An Analysis of He Canbo’s Ink and Wash and Images

On a night in the autumn of 2002, I arrived in Yunnan province, and met Mr. He Canbo for the first time. 

In my opinion, there are two aspects of He’s works that have aroused my interest. 

The first one is his perseverance and flexible application of ink and wash materials and painting methods. For years, He Canbo has stuck to painting with brushes on the xuan paper, and retained many elements and traditions of Chinese traditional ink and wash painting in his own paintings, such as calligraphy, Cun Dying method (a way of dying in Chinese painting), the traditional painting way of accumulating ink, the use of the contrast between nihility and reality, and the tradition of painting black area to present white area, etc. Therefore, the style of He Canbo’s painting is closely related to that of the Chinese traditional ink and wash painting. As far as I can see, there is a big problem in Chinese modern art. With what are the Chinese modern artists to be at the same level with western modern artists? Should they continue to be westernized (which happened in the 1985 new fine arts movement) and mechanically learn western art ideologies (which happened in 1990s)? The answer must be no, because the introduction of western art ideologies or the integration of western and eastern arts in the whole 20th century has been proved unworkable. Then, what should the Chinese modern artists do to blaze a new path? In my opinion, they should focus on the Chinese traditional art, and use our own characteristic art ideology to compete with western artists. Only in this way can the Chinese modern artists win themselves a place in the international art circle. This might be the deeply-hidden reason for He Canbo to persist in ink and wash painting. However, Mr. He didn’t follow the traditional way of ink and wash painting, or imitated the traditional patterns (e.g. mountains and waters, birds and flowers) of ink and wash painting. He didn’t follow the path of “Chinese New National Painting” which began to thrive after national emancipation, or mixed his painting style with the abstract ink and wash painting or expressionist ink and wash painting both of which rose abruptly over the past ten years. He Canbo opened a new road for himself, and even made use of the above mentioned ways of painting. His painting style can be currently defined as conceptual (or intelligent) ink and wash painting, which is used to convey his own understandings towards the surrounding world. He Canbo’s ink and wash painting shows his perspectives and contemplation. He doesn’t think it’s necessary for him to stick to old principles of ink and wash painting, or to set an example for new principles. When making a painting, he freely chooses painting materials and methods, painting patterns and everything he needs to complete the painting. Therefore, in his works, it’s not only the ink and wash and the painting methods that are functioning, some other things he adds to his painting are also functioning. Because of this, his works always appear peculiar, not easy for viewers to understand what has been painted at the first sight. Viewers can only get to know the meaning of the painting and comprehend the thoughts injected in the painting by the author after they have recognized what the scene of the painting is.      

The second aspect of his painting that has aroused my interest is the theme of his painting. 

Once I said in an article: “the achievements of ink and wash painting area had been very small, compared to those of oil painting, sculpture and conceptual art etc.” Why should this situation happen? In my eyes, it is because many artists lack innovation. Some artists stick to old principles of ink and wash painting, while others prefer to imitate expressionism or abstractionism. Very few artists think about a new kind of conceptual and post-modernist form of ink and wash painting. 

He Canbo is one of the few artists who have discovered this new form of conceptual and post-modernist ink and wash painting method. He accidentally created a human-oriented theme, but didn’t aim to present human image. What he really aimed to do is to master a painting method of using images to present “hyperreality”. 

According to Jean Baudrillard, images are not the simulation of a certain area, or a designated object, or an entity, but to produce a kind of hyperreality through simulation without using the original object or entity. Baudrillard also pointed out that we were in a new era of images, an era of information and symbols dominated by simulations, codes and cybernetics, and that in a society dominated by images, the modes and symbols of images constitute people’s experiences and eliminate the differences between simulations and reality. As to the word “hyperreality”, Baudrillard explained that the word meant the division line between reality and unreality would become blurrier and blurrier. One of Baudrillard’s well-known sayings is, with the advent of hyperreality, images begin to constitute reality. 

In my opinion, the images in He Canbo’s paintings are different from those traditional ones, and are even different from abstract symbols. They are the human figures that have been turned into symbols. The fleshy human figures with sex distinction have been deprived of their sex distinction, status, flesh, blood, and facial expressions, by the artist. All the elements that figure painters relied on in the past to create a masterpiece have been abandoned in He Canbo’s painting. Instead, groups of seemingly meaningless and similar symbol-like images appear in his painting. The origin of these images is exactly the world we are living in, in which people get noisier, the environment more degraded, civilians more self-important, and in which the myths and epics are gradually disappearing from people’s life. The “picture-reading era” which focuses on plain, video and animated pictures have come. This new era has become the background of He Canbo’s painting, which is hard to recognize and understand. But viewers are unable to get rid of the impression from the background of He’s painting, and seem to have been connected with the images in his painting. 

A French poet Alain Jouffroy said the following things concerning He’s works:
“As a painter living in a metropolitan city, He Canbo has painted all the scenes that seem like a fantasy movie.
The faceless figure is the only hero and is inclusive of everything. This figure is so lonely among all the other images. 
His fight, if he still has, is hidden deep amid the gloomy masses.
There might be conflicts among the masses, at any time anywhere. 
But viewers would not know how the conflicts happen.”

The poet’s interpretation of He’s painting seems consistent with the theme of He’s painting, but it is still the interpretation of the poet himself. Different viewers of He’s painting will have different understandings. As to the painter himself, He Canbo may have neglected the specific theme of each painting, and his interest may have been only to produce the “hyperreality”. Just as the French poet said, the artist himself would not make any claims, judgments, or criticisms, and all he painted might be only what he had seen.

Similar symbols to those in He Canbo’s paintings have also appeared in oil paintings, and there were also anonymous figures in the landscape ink and wash paintings of ancient times. However, these don’t mean He Canbo is imitating other artists, because He has a totally different starting point.

Using symbol-like images to create figures and let viewers better understand the rapid changing world is sort of a breakthrough for He Canbo. Let’s hope that he can make more breakthroughs in future and bring us more fabulous art works. 


Cao Lv Study, Nanjing
Dec.6, 2003

Chen Xiaoxin

笔名水聿等,美术批评家,1943年 生于江苏省武进市。毕业于华东师范大学中文系本科、四川大学中文系研究生班,获硕士学位。曾就职于南京艺术学院美术系和《江苏画刊》编辑部。现为四川美术 学院特聘教授、职业批评家,独立撰稿兼艺术主持。参与组织、编撰我国第一部《美学辞典》;与人合著《烹饪美学》;编辑、撰写《天梦——常进的绘画世界》; 参与组织、编写《世界人体艺术鉴赏大辞典》;编撰《中国艺术家——常进》(湖南美术出版社)、《李佰虎——现代水墨画集》(河北美术出版社),策划、主编 《水墨潮流》、《美术文献》(第18、24专辑)等。