Imagery of Life – Impression and Analysis of He Canbo’s paintings

In a Station of the Metro
by Ezra Pound
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on wet, black bough.

The first time I saw an ink-and-wash painting by He Canbo, what immediately came into my mind was the above-mentioned small poem by famous American imagist Ezra Pound. This poem has only two sentences, similar to ancient Japanese 17-word poetry, but it strongly reflects the poet’s feeling towards city life. From He Canbo’s paintings, I also perceived a touch of “imagist”. So, I guess He Canbo must have read Pound’s poems and share the poet’s lots of feelings. 

He Canbo is a young painter, with unsophisticated work experience. So far, he hasn’t made many outstanding exhibitions at abroad. Except in 1999 when he was invited by the art department of Japanese Tama Art University to be a researcher there for a year, he has been staying in Yunnan province of China all the time, committed to painting. Besides, He Canbo seldom took part in domestic activities concerning the experimental ink-and-wash painting. However, his paintings are of rich connotation, representing the ideological depth of newly emerging artists in modern time, and have drawn the attention of a few foreign critics. The famous Japanese art critic Unagami Masaomi (海上雅臣) wrote a critical commentary titled Farewell to Solitude for He Canbo’s solo exhibition in UNAC gallery of Tokyo, while the prestigious French poet and art critic Alain Jouffroy used the form of poetry to have written a long commentary on He Canbo’s paintings after visiting Canbo’s exhibition named “Impression China” which was held in an impressionistic gallery of Paris. This shows that the ink-and-wash paintings of Chinese contemporary painters have a powerful artistic charm that can break through the barriers between different cultures. 

When assessing the painter Shi Guo, Yi Ying, a famous Chinese critic, noticed Shi Guo’s complexity of being an experimental ink-and-wash painter, saying he was making a spiritual adventure with his life as the stake. “In his paintings, he has combined emotion and reason, art and philosophy, history and culture, experience and practice, and tradition and experiment. When we face his work, it feels like we are facing a cultural riddle. The culture here not only refers to Shi Guo himself as a combination of different academic knowledge, which is reflected in his paintings, but also refers to the spiritual connotation he has installed in his work and the cultural value he has been pursuing.” This is what Yi Ying said about Shi Guo, which, in my opinion, can also be used to describe He Canbo and his work.    

In He Canbo’s view, lots of people in the modern time are able to see through the surface of things and find the truth about life through their complicated personal experience. The question why many of them cannot succeed in finding truth and beauty is that many of them lack the courage to overcome their emotions. Canbo thought artists should have more courage to face society, exert their creativeness in terms of developing artistic forms and exploring the spiritual world, and care more about the masses and social problems, so as to better portray the soul of modern people. Art is a recorder of people’s dreams and anticipation, as well as a landmark of people’s hardships in human history. The meaning and value of art lies in the spiritual width and depth of works of art. 

In his paintings, He Canbo has created an image of a human head and human shoulder. This image is often used in his work. By making different combinations of several such images, Canbo has created lots of paintings. In fact, Canbo’s works are consecutive arrangement of this kind of images. Being simple but full of meanings, this image can radiate different connotations in different paintings, enabling viewers to realize the living status quo of modern people. Because of a lack of facial features, this image can be any one’s head and shoulder. As an image of human being, though each of the images in the paintings cannot leave us a strong impression, they - as a whole - make viewers share their feelings and will stay in the viewers’ mind forever. Canbo’s paintings reminded me of the famous French poet Baudelaire in the 19th century. As a lyrical poet in a capitalist era, Baudelaire left behind lots of brilliant poems about city life, all of which are full of fantasies and splendor. 

He Canbo has positioned his pursuit for modern ink-and-wash painting as “impressionistic painting”. He thinks the visual symbols and colors used in all kinds of works of art are aimed to arouse viewers’ perception of the real world. What we are expecting from art is exactly what we are longing for from the bottom of our heart – a pursuit for truth and beauty. Impressionistic paintings of different types are using their unique ways to record our era. They are more than superficial, entertaining paintings. They are a true recorder of people’s spirit and social problems in modern times, prompting us to think about the meaning of our existence and the next higher goal of human beings as a whole.   

As an artist, He Canbo focuses on the contemplation and interpretation of life. All of his paintings contain the contemplation on human beings’ existence and spiritual problems. In a letter from him to me, Canbo described his artistic pursuit as follows: “I like starting painting with the connotation of vision, and continue with my contemplation on social, political and personal problems. The viewpoints of ink-and-wash paintings will not only influence the evolution of ink-and-wash paintings themselves, but also help explore the extensibility and new possibilities of the connotations of images in paintings.” At a time when media technology is so advanced, what’s the value of paintings? The answer is, they are the fantasies produced from the collision between different thoughts, and they are the essence of super-imagery. Being aware of this value, He Canbo strengthened his ability to capture the scenes of his dreams. His paintings, in aspects of both content and theme, present strong dreamlike atmosphere. By arousing viewers’ personal experience with the traces of reality in his paintings, Canbo has brought in a new kind of painting and broken people’s old aesthetic habit.    

Canbo uses a lot of symbols in his paintings. The human-shape images in his paintings reminded me of Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, both of whom are committed to translating the symbols and marks in daily life into connotative images which are potential of serving as a communication tool in paintings. The difference between Haring and Basquiat is that the symbols used by Haring are cartoons – illuminant child, barking dog, and UFO, etc, while those used by Basquiat are gigantic, flat human images similar to African masks, aided by the English words, arrows, squares, crowns, rockets, and skyscrapers etc. in the backgrounds of his paintings. Haring is trying to spread new ideas of modern times with his Pop Art, while Basquiat likes using bright colors to combine the primitiveness of ancient times with the modernity of today’s cities and, he has done well in achieving a balance between savagery and modernity. As for He Canbo, things are still different. The paintings by Ho Canbo emphasize the relations between man and modern city. lots of human images gathering under the pyramid-like eaves, buildings – like those of Bank of China – floating high against the nebula-like background, all remind me of the spectacular U.S. science-fiction movies, in which, people have to flee Earth on a gigantic spacecraft towards the boundless universe. In Canbo’s paintings, there’s always a straight line coming from the sky and extending towards one point in the ground (such as in The Last Spot and in The Imagist). Perhaps, this straight line can be interpreted as a line from the universe, which will pierce into human beings’ hearts and wake up our souls. The line represents Canbo’s deepest thinking about human beings’ fate, which distinguishes his paintings from common entertaining paintings. The romance and heaviness of the images in Canbo’s paintings force viewers to think about his fantasies and his “Herling Illusion”, from ordinary people’s viewpoints. We might as well cite another poem by Pound to convey the contempt of this benefit-driven era for today’s artists:

A Girl
by Ezra Pound
The tree has entered my hands,
The sap has ascended my arms,
The tree has grown in my breast,
The branches grow out of me, like arms.
Tree you are,
Moss you are,
You are violets with wind above them.
A child - so high - you are,
And all this is folly to the world.

Canbo’s paintings cannot be classified as the humorous Pop Art. His paintings are derived from local culture, from personal experience. This means the viewers have to be broad-minded when appreciating his paintings. Unlike Haring’s paintings in which the images can find their origins in real life, Canbo’s are reflections of inner anxiety. The Chinese society is currently in transition, with great changes taking place every day. Therefore, each person is adjusting his or her living style and behavior to adapt to the social changes. The contemplation on value of life and career choices has become a psychological burden for lots of people, including Canbo.  

Human thoughts are flowing, not static, and works of art are enlightening, capable of arousing people’s souls and measuring the meanings of people’s existence under different cultural backgrounds. Required by contemporary ideology, modern media are more often praising the reality than judging. As the spokesman for people’s spiritual life, artists are obligated to reveal people’s real mental state. Unluckily, there are some “avant-garde” artists who are spreading violence with their work. This will only provoke people’s paranoid, doing no good to enriching people’s spiritual life and upgrading our morality. Nowadays, social division of labor has confined people within small spaces, so we – including the well-educated - are apt to be humble, passive and apathetic. In a rapidly changing world and in a country which is now under great social transformation, every person is taking the tests from the material world and making the choices for their spiritual life. Against the backdrop of a meretricious world, what’s the meaning of the existence of art? From Canbo’s paintings, we can see his contemplation on the meaning of the existence of each person in the world. Take the Impressionistic Space (Yi Nian Kong Jian) for example. Lots of human images are placed within small grotto-like niches, and meantime are covered by a larger human image. While in the Virtual Mountain (Xu Ni De Shan), Canbo has used contour lines to outline the mountain, indicating that the background is moveable like a large net. As for Fantasy – Air Bubble (Meng Huan – Qi Pao), people’s living status quo is refracted through an air bubble, and there’s a bright curve is in the sky, full of connotations. No wonder the French critic Alain Jouffroy considered Canbo’s paintings as inclusive. He said Canbo was an artist who shared the views of common ipeople. 

Since the 1980s, and under the impact of reform and opening up, the Chinese literary circle has introduced and translated lots of western books, some of which turned out to be very influential, and some people have become the experts in western culture ( masters). During this process, the Chinese traditional culture and value have been influenced by the western ones and forced to make great changes. However, few things from our own ideas are coming out, and few people can change the Chinese social ideology with new, systematic and academic thoughts.  

Under these circumstances, what can art do? He Canbo hoped to make his contributions to the continuance of Chinese culture. For him, the question is not about what kind of ink and wash to choose for painting, but how to convey humanity in his paintings. In fact, ever since ancient times, scholars have put an emphasis on the influence of art towards human spirit. Unlike words and languages, art cannot be used to directly convey the ideas and values of the author, so the creation of artistic forms is very important. The conveying of spirit in works of art is nothing like the writing of slogans, or the discussing of new concepts, but to enlighten people, to make people think. Some artists lack the capability and skills in creating new structures and forms of art. There’s a touch of playfulness in creating visual arts, but not equal to the common sense of “playfulness”. In Canbo’s paintings, there are images, social psychology, and his personal interest, all combined together. We can feel the existence of these three things, but we cannot exactly find out where they are. Seen from the titles of his work, Canbo pays much attention to soul, fantasy, and meditation, and he has called his work “the impressionistic paintings”. But I think it’s better to call them “the imagist paintings”, because “impressionistic” is more often related to “a person’s reasonable thinking when he is conscious”. 

To some extent, He Canbo’s paintings are difficult to understand, which determines that his paintings cannot become a popular art like Pop Art. Whereas, the obscurity of Canbo’s paintings shows his uncompromising attitude towards culture: he is unwilling to follow the mainstream in terms of spiritual pursuit, and will stick to independent thinking and unique artistic creation. Canbo’s paintings are also enlightening to the critical circle. They make the critics realize that each of them should pick up certain areas for criticizing, instead of blindly taking part in all kinds of criticizing activities. This is important to the strengthening of the critics’ expertise and professionalism, and is the very “critics’ partisanship” advocated by Greenberg.

Since the 1990s, the Chinese experimental ink-and-wash painting has become an essential part of the Chinese traditional paintings, and with the efforts of some persistent artists, have made substantial progress and drawn much attention from both home and abroad. Nevertheless, doubts and criticisms have accompanied that progress all the time. Two main criticisms are: some people think the experimental ink-and-wash painting has only been structurally reformed from the Chinese traditional painting with the help of western art; others think the experimental ink-and-wash painting has abandoned its traditional expressive capability when created by painters to convey modern people’s spirit, so they cannot be called ink-and-wash art, but the abstract art,. In He Canbo’s opinion, the dilemma of the development of ink-and-wash paintings in modern times are due to the singleness of viewpoints of artists observing the society, and a lack of in-depth thinking and self-discipline of artists, which have also caused the obscurity of the identity of the modern ink-and-wash painting. The question of how to make innovation in the ink-and-wash painting cannot be answered by resolving the contradiction between the forms of Chinese traditional art and those of modern art. The question can only be solved through artists themselves. More specifically, the creation of the modern ink-and-wash painting is subject to the recognition and understanding of modern culture by artists. Like what Sun Zhenhua - a famous Chinese critic - has said: “in a modern society where cultural problems are ubiquitous, the highest priority of the ink-and-wash painting is to transform its social obligation, to add contemporary ideas and cultural attitudes to itself.” It may be too early to call the experimental ink-and-wash painting “the intellectuals’ ink-and-wash painting”, but affected by today’s commercialization in every sector of economy, the Chinese traditional paintings have gone more and more mediocre.If contemporary artists still want to take their responsibility of enriching the Chinese people’s spiritual life in this new era, they should focus on real life and people’s living status quo. They can either learn from Huang Binhong, who is committed to the Chinese traditional ink-and-wash painting, or learn from Jiang Zhaohe, who can reveal reality in his paintings, both of whom use the ink-and-wash painting as a tool for conveying their own ideas and presenting their life experience. Only in this way will the Chinese ink-and-wash painting be invigorated in the new era and continue to exist. 

Sep.1st, 2004

Yin Shuangxi

Yin Shuangxi, born in 1954, Ph.D of the Department of Fine Arts History, China Central Institute of Fine Arts, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Fine Arts Research magazine affiliated to China Central Institute of Fine Arts, and a member of the academic committee of China Central Institute of Fine Arts. In 2006, he published his own book, On the Scene: a Collection of Duan Shuangxi’s Commentaries on Fine Arts. He also participated in the organization of several big exhibitions, such as “The Sun Is Rising in the East: an Exhibition of the Chinese Fine Arts in 20th Century”, in 2003, and “Imagination China: an Exhibition of the Contemporary Chinese Sculpture”, in 2004, both held in Paris.