Rationality, Passion and Belief-On Liu Yaming's Oil Paintings
Source:Artintern.net Date: 2010-08-25 Size:
According to Sullivan, we must be intellectual to appreciate the western art and be with special religious experience to appreciate Indian art. Both of the arts have extra demands for the audience.

When talking about the difference of art among China, India and the western world, Michael Sullivan, the famous art historian, said, “Chinese art does not demand of us, as does Indian art, the effort to bridge what often seems an unbridgeable gulf between extremes of physical forms and metaphysical content, nor will we find in that preoccupation with formal and intellectual considerations that so often makes western art difficult for Asian minds to accept.” According to Sullivan, we must be intellectual to appreciate the western art and be with special religious experience to appreciate Indian art. Both of the arts have extra demands for the audience. However, “Chinese art does not demand of us”, intellectually or religiously. Since there’s no too much extra requirements for the audience, even the western people with little knowledge of Chinese culture could appreciate Chinese art, “…and we can appreciate them because we too feel their rhythms all around us in nature and instinctively respond to them. These rhythms, moreover – this sense of inner life expressed in line and contour – are present in Chinese art from its earliest beginnings.” “Is that one reason why Westerners, often with no other interests in Chinese civilization, collect and admire Chinese art with such enthusiasm?” [1]

Chinese art focuses on the conformity between human and the nature and the natural life rhythm, which are easy to understand for different cultures. However, the western art is different, since it prefers to make scientific explorations and set intellectual barriers for audience. Leonardo da Vinci once declared that painting is much more sophisticated than poet, as the former is more like mathematics.[2] John Constable, the renowned British landscape painter in 19th century equated painting with science, claiming that people should do painting like undertaking the scientific experiment. He retorted: “Why shouldn’t we take landscape painting as a branch of natural philosophy to make the image experiment?” He admitted frankly, “I must say I seldom keep an art of this kind in mind. But science, especially geology is much more satisfying to me than any other things.”[3]

In this sense, we could consider the western paintings as the products of the image lab. To understand this kind of products, we need some scientific knowledge about geometrical perspective, colors, etc. It’s not necessary to know these to understand India art, but it does mean that anyone could understand Indian art. It might be more difficult to understanding Indian art than western art, since without the knowledge about Indian religions and philosophy, without the corresponding religious experience, it’s almost impossible to understand it. For someone unfamiliar with Indian religions and philosophy, Indian art might be the most sensual art in the world or even could be considered as erotic art. However, to people with the relative religious experience, the lust stimulated from the artworks are not for man, but for the Gods. The strong sensual stimulation contributes to the psychological upgrading of the audience for unification of man and God, thus achieving the greatest aesthetic experience.

Now we are talking about three arts from three different cultures. According to Liang Shuming, the three cultures are rooted in three different intending directions: one is going forward, one is staying mediating, and the other is going backward. Going forward stays with the western art, with the key lying in the relations between man and the nature and remodeling the nature for human; staying mediating is with Chinese art, with the key lying in the relations between man and man, adjusting oneself rather than transforming others; the Indian art is about going backward, with the key lying in the relations between man and himself and focusing on eliminating the problems rather than transform the subjects or adjust oneself.[4] In short, the western culture takes the science as the core, the Chinese culture takes morality and the Indian culture takes the religion. It is to be remarked that according to Liang Shuming, the three intending directions are the fundamental intending directions of human beings. That is to say, any one would have the three directions with his intentions, thus there should be the three dimensions of science, morality and religion in every one’s life or every culture. It’s just the question of inclination in some person or culture.

The reason that we are quoting from Sullivan and Liang Shuming about cultural differences among the western world, China and India is that this kind of differentiation helps us understand Liu Yaming’s artworks. In my opinion, there are three phases for Liu Yaming’s art too: from the scientific exploration in painting techniques to the moral fields of self-adjusting to religious realm eliminating problems.

Liu Yaming likes classical western oil paintings and prefers to experiment on the canvas. In 1994, Liu Yaming went to the US for a solo show and stayed there for a long time, studying the artworks of classical western masters, especially Rembrandt. From his works later such as Yi Man, Take Him/Her to the Jungle, Calla, Self-portrait, etc., we could clearly see the influence of classical European masters to him, which is not only on the utilization of specific techniques, but also on the discovery and depiction of the characters’ spirit and temperament. After a long time exploration, Liu Yaming reached high perfection with his techniques on classical oil painting in the middle of 1990s. We could consider that period as his scientific exploration period of mastering painting skills, reflecting the rational spirit after the western Renaissance.

However, Liu Yaming didn’t settle for being a classical portrait painter. He started to change his language and style in his creations afterwards. More specifically, rather than do further exploration and study along the way of classical European oil painting, Liu Yaming was trying to combine the elements of Chinese painting into European oil painting, changing which into Chinese oil painting. Maybe Liu Yaming was influenced by theories and doctrines of nationalization of oil painting, localization, enjoyable oil painting, etc. But in my opinion, Liu Yaming’s changes are not from the inner world but the inner requirement. He is a passionate artist. If considered as some art pattern due to one’s characteristics, Liu Yaming is a expressionistic oil painting or grand painting in impressionistic style. It doesn’t mean that Liu Yaming is wrong taking the classical realistic oil painting, but because of his characteristics, he would change the realistic oil painting of European classicism and develop a new version of it.

It needs to be pointed out that his transformation is also related to Chinese culture besides of his characteristics. Compared with the western culture, Chinese culture is more poetic than rational. That’s why the realistic oil painting develops in the western countries and China has the expressionistic literati painting. At the early period of art, Liu Yaming’s passion was limited by his emphasis on techniques and skills of realistic oil painting. With the mastery of the skills, Liu Yaming started to show his characteristics and cultural nature, with his brushwork getting more and more extensive and free and focus turning to creation of atmosphere and artistic conception instead of description of characters with details. We could see his obvious changes from Green Melody, a portrait created in 1998 comparing with Take Him/Her to the Jungle created in 1994: there is more passion than rationality. Although the Green Melody is coarse in drawing, the character inside is in unity of form and spirit and the atmosphere of the painting and the psychology of the character enhances each other’s beauty, making it full of appeal. The artworks that show Liu Yaming’s art features after the transformation are the Temporality series created from 2000, in which Liu Yaming has expanded the size of the painting to make it huge narrative. He has created nine large-scale oil paintings with 280×220cm in size in four years. He paid much attention to the living circumstances of modern people with crisis of belief in these paintings. The characters inside are common people from the daily life rather than those with dignity in classical oil paintings, and the sacredness of the religious sculptures as the background is deconstructed too, fully revealing the secularity and sense of loss of the modern people’s life. That human has been in a living crisis for loss of belief is a major issue that is frequently discussed in the modern society. Different from the portrait paintings of his previous period focused on the study of picture and characters, his paintings of this period show the equality between the painter and the painting characters through weakening his control to the characters, allowing whom for self-definition in some kind of connection.

#p#副标题#e#The temporality life that Liu Yaming depicts is close to the Chinese culture of staying mediating Liang Shuming pointed. But different from Liang Shuming showing high appraisal of Chinese culture, Liu Yaming is doubtful about the secular life without belief. Instead of approving the secular daily life like the genre painters, he is trying to expose its abuses. In his opinion, if people ruin the nature when admiring the scientific culture and if people break the nature of human when admiring the moral culture, the only hope should be on the advocacy of culture of belief.

Recently, Liu Yaming has finished an epic huge painting, Way of Liberation towards the Nether World (1600×300cm), which is a comprehensive reckoning to the disadvantages of the modern society and release to the passion smoldered in his heart for a long time. The huge picture shows us the scene of doomsday: the earth becomes desert and human beings are running and escaping with great horror. There is no way clearly shown in the painting, but the direction that people are running indicates one. This is a big relinquishment to the real world, through which to imply the opening of some surrealistic world. In scientific culture, freedom does not come from the conquering the nature; in moral culture, freedom doesn’t come from the self-adjustment; in religious culture, freedoms comes from renouncement. Therefore, though we can’t see the direction of the way of liberation or the destination that people are running to or the ultimate result, we can still feel that only with belief and Faramita could human find its ultimate destination. Liu Yaming once said he would create a Faramita series in the future. In that case, we would have view of human going to the other shore from this shore. The religious life negatively expressed in Way of Liberation towards the Nether World might be present in a positive way in Faramita series. It’s clear that Liu Yaming’s art starts from rationality and heads towards belief through the impact of passion.

As mentioned before, there are the three directions of intentions for each culture and each man, while the difference is that in some circumstances, some direction shows as the main stream and the others potential. For example, in the Way of Liberation towards the Nether World, the emotions burst out and the hidden belief gain the upper hand, yet the rationality is not completely abandoned. On the picture of 16-meters length, Liu Yaming applied the rational focus perspective of western oil painting rather than cavalier perspective of traditional Chinese scroll painting. The artist endowed the characters’ posture, expression and background with huge passion to indicate some destination of belief. The passion and belief are so powerful that we have almost neglected the rational set-up of focus perspective. However, we still need to comply with the rationally arranged frame. We can’t watch the painting from the left to the right like appreciating a Chinese scroll painting, but we need a viewpoint with enough distant to take a panoramic view of the painting; otherwise, it’s impossible to experience the huge passion and vigor from the picture and emerge the sense of religious sublimation. When the audience steps back far enough, the picture becomes flattened, perfectly indicating the applanation and depression of modern life. The foreground one the two sides and the medium shots in the middle have generated an encircled visual and mental effect, seemingly surrounding the appreciators afar in the space of the painting. When the audience steps back to look at the complete painting, he would feel being rejected, but while he is encircled in the space of the painting, he would feel being accepted. The contradictory feelings would become a dynamic psychological surfing. It’s hard for us to tell whether we are in it or out of it. The contradictory feelings about distance allow us both to join in it and to get far away for rational introspection. Let’s imagine like this: when we are encountered with the crowd running straight ahead, should we run with them or run against them for some kind of shock, or should we stand still to provide shelter for them? Any reflection will push us out of our daily status due to its super effects and power. With the repeated shock of acceptance and rejection, we will get vertical upgrading with our mind into a tranquil realm instead of the shocks, showing a sublime of unification of man and the God.

Under the tendency of the contemporary art transforming to tiny narration or even anti-narration, Liu Yaming chooses magnificent narration. What kind of power leads him to go against the stream? I guess it might be the power of belief. Liu Yaming believes that people should have requirement for doing good returns and inner restriction of ethics, thus the world will go for a glorious future. However, the reality is different. People are destroying the nature and ruining humanity for petty profits, leading to the ecological and moral crisis worldwide. In traditional Chinese culture, despite of the poor material life, thanks to the harmony between man and nature, man and man and man and himself, there wasn’t any severe existence crisis. In the modern society especially with the globalization, the whole society takes the economic growth as its focus, the ethics standard in traditional Chinese culture has lost its restrictions, and the religious restraint is almost absent due to the lack of religious tradition in Chinese culture, it gets more critical for the ecological and moral crisis in China. Worried about the current crisis, Liu Yaming wishes to awaken people through expressing his concern with art. In this case, his art is not limited in the studio with mere show-off of techniques and game of formalism, but gets into the society and connected with the issues of the times. At a time the artists are trying to get closer to the modern world in cynical and garish way, Liu Yaming get connected with the society in a totally different way, completing his modern transformation in his special way.

Weixiu Garden, Peking University, July 7, 2009

Peng Feng, Professor and Ph. D. of Aesthetics, Peking University

[1] Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), forth edition, p.2.

[2] Paul O. Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics”, in Peter Kivy ed., Eassys on the History of Aesthetics (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1992), pp. 3-64.

[3] The quotation of Constable, quoted from Ronald Rees, “John Constable and the Art of Geography”, Geographical Review, 1976, vol. 66, pp. 59, 61。

[4] Liang Shuming, Volume I of Collective Works of Liang Shuming (Jinan: Shandong People’s Publishing House, 1990), pp. 381-382.

[Editor] Elemy Liu