Transcript: Is There a Chinese Modernism? – Philippe Koutouzis
(A long edited version of my interview in Hong Kong done in November 2012 for The Art Newspaper with one of Zao’s dealers, where the http://www.feastprojects.com founder discusses Zao Wouki, Tang Haywen and Chu Teh Chun)
A champion of the Chinese modernists, Philippe Koutouzis is currently working on a book on Tang Haywen, who died of AIDS in 1991. He recently opened Feast Projects in Hong Kong, where the program includes the work of pioneering France-based Chinese abstract painters like Zao Wou Ki and Chu Teh Chun. The French art dealer co-founded Schoeni Art Gallery, a pioneer in representing contemporary Chinese art, and headed Asian business development for Marlborough Gallery.
Is there a Chinese Modernism?
Absolutely. Modernism finds its energy in the communication between different cultures. It is an aesthetic challenge and communication between cultures. The Chinese artists who left and went to Europe, mainly France, after being poor students and not knowing if they would ever go back to China, integrated China into the modern movement. Sanyu did line drawings long before Matisse, 30 years before. The debate is about meaning and goes back to national feeling. Modernity is the representation and accessibility of every national art in a global stage.
Why is there now such a desire in the market for Chinese modern art?
The artists are all “on their way out.” Chu Teh Chun is paralyzed and he is 92. Zao Wou Ki is in good shape and is also 92, but he can’t paint anymore. Most of the others are dead. Wu Guanzhong is dead and he was the youngest. Tang Hay Wen died in 1991, San Yu in the 1960s. The modern Chinese movement is not prolific. You don’t have dozens of them. Chinese modernity blossomed mostly outside of China.
What is behind the frenzy?
As my father used to say: look at the map. China is the center. It is a growing economy, very strong, the richest country in reserves. China has integrated the capitalist world, before it was red, now it is the color of money. It’s an area of growth. For now they might not really understand the achievement of modern Chinese painters. Now the call of money is so strong. Recently in London where two Zao Wou-kis were sold for very high prices, the under-bidders were Americans. Modern Chinese art prices could be brought to the summit not by Chinese but maybe by the Americans or the Germans or South Americans because now it is important to have one.
What is the link with traditional Chinese art?
Chinese modernity was not built by forgetting to start again but it was brought to life by assimilation of other values and integration of these values to the Chinese pyramid. They all paid tribute to their culture with modernity.
The names you mention – Zao, Chu, Tang — were the second generation of Chinese artists in the West.
Yes, the first generation was Lin Fengmian and Xu Beihong, but they did not embrace modernity as much. They didn’t really have the time. Zao, Tang, Chu and San Yu were stranded in Europe. They were prevented to go back to their homeland and in paradox this helped them make their dream more full and to realize their destiny as painters. That’s the story of all great Chinese painters. The air they breathed was never pure. They struggled. In the middle of that, they never abandoned their culture.
How does the intelligentsia in China regard Chinese modernism?
The writers, art critics, curators, in general, is that they see the artists as the “overseas Chinese painters.” The concept of modernity is Western. For them it was more renovation and revival of Chinese culture. In China they reconcile everything. [Jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner] Liu Xiaobo believed in democracy but he does accept that Mao Zedong is the paramount leader who helped China. This is the Chinese model, they take everything. Even Chu Teh Chun who hated the Communists, had empathy to kin. This is the strength of Chinese culture.
What influence do these modernists have on the current generation of artists in China?
Their influence is quite remote, as remote as the layer three meters under the roots of a tree. They cannot grow without it. They have an influence difficult to perceive. With contemporary art, we saw a moment of struggle in 1989, where artists were told: make business and shut up. Some of them started to protest, and at the begining some post-1989 artists brought to the West some meaning, then they began to pasteurize their work because they wanted to export. That led to Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, who started to produce, produce, produce. Then another generation came along that looked back at conceptualization, installation. They are reflecting at what is going on in the West. Modern Chinese painters that went to Europe achieved the wedding of two cultures wary of each other, never happened before in the history of art, and most likely will never happen again. The two cultures meet every time in the work of these people.
What is their aesthetic achievement?
The Chinese principle dominates. With abstraction and freedom of expression, they brought into their painting Western principles that helped them to revive the founding principles of Chinese art – mountain and water, it goes back to landscape. Landscape contains everything including the lonely hermit – man as part of nature.
Who is the best painter of the Chinese modernists?
That’s an expensive question. Bacon or Freud? To me the one who realized the dream was Tang because he embraced Western painting and the principles. The warrior, the butterfly and the mandarin; Chu, Tang, Zao. They are all facets of the same dream. Speaking from the bottom of my heart, I would say Tang Hay Wen did not achieve more, but he was lighter. He kept the modern model, but kept the lightness of the Daoist monk. He was not interested in career or money; his life was about the journey. Chu Teh Chun and Zao Wou Ki, their lives were about achievement. Tang was not looking for his social, historic achievement.