After “God Is Dead” – the Connotations of He Canbo’s Ink-and-Wash Painting

Since the beginning of the 20th century, and under the influence of western cultures, Chinese traditional paintings – now known as Chinese characteristic paintings - have developed in two directions: one direction is to stick to the practice of Chinese traditional paintings, especially to stick to the use of objects’ original meanings in painting, the other direction is to use Chinese traditional paintings to reflect the social changes in modern times and meanwhile make some modifications in the nature of Chinese traditional paintings. Furthermore, the development in the latter direction can again be divided into two ways: one way is headed by Xu Beihong and Jiang Zhaohe, using western realistic methods to transform the Chinese traditional painting, particularly the painting of people, the other way is led by Lin Fengmian, creating a new kind of ink-and-wash painting with contemporary western artistic forms and ideology. Since the 1980s, there has been a tendency of more and more young painters following in Lin Fengmian’s footsteps, to thoroughly modernize the Chinese traditional ink-and-wash painting in this new era. Obviously, He Canbo is one of Lin Fengmian’s followers. Over the past decade, He Canbo has been working hard in this field, and already established his own characteristic artistic form and style. Now, he has become one of the most important ink-and-wash painters in China. 

There is consistency in He Canbo’s ink-and-wash paintings. His basic artistic form is using expressionistic methods - unreal space, human images with no gender, no social class, nor race - to create a painting and present the painter’s life experience. This experience includes He Canbo’s understanding of people’s living status quo in modern times, while this understanding, seen from the whole, contains several contradictions – the contradiction between the sacred world pursued by He Canbo and the real world, the contradiction between “being-there” and “transcending”, and the contradiction between present values and lofties values. In He Canbo’s paintings, the most connotative objects are those similar, almost standardized human images which are flocking in one and every picture. We can interpret this kind of human image as a representation of the masses, of the modern people, of every one of us. In my opinion, these images in He Canbo’s paintings are his contemplation on the Chinese society after China became more internationally engaged.     

As we all know, since reform and opening up, the implementation of economic policies guided by new liberalism in the 1990s has sped up urbanization and modernization in China, bringing about great changes in social structure and people’s values. The saddest things about these changes are the oblivion of Chinese traditional values, the disappearance of dreams and passion, and the increase of people’s materialistic desire. The bloom of popular art and entertainment industry has caused a loss of true self among the people. Perhaps, the Chinese society after 1990s can be compared to the modern western society, in which, according to Nietzche, “God is dead”. In this comparison, the difference between the Chinese society and the western society is that the “God” – Chinese traditional culture and values – worshiped by the Chinese people in the past is truly sacred and worth pursuing. After people’s values were destroyed by the growing market economy, what was left behind is people’s instinct for pursuing power and benefits. He Canbo’s paintings sharply criticized this kind of mental state of today’s people. The images created by him bear a religious, supramundane power, capable of conveying the sacredness of life. If the human images in paintings such as Combination Apartment (Zu He Gong Yu) and Indistinctive Portraits (Wu Qu Bie De Xiao Xiang) are reflections of the common, indistinctive people in reality, then the similar images in paintings such as Inspiration Series (Qi Shi Xi Lie) and Meditation Time (Ming Xiang Shi Jian) can be seen as symbolic of an ideal, supramundane human world. In order to fully demonstrate this sacred world, He Canbo has created a solemn and stately atmosphere in his paintings with highly skillful artistic methods. In order to present the sacred values of this ideal world, He Canbo has created a self-sufficient, supramundane space which is far beyond the real world we are living in. As far as I can see, there are several outstanding contradictions in He Canbo’s paintings which were based on his in-depth understanding of the present Chinese society: the contradiction between the real world and the ideal world, the contradiction between “being-there” and “transcending”, as well as the contradiction between present values and loftiest values.      

In fact, as I have mentioned above, the artistic exploration made by He Canbo is not only about the modernization of Chinese ink-and-wash painting itself, but also about the relations between the ink-and-wash painting and China’s social transformation. If the emergence of modernistic art in the west is a reaction and rejection of western artists to their society after “God is dead”, then in China, the artistic thinking and practice of He Canbo can also be called a reaction and rejection to the Chinese society where more and more people lose their characteristics and true self. 

Aug.5th, 2006

Zou Yuejin

Zou Yuejin(1985-2011) is dean of the Department of Fine Arts History, China Central Institute of Fine Arts. He is also a professor and tutor for master degree candidates at this university. His books include Use the Viewpoint of “The Other” to Look at the Westernization of Chinese Art in Modern Times, published in 1996, A History of Fine Arts in New China 1949 -2000, published in 2002, An Introduction to Arts, published in 2008, as well as Fine Arts in the Era of Mao Zedong, published in 2011 by Cengage Learning Asia Pte. Ltd. Zou Yuejin has also taken part in the organization of several big exhibitions of fine arts, for example, “The Exhibition of Fine Arts in the Era of Mao Zedong during 1942 to 1976”, held in 2005, and “China Narrative – the Fourth China Chengdu Biennale”, held in 2009.