The Metropolitan Female in the Vision of the Male
Source:Artintern Author:Jia Fangzhou Date: 2008-12-06 Size:
In contemporary city life, the female is a very active element, “a landscape that exists everywhere.” Female takes part in commercial culture, consumption culture and low culture.

 Tong Zhengang, Artwork

In contemporary city life, the female is a very active element, “a landscape that exists everywhere.” Female takes part in commercial culture, consumption culture and low culture. The role that female plays in city life should not be ignored, it is worth to be studied. From the male’s perspective, the female is always rendered a being watched position. Therefore, art works about the female abounds. Male portrait painter who used female as a subject is very common. Whether Ingres in classical art, the Impressionist Renoir, or artists in modernism like Matisse and Picasso painted lots of female images. Same phenomenon applied to older generation artist in modern China, such as Lin Fengmin, Chang Yu, Fu Baoshi, or younger generation such as Shi Hu, Zhu Jianxin, He Jiaying. For male artists, sex is a criterion in selecting subject matter. One of the obvious examples is that the depiction of female body accounts for a large proportion nude painting. Over 95% exhibits in the famous Chinese nude painting exhibition (1988) focused on female body, and the reason for this is due to the fact that over 95% artists participated are male. This fact coincides to the feminist criticism - The female image in art and literature is a product of masculinity. The female is the subject to be written and drawn by the male; the female is the other being read and appreciated. Yet, not every male artist will be aware of this. Being a subject to be portrayed, the female becomes self-referential. It is beyond debate that the male, as a creator, plays an active role whereas the female, as being created, is passive in nature. Landscape and flower and bird paintings are the mainstreams in the tradition of literati painting, figure painting, especially the depiction of court lady, plays a minor role. In the Twentieth Century, figure painting becomes the dominant, works with particular focus on the female increased. Yet, there are not many artists who work consistently on this subject, and Tong Zhengang is one of the very few who engaged himself in this for ten years, having opened up a new path that belongs to himself.

In the recent published Today's Art Circles, Tong named the “metropolitan female figures” in his works “Wealthy and leisure figure”, quite an accurate description of the female. These beautiful and graceful female figures, either elegant and sensational, or at leisure and free... are depictions of contemporary young female, and is also an observation by a male painter. Tong’s works show the sympathy towards the female, and also the traditional male idea of having a concubine, yet all represent the painter’s appreciation to the female. As Jia Baoyu says that woman makes one refreshed as she is made of water. What Tong depicts is such kind of male thought. “Wealthy and leisure figure” is exactly the feeling that the male wishes to get from the female. Speaking in this way, Tong is successful in showing the elegance and attractiveness of female, he also expresses the desire of the male. In his paintings, the male is always absent and we can feel that his vision is present.

In terms of style, the characteristic of Tong’s art lies on his creativity of pictorial structure and visual language. Tong’s structure is simple as he renders single figure against windscreen like setting, and uses vase of flowers, fish glass, cat as accessories to construct the scene. His device can be summarized as: 1) the integration of ink and colour; 2) the integration of form and abstract language. For the first point, it can be said that the integration of ink and color is a common issue amongst the Twentieth Century Chinese ink painters. Starting from Lin Fengmin, painters of succeeding generations try to have a breakthrough on the issue. How come ink and color became an issue for a century? This can be traced back to long time ago. Before Tang Dynasty, color played an important role in painting. Ancient people regarded blue-green, yellow, red, white and black as the five true colors, and all paintings must be colored. In Zhou Dynasty, draughtsman and painter were two different posts but of the same rank amongst the hundred types of craftsmen. Draughtsman was responsible for drawing outline and painter to apply color; this is how a painting was created. Xie He listed in the Six Canons that “To depict the object according to its outlook” and “To apply color to the object drawn accordingly”. After the birth of ink painting, the job of drawing and painting are merged into one via the use of “ink”, from multi-color towards monochrome. Looking from a visual art view point, the abolishment of color is a big price paid for the development of ink painting. Paintings before the Tang Dynasty had very profound development. Emperor Yuandi of Liang mentions in Shanshui Songshi Ge about the use of warm and cold colors, it show awareness of color reflection cast on objects caused by splashing water, which is a very advanced idea during that time. Unfortunately, the replacement of color by ink hinders the further development of color.


“Ink for color” can be regarded as the first revolution in traditional painting held by the literati. The idea that ink consists of “Five colors” (in fact it is the tonal variation of the ink that creates the illusionistic effect of different colors) led to the fact that ink replaced the position of color, traditional ink painting followed the interest of the literati and it aims to eliminate the use of color. As Wang Wei says, “In painting, ink is the superb.” The development of literati ink painting in the last thousand years indeed goes to an extreme. And because of extreme it leads to another revolution - people wants to bring color back to painting. It is very difficult to attain this because the integration of ink (especially mild ink) and color is not easy. Tong Zhengang uses strong ink with colors, and to use strong ink to control colors. Even strong and vivid colors can be applied now because strong ink is able to control, stabilize the harmony between the two media. The vivid colors Tong applied rely on such relationship between ink and color.

Tong has two ways to deal with the mixing of formal language and abstract language - one is to show the rule of construction; the other is to merge the abstract calligraphy into the construction. Tong is a very skillful calligrapher. In early 1980s, he won a few prizes in calligraphy exhibitions. Unlike other calligraphers who are used to make inscriptions on painting, Tong treats calligraphy as one of the formal elements in his paintings, an essential element that cannot be missed. The content of calligraphic inscription plays a subordinated role in painting but its form can be outstanding. In general, Tongs put the calligraphy in parallel on the dark rectangular background on the two sides. In front of the dark background is usually a figure, which looks like a traditional middle size format painting where in the central part is the painting and the sides are the couplets. Such format becomes a typical pictorial construction of Tong's works. Of course, he always tries to break this rule consciously, for instances, his recent works “Hope Series”, “Ailment Free Series”, “Vase Series”, all attempt to include a new element to different places of the works so as to enrich the overall meaning. In “Hope Series” in particular, the design of figure looks very detail. The immense size of the work, plus the simple outline and limited colors express the helpless condition of the female in hope, which is very unusual.

In Tong Zhengang's recent work “Round Fan Series”, there are some new changes. The works are more sensational and closed to life, and at the same time there are new plots. As mentioned before, the absent male is always present in Tong’s works. In the recent works, there is no need to feel the presence of the “male’s vision” but it is already shown directly. His “modern court lady painting” no longer depicts court lady, the presence of the male breaks the original classification. In fact, Tong’s works have extended from metropolitan female to secular city life, to the three members family in city, to the sexual life between male and female, and to passion and sexual love. Those “Wealthy and leisure figures” look more obsequious and attractive due to the presence of the male. The visual impact of round fan paintings is particularly brilliant. Integration is achieved through the use of a causal theme and the application of causal brushworks

[Editor] Zhang Shuo