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Painting “the Eternity of Time”

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“To make oil paint work on canvas the way ink works on paper.” This is the artistic endeavor of the Chinese painter Tu Hongtao, who recently had his first European exhibition at Levy Gorvy in London (Tu Hongtao: Twisting and Turning, October 2–November 24, 2020). Such an attempt to bridge Eastern and Western painting traditions has informed works by Chinese painters since the start of the 20th century, during the Republican Era, accelerating debates over “traditional” culture and  “Westernization.” At the same time, many Chinese painters who sought education in France were exposed to Impressionism, Cubism, and Art Informel, which led to various experiments combining European oil painting techniques and traditional Chinese ink painting upon their return to their homeland. 

Born in 1976 in Chengdu, Tu Hongtao received his training in European-style oil painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, an institution developed under the legacy of Chinese modernist painters such as Wu Dayu, whose oeuvre reflects a synthesis of Western modern art and Chinese philosophy, embracing abstraction, expressive color, and gestural handling of paint. Without initially following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Tu’s early work represents the swift transformation of China in the era of market-driven globalization at the start of the millennium. In these works, cityscapes made of human bodies and dolls, inflected with Neo-Pop kitsch, are allusions to the anxiety and confusion that plagued his generation.

This trajectory came to a halt in 2008, as Tu retreated from the metropolis to his studio in rural Chengdu, from the center of activity to its periphery. In his own words, such a geographical retreat was not a form of escape, but a way to gain a new perspective about the changing society. The move also allowed him to take a closer look at the Chinese literati tradition of landscape painting, not out of nostalgia for the past, but as an ongoing critical reflection on consumerist image production as a result of globalization, as well as the merits of tradition that can equally shed light on the present. 

Tu Hongtao, “Green Mountains Shall See Me Like This” (2019), oil on canvas, four panels, each: 102 3/8 x 82 11/16 inches; overall: 102 3/8 x 330 11/16 inches (© Tu Hongtao)

How has Tu’s work approached the history of the East-West dialogue in painting uniquely? His painting “Green Mountains Shall See Me Like This” (2019) might clarify some of the key formal challenges that he has worked at resolving over the years. This horizontal painting consists of four human-scale panels, referring directly to the extended scroll format adopted in Chinese painting. Inspired by Chen Pao-Chen’s thesis on “The Goddess of the Lo River: A Study of Early Chinese Narrative Handscrolls” (1987), Tu paid special attention to this format while ruminating upon Pablo Picasso’s enfolding of multiple dimensions of space and time into a flat surface, as well as David Hockney’s photo-collages. 

As a scroll unfurls, the eyes move and the mind roams. Both spatial and temporal, the scroll’s structure is that of a narrative unfolding over time. This is contrary to German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s proposition that painting is inherently spatial while poetry is temporal, so that painting is unable to communicate a complete narrative over time and must resort to “the most pregnant moment to suggest the preceding and succeeding actions” (Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, 1766).

In the case of Tu Hongtao’s paintings, the colors and forms are arranged and developed over a course of time on the progressing picture plane, like the flowing of musical notes. As the art historian Xie He, who famously composed the Six Laws of Painting in the sixth century, says: “The solitudes and silences of a thousand years may be seen as in a mirror by merely opening a scroll” (in Susan Bush and Hosio-yen Shih, Early Chinese Texts on Painting, 2012). Tu’s painting similarly evokes “thoughts of the eternity of time” (Qian Zhongshu, “Saddened by a Height,” Limited Views: Essays on Ideas and Letters, 1998) that the ancient Chinese poets sought in the vastness of mountains and pathos of distance. 

Tu Hongtao, “Falling Leaves Rustling Down” (2019-20), oil on canvas, 106 5/16 x 82 11/16 inches

As Tu utilizes the scroll format, the change of scale from small to large entices the eyes and the body to participate in the rhythmical experience forged by his meticulous arrangement of objects in varying heights and sizes. This spatial arrangement of forms is able to suggest relationships of closeness and distance between them without abiding by the laws of the linear perspective and the vanishing point adopted in Western painting. 

The depiction of landscape in Chinese painting has rarely been a quest for verisimilitude, which was deemed childish by the 11th-century poet and painter Su Shi. (“If one considers formal likeness when discussing painting, His views are those of a child. If one composes poetry according to strict meter, it is known that he is not a true poet,” quote Bush and Shih.) Tu finds a similar perspective in Paul Cézanne’s search for the inherent structure of Mont Sainte-Victoire by breaking it down into geometry and color. Inspired by such a formal reconfiguration of landscape, Tu intertwines representational rendering and abstract gestures that encompass the varied forms of nature itself. The 11th-century Northern Song painter Guo Xi describes in his “Methods of Landscape” that a painting of landscape could be “walked through, gazed at, visited in outings, or resided in.” In keeping with this ancient pursuit, Tu invites us to wander through colors and forms, abstraction and representation, emptiness and fullness, states of reality and dream. 

Tu Hongtao, “Thoughts in Remote Mountains” (2019-20), oil on canvas, two panels, each: 82 11/16 x 126 inches; overall: 82 11/16 x 252 inches

While the fragility of ink and paper foster a sense of tranquility, Tu’s paintings create visual dynamism by incorporating the directness and physicality of bodily movements on painting, reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s visceral calligraphic gestures. Works such as “Falling Leaves Rustling Down” (2019–20) and “Swinging Time” (2019–20) exemplify the result of translating the micro movements of calligraphy, the turning and twisting of the curved wrist, into a physical exertion with force that only the canvas can endure, imbuing the paintbrush with a calligraphic spirit while extending calligraphy into a performative sphere. 

Calligraphy is the backbone of Chinese painting because the same brush technique and material are used in both writing and painting, resulting in the black and white outlook of Chinese painting. In order to distinguish themselves from professional painters who often used bright and carefully applied colors, the literati painters adopted a monochromatic palette or very subdued colors, following a principle in traditional Chinese painting criticism and connoisseurship, namely that “ink encompasses all the five colors” coined by Zhang Yanyuan (in Wu Hung, Variations of Ink: A Dialogue with Zhang Yanyuan, 2002). Since mimetic representation of the world was not the artistic objective, the landscape in fact depicts the painter’s mind-scape and color is a matter of subjectivity. 

Tu Hongtao introduces the lushness and power of color to this traditionally monochromatic genre, bestowing the twists and turns with an intensified emotional impact. Despite affinities between his works and those of Joan Mitchell or Paul Cézanne, he revealed to me in conversation that his color reference point — unexpectedly — is a piece of embroidery from the Tang Dynasty gifted to the Shōsōin Shoso Repository in Nara, Japan. Tu explained, “I find the embroidery extremely captivating for its subtlety and reservedness. Color represents emotion and music, and is one of the most fickle things.” While craft mediums, such as embroidery, were traditionally dismissed by the Chinese literati painters, who were regarded as the arbiters of aesthetics, Tu finds value and spiritual beauty in them. 

Tu Hongtao, “Spring River in the Flower Moon Night” (2019-20), oil on canvas, 82 11/16 x 126 inches

When it comes to the idea of tradition, according to T. S. Eliot in his “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), “Seldom does the word appear except in a phrase of censure.” The derogatory implication that accompanies this word makes it a dangerous territory for artists to explore their interests in things beyond and before the present. In the same way Eliot redefines “tradition” by emphasizing the importance of history in the making and understanding poetry, Tu Hongtao revisits the Chinese tradition, finding what is valuable to his painting practice and self-expression in the present day, while being wary of the perils of its oversimplification and stagnation.

His criticality towards tradition and aspiration for innovation is reflected in his chosen lineage, which includes not only Gu Kaizhi, Zhao Mengfu, and Dong Qichang — figures who have changed the course of art history in ancient China — but also European modernists, as well as postwar American painters who have further liberated painting and embraced the arts and thoughts of other cultures. Tu’s historical sense is therefore beyond borders and time, allowing him to reconfigure the order of tradition both of the Chinese and the West. Weaving his multicultural references into cohesive and organically composed pictures, Tu is able to speak to a global audience with a voice that defies easy cultural categorization. “Change requires the encounter with the other,” he says. “Where two rivers meet, there is a landscape of beauty.” 

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