>>
SEARCH >>
EN
>>
<<
2018.04.26 Thu, by John Tancock
Wang Dongling: Poetry and Painting

During the week that Wang Dongling was in New York for the opening of the exhibition Wang Dongling: Poetry and Painting at Chambers Fine Art on February 28, 2018 he gave three public demonstrations of calligraphy that for those lucky enough to witness them revealed why calligraphy has long been revered above all other forms of visual art in China. As a form of written language calligraphy conveys meaning and even although Wang has gained considerable renown for a style that is essentially abstract, much of his calligraphy still departs from texts even although legibility is no longer a primary concern.

Image: Wang Dongling performing at the opening reception of Poetry and Painting at Chambers Fine Art New York 王冬龄纽约前波画廊《王冬龄:诗与画》展览开幕书法表演

Image: Wang Dongling performing at the opening reception of Poetry and Painting at Chambers Fine Art New York 王冬龄纽约前波画廊《王冬龄:诗与画》展览开幕书法表演

Using brush and ink on four medium-sized sheets of paper pinned to the wall in the relatively intimate space at Chambers Fine Art, Wang used as reference Cold Mountain Poem No. 9 by Hanshan (Cold Mountain), the Tang Dynasty (618-906) poet who has been a major influence on Brice Marden.  Several days later in front of a larger audience at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, Wang again used poetry from the Tang dynasty but used white acrylic instead of brush and ink and wrote on transparent polyvinyl.  At Asia Society he returned to brush and ink but worked on a much larger sheet of paper spread on the ground and referred to an even earlier literary source, the Daodejing generally thought to originate in the 6th century BCE. Continuity and change over millennia are perhaps the defining characteristics of the history of calligraphy in China, a long tradition that in the case of Wang Dongling has resulted in a particularly dramatic resolution of the tension between classical thematic content and resolutely contemporary expression.

Wang Dongling performing at the Park Avenue Armory for the ADAA Art Show 2018 in New York 王冬龄纽约公园大道军械库2018美国艺术经销商协会艺术展表演现场

Wang Dongling performing at the Park Avenue Armory for the ADAA Art Show 2018 in New York
王冬龄纽约公园大道军械库2018美国艺术经销商协会艺术展表演现场

Wang Dongling performing at the Park Avenue Armory for the ADAA Art Show 2018 in New York 王冬龄纽约公园大道军械库2018美国艺术经销商协会艺术展表演现场

Wang Dongling performing at the Park Avenue Armory for the ADAA Art Show 2018 in New York
王冬龄纽约公园大道军械库2018美国艺术经销商协会艺术展表演现场

Wang Dongling was born in 1945 in Rudong, Jiangsu Province, China. He graduated from the Fine Art Department of Nanjing Normal University in 1966 just as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was about to engulf China in a period of unprecedented turmoil and political uncertainty. Although this was a period of great suffering for countless individuals Wang escaped relatively lightly as his skill at writing “big character posters” for the Red Guards was much in demand. [1] The exacting requirements of traditional calligraphy could be ignored when the primary requirement for the posters was speed of execution and immediate legibility. More important, however, was his apprenticeship in 1968 to Lin Sanzhi (1898-1989) who gave private tuition in calligraphy to a small group of students when this practice was still questionable. Lin’s life was marked by a series of tragedies but late in life he was revered by the Japanese as the “sage of cursive script.” [2]

Another important landmark in Wang Dongling’s life occurred in 1979 when he moved to Hangzhou to study calligraphy at the Zhejiang Academy of Art (now China Academy of Art), the most progressive academy in China at the time, where he studied under Lu Weizhao (1899 – 1980). Since then the city of Hangzhou and the China Academy have been the center of his life. He has remarked that Zhejiang (the province in which Hangzhou is located) “is a wonderful land where profound inheritance of traditional culture and the long history of Confucianism and Taoism have made it the most fertile soil for the art of calligraphy.” [3] As a result of the hiatus caused by the Cultural Revolution Wang was already in his forties when he began his dual career as an important academic – he is currently Director of the China Academy of Art Modern Calligraphy Center, Hangzhou – and as a practicing artist who has achieved international recognition.

Wang Dongling performing at the Asia Society and Museum in New York 王冬龄纽约亚洲协会表演现场

Wang Dongling performing at the Asia Society and Museum in New York
王冬龄纽约亚洲协会表演现场

The Zhejiang Academy was famous for its well-stocked library at a time in China when access to international publications on art and literature was severely limited. Wang certainly benefited from this as he did also from association with a younger generation of artists such as Gu Wenda (b. 1955) with whom he shared a studio in 1985. The cultural ferment of the ’85 Art Movement had a less direct on Wang than on artists such as Gu Wenda and Huang Yong Ping (b.1954) since he felt no need to move away from the traditional materials used in the practice of calligraphy but nonetheless he adopted an experimental approach that continues until today.

One of the most important aspects of the development of his calligraphy in the 1980s was the question of scale. During its long history calligraphy had been practiced not only in the privacy of the scholar’s study but also on a massive scale in the open air. Referring to the famous rendition of the Diamond Sutra carved into stone in the Stone Sutra Valley (Jingshi yu) on Mount Tai (Shandong Province) in the 6th century, Wang notes that “this indicates that big character calligraphy creation is in complete agreement with broadness of one’s mind. Broad mind and big character calligraphy creation are closely related to each other, and the only difference lies in that ancient people used tools, such as rock, to express the broadness and state of mind. Today we have brush and ink for pure calligraphy creation which enables us to write big characters previously on the cliff in the universe, now in house.”[4]  The first of these large-scale works was Mount Tai based on a couplet by Ruan Ji (210-263) for Wang’s one person exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in 1987.

Mount Tai Becomes a Grindstone, Yellow River Turn to a Skirtbelt, 1987, Ink on paper, 320 x 720 cm 《泰山成砥砺,黄河为裳带》,1987, 纸本水墨

Mount Tai Becomes a Grindstone, Yellow River Turn to a Skirtbelt, 1987, Ink on paper, 320 x 720 cm
《泰山成砥砺,黄河为裳带》,1987, 纸本水墨

In 1986 in The Art of Calligraphy Wang had expressed the view that the revival of calligraphy depended to a great extent on the degree to which it became more painterly. This tendency was apparent in his own work  and became even more pronounced during the three years he spent as a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota and the University of California, Santa Cruz between 1989 and 1991 when he was first exposed to contemporary Western painting in person.  Although never directly influenced by Western abstraction, Wang was certainly affected by the scale of much of what he saw and the willingness by American and European artists of the 1950s and 1960s to take risks, never more pronounced than in the break-through works of the Abstract Expressionists.

Wang Dongling, Spirit of Sea, 2017, Ink on xuan paper, 181 x 97 cm 王冬龄, 海魂, 2017, 纸本水墨

Wang Dongling, Spirit of Sea, 2017, Ink on xuan paper, 181 x 97 cm
王冬龄, 海魂, 2017, 纸本水墨

Over the last 3,000 years five basic styles of calligraphy have evolved, the earliest pictograms and ideographs leading to the development of “seal” script, followed by lishu (clerical script) in the later Han dynasty (2nd century A.D.) and the more cursive forms, xingshu (running script) and caoshu (cursive script). To these Wang has added a sixth style that is referred to as luanshu (chaos script). Although the subject of calligraphies executed in this style derive from poems and texts of the Tang and Song dynasties, any attempt to achieve legibility has been abandoned. Critic Gao Shiming has observed the way in which “detached from all the traditional ways in which calligraphy refers to objects or concepts and graspable images of things, writing becomes pure trace. Thus the corporality and the gesture of writing becomes the essence….The calligrapher is so familiar with his materials that it is almost as if he steps aside and the brush moves by itself. He writes spontaneously, without preconceived ideas, each stroke of the brush leaving a mark, while forms emerge randomly, unpremeditated and unrelated to any forms in the visible world.”[5]

Wang Dongling, Zhuang Zi – Peripatetic, 2017, Ink on Xuan paper, 200 x 200 cm  王冬龄, 《李白·江上望皖公山》, 2017, 纸本水墨

Wang Dongling, Zhuang Zi – Peripatetic, 2017, Ink on Xuan paper, 200 x 200 cm
王冬龄, 《李白·江上望皖公山》, 2017, 纸本水墨

Long interested in the relationship between modern Western art and calligraphy, Wang has expressed admiration for the work of Brice Marden (b. 1938) whose own fascination with calligraphy began when he saw the exhibition Masters of Japanese Calligraphy at Asia Society and Japan House Galleries in New York in 1984. Brenda Richardson has described how “calligraphy led [Marden] to Chinese poetry, Chinese poetry led him to Cold Mountain, Cold Mountain led him to Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, Zen led him to the possibility of enlightenment – not that simple, not that linear, and certainly not that exclusive, but each a path.”[6]

Brice Marden, Cold Mountain Series, Zen Studies 5 (Early State), 1990, Etching, aquatint, sugar lift aquatint, spit bite aquatint and scraping on paper, 69 x 89.5 cm © 2018 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian

Brice Marden, Cold Mountain Series, Zen Studies 5 (Early State), 1990, Etching, aquatint, sugar lift aquatint, spit bite aquatint and scraping on paper, 69 x 89.5 cm © 2018 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian

After reading as many translations of Chinese poetry into English as he could find, Marden found himself particularly drawn to the poetry of the eighth century poet Han Shan (Cold Mountain). This confluence of interests led to creation of a major body of paintings, drawings and etchings executed between 1989 and 1991 known collectively as Cold Mountain. Among the translations of Cold Mountains available at the time Marden was particularly drawn to the 1983 translation by Red Pine with the original Chinese on one side and English on the other. Since he does not read Chinese it was the visual appeal of the poems consisting mostly of eight lines in four couplets that engrossed Marden. “In the beginning,” he stated, “I did drawings using the form that the (Cold Mountain poems take in the Chinese, then I started joining image and calligraphy, using the shape of the poem as a skeleton.”[7]

Installation view of Poetry and Painting at Chambers Fine Art, New York 纽约前波画廊《王冬龄:诗与画》展览现场

Installation view of Poetry and Painting at Chambers Fine Art, New York
纽约前波画廊《王冬龄:诗与画》展览现场

Although the artists have never met the dialog between their works was a profound one, revealing the way in which both artists found a degree of liberation through an intuitive process, contemplation of the relationship between meaning and the abstract potential of calligraphy.

[1]  Gordon S. Barrass, “The Art of Wang Dongling,” in Wang Dongling’s Works (Beijing: Rong Bao Zhai, 2007),80
[2] Gordon S. Barrass, The Art of Calligraphy in Modern China (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 144
[3]   Wang Dongling, “The Way of Calligraphy: Origin of Hangzhou Calligraphy Exhibition” in The Way of Calligraphy Wang Dongling’s Work (Shanghai: Shanghai Painting and Calligraphy Publishing House, 2011), 101
[4]   Ibid., 103

[5]   Gao Shiming, “The Art of Creative Chaos: Wang Dongling’s Experimental Reports,” in Wang Dongling New Works, Chambers Fine Art, New York, 2015, p. 14

[6] Brenda Richardson, Brice Marden Cold Mountain (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1992), 75
[7] Ibid., p.51