As the name suggests, the word “past” in “Learning From the Past and Opening a New Age,” refers to traditional Chinese painting; “new age” refers to the style of modern Chinese painting championed by Huang Qiuyuan, and “learning from” here is more like “relying on.” The last and most important portion of the exhibition title left to interpretation is “opening.” The problem is, the age of modernity that is supposedly being “opened” by Huang can not possibly depend on “the past” alone; there are other influences to consider—western painting, for example. This conundrum illustrates a fracture between “old” and “new,” classic and modern. To offer a contrary interpretation, then, “Learning From the Past and Opening a New Age,” actually more closely resembles an appeal to a connection between classical and modern work.
Although on the surface this kind of discourse seems to emerge out of a conservative position—appealing to the intrinsic link between China’s modernity and China’s traditional values—“opening a new age” is still a fundamental goal. The problem is that the significance of Huang Qiuyuan’s paintings does not lie in “opening a new age.” Needless to say, the modernity of the “new age” is vaguely defined; artistic trends are always intertwined. What can “new age” ultimately mean? Further juxtaposed with revolutionary realism and Western Modernism, Huang ’s “new age” is no longer “new.” It thus appears that the meaning of Huang’s paintings rests with the concept of “learning from the past.” “The struggle between the past and the new age” might be a title more appropriate for his work.
Adopting the language of traditional Chinese painting—“from afar, take in its force; from up close, take in its essence”—Huang Qiuyuan’s work boldly blends the compositional form of artists like Jing Hao, Dong Yuan, Ju Ran, and Li Cheng with the ink style of literati such as Wang Wei, Er Mi, and Shi Tao. Even though words on his literati paintings—including those that reference Western art—break with the traditional landscape style, Huang’s basic consistency does not go beyond traditional literati painting. What the ancients called “learning from nature” refers to the face-to-face encounter between a man and nature. Landscapes guided by this concept are detached from reality; they are abstractions born out of circumstances specific to each individual psyche. The ancient saying goes, “A gentleman’s mate is the landscape, it is there that his peace awaits.” What does significance do these ideas of solitude in nature have for Huang?
During the first half of the twentieth century, when Revolutionary Realism was in full swing, Huang Qiuyuan intellectually held onto this classical tradition; alive within him were both the spirit of a young gentleman and the temperament of a hermit. Beyond this kind of explanation, his choices even may have possessed political significance. There was no shortage of internal resistance to vulgar socialist realism at the time—this conflict is also largely where Huang’s paintings find recognition for their unique status and value in the history of twentieth-century Chinese art. Now, the idea of “using the past to open a new age,” better put as “the struggle between classic and modern,” is a new thematic discourse initiated by the revaluation of Huang’s paintings.
In the last hundred years, China has been thoroughly westernized, and as such has moved further and further from its traditional roots. But as cultural critic Gan Yang pointed out, there is no indication that this how it has to be from now on, no questions asked. Otherwise, what is the point of reflection? Reflection means looking back upon what we have long considered to be correct. It is important to consider all of the important things brought to us from the west under a questionable light; if we do not put these things under the microscope, then we are not capable of contemplation. It is precisely in a period like this that it is possible to see how Huang Qiuyuan’s landscapes and their significance not only belonged to the era in which he lived, but also are directed at China today. Lu Mingjun