LIU DANYingsu Hua (“Poppy”), 2007, Ink on paper, 236 × 172 cm. Private collection. Courtesy British Museum, London.

Modern Chinese Ink Paintings

British Museum
UK China
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Assembled almost entirely from the British Museum’s own collections, “Modern Chinese Ink Paintings” was a worthwhile attempt to introduce the evolution of “national painting” in the 20th century to a wider audience in London. The chance to view these large, delicate works, so often in storage, was certainly a cause for celebration. 

The exhibition, consisting of only around 35 works, encompassed examples from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States that ranged in date from 1913 to 2009. It is hard to conceive how a century of such diverse artistic innovation could have been satisfactorily compressed. Efforts to convey the extraordinarily turbulent political and cultural backgrounds threatened to overwhelm wall panels and captions, leaving viewers with minimal assistance on questions of style in an area renowned as the domain of the connoisseur. 

To take one example, the continuing role of the Shanghai School, influential long after its origins in the 1840s, was well represented, with vibrant scrolls of peonies by Wu Changsi (1844–1927) and Chen Banding (1876–1970) among others. Yet the substance of their invention was hard to grasp without sufficient context, while their visual impact was overwhelmed by the proximity of more conspicuous examples of experimentation. A fine mountain landscape by the versatile artistic and political operator Fu Baoshi (1904–65) and a vibrant semi-abstract by Wu Guanzhong (1919–2010) were particularly eye-catching.

The decision to hang four major scrolls by such a pre-eminent figure as Zhang Daqian (1899–1983) was understandable, although their astonishing diversity was indicative of the challenges inherent in covering such a broad topic. Two 1930s works—a scholar depicted in broad washes and refined lines, and a monochrome landscape in the manner of Wu Zhen (1280–1354)—were contrasted with a large impressionistic landscape in a style reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism and a monumental forgery after Juran (active ca. 960–85), both of which were produced after Zhang’s departure from China in 1949.

In contrast, the inclusion of four double leaves of landscapes and calligraphy by the Taiwanese painter and poet Lo Ch’ing (b. 1948), and the loan of four innovative works and one preparatory sketch by Liu Dan (b. 1953) that explored natural structures through a rigorous understanding of detail, seemed excessive when space was so limited. This prominence suggested the exigencies of acquisition policies, past and present, in this comparatively under-funded and increasingly expensive area. The lack of works by such major figures as Pan Tianshou (1897–1971) or Shi Lu (1919–82) also highlighted these difficulties.

If the exhibition was intended as an introduction to ink painting for the novice, the decision not to show the museum’s hanging scroll of horses by Xu Beihong (1895–1953) seemed strange. Instead, the show’s energetic remit was extended to embrace caricature and calligraphy, while its geographical sweep accommodated a spiritually charged landscape created by American artist Arnold Chang (b. 1954). This was included alongside a scroll from the “Digital” series (2002– ) by New Wave artist Wang Tiande (b. 1960), as well as the works by Liu Dan, to give an indication of the continued strength of the genre.

As a result of this diffused approach, the exhibition was occasionally more revealing when providing specific insights into cross-cultural interchange between China and Britain in the 20th century. A meticulous painting of a jay by Pu Quan (1913–91)—the cousin of the last Chinese emperor Aisin Gioro Puyi—had journeyed to Britain in 1948 in the hands of his student Katy Talati (b. 1922), as part of a manual for British students on Chinese painting on which the pair had collaborated. 

When the artists on display are of the caliber of those mentioned above, it may seem harsh to be overly critical. A series of more narrowly focused exhibitions, however, would undoubtedly have benefited both casual visitor and expert alike. One can imagine the painful restrictions on time, space and finances that led to this particular exhibition, but one can still hope that alternative approaches might prove possible, especially at an institution with the standing of the British Museum.