The new century has witnessed the rapid development of private art museums in China. However, there also exist some problems: much importance has been attached to infrastructure while the roles of a museum in collection, display and academic research has been neglected. Such roles, especially that in academic collection, can reflect an art museum’s academic direction as well as it academic status. Among various private art museums, How Art Museum is one of those which have clear academic goals. Last year, it held the exhibition themed “Taste of the East”; in this year, it holds this academic exhibition focusing on “Chinese expressionism”, which further reflects its interests in academic subjects.
Themed Chinese expressionism, the exhibition invites 11 significant artists and critics in the field, with the purpose of displaying the expressionist tendencies in Chinese contemporary art and exploring the expressionism with Chinese characteristics.
“Expressionism” is a foreign concept. However, the “expressiveness” in paintings is a common fact. We can even claim that the Chinese traditional painting is expressive in essence, at least its “expressive advantages” greater than its “reproductive advantages”. Some describe the difference between Chinese and Western painting as a difference between “expressiveness” and “reproductiveness”, which is not unreasonable. Of course in a broader sense, all forms of art are “expressions”. Baudelaire, the French poet and critic, is among those who hold this view. However, “expressionism” is specifically defined. The concept appeared in Der Sturm, a German magazine, in 1911 for the first time, used by Wilhelm Worringer. As a stream of the Western modern art movement, it mainly refers to three art groups that developed in the early 20-century Germany, namely the Bridge, the Blue Rider and the New Objectivity. However, as an artistic tendency, expressionism appeared as early as the late 19th century in the works by Vincent van Gogh and Munch. The tendency which stemmed from the Northern Europe lasted for quite a long time and developed in a troubled era with social crises and mental confusion. It not only made striking progress in pre-war Germany, but led to the emergence of a group of expressionist masters in European countries. After the Second World War, the abstract expressionist movement rose in the United States, which evolved into an international thought a decade later. It is against this background that the modern art movement in late 1950s’ Taiwan, represented by Fifth Moon Art Society and Oriental Art Society, developed. In Chinese mainland, the new woodcut movement, advocated by Lu Xun in the 1930s, was an obvious expressionist movement; in 1980s, expressionism was an important element of the modern fine arts; the trend has also appeared in Chinese paintings since 1990s, both in oil painting and wash painting, with a number of expressionist artists emerging.
As far as art itself is concerned, expressionism is neither a style nor a pattern. It in essence is anti-form and even irrational, therefore cannot be copied. Expressionist art is closely connected with artists’ inner world, or in other words, it takes it as its object, because most expressionist artists are extremely sensitive. Their paintings are a reflection of restless souls. As a result, the art is featured with a neurotic mood. The works by Vincent van Gogh, Munch, Nolde, Kokoschka, Soutine and Willem de Kooning are all in violent and sharp strokes, totally different from the gentle academic style. Life passion which is rarely seen and the primitive charm are shown. In this sense, expressionism is most vibrant stream in the Western modern art since the 20th century.
In regard to Chinese traditional painting, “expressiveness” is a key factor. The debut of washing painting signifies the transformation of Chinese traditional painting from concrete images to imaginary images, from realism to impressionism, from reproduction to expression. According to the description of Wang Qia’s painting in Famous Paintings of Tang Dynasty, there were expressionist tendencies in wash painting at the beginning of its birth. However, since washing painting had long been guided by literati’s pursuit of mental peace and a sequestered life, its “wildness” at the beginning was gradually replaced by “gentleness” and “scholarliness”. And the style of Wang Qia’s painting was despised. With passion replaced by reason, and spontaneous expressions replaced by routinized strokes, washing painting became gentle and weak, in a lack of visual appeals.
In the 20th century, under the strong influence of Western culture, Chinese paining got even more lifeless. To turn the situation around, many great artists made efforts to reform it with a new strong spirit, including the new style created by Wu Changshuo based on the integration of inscriptions with calligraphy, the new tendency advocated by Huang Binhong in reference to the style in the NorthernSong Dynasty, the works by Qi Baishi focusing on daily lives and Pan Tianshou’s thick strokes in paintings.
Since 1980s, young artists have made further efforts to find a way out through the convergence of tradition and modernity, East and West. If we say German expressionism is a fight against naturalism, idealism and academism with passion, the expressionism in Chinese painting is in fact against the artificial painting based on the realist tradition of academism. Expressionist paintings, with their profound sense of cultural criticism, high-spirited life passion and strong visual appeal, sweep away those market-pleasing “fake classics”. The spiritual intensity and wildness in them reflect initiatives of the artists as “humans”.
In the works by the 11 participant artists are shown the features of expressionist painting: First, artists are painting with passion without the influence of reason or any pre-set designs. Their creation is a kind of mood that stems from inner emotions, and is even an unrestrained release of their wild impulse and emotions. Second, the artists are extremely sensitive to surroundings, because most of their works are themed life, with personalized characteristics which are masculine, mysterious or wild. Third, in regard to techniques of expression, weird figures, colors in sharp contrast, bold strokes and flying lines are used to produce strong visual appeals. All these features are emphasized to different extents in different artists’ works. But they are all related to local culture. Therefore, the expressionism in their works is local in spirit and “Chinese” in form.
“Masters of Chinese Expressionism” integrates features of Western modern art with its own arrangement. Through the exhibition and the related academic symposium (with foreign scholars and Chinese critics present), How Art Museum intends to present a systematic analysis and theoretical explanation to this subject.