and tolerance of the populace, with his grief at a fallen dynasty and demised family buried in the depths of his heart.
After Xu Wei, Zhu Da was a Ming artist born with a talent for art who, having taken a liking for splash ink, persevered in his creation efforts. During Emperor Jiajing’s reign (1521-1527), Xu Wei was persecuted by opponents in droves as his laissez faire thinking towards nature and his splash-ink works were ahead of his contemporaries by several decades. He was reduced to a life of abject poverty. Consequently, in the post-Jiajing years throughout the Ming dynasty, no one else had the guts to try his or her hand on splash-ink freehand works. This situation continued until the Manchurians broke the passes into the Middle Kingdom and established the Qing dynasty. To escape from the killings of members and relatives of the royal Ming family, Bada Shanren had his head shaved to become a Buddhist monk and priest, living in a Taoist shrine named Chingyunpu, aloof from the mundane, ruthless world. Having cast aside all fears of death, he derived great pleasure from Xu Wei’s works in splash ink and wash heavily influenced by him. In particular, he took in Xu Wei's spirit of innovation as embodied in Zhezhi Huaniao (bird or flower on a twig or stem) ─ he was able to create lasting works out of a single fish, flower or bird by imbuing it with unparalleled anima and emotions of its own, turning it into a humanized work with flesh and blood. Creating works of fine art with spirit and soul is exactly Bada Shanren’s strength with the painting brush, which helped establish him as a guru for generations to come, till today and beyond.
Bada Shanren paid particular attention to the choice of brushes for his painting, using only those with lamb’s wool and long tips. The lines thus created have strength buried in softness, with a majestic aura and elastic feel. This feature can be appreciated from the lotus stems and rockery that he painted. From his splash ink, one can also enjoy the wonderful natural changes in ink color. The rockeries he painted are essentially those from Lake Tai, with unique and varying formations. Hence the name Taihu Rockery. Each of them was completed in one breath, with varying front hands and backhands. In his works, Bada Shanren further simplified Xu Wei's ink techniques and even thinking. From the charm of splash ink to the shape and composition of the flower and bird, he engineered a sea change of Xu Wei's splash ink approach and philosophy, to bring out a brand-new style. Under Bada Sharen’s brush, floral painting is that of a flower, a bird’s painting is that of a bird and, likewise, a fish painting is—you got it—that of a fish! By pioneering the exemplary "lines with emotions and aura" in creative works and the "new composition form", Bada Sharen undoubtedly ushered Chinese art civilization into a new era and, in the process, established his position as the founder of modern Chinese painting.
More than three centuries after Bada Shanren’s death, an art genius by the name of Ting Yan-yong was born on Chinese land in the Orient. A native of Maoming, Guangdong Province, this genius went to Japan at the age of 18 to study western oil painting before returning to China with flying colors. He was particularly moved and even shaken by the view of Japanese professors who had returned to Japan after completing their studies in Europe, to become pillars of their country’s cultural renaissance through unremitting efforts. Even after returning to China, Ting cherished deep in his heart such moving emotions and memories of the Japanese professors’ efforts at revitalizing their culture, not daring to forget them.
At the age of 28 or 29, he fell in love, through his extremely sensitive eyes, with Bada Shanren (Zhu Da) and Xu Wei, of all people in China’s ocean of art history. For Ting Yanyong, a young man who had just returned from his overseas studies, liberated from the bondage of traditional culture, this falling in love at first sight with Lao Tzu’s philosophical thinking, on the one hand, and with Xu Wei and Bada Shanren’s nature-following splash-ink freehand, on the other, was really unexpected and at once a sentiment that was refreshingly miraculous.
Ting began to collect Bada Shanren and Xu Wei's works, and imitated and researched on them, brushing aside criticisms by his relatives and friends who ridiculed him as "back-pedaling". With far-sight and vision, he firmly and calmly chose the direction of his own career of art, sailing as a solitary boat, with the heart of a tiger braving the wind and rain alike in revitalizing and carrying forward China’s art civilization, relishing the poverty and simple life in harsh adversity in the years of resistance against Japanese aggression, as in downpours and under the scorching sun.
Ting had married twice and had altogether five daughters but no son. In those years of separation from his loved ones even though just a stone’s throw apart, he led a life of loneliness in Hong Kong the misery of which simply could not be described with a pen! Especially after the death of his wife, on whom could the five poor unaccompanied young girls rely? All he could do was to look up into the distant mountains, filled with thoughts of missing his loved ones and caring for them. From time to time, he would face me, his student, with teary eyes before forcing the tears brimming his eyes back into the depths of his heart and heaving a faint sigh. He was a highly affectionate man and a very amiable, kind father. As his student, I could feel his paternal love and kinship in addition to his talent as a rare learned teacher.
Ting Yanyong admired the most the four monks of the late Ming dynasty, i.e., Zhu Da (Bada Shanren or Man of Eight Mountains), Shi Tao, Shi Xi and Niu Shihui as well as Xu Wei and Hong Ren (aka Jianjiang ). In particular, he adored and respected down to the bone Bada Shanren and Xu Wei. And he was infatuated with Bada Sharen’s lines that are both soft and elastic, just like steel. He wanted not only to learn to draw these lines by Bada Sharen , but also to excel him. For this, he spent long hours on diligent research and practice, and searched the magnificent, simple and yet meaningful line fragments from ancient sculptures such as the stone-caving on the tombstone of Huo Qubing, a Han dynasty hero. From the Buddha sculptures of the North Wei dynasty and North Qi dynasty of the Six Dynasties, he imitated the intoxicatingly graphic and lively carved lines that combined softness and strength, grace and firmness. From the clothes of Tang dynasty frescoes, he learnt how to create fluent and winding long lines that are elegant and vivid. All these were objects for imitation and research in Ting Yanyong artistic learning and pursuit.
After decades of hard work and practice, Ting Yanyong painted beautiful lines for lotus stems and tree branches that combine toughness and softness, with a feel of flexibility that is undoubtedly well beyond that of his predecessors! The frog under his brush was shaped with originality, created with his calligraphic strokes as an interestingly lively, pure and humanized being that seems to be leaping on paper, as a creature the exquisite style of which one has never seen before. Ting preferred painting figures in historical stories, such as Yang Guifei the Concubine Emerging from the Bath, The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea, Zhong Kui and Lohans. He was also a master at flowers, birds, insects, fish, mountains and rivers ─ indeed, everything. Additionally, he innovated the One-stroke Painting Technique. For instance, the one-stroke cat and the one stroke crane. What’s more, his paintings are rich in color and dazzling to the eye, embodying the interest and vivacity of his beautiful freehand and revealing his uninhibited emotions. The essence of his works is that they are beautiful but not trivial or too soft; exquisite, true to life and rich in emotions and, indeed, not a stroke more, not a stoke less.
In his younger days, Ting Yanyong had learned and studied calligraphy. He first chose rubbings from stone inscriptions to study and appreciate in depths the shape and charm of the calligraphy in them and then wrote the words naturally after committing them to memory rather than simply imitating them from copy books as is generally taught by a teacher, since the latter approach would render the copied words dull and lifeless. He devoted particular efforts to studying the calligraphy on bamboo slips of the Han dynasty and the Six Dynasties which, when referenced from the studies and erudite commentary by such calligraphers as Lu Ji of Western Jin dynasty, Wang Xizhi, Wang Xianzhi and Wang Xun of Eastern Jin dynasty, Ouyang Xun, Zhang Xu and Huai Su of Tang dynasty and combined with the above-mentioned lines in the stone carvings and frescos, produced in an integrated manner Ting Yanyong’s own style of cursive calligraphy that is majestic, charming and natural.
Ting Yanyong learned western oil painting in Japan. After returning to China, he delved deep into oil painting studies and took great pains to carry forward Chinese civilization. Basing himself on the Chinese oracle that had been carved on bones and tortoise shells, he used an easy-to-understand approach and oil colors to portray Chinese civilization of the Neolithic Age. Thus, he created his own style─the Ting Yanyong style which is different from that of western oil painting as his main goal was to blaze a new trail of spiritual civilization in eastern oil painting.
It has been 40 years since his passing, but the works, thinking and example he left behind continue to help create and shape the spirit and new look of the oil painting style that is based on oriental civilization. Ting Yanyong is a founder and pioneer who inspired and innovated oriental cuture and oil painting.
Written with deep respect by Kwong Lum, Ting Yanyong’s disciple
June 15, 2017
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