China - Interviews
Maria Fernanda Lochschmidt
Watershed - Do you believe that China will influence the world through its culture and arts as the USA did during the XX century?
Maria Fernanda Lochschmidt - I do think that China will influence the world in the XXI century. However, it will not be comparable to the one we lived in the XX century , when by way of the media the United States sold the image of an ideal, free and open consumer society which all could and wanted to be a part of. The case of China is different. It involves a very rich millenary culture that grew in an isolated and self-sufficient way over the centuries. The written Chinese language – which constitutes the fundamental vehicle and factor for the complete cultural identification that the Chinese man has as his past – never will be able to substitute English as the universal language of science and business of the West. What I in fact think will happen is that the world will have to get used to living with communities of Chinese workers who will reside in all the places of the globe, will have to see more and more Chinese products in the market, there will be more interest in the Mandarin language, we will see more Chinese films, we will read more articles on China in the papers, we will learn that in auctions Chinese art objects reach record prices paid by the Chinese, etc. As far as the arts are concerned, nowadays many more expositions on China are seen in galleries and museums in the world and the public is much more attentive and curious than previously. However, the influence of Chinese art in the West is not significant. Maybe because contemporary Chinese art has changed in the XX century, leaving the traditional canons and adopting realism, figuration and oils on canvasses – means that characterize western art – reducing the difference between the two.
WS - What are the most significant changes observed by you in Chinese arts since the middle of the 1980´s, when you lived in China, up to the present time?
MFL - The most important change is the predominance of realism and figuration, more than anything in the portrait, in post 1980 Chinese painting. If we observe the long history of Chinese painting, figuration predominated until the middle of the Tang dynasty (618-907). It is worth remembering that this fact was not exclusive to China; in other civilizations it also started by the figure. After the Tang era, the type of landscape went on to occupy the most important place, a fact that lasted until the XX century. The painter Wang Wei (699-759) – considered the father of monochromatic landscape painting – introduced the calligraphic brushstroke to represent geographic accidents. As such, paintings become objects of reading for the intellectual classes. Consequently, “literati” painting becomes subordinated to calligraphy. Calligraphy in China is considered the most noble of the arts and the written word is intimately linked to power. From the artistic viewpoint, calligraphy is a choreographic and spiritual gesture of the artist and must maintain a balance between the blank (the unpainted area) and the substance (the stroke with black ink); that is the ying and yang that must be present in everything. These principles of Taoism and Buddhism are then transported from calligraphy to painting generating a type of abstraction that pertains to Chinese painting. The impact caused by the West on Chinese civilization – that intensified in the XIX century – is gradually leaving sequels in its culture and consequently, its arts. At the beginning of the XX century, oil on canvass was adopted as well as western realism as a way of renewing and modernizing Chinese painting, since it was thought that the traditional painting model of the “literati” was bankrupt. The great change came after the opening of China in the era of Deng Xiaoping, culminating in the happenings of Tiananmen in 1989. The generation of artists of this time – who in their great majority were trained in academies – brings a completely new and revolutionary style: a strong presence of the portrait can be observed, of the nude human body without eroticism, of national icons like Mao Zedong represented with mockery of symbols of consumption denouncing hedonistic tendencies, etc. It deals with a realistic painting which borrowed western models of surrealism, of pop art, of Kitsch art, etc., but which is fundamentally Chinese in what it represents. This return to figuration is like a renaissance for me. It is as if Chinese art had restarted from zero after the 19080´s. Moreover, the beginning, just as it was until the middle of the Tang (618 – 907), lies in figuration. The obsession with the portrait also indicates the desire to know oneself. After this step, the logical future of Chinese art would be a return to calligraphy and to abstraction as renewing sources. Artists like Gu Wenda, Qiu Zhijie, Xu Bing and others already worked in this direction. Other tendencies that became very important in the post 1980´s era is the art of performance, photography, video and new media art.
WS - Although belonging to the same culture and speaking the same language, the Taiwanese do not recognize themselves as being Chinese. Through your experience as an academic at the National Palace Museum, in Taipei, can it be said that at least in the arts the Taiwanese differ substantially from the artistic production of continental China?
MFL - The Taiwanese are very proud in preserving their roots and their “aboriginal art”. There are in Taipei museums that show this art exclusively, and constantly, expositions, presentations, dances and concerts are made which demonstrate the interest and intention of conserving the autochthon culture. In the island, 98% of the population came from the continent and the official language is Mandarin. Confucionism has a strong presence in Taiwanese society, all factors which make them culturally inseparable from China. Taipei hosts one of the most beautiful art collections in the world: the sublime collection of the National Palace Museum. Between “aboriginal art” and the imperial art of the Forbidden City, there is no point of comparison. However, they live together and are both highly valued by the population. Likewise in contemporary art there are many points in common and interchange.
WS - Professor José Roberto Teixeira Leite possesses a very interesting publication in which is shown an authentic Chinese influence on colonial and even imperial Brazil, especially in the architecture, sculpturing, painting, porcelain, and other decorative arts. Does China of our days exercise some type of influence in Brazilian arts like it did in the past?
MFL - I have been in Brazil for a relatively short time. I have visited expositions and been to galleries. There are few examples that I found showing the Chinese influence in contemporary Brazilian art. Chico Cunha is an interesting example: in a series of canvasses shown in the Galeria Anna Maria Niemeyer, he approaches Chinese representation by abolishing perspective and the source of light. Adriana Varejão also seeks inspiration in ancient Chinese paintings, erotic engravings and objects in lacquer. In general, I think the influence is still incipient.
WS - What is the importance of studying Chinese artistic production specifically in the course of its dynastic cycle?
MFL - Art is intimately linked to history. Each Chinese dynasty was affected by internal and external events that influenced its cycle and artistic production. These factors bestow artistic characteristics pertaining to each one of them. The Tang art (618-907), for example, is a reflex of its cosmopolitanism and the Song´s (960-1279), of its introspection. During the Yuan (1279-1368) era, when the Mongols governed China, the majority of literati painters opted for life far from society and created works of high expressiveness. In Qing (1644-1911), the Manchu were interested in European art and opened their doors resulting in an eclectic art.
WS - Why is calligraphy considered the most noble of the Chinese arts?
MFL - The Chinese man has a complete cultural identification with the past. The factor and the fundamental vehicle of this fact is the written Chinese language that has remained basically the same for at least 2,400 years. The most ancient documents that are known are the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty (1600-1050), of the Anyang era (approximately 1400 B.C.). These characters evolved but remain basically the same until nowadays. Despite there being several languages in China, the written language is the same. It transmits the values of a very rich civilization in a vast and overpopulated territory over centuries. If we think that calligraphy is the artistic way of writing Chinese, it is logical for it to be revered, mainly in the case of a people that give so much importance to ancient texts and preservation of culture.
WS - The Chinese political propaganda posters were mainly used by the Communist Party during the Maoist period. In portraits of Mao alone, it has been estimated that 2.2 billion were printed during the Cultural Revolution. However, even after the ascension of Deng Xiaoping, the Party continues to reinforce its role in Chinese society. Along these lines, what happened to the propaganda poster industry, did it simply disappear?
MFL - The era of political propaganda disappeared. Today the goal of the Communist Party is economic growth and for this reason, the propaganda is more directed to consumption than politics. If the economy fails, the Party will have failed.
WS - Andy Warhol contributed enormously to the art of the XX century by producing works which place in evidence the massified and serialize nature of American culture. With the process of strong economic and industrial growth already extending over more than 30 years, do you believe that the references of the Chinese artists born in the XXI century may become the replica of the references that Andy Warhol had in the last century in the USA?
MFL - The Chinese artists of the “Political Pop” no doubt were inspired by American PopArt. In the case of the United States, the symbols reproduced were national icons like the flag, consumption, sex symbols, beauty, etc. In the Chinese case, the version “Pop Art” deals with more delicate symbols such as the figure of Mao, that was previously spread everywhere and which represented the power and the repression of the Party. “Political Pop” vulgarized and made accessible the figure of the dictator by stirring up questions that in past years would have been unthinkable.
WS - What are the trends and greatest exponents of contemporary Chinese painting?
MFL - There are many trends that are making history: “Political Pop”, “Rogue Cynism” and I believe that great installations that deal with the theme of caligraphy are important. The great artists are Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, Li Shan, Liu Wei, Gu Wenda and Xu Bing.
Interview by Rafael Gonçalves de Lima