Middlebury College Museum of Art

News & Events

College Museum shows Distinguished Collection of Contemporary Chinese Brush-and-Ink Painting

May 6, 2006

“The Past within the Present: Contemporary Classical Chinese Paintings from the John and Alice Z. Berninghausen Collection”

June 29–August 13, 2006

For immediate release: 5/10/06
For further information contact: Colin Mackenzie, Robert P. Youngman Curator of Asian Art, (802) 443–5558

Middlebury, VT— On Thurs., June 29, the Middlebury College Museum of Art opens the exhibition The Past within the Present: Contemporary Classical Chinese Paintings from the John and Alice Z. Berninghausen Collection. Comprising more than 50 paintings by 28 artists, the exhibition showcases the distinguished collection of contemporary Chinese painting assembled over the course of twenty years by John Berninghausen, Truscott Professor of Chinese Studies at Middlebury College, and his wife Alice. The exhibit will remain on view through Aug. 13.

Of the 28 artists represented in the exhibition, the majority are well known within China and many are attached to prestigious provincial or national painting academies. The exhibition also includes works by two overseas artists, Li Xubai, who resides in Canada, and Arnold Chang, an American born in China. What unites these artists is their use of traditional painting materials—brush, ink, and paper—to create fresh works that draw inspiration from both the past and from their current environment. The works are thus simultaneously classical and contemporary. In keeping with the contemporary sensibility of the works, the majority are framed in the Western mode although a minority are mounted in the traditional manner—as vertical hanging scrolls, horizontal handscrolls, or as fans.

The works in this exhibition show beyond doubt that China’s venerable tradition of ink painting stretching back almost two thousand years has undergone a remarkable revival during the last two decades. During the first thirty years of Communist rule, ink painting was severely constrained by political pressures, especially during the Cultural Revolution. With the opening up of China during the 1980s and the lifting of the most repressive censorship, artists have become free to experiment in terms of both subject matter and technique.

The traditional theme of landscape, for centuries the canonical genre of Chinese painting, continues to inspire, but it has become a vehicle for new explorations of color, ink, and brush that go far beyond the ambitions of earlier artists. In Zhu Daoping’s “Red Cliff” the deep crimson that suffuses the rocky outcrop is used as much for its emotive qualities as any descriptive role, while in Liu Ergang’s “Traveling to the Ends of the Earth” bold spontaneous brushwork lends his theme an almost Zen air. In “Landscape with Pale Men” by the Beijing artist Tian Liming, figures in traditional scholar’s garb enjoy a boating outing. Although the theme may be traditional, the artist uses a washed-out palette of pale pinks and grays, creating an ethereal yet somehow disquieting atmosphere as if both figures and setting are a mere dream. There is a dream-like quality also, albeit a more somber one, to Liu Qinghe’s haunting figure of a couple arm in arm. Strangely lit by an orange glow, their downcast faces, popping eyes and awkward limbs seem to express deep alienation from society or even some weird mental derangement.

Interest in the psychological interaction between figures is also a trait of a number of other artists, including Xu Lele. Her subjects are often drawn from ancient stories, but her treatment of them is humorous, irreverent, and instantly accessible. In “The Poet Ruan Ji Lies Drunkenly Asleep” one does not need to know the story to appreciate the bemusement of the woman, apparently also tipsy, in the presence of the poet sleeping off his intoxication. If Xu Lele’s humor is gentle, Li Jin’s is more sardonic, or at least less sympathetic. In “If You’ve Got it, Eat It” a couple oblivious to each other stare out at the viewer from either side of a table laden with a meal. Here the artist seems to be making a distinctly pessimistic comment on married life.

In all of these works, the psychological impact of the paintings derives as much from the deliberate distortions of form and spacing and the manipulation of wash and brush-line as from the subjects themselves.

Consummate mastery of technique is also apparent in a number of other figure paintings, such as those by Peng Xiancheng. Unlike the artists mentioned above, Peng’s approach is evocative and romantic rather than humorous. His remarkable blending of different colors of wash creates a rainbow of hues that lend his subjects special vitality. There is a Matisse-like playfulness to the forms, especially in his breathtakingly beautiful horizontal painting of the Tang dynasty (618–906) imperial concubine Yang Guifei playing polo.

Wang Mengqi also uses themes drawn from antiquity, but treats them in a way that would have been impossible only thirty years ago. “On Shaman Mountain Dreaming of Clouds of Chu” depicts a nude juxtaposed with a large flower and teapot that seem to accentuate her nakedness. But while the idea of the nude is unarguably borrowed from Western art, Wang’s interpretation of the genre has infused it with an entirely Chinese sensibility.

Some of the most striking compositions are in the bird and flower genre. Qin Tianzhu’s “Egrets” lies on the borderline between image and pure form. Even more striking are Chen Jialing’s paintings in which the lotus dissolves into a semi-abstract play of line and wash that seem to breath with a life of their own.

This exhibition is testimony to the achievement of Chinese artists in evolving the classical brush-and-ink tradition into a truly contemporary art form. With their freshness, vitality, and joie de vivre, these are paintings that would comfortably hang in any gallery in Manhattan, yet they are unmistakably Chinese. There could be no better showcase of China’s success at modernizing its culture without abandoning its legacy.

Also included in the exhibition are examples of Chinese painters’ tools—brush, ink, and inkstone—dating from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) to the present.

The Middlebury College Museum of Art is free and open to the public Tues. through Fri. from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sat. and Sun. from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays. The Museum is accessible to people with varying disabilities. Parking is available in the Center for the Arts parking lot. For further information, please call (802) 443–5007 or TTY (802) 443–3155, or visit the Museum’s website at http://museum.middlebury.edu.