Chinese Contemporary Art

by Eric Chang
International Director, Asian Contemporary Art and Chinese 20th Century Art
February 2009

As China, Korea, Japan and India have have evolved into global epicenters, contemporary Asian artists are changing previous perceptions of Asian art.

Asian artists use the political and social turmoil, and successes of their own countries, whether consciously or subconsciously, as artistic influences. This reflects the vast changes to their society. Information floods the countries via the internet and Western ideas merge with Eastern cultures. Artists take these external influences and reject, accept or contrast them with their own culture.

It is this fine balance of Eastern aesthetics, philosophy and perspectives that intrinsically distinguishes Asian contemporary artists from their Western counterparts, creating new visual commentaries on a powerful contextual revolution through their art, and thus engaging in a global dialogue between the traditional and the contemporary. Christie’s is a committed advocate of these artists because of the unique perspective they offer international collectors.

In following the Asian Contemporary Art market, the art world will not only further educate itself in current Asian contemporary art trends, but become conscious of the future artistic prospects these countries are establishing in the global art market.

Tracing the beginnings of modern Chinese art leads us back to the period of the mid-1920s. At that time, the first group of painters was returning to China from Europe following participation in the government-sponsored work-study program. This spurred a highly influential wave of artistic reform, led by such great figures as Lin Fengmian, Wu Guanzhong, Xu Beihong, Zao Wouki, Chu Teh Chun and Sanyu.

Modern Chinese art, however, was not yet in vogue and neither was the movement a large-scale one; it could not provide anything like the independent salon system of Paris to counter the academic school, critique new work, or systematically foster young talent. Neither the government nor private concerns established authoritative museums or galleries to provide direction, so that exhibitions promoting the trend toward modern painting were held only under the aegis of private art schools or supportive civic groups.

As the 20th century began to unfold, the meeting of Eastern and Western cultures began to impact upon the 5,000-year tradition of Chinese ink wash painting and calligraphy. Thus, a question much discussed among Chinese artists was how to create a new presentation of that tradition while at the same time infusing it with new life.

The increasing clamor for artistic change brought about notable success, while continuing the evolution based on Chinese artistic tradition and the merging of fundamental Chinese and Western artistic influences. The resulting rich new seam of creativity wrote a crucial chapter in the history of China’s art. The 1928 founding of the Hangzhou National Academy of the Arts by artists including Lin Fengmian and Wu Dayu represented an important step forward in its cultivation of the outstanding artists who were to follow.

The dynamism with which post-communist China has propelled itself into the 21st century is a parallel theme adopted by many Chinese artists of the contemporary generation. These are artists who realize their respective creative identities in the context of a rapidly changing society. The development of contemporary art in China began during its period of political reform towards the end of the 1970s, when revolutionary and native realism were the predominant styles.

By the mid-1980s, the rise of modernist thought was evident in what is known as the '85 Art Movement (or the '85 Art Current), which brought new maturity and diversity to China's contemporary scene. The distinctive cultural and historical changes of the 1980s – flourishing under the ideals of communism – significantly effected a burgeoning avant-garde art movement using multimedia and other means of engagement.

The movement further succeeded in instigating theoretical and philosophical debates at the deepest level, focusing on all aspects of Chinese ideology, its relevance and its effects in the contemporary context. During this period, Chinese contemporary art also embodied a distinctive saturation of Western thought and culture that flooded in as the country slowly began to open its doors to the world.

Yet by the mid-1990s – just one decade later and one that saw such dramatic change – it is possible to see that the manifest forms and styles of expression that appeared in China’s new art remain deeply and intricately bound to the traditions of Chinese life; Western materials and approaches are only a part of a greater body of expression that emphasizes a strong adherence to Chinese tradition and philosophy.

The development of Chinese art into the 21st century began with cautious, clandestine explorations, leading towards a diverse critical and dialectical tryst within the larger global structures shaping China’s own transformations.

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