Looking Back on Yunnan Oil Painting Before 1978

Situated in China’s southwest, far removed from the political and cultural center, Yunnan has always been seen as a “remote, highland province of cultural diversity and exotic ethnic customs.” This regional calling card is a blessing in a way, but it has also created a frontier stereotype that is difficult to escape. Yunnan’s geographic position can be described as remote, but its cultural development cannot. In 1910, the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway began operation, bringing an infusion of modern Western culture represented by French culture. In 1922, the Wujiaba Airport was constructed, promoting exchange between Yunnan and the outside world. This social scene laid a foundation of openness to outside cultures in Yunnan, which, together with the province’s own cultural diversity, formed a relaxed atmosphere that has been accepting to outside cultures. The Yunnan Military Academy, established in the early 20th century, and the National Southwest Associated University, moved to Kunming during the Second World War, and cultivated many outstanding figures in Chinese politics, military affairs, science and culture. The National Arts School’s relocation to Jining County, Kunming, also because of the war, had similar results as it cultivated many artists and educators who would go on to influence the arts in China, and provided an invaluable service to the development of Yunnan’s culture and society. It is a key reason Yunnan oil painting shined with a unique radiance during such difficult times. In discussing Yunnan oil painting around the year 1978, we must first sift through the threads of the entry of Western oil painting into the province over the past century, and the establishment of an education system for oil painting in Yunnan. There are three main threads behind art education in Yunnan. The first thread is the influence of outside art education systems on Yunnan. Li Tingying, who studied in Japan, returned to begin the first widespread promotion of the Western art system in Yunnan. In the 1920s, he simultaneously directed multiple academies in Yunnan, and founded the Jinbi Art Museum. He used the art education theories and painting techniques he learned in Japan to teach still life and landscape painting. In 1924, he founded the Provincial Arts School, and served as its director. Though the school closed in 1930 after Li’s death, it fostered the first shoots of a Western art education system in Yunnan. Beginning in the 1930s and 40s, many talented local artists from Yunnan traveled to France to study, such as Liao Xinxue, Liu Wenqing, Xiong Bingming and Liu Ziming. The works and art education courses of these French-trained artists served Kunming’s young art students for quite some time as a window into the world of art.

The prevailing attitude on art education in Yunnan has always been openness toward outside culture. After these local Yunnan artists completed their studies abroad, they returned to Yunnan to continue working in art education. They brought Western art theories, schools of thought and creative techniques back with them to Yunnan, enriching the artistic soil. This would later turn Yunnan into a hotbed for Chinese modern art. Though they lived in a different extraordinary time, these artistic youths in Kunming enjoyed a loose, carefree environment throughout their studies from their earliest formative period on.

Liao Xinxue studied sculpture under Li Minghe for a time, and later, in his interactions and studies with Li Tingying and others, he began to paint from life. In 1932, Liao gained admission into the Nanjing University Art Department, where he received guidance from Xu Beihong and others. He traveled to Paris in 1933 to study at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, and went on to establish a studio in Paris and hold solo exhibitions. His 1946 sculpture Discobulus won a gold medal at the Spring Salon. He returned to Kunming in 1948 and dedicated himself to art education. Art education in Yunnan was thus transformed.

In 1948, Yao Zhonghua’s elder sister brought the young boy to the Kunming Hall of Victory to see his first art exhibition, which was Liao Xinxue’s exhibition to mark his return from France. Yao Zhonghua, who had loved painting since he was a child, was greatly inspired. His parents were friends with Mr. Liao, giving him a unique opportunity to study under the man, which he did on weekly visits to Liao’s home. This laid a solid foundation for Yao’s later admission into the Central Academy of Fine Arts.

Liu Wenqing was Liu Ziming’s teacher, He graduated from the Chongqing National Central University Art Department, and traveled to France to study in 1948. Liu Ziming was born to an illustrious family in Kunming. She was deaf since childhood, but showed great talent in painting. She was admitted to the Beiping National Arts School in 1946, and traveled to France to study at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in 1949. After returning to China in 1956, she spent the next half century quietly working on her craft. Yao Zhonghua, who worked as her colleague for decades, praised her artistic style as fresh and elegant, her lines carefully considered, her style simple and clear, and full of living details. Liu Ziming mainly painted portraits, landscapes and still lifes, and combined Chinese and Western painting techniques. While adhering to the overarching ideology of the time, she persisted in research of the language of painting and brought change to the art form, while serving as a source of great inspiration to many Yunnan painters who would follow. Xiong Bingming was the son of famous mathematician and National Yunnan University Dean Xiong Qinglai. He traveled to Paris to study in 1947, beginning with philosophy before turning to art. He made outstanding achievements in sculpture, oil painting and calligraphy. The artists in this thread mainly studied overseas or outside the province before returning to China, and imported Western painting techniques and ideas, and forms of modernism, while the subject matter of their art mainly focused on the customs and scenery of Yunnan. One example is Yao Zhonghua, who was influenced by Liao Xinxue. After traveling to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing to study, Yao returned to his hometown to engage in professional artistic creation. Others include the many art academy graduates from around the country who were assigned to work in Yunnan in the 1960s, including Wang Zheng, Gao Lin’an, Yuan Ruixin, Yang Shen, Chen Jiasheng, Chen Shaoguang, Cheng Li, Fu Qizhong, Xia Binwen, Tan Guozhong, Zhang Tiebing, Ding Shaoguang, Lian Weiyun, Yang Dehua and Lu Runeng. Through them, artistic education from outside of Yunnan came to influence local education and creation. The artists included in this exhibition who are representative of this are Liu Jude, Zhong Shuheng, Sun Jingbo, Yao Zhonghua, Gao Zhongyan, Xiong Chuanzheng, Chang Geyang, Sun Yunling and Dong Xihan.

The second thread is the local Yunnan art education system, which can be traced back to the establishment of Yunnan Arts University following the brief presence of the National Arts School in Kunming. The National Arts Academy, originally founded in 1928, merged with the Beiping Arts School during its migrations, and changed its name to the National Arts School. From 1938 to 1940, the National Arts School moved to Anjiang Village in Chenggong County, Kunming. This was more than just the arrival of China’s best art academy to China. More importantly, in the years that followed, the educational and creative seeds it planted would sprout, grow, flower and fruit in Kunming and across China.

During its sojourn in Kunming, the National Arts School was based in Anjiang Village, along the boundary between Chenggong and Jinning counties. The classrooms and dormitories were located in dilapidated old temple buildings, but some of the most famous educators in the art world gathered in this village—Pan Tianshou, Guan Liang, Chang Shuhong and Li Youxing. Later, former Dean Lin Fengmian also came to Anjiang. Later titans of Chinese art such as Dong Xiwen, Chu Teh Chun and Wu Guanzhong all had an unforgettable learning experience in the temples of this village outside of Kunming. Liu Fuhui was admitted to the National Arts School in 1942, where he studied under such famous painters as Guan Liang and Pan Tianshou. Most of the teachers at the National Arts School had trained in France. They taught drawing, plasters, life drawing and colors, and classes also included analysis of artistic ideas and formal training in various schools and styles. The National Arts School followed the principles of “cultivating people through art education and fusing Chinese and Western” as advocated by Cai Yuanpei and Lin Fengmian. The school absorbed various foreign cultures and respected individual style and academic freedom, influencing its students for a lifetime. The school also provided much art education talent and artistic nourishment for Yunnan. In 1940, the National Arts School moved to Chongqing. Some of the Yunnan students trained at the school remained in the province, including Huang Jiling, Liu Fuhui, Tang Guanfang and Xia Ming. Any who did not teach art in the academies engaged in other artistic work, making their own contributions to the development of modern art in Yunnan. More importantly, they planted an artistic attitude of respect for individual style deep in the Yunnan soil. This attitude has continuously influenced the artists of Yunnan. The short two years that the National Arts School was in Kunming actually had direct and indirect influence on the later development of Chinese contemporary art, much in the same way that Southwestern Associated University influenced the development of Chinese culture. Liu Fuhui was a forefather of oil painting education in Yunnan, which is the main reason why his painting is placed in the first position in this exhibition. He cultivated educational talent and provided artistic nourishment for Yunnan. From the inception of the Yunnan Arts University Oil Painting Department in 1959, Liu Fuhui carried on the academic system of the National Arts School, which formed an academic and creative system for oil painting with unique regional traits in an era in which oil painting was otherwise unified under the Soviet School, and produced many outstanding local artists including Zhang Jianzhong and Yao Yongmao. His education approach was steeped in traditions of inspiration, and he had a rich foundation in painting skills, traits inextricably linked to the education and ideas he was exposed to at the National Arts School.

Zhang Jianzhong was skilled at oil painting and Chinese painting, and created a painting style that married ethnicity and modernity. Throughout his artistic life, Zhang Jianzhong continually sought his own proper place amidst the diversity of world culture, and constantly innovated. His depictions of people, nature and history are richly imbued with philosophy and ideas, and present to us the trajectory of a life of ceaseless exploration. During Zhang’s studies at Yunnan Arts University, the artistic style of his mentor Liu Fuhui gave him a conceptual foundation that viewed the art of East and West as possessing shared roots and origins. This would not only guide his artistic creations, but would also bring his works beyond China into frequent exchange with the cultures of the world. Yao Yongmao, born into a common farming family in Yunnan’s Dayao County, revealed a talent for painting early on, despite difficult childhood conditions, and joined the first class of oil painting students at Yunnan Arts University in 1959. Yao Yongmao ascribes to the idea of “letting a hundred flowers bloom” in art, holding that the various techniques and schools are essentially embodiments of personality and artistic achievement. He taught at Yunnan Arts University for nearly forty years, where he encouraged the development of a creative style of one’s own, and brought art education down from the altar and into everyday life. He also persisted in artistic creation for many years, moving forward with the times while also remaining disengaged, and endlessly examining and researching art education and artistic development while making his own silent contributions.

The thread of local Yunnan art education unfolds in this way, beginning with Liu Fuhui. Following this thread, this exhibition has also selected the works of several representative artists: Zhang Jianzhong, Yao Yongmao, Yang Zuosen, Chen Xiongxun, Meng Xueguang and Zhao Lizhong. They have contributed many outstanding works to Yunnan oil painting, and have established a solid and uniquely Yunnanese system of oil painting creation and education.

The third thread consists of Yunnan’s military artists. After Kunming’s peaceful liberation in 1950, the army entered into Yunnan, and the Kunming Military District, tasked with protecting the nation’s borders, has produced very vibrant work in the field of artistic propaganda. The creative works of the military’s artistic vanguard led the third thread of Yunnan oil painting in this period. Against a backdrop of the minority ethnic groups of the nation’s frontier, and unity between the military and the people, the artists of the Kunming Military District created many well-known works of literature, cinema and music, such as There is a Beautiful Place, Bells Ring in the Mountains as the Caravan Comes, and Gourd Pipe Love Song, classics of the early years of the People’s Republic. Kunming Military District artists such as Su Ce, Bai Hua, Peng Jingfeng and Yang Fei were leading figures of artistic and literary creation in China at the time. The earliest driving force in thematic oil painting creation in Yunnan at the time also consisted of Kunming Military District artists such as Yang Yibo, Lin Ling, Mei Xiaoqing, Chen Shuyao, Li Weiqing and Tan Baixin. Mei Xiaoqing’s oil painting Intelligence, and Lin Ling’s Banks of the Lancang River and Returning Patrol won first prize at the 1953 Southwest Military District Art and Literature Review Exhibition. In 1954, Lin Ling’s Banks of the Lancang River was featured in the Third National Fine Arts Exhibition. His oil paintings Planting Rice and By the Ruili River were also featured in the exhibition Art of Socialist Countries in Moscow. Lin Ling was born in December 1918, in Guangxi Province. He joined the China National Anti-Japanese Woodcutter’s Association in 1938, and came to Kunming in 1940, which began his lifelong relationship, in art and life, with Yunnan. In 1943, joined the Sunshine Painting Society, formed by progressive students at the Southwestern Associated University, and in 1950, he joined the People’s Liberation Army. Lin Ling had a lifelong obsession with oil painting, creating over two thousand paintings in his lifetime. It is worth noting that Lin Ling also took in a student, Zhang Xiaogang, who would go on to become a major figure in Chinese contemporary art. This exhibition has selected two works by Lin Ling. One is the rather well-known Scene at Daguan Pavilion, alongside a Still Life, painted around the year 1978. both embody his simple imagery, concise composition and reserved character. We can find traces of these qualities in Zhang Xiaogang’s works today. Since much of the day-to-day work of the military artists involved producing large amounts of national and military propaganda, the creative system had is own unique ways that were passed down to influence many younger artists, including some who would go on to be influential in the wider world of Yunnan oil painting, such as Shang Ding, Chen Xiongxun, Zhang Wuxun, Yu Kemin, Tang Zhigang, Huang Zhifang and Liu Yawei.

In the early to mid-1970s, the ranks of oil painters, beyond the academy and military artists, also included a branch of folk oil painters who would have a profound impact on the development of oil painting in Yunnan. These artists mainly consisted of graduates from the Kunming Normal School and the short-lived Kunming School of Fine Arts, as well as artists from various work units, factories and villages. The artists and artistic youths of this small city drew from the techniques featured in albums on the Russian Itinerants published before the Cultural Revolution, mixed with impressions from fragments of albums on the Impressionists. Painting in plein air, their resulting works differed from the Soviet School system of professional academy training, and were also quite unlike the style of Western modernist works, making for a heavily localized art form that came to influence virtually every young artist in Kunming at the time. In 2003, Mao Xuhui organized a group research project on the state of art in Kunming in that period, and gave a name to the group of people working in landscape painting at the time: the Outdoor Light School.

They faced the beautiful and familiar scenery of their hometown, and sincerely researched the relationship between the light and the elements of the scene. In the political atmosphere of the time, they were also avoiding a reality they wished not to face. But these artists had a powerful influence on Mao Xuhui and Zeng Xiaofeng in their learning experience, which marked the beginning of their understanding of painting.

Western painting entered China in the early 20th century, and entered Yunnan almost simultaneously. As they studied Western painting, Yunnan artists faced the same issues as artists in other regions. The grasp of the picture and the understanding of imagery actually stems from the Chinese painting traditions deeply ingrained within them. Thus, when famous art historian Michael Sullivan looked at the Chinese artists of the early 20th century from a Western scholar’s perspective, he concluded that their paintings lacked perspective or shifting light, and were not realistic, but those artists may have responded, “These techniques and means are tiny in regard to true art. Art is an expression of the artist’s emotions and character, a universalized view on the experiential world.” The artists of the Outdoor Light School in Kunming at the time may have been using Western materials in their learning and creation, but their hearts were full of Chinese sentiments. There pictures were marked by subjectivity and imagination, rather than mere imitations of the real. In their artistic creations, they always persisted in the expression of emotion and individuality as they savored the process of creation. Located on a high plateau, Yunnan is struck by powerful ultraviolet rays, and the shifts in light on objects is somewhat different from other places, the contrasts and colors much more vivid. These natural conditions inspired those painters of “little landscapes.” They referenced the brushwork of the various schools of painting as they recorded the exotic streets of Kunming, as well as such landmarks as the Bamboo Temple, Haigeng Shore, Miaopu Gardens and Daguan Pavilion. Now, decades later, these paintings still spark nostalgia among the old residents of Kunming. In this exhibition, we have selected representative works by Sha Lin, Liu Nan, Jiang Gaoyi, Chen Chongping, Su Xinhong, Pei Wenkun, Pei Wenlu, Yao Jianhua, Ma Xiangsheng, Zou Kunling and Gan Jiawei. Many viewers find themselves crying in front of these small paintings, reminding us of the power of art.

While they were out painting the landscape, they also attracted many young lovers of art who would gather around to join them in painting or watch them create. Many of those youths influenced by these landscape painters would go on to become central figures in Chinese art, such as Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing, Tang Zhigang, Zeng Hao and Li Ji, who all received some of their earliest artistic inspiration from these painters.

Now, having sifted through several important threads in the development of Yunnan oil painting, along with key historical exhibitions as testament, we find that to look back on the state of Yunnan oil painting around the year 1978, we must trace back to the earliest stages of oil painting education in the province. The developmental trajectory of oil painting in Yunnan is quite unique, but also seems to follow certain universal rules of development. In this way, a path of transmission was laid down, one which provides a foundation for a “constellation” of Yunnan oil painting that is at once synchronous and diachronic. This developmental thread of oil painting, so worthy of research, seems already forgotten by so many of its progeny in the art scene today. Let us now look back on the precious history and works of this period. I trust that their spirit and radiance will continue to influence the development of oil painting in Yunnan.

Nie Rongqing