Chinese Oil Paintings in Three Periods

Chinese paintings are one type of the oldest continuous arts in the world, which can be traced back to thousands years ago. Beginning with painting on stones and china, or in caves, to silk and papers with ink and brush, millions painters innovate Chinese paintings in different ways. For instance, the earliest Chinese paintings were found during the Neolithic period, paintings, which were found on stones more often reflecting people’s daily lives such as hunting, dancing or wars.

Going on, Qin Dynasty, which was a dynasty once united China, was famous for its Palace and Temple style wall paintings. In Han Dynasty, paintings on silk once appeared in Chinese painting history. Calligraphy played more important role in Chinese painting in Jin Dynasty. In Sui Dynasty, landscape paintings were more focused. Turing in Tang Dynasty, human figures paintings were more developed, so were landscape paintings and flowers and birds paintings. In Song Dynasty, based on past experiences, different paintings were well changed in new ways, especially ink paintings.

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Also in this period, Xie He established the “Six principles of Chinese paintings” including spirit resonance, bone method, correspondence to object, suitability to type, division and planning, and transmission by copying (Xie, Preface). Yuan Dynasty continued past paintings’ techniques with its own historical subject matters. Lastly, in Ming and Qing Dynasty, much more painters established diversely either in paintings or painting techniques or subject matters. Narrative paintings fulfilled wider color ranges and much more lively paintings became more popular (Pan, P. 1-82).

Also, painters started fighting against the traditional rules of painting and established new ways to express themselves more directly through free brushwork. However, no matter how strongly Chinese paintings had being well developed and innovated such as in techniques of using shades, colors, or in subject matters of expressing unique historical stories or different custom, Chinese oil paintings did not get a chance to stand in Chinese art history until late Qing. Starting late Qing Dynasty, even Chinese oil paintings begin to be developed quite late, still, the way of growth of Chinese oil paintings is luxuriant.

Basically, the growth of Chinese oil paintings can be divided by three periods in general, which are the period before Mao Zedong, the period during Mao and the period of late Mao, and painters from each period have their own painting styles to represent the general painting of the period such as Xu Beihong’s realism paintings Sound of the Flute and The Foolish Man Who Moved the Mountains before Mao, Zhan Jianjun’s heroism in Five Heroes of Mount Langya and Dong Xiwen’s Kai Guo Da Dian as an example of art used as a tool to serve for the government during Mao, and Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, an oil painting of Liu Chunhua as a representative of painters lost rights to paint free and Luo Zhongli’s symbolism in the painting Father during the late Mao. Beginning at the late Qing period till the establishment of China, Chinese painters started to get holds of the oil painting skills such that in figures’ expression, characteristics, or use of color. Many painters studied abroad to learn the western style paintings, which played an important role in Chinese oil painting history.

Among these students, painters like Huang Fuzhou, Li Shutong, Wang Yuezhi, Chang Yu, Lin Fengmian, Xu Beihong, etc successively came back to China from France and Japan. They involved in Chinese oil paintings in the western painters’ manner, and painted Chinese oil painting with the western painters’ interest and taste. This is one reason why many painters’ oil paintings during their early stage had more foreign cultural feelings. In their painting styles, what influenced these painters who studied abroad are the realism painting style and the impressionism painting style. In general, they painted people around them, city views around them, or just basic still objects.

In their paintings, they represented not only different painters’ personal emotion or personal experiences, but also represented a feeling of not being restrained by Chinese traditional culture (Wang, P. 5-42). Xu Beihong as an important painter in Chinese oil painting history, also as a painter studied abroad, is able to represent this period. Xu studied oil painting in Paris and by combining Chinese traditional painting techniques, Xu developed very first Chinese realism oil painting. In his oil painting training, he paid a large amount attention on basic sketching. What Xu is known for, is his exquisite techniques, which carried forward the western classical art and combined part of the impressionism into his oil paintings.

In Xu’s figures’ paintings, he painted models accurately with elegant movement feelings. The use of light, shade and color made the figures in the paintings more lively. All the figures in his paintings could represent all different prospects such as quiet, undermeaning, soft or strong. In his oil paintings of nature subject matters, he focused more on the nature and his own personal feelings. Thus, his compositions touch people by their vitality, specific and creativity. In use of colors in oil paintings, Xu can see clearly what the color differences are on one single objects; He changes to use diverse colors, which is creative. Also, he can use colors to change lights between the borders of light and dark.

In Xu’s paintings, he can even use colors like dark red, orange or lemon yellow to paint figures’ skin, which never appeared before (Wang, P. 184-190). For instance, in Xu Beihong’s oil painting Sound of the Flute, a young Chinese girl leaned to one side plays the flute (Andrews, P. 30-31). The girl’s expression seems she is thinking, and at the same time, she was staring at far away with a bit of sadness in her eyes. We seem to be able to hear the sound of the flute from the girl. The background is quiet and secluded countryside view, and the old trees and the flying white crane that may be seen indistinctly, makes an indistinct Chinese style atmosphere. The flute as a Chinese traditional instrument sounds quiet, beautiful and leisurely.

Also, it can sound sad, which can make people think back through their lives quietly. On the other hand, the girl in the painting is named Jiang Biwei, who was Xu’s lover once, but they separated at the end. Xu chooses this image to express the girl’s temperament, and also, it gives a feeling of a sad story. Besides, in the painting, it embodied that Xu consciously explored oil paintings with Chinese characteristic. For example, its structure, colors, techniques, thoughts and even emotions give people the feelings of the eastern paintings, especially his paintings’ structure. Unlike other traditional paintings, the girl is not painted in the center.

It seems sort of unequal in the whole painting, but on the other hand, it meets the subject matter that Xu tries to express. The inequality of the painting is fixed by the tree on the background. The flute, which is in the center of the painting, plays a role of engagement of the figure and the tree. All in all, Sound of the Flute is the very first combination of Chinese prospect with the western oil painting style. Also, it represents the characteristics of the realism. Xu Beihong’s paintings are often connected with national safety, people’s fate or the rise and decline of art. Around 1920s to 1930s, art in China was required to serve for politics, and Japanese aggression formed Chinese artists in some sort of way.

Because of wars, many painters got trained in their mental, and so did China. Chinese art was also reformed in a new way. Many painters changed their painting’s styles. For instance, simple and unadorned people and nature were painted more often instead of an exotic atmosphere such as busy streets. Even though different painters seek differently in points of views of art or culture, they together painted to encourage Chinese armies or people to fight against Japanese aggressors (Andrews, P. 10-15). Chinese oil painting reformed obviously in the art thinking, interest and painting styles, which finally merged the western oil painting into Chinese local cultural development fitted Chinese paintings.

In art and reality, oil paintings became closer and closer to common people little by little. In this period, Xu Beihong had a painting called The Foolish Man Who Moved the Mountains. Even though it was ink painting originally, he painted in oil afterwards. In the contents of this painting, Xu used the strong feelings to express the resolution and the willpower of one nation. People in the painting had different emotions and were doing different works. The old man was telling the young generation about his will and faith, and described the happy future. In the painting style and use of color aspects, this painting showed both Chinese traditional painting skills and the western traditional painting skills.

Xu used the Chinese skills to paint outlines of figures, clothes, trees, grass and etc. And he used the western skills to emphasize the relation of perspective, scale of figures in the painting, relation between light and shade, and so on, in figures’ movement or muscles (Wang, P. 188). So to speak, Xu, in realistically painting style, fused the Chinese traditional painting skills and the western traditional painting skills into one. Besides, this painting showed vividly the will and faith of people who fought against Japanese aggressors in his art language. It encouraged people to fight Japanese aggressors to the end and encouraged people to believe that victory ould finally come at the end. As the result, the hardship of nation and people’s desire to the victory finally made people hold on until the wars ended. Moreover, the second period of Chinese oil paintings is during the Mao’s period especially between the year 1949 and 1964. One major difference after China established in art is that art compositions were well connected with people’s daily lives. Chinese literature and art countrywide followed Mao Zedong’s idea of people’s lives and should not exist for any reason else. Subject matters or themes should be chosen from the reality, even for a very small part. After 1950s, Chinese oil painting changed quite a lot.

Many paintings showed lots of living scenes that were not usually seen before. While painting the real people or the real environment, the subject matters appeared abundant. For example, from the liberated areas, many oil paintings reflected people and armies’ daily lives under the revolutionary wars. In order to close up to the realism style of paintings, most of painters adjusted their painting styles and changed their habits of choosing subject matters (Andrews, P. 2-7). As painters got familiar to the new style of oil paintings, continuously, series of historical paintings, landscape paintings and figure paintings were brought up into this new age such as Dong Xiwen’s Kai Guo Da Dian.

This movement showed not only the painters adjusted to the new style of paintings but also Chinese oil paintings finally met its new age. At this period, many oil painters finished lots of revolutionarily historical paintings such as Zhan Jianjun’s Five Heroes of Mount Langya and Cai Liang’s the Torchlight Parade in Yan’an. Most of paintings like the two reflected how the main focused Chinese oil painting developed in both thinking aspect and the art aspect. The grand momentum became one major factor in Chinese oil paintings during this period. Learning Russian art also influenced many Chinese painters, especially ideas guiding to creation of the Russian socialist realism, which played an important role in improving Chinese realism oil painting styles.

In addition, impressionism also got further developed in the painting skills influenced by Russian paintings. Many painters were sent to Russia to learn its paintings, and what they brought back was a key to open Chinese oil paintings, which were at the closed stage after China established. In Zhan Jianjun’s famous oil painting Five Heroes of Mount Langya, it described a scene during the anti-Japanese war. Five heroes fought Japanese to the end. They finished their missions and jumped off the cliff. It was a typical revolutionary heroism painting. In specific, the hero in the middle looked self-composed and wise. In order not to leave any weapon for the enemies, he destroyed it. Other four heroes were also strong and brave.

Everyone stood straightly and even gave people a feeling of which they were still trying to fight against their enemies by their angry and sharp expression in their eyes (Ai, P. 12). Zhan used the symbolic technique to handle moment before the five heroes jumped off the cliff. By using many rough lines, Zhan symbolically combined the five heroes and the mountains on the background, which kind of formed a monumental effect. Another example is Dong Xiwen’s Kai Guo Da Dian. The oil painting showed the scene that Mao Zedong declaring the People’s Republic of China from Tian’anmen Square. Even though some parts of this composition were corrected three times totally due to the political effect, the painting still showed a grand scene. The close scene of the painting showed one side view of the Tian’anmen.

The further scene described different aspects on the very important day: sunny day and blue sky with white clouds, and the wide square with thousands of red flags (Andrews, P. 9-10). At this exciting moment, every political officer in the painting showed different emotions such as Mao Zedong’s calm and serious, Zhu De’s happiness or Song Qingling’s kindness. Different emotions showed people their personal experiences and thinking, which made each person in the painting, fulfilled a unique soul. From the painting’s structure, even though the country leaders only took approximately one-third space of the painting, the country leaders still attracted attentions under the framing of the red lanterns, red pillars and red carpets.

Mao Zedong’s healthy and massive body was painted in the very center of the painting, which could represent the core meaning of Mao leading the new China. Also, in use of colors, Dong also used red to compare with the blue color of the sky and ocean, and the green color of the trees, which made the scene more lively and happier. The gold color could not only represent the fall quarter but also imply the rich that filled with the painters best wishes for the growth of China. Lastly, the third period in Chinese oil painting history is during the late Mao, which is after the year 1965. From 1966 to 1976, the Cultural Revolution took place in China, which completely overturned Chinese art area.

Painters lost their freedom f paintings because during these ten years, art was completely controlled by the government to serve for its politics. As a result, any form of art of painters’ personal expression disappeared in these ten years (Andrews, P. 1-29). In another words, these ten years was quite empty in Chinese art history. During the Cultural Revolution, portraits of Mao Zedong became the main current of oil paintings. These portraits were embellished by painters based on certain photo of Mao. For example, Liu Chunhua’s Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan was called the sample plate of Chinese new art. A large amount of this painting was duplicated, and it became one most widely spread painting in Chinese history.

Also, the common characteristic of paintings during this period was that in form of dealing with figures, red and shining colors were used all the time to express the main hero’s glory and giant, and the main hero was painted in the very center of the paintings (Ai, P. 14). For instance, in the widely spread oil painting Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, Liu Chunhua also followed the common characteristic, which Mao Zedong was painted in the very center of the painting, and on the face, red and shining could be easily noticed. Besides, the most important purpose of this painting was to express Mao Zedong’s the giant image and ideology. Liu also gave definitions to every single move of Mao in the painting (Ai, P. 14-15).

For example, slightly raised head and slightly twisted neck showed that Mao was not afraid of hardships or dangers, and he dared to fight for the revolution. Strongly held left hand showed that Mao had the faith of winning the revolution and liberating whole people in China. Lastly, the umbrella held in his right hand showed that Mao put himself out of way of revolution no matter how hard it would be. Not only in the action of the figure, in the painting, behind Mao, mountains symbolized the historical background of the revolution. Rough mountain roads also represented the hardships on the way of revolution. And clouds framed Mao’s giant image. After 1977, Chinese oil paintings finally had a chance of rebirth.

Under a more stable and peaceful political setting, painters were more relieved to freely took part in producing compositions again. Also, more often communicating internationally gave chances for painters to understand worldwide arts. During this period, painters fearlessly absorbed the western countries’ format and concept of paintings. Oil paintings became a way to express Chinese people’s mentality and feeling and a way to introduce Chinese art to common people. For instance, many painters dug more into common people’s daily lives so that a new type of oil paintings was developed such as Luo Zhongli’s composition Father. Also, symbolic technique was widely used in this period.

Even for landscape or portrait paintings, cultural symbol could be seen in the oil paintings. Based on the realism painting technique, painters made the symbolism paintings widespread. Using shapes, colors, light and shade in the reality combining personal memory and fantasy about the reality became one unique characteristic of Chinese oil paintings (Andrews, P. 6-17). In the painting Father, Luo Zhongli described an old farmer living in a poor area. The painting was an example of a new type of realism oil painting. The old man in the painting had very dark skin and countless wrinkles. His eyes showed his loneliness and sadness. It seemed like he was thinking about the past or thinking about the future.

His dry lips and one tooth symbolized his abundant memory including both happiness and sadness. How much hardship he passed all listed on his big hand (Ai, P. 15-18). Luo showed people a very real and common person among them, who experienced a lot and had faith for the future and who was optimistic and strong. Even though the painting was designed quite in details, the main feeling or the main image was not affected. This painting reflected that painters changed their main focus from the chairman to the more common people around them. To sum up, by analyzing different paintings of different painters of different period in Chinese oil painting history, it is not difficult to see how tough the growth of Chinese oil paintings is.

From time to time, Xu Beihong’s realism paintings Sound of the Flute and The Foolish Man Who Moved the Mountains before Mao, Zhan Jianjun’s heroism in Five Heroes of Mount Langya and Dong Xiwen’s Kai Guo Da Dian as an example of art used as a tool to serve for the government during Mao, and Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, an oil painting of Liu Chunhua as a representative of painters lost rights to paint free and Luo Zhongli’s symbolism in the painting Father during the late Mao. No matter what techniques have developed, no matter how choosing subject matters or themes has changed, no matter how realism and impressionism have merged into Chinese oil paintings, no matter how symbolic style have introduced, we can see Chinese oil paintings are definitely becoming stronger and stronger.

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