Origin of Images: an Analysis of the Images of He Canbo’s Works

He Canbo began his career as an artist in the beginning of 1990s and formed his own style of images ever since then. The 1990s was a turning point for the whole industry of Chinese modern art, with the reform of Chinese modern art launched in 1980s continuing to go and new problems caused by internal and external conditions coming out. Influenced by the whole environment, the works created by He Canbo not only reflected some of the traditions of the 1980s Chinese art, but also absorbed new elements of the 1990s modern art

Though He Canbo’s works are ink and wash painting, they are not traditional Chinese ink and wash painting, because He himself has been heavily influenced by western art ideology. In 1980s, the new fine arts in China featured ideological emancipation, pursued the freedom of arts marking, and encouraged the criticism of culture. Artists of that time fought the traditions and old systems of Chinese art, while introducing the styles of western art. The advocators of the new fine arts in China at that time were those who had undergone the Culture Revolution, so the new fine arts were filled with idealism and passion as well as collectivism. However, as the pursuit of new fine arts was directly affected by social factors, there were not enough conditions for Chinese art of that time to make thorough changes, despite the great efforts made by many artists. The transformation of Chinese art in the 1980s and 1990s was closely related to social changes, with matters such as the formation of market economy, the rapid development of economy, the polarization in society, and the living stresses of people, all reflected in art works. 

Looking back to history, we will find He Canbo’s works typical at that time. In 1990s, the most influential art movement was “New Generation” and later “Political Pop Art”, which were closely inter-related. The artists advocating “New Generation” mostly were born in 1960s, so they hadn’t undergone the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or directly participated in the Vanguard Art movement. These artists grew up in the period of reform and opening up, and were heavily influenced by western academic thoughts and art ideologies. Compared to the artists taking part in the 1980s movement, the artists of 1990s paid more attention to real life and took a view from their own eyes. They abandoned the mechanical use of western modern art, using their familiar ways to present life and humans’ pursuit of values. The main style of art making in the “New Generation” movement and “Political Pop Art” movement was realism, which was a reversion to the format-orientation in 1980s. Realism is a bridge to modernism. To truly reflect reality is to truly reflect self. Especially in a period of social transformation when conflicts between society and individuals were increasingly severe, to reflect reality and self was of great significance. However, to well reflect reality and self needs a carefully chosen form of art making, which in turn has brought two kinds of stresses. First, the new fine arts needed to walk out of the form of western modern art and to create Chinese-characteristic forms of art. Second, new forms of art needed to better reflect the artists’ ideas and spirit. In such an environment, He Canbo began his career as an artist and participated in the “New Generation” movement. He didn’t directly reflect reality in his works, but exerted great efforts to create a new kind of form of art, and lifted his works to a spiritual level from a formalist level. 

Seen from his works in early 1990s, He Canbo had a strong sense of modern art, but wasn’t satisfied with the fixed form of western modern art. So, he made use of the advantages of Chinese ink and wash painting to have blazed a distinctive art making path. Not affected by the old traditions of Chinese ink and wash painting, He Canbo directly used ink and wash to make modern arts, which was kind of identical with the art making ideology in 1980s. His work Plate, painted in 1991, looks like the vanguard art in 1980s, though painted thoroughly with ink and wash. The head image in the middle of this painting reminds viewers of the sculptures by Brancusi, while the background pattern of it seems like the style of Picasso, so the whole painting resembles a modernist painting, though painted in ink and wash. Seeing from this painting, we can know that He Canbo has stuck to modernism since the very beginning of his career and tried to re-produce modern art in a Chinese-characteristic way. In early 1990s when people were re-viewing the vanguard movement, realism and modernism became the driving forces of modern art. He Canbo was in the driving forces, but he was not sure whether to replicate modern art with ink and wash, or to interpret the tradition of ink and wash painting with modern art. His later work A Sea of Buddha, created in 1992, seems to have implied the possible development of his works in future. Chinese symbols replace western symbols, and He’s thinking is implied in the painting. Against the black background are numerous images of blurry Buddha, which seem to be emerging from the deep of history. If Buddha images are all that this painting has, then He Canbo was still in the period of experimental ink and wash. However, on the painting, there is an unremarkable detail, several white lines covering the whole painting and taking the shape of mankind. This shape of human being can be seen as a fixed symbol in He Canbo’s all later works, and looks like the contour of the head of Buddha. This symbol extracted from the image of Buddha isn’t a replication of Buddha, but a representation of human being, and seems kind of distant from the Buddha images in the background. If Buddha and the background symbolize history, culture and belief, then this image of man-like Buddha symbolizes human being who is gazing at and contemplating on history, culture and belief. This large human image could be He Canbo himself, or any other person who is reviewing history, or anyone who has grown up in the culture of that time. 

This symbol of human image has been shown in many of He Canbo’s works, and has been continuously evolving. Later than A Sea of Buddha was Vagrant, created in 1993. The later is similar to the former in terms of images, only with a different theme. Inspired by his creation experience in A Sea of Buddha, He Canbo found symbols in paintings were more powerful than Buddha images. Though there had been many artists injecting traditional elements into modern art, He Canbo was the first to create such an abstract image. This creation of his has two kinds of meanings: first, the symbol is unique and innovative, and is a great breakthrough in the Chinese artists’ exploration of Chinese people’s own characteristic abstract art; second, this symbol is not for visual or structural purpose, but more meaningful and concrete. In Vagrant, this symbol even symbolizes the ego, which not only represents oneself, but contains cultural meaning, namely implying both me and the other. Space of Ideology, created in 1998, is similar to A Sea of Buddha in terms of form, only with a different content. In Space of Ideology, dense Buddha images are replaced with piled-up human images, black background messed up. Only in the abstract space clearly shows the crowded human images which are arranged in the way as niches are in grottoes. The change from Buddha images to human images is a change from formalism to theme-orientation, while the connotations of human images are various, including realistic, cultural, social and historical connotations. The cultural and historical connotations of human images have been contained in his paintings since the beginning, while the realistic and social connotations were injected in his paintings in late 1990s, such as Bone and Flesh (1997), Disease (1997), and City Light (1998). In these works, He Canbo adopted the rarely used expressionism, to release inner self and reflect city life with coarse lines and bright colors which symbolize both the debauched city life and endless struggling of mankind. He Canbo knew he would not be using this form of western modern art for long. In Space of Ideology and City Light, He Canbo returned to the use of his old images, but added to them with totally different meanings. In particular, the human images are no long an abstract symbol, but an implication of specific social and cultural contents. 

The transformation process of images in paintings is also a record of the spiritual transformation of an era, from the extinction of ideals to braving the cruel reality. Ideals refer to the pursuit of formalism, to producing new forms from traditional culture and symbols. Though artists had made progress in making innovations, the social environment forced them to constantly change forms of art. Individual experiences were apparently related to social development. When people were released from the shackles of tradition, the biggest crisis would be the end result of soul. The 1990s was such a transitional period when one could be his or her own master and got the most freedom he or she had never got before, but the blows from the era were severe. This was an inevitable experience for individuals when the Chinese society was transforming from collectivism to individualism, from rural area to urban area, and from planned economy to market economy. 

For He Canbo, the transformation of the Chinese society has not been over yet. In his paintings, the human images begin to interact with society and reality after their definitions have been made. Seen from the appearance, his works still focus on the form of painting, with lots of abstract forms combined together, in addition to the fixed symbol of large human image. The form of his paintings is not complicated, so do the materials he chooses, but all his paintings have some sort of spiritual power. Since the connotations of the large human image have been defined, all the abstract factors, including shapes, lines, ink and wash, as well as symbols, constitute the conditions for the human image to exist. In He Canbo’s works of 1990s, the human image has strong individuality, but in his later works, the theme had been enriched. Crowded human images are arranged in a large space, indicating lots of things concerning the nature, city life, nihility, and the universe. The use of ink and wash not only indicates the Chinese tradition of art, but also refers to the nature, with mankind being squeezed in a small space or lonely drifting in nihility. Several geometrical lines cross the background of paintings to destroy harmony, seeming like the scars that post-modern symbols have left on the nature. 

He Canbo’s art works can show a psychological development process. Though he adopts abstract images in his paintings, the meanings of those abstract images are far beyond their forms but with psychological indications. We cannot impose social meanings on his paintings, but mankind is part of society. He firmly sticks to the theme of humanity, no matter what form of art he has chooses. His works always reflects the situations of human beings, and he often starts creation from his own perspective and experiences. He began his career from experimental ink and wash painting, but we cannot appraise him from the perspective of experimental ink and wash painting, because his paintings are far beyond that and have walked out of the framework of formalism. His works have revealed the urgent problems of human existence, which may be the reason for his works to be considered meaningful, though the images he has used in his works are not complicated.  

Yi Ying

Position: professor and supervisor of PhD candidates at Central Institute of Fine Arts (CIFA), head of CIFA Fine Arts Research magazine, chief editor of CIFA World Fine Arts, famous scholar of art history, art critic
Main Published Book: Dusk on Campus (Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House)
Main Translation Works: Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History (Hunan Fine Arts Publishing Housing), Art and Civilization: European Art and Cultural History (Orient Publishing Housing)