The Flowing of Time Versus the Truth of Existence:An Analysis of Wang Chengyun's Works Author:Wang Lin Date: 2010-11-20 Size:
1989 was an unforgettable year for all Chinese people. It is in the very year, the National Fine Arts Exhibition awarded Wang Chengyun the Prize for Oil-painting.


Artwork by Wang Chengyun

1989 was an unforgettable year for all Chinese people. It is in the very year, the National Fine Arts Exhibition awarded Wang Chengyun the Prize for Oil-painting. Although, the school, Sichuan Fine Arts Institute deducted the 300 Yuan bonus given by Sichuan Artists Association as a punishment for his participation in the student strike, Wang Chengyun, the unconventional young artist, went down in history for his success achieved in the National Fine Arts Exhibition.

The painting is called ‘1949.10.1’, presenting the grand spectacular scene as the army marched through Tian’anmen Square. The style resembles Baithasar’s, use of intense light, cold colors, mechanically divided structure as well as the soldiers lined up in an orderly fashion, to cultivate a piercing solemn atmosphere conveying no festal mood, but only coercively reminding people of the word ‘curfew’, the most terrifying and frequently-used word of that time. This is the only picture published in a magazine juxtaposing Tian’anmen Square and the marching army during that time, the most depressed and dead period for China’s fine arts. It is a vivid record of the age.

If the success of Wang Chengyun in this picture lies in the fact that he accurately highlights the two crucial moments, 1949 and 1989, then his later work ‘2009101’, created when he ended years of residence in Germany and returned to China, furthermore testifies the artists’ sensitivity towards time and history. The two of the works present not only the change of historical context, but also the transformation of the artist, concerning both his personal experience and artistic features.

Wang Chengyun’s preference to include the army in his painting can be attributed to his experience as a soldier. In 1982 he was enrolled into the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute and learnt from Wang Datong and Cheng Conglin. After graduation he formed a faculty of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Later, he went to Zhejiang Fine Arts Institute for further study under the tutorage of Cai Liang. There he became close friends with Zhong Biao and Chang Qing. In the beginning, he learnt a socialist realistic style which was poplar with all the Fine Arts Institute around China. However, since his youth, Wang Chengyun’s character never lent him to conform to any convention or regulation but rather follow his impulses. From skipping classes as a child to falling in love with girls when he became an ‘intellectual youth’ and later a soldier, he was never bound by any rigid tactical approaches. So is the way he paints. From Pierre Bonnard to Mathis and later on to Baithasar, he is always searching for his own style beyond academic rule. His early work ‘1949.10.1’ turns out to be a surprise against his early learning. In fact, his instincts predict that he will not stay long with such a rational and realistic painting style.

Eventually, he was disappointed with the reality in China during that period and went to Germany alone. He entered Brunswick High School to study Visual Arts and learned from the famous German artist, Norbert Tadeusz. When he graduated, he affronted a stern priggish professor, Albert, because of his demand for creative freedom. However, Wang Chengyun had already matured through the cultivation of the worship of individualistic creation by the western world. Through all this systemized study and research on objectification and analysis as well as his unceasing effort in experimentation and practice, Wang Chengyun found his own style, following his sensibility and intuition to create a list of works manifesting his personal life.

This transformation was more obviously exposed after the birth of his daughter. In fact, Wang Chengyun is an artist with a keen interest in the female world. In his paintings, all the males are presented to be artificial, awkward, lumbering, incomplete or ridiculous, but the females are never portrayed in such a way. Even in the serious pictures with precisely divided structure such as in Brunswick School, the girls are the focus he highlights, concentrated with his gentle affections. He once expressed that his daughter would always be the shining star in his sky, but this subtle and complex feeling a father holds for his daughter seems not attractive to the German critics. In most of the criticism, attention is given to the discussion on Wang Chengyun’s artistic features via the analysis of his choice of swimming as the subject, his expression through pictures about the relation between human and water, and especially his transformation from the socialist realistic style to the individual expressionistic. While all of these discussions try more or less to explain his rebellion against the collectivist style from his identity as a German Chinese. Generally, such an approach is reasonable. In my opinion, however, the original roots of Wang Chengyun’s distinctive style lies not only in the conflicts of different ideologies and the artist’s response towards it, but more deeply in the enlightenment he has found himself and explored in searching for his own style, a possibility to let out those deepest secrets and indescribable sensibilities in his inner heart. And it is this kind of possibility, the honest expression of the inner heart that can initiate such distinctive style of his. After all, style for an artist is not simply a design for the object he wants to describe, but rather a formulation of the phenomenological meaning. Thus, the greatest response and experience the audience can get visually or through the heart belong to intuition, subconsciousness, and collective unconsciousness.

In the Chinese classical fiction ‘Dream in the Red Chamber’, Cao Xueqin writes many delicate descriptions concerning the relationship between water and the female, but his expressions of sex and desire are mostly fantasized. I am not sure whether Wang Chengyun has ever been influenced by that, but his portrayals of those girls, either in the bath or out of the bath, all convey to the audience an hallucination, like a daydream. Since then, Wang Chengyun became an antagonist against reality, trying to control it instead of imitating it. He is not the first artist, using colorful and bright hues to epitomize the reflected body under the daylight in the water, in fact, in the drawings of the British artist David Hockney, the portraits are presented to be more transparent and gliding (most of the artists choosing this water-human subject in the Chinese mainland are actually drawn from Hockney). However, different from Hockney’s lucid and lively style, the light and hue in Wang Chengyun’s work are blended, overlapped and mingled, developed into an evolving complex relationship so as to strengthen the psychological expressiveness we can get from the twisted body. To some extent, his work is not only a public display of his personal life, but rather a deep and delicate exposure of the psychological privacy. Frankly speaking, after the flourishing popularity of psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex and the Electra complex are commonly treated positively, but with deeper consideration, such as the complex a father holding towards the daughter, they are too much ignored. Usually, we simply use the negative word pedophile to generalize all such situations. As a matter of fact, the complex a father holds for a daughter is the deepest-hide, the most honest, uncontrollable while depressed impulse. For Wang Chengyun, his involuntarily expression of the inner secret is conformed to his instinct. All the floating and mingled loud colors, the overlapped gentle brush strokes, with all the metamorphosis of figures compose Wang Chengyun’s work, filling them with so many complicated indescribable psychological expressions that it conveys even more that Nabokov’s Lolita.

The indescribable inner world of Wang Chengyun can only be approached through the visual. ‘I feel you by seeing you’, concludes his habit to obtain the sense of an object by observing. When he returned to China, he noticed that most people drew with their brains, while he was the person who engaged and enjoyed his won visual-measure world. This also accounts for the abundant sensibility and visual dynamic feelings one can tell from his works. In such liberal, random and natural drawings, Wang Chengyun displays his capability to transform the object into the psychological resonance, and this narrative and poetic style in his drawing also attributes to his intimate experience and frank expression of the inner psyche.

If his focus on personal life is an individual choice because of the loneliness he felt in Germany, after his return to the Chinese Mainland, the enormous change of the previously familiar reality naturally becomes a shock for him.

#p#副标题#e#In any layer, he is no longer a realistic artist, for in part of him, the spirit of German neo-expressionism is deeply rooted. The division and cold war between East and West Germany, especially the sudden shift that East Germany had undergone from the socialist authorized sate to the Capitalist democracy, make the German artists suffer greatly from tortuous personal life and acute inner conflicts, while cultivating them to take responsibility for both the history of their nation and the humanity for all mankind. This forms the cradle for the neo-expressionism, whose main difference from the expressionism in the modernism period resides in its advocating the shift from inside of individuals outwardly to the openness of society and history. Under such occasion, Wang Chengyun made a good choice in returning to China. Since his return, he has spent 4 years working on an experimental drawing course in Chengdu Fine Arts Institute. If such course is opened in Germany, everything will go well. However, after lasting for 4 years in the Chinese mainland, it comes to an end, to this situation Wang Chengyun has his own understanding: “Although this course has achieved great success since its opening, and earned great fame around the country, it is no longer possible to go on, for it conflicts with too many people’s fundamental profits. It is doomed to be a tragedy when my incisiveness in drawing as well as my radical opinions encounter today’s education system and cultural structure”.

Indeed, the ideological conflicts are inevitable, but it is right the conflicts that connect Wang Chengyun’s doing with the social reality and its historical origin. Conversely, such connection also re-establishes him to be a modern artist with the most distinctive vision within the context of China’s reality and history.

The first thing I get in Wang Chengyun’s recent work is the sense of that it does not belong. Unlike the stable family life in Brunswick in Germany, when Wang Chengyun came back to China, every city means only a temporary residence to him. Witnessing the constant and unceasing transformation of different cities, all his old memories about the places continuously come back to him. For him, everything is in a dream. New cities are built one after another, but compared to the Chinese history, they are all delusional and foam like, as the setting of a stage, while under the grand glory everything seems so fragile and unreal. Thus when this turns out to be reality that is actually faced, everyone, even the residents of the city will find the place completely strange to them. For instance, in order to prepare for the Asian Games, Guangzhou Government will fix the fiberglass roof for every building on both sides of the road to the airport, while in Chongqing, because of one leaders preference, the elevation of the main roads will be painted grey over the night. This kind of strangeness and sense of distance becomes the recent focus of Wang Chengyun’s painting. In most of the drawings, he shows the madly growing building and brilliant, lustrous colors and lights from a distant panoramic view. His intention is never limited to the exploration of the differences of cities, for most of the city construction in China has lost its own characteristic. What he wants to express is his feelings about the constant move from one city to another. The way he displays this dynamic feeling naturally develops the method he uses to show the water flowing, using the mingling of the light and hue as well as the unpredictable shading to capture the unbelonging and abnormally excited mental state of the Chinese people who face the rapidly developing economy. In fact, Chinese people’s over-worship of development not only brings environmental damage, the traditional historical and fundamental value, but also conceals the crime and dark side of society. This is also presented in Wang Chengyun’s pictures. Every viewer can notice that when the artist portrays the night view of a city, there will always be an abundance of real objects hiding in the darkness. Anyhow, this overshadowed land is the hometown that the artist sincerely loves, fails to understand, but wants to know more about.

Then, revelation matters a lot. What Wang Chengyun wants is not the mere change of subject matters based on adept skills and the subsequent monopoly of patterns in continuous repetitions, which account for the effective shortcut to fame and fortune for most contemporary Chinese mainland artists. Committed to the exposure of that hidden underneath the floating phenomenon, Wang is faithful to his own feelings, fruited out of whether the subconscious revolts against social ethics or the rebellious intolerance of authoritarian power. As a smart Chinese and a sincere German, Wang has a conflicting soul, mainly manifested in the collage of images: the painter seems unable to integrate in a complete image the appearance and the fact, the totality and the locality, the scenes and the people, which turns out to be the very pursuit of realism and social realism. Its’ method of creation has become, as a result of official stipulation, the inertial means of aesthetic perception, and the visual vehicle of the official political ideology. Only by breaking the uniformity or totality of the integral expression can art gain freedom of individual expression between contradictions and conflicts, between gaps and cracks, which is confirmed in Wang’s series of broken and maimed head images. In these paintings, he makes full use of acrylic paints to achieve the effect of slight daubing and adopts the shell-shaped masks or dizzy fold-over images so as to convey the object-targeted humanistic concerns. Such humanistic feelings, reflected in the large images of the city scenes, are Wang’s juxtaposed portrayal of people. The extracting and magnifying of the images of the people is conducible to the intensifying of the visual stimulation: set in contrast to the grand narrative scenes, the concrete and microscopic dynamic countenance can represent better and deeper the human existence and the existential reality. Be it gaudy night scenes in the city or scary sites of catastrophes, those restless, panicking images will easily and tightly captivate the viewer, with their passivity and helplessness symbolizing the depression and frustration of the Chinese people. Amongst those I have seen, only a few paintings are different, with the smiling faces of the old-time worker-peasant-soldiers, the look of the pop stars in their heyday, or the visages of the military honor guard, whose moronic exultation and affected superiority simply present the extols as performances and the faiths as ceremonies, reminding us of those glorious triumphs in history. I always remember the off-screen voice from the film ‘Patton’: after his triumphant return from Egypt, Caesar strode into Rome with a tumultuous parade of cheers, with prisoners and beauties chained in the procession, when a slave who rode the chariot whispered in his ear: “All glory is fleeting.” The glory of ‘200910’ is fleeting, and the glory of the autocracy represented by such extravagant ceremonies is also fleeting. In Wang’s portrayal of images that dissolve structures and his contrast of colors with blue-green, red-purple, and black, the viewers can perceive the objects we used to consider extremely solid now collapsing, dissecting, and falling apart. This is the creation of the language of art as well as the symbolization of the social reality. In modern days, art, as a tool for human communication, no longer stands as the so-called ‘thing-in-itself’ simple and pure. Art, as a language of expression, makes sense only by involving itself with social, human, and spiritual issues. Therefore, the artistic yielding in the phenomenological domain, generated by the mutual gaming of the subject and the object, must be attached with the unremitting pursuit of individual freedom advocated by existentialism. Only the existential reality and its summon for freedom can endow art with genuine values of the spiritual world and historical cultures.

All these are the inspirations I get from Wang Chengyun’s recent work. Regarding his undergoing experiments and research, I would take them as varied case studies in China’s modern fine arts.

For the preface.

[Editor] Elemy Liu