China conference focuses on dramatic transformation of traditional ink painting form

Chinese and American scholars will gather Tuesday, Sept. 21 and Wednesday, Sept. 22 at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing to discuss the future of ink painting, one of China’s most important traditional art forms.

Wu Hung, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Art History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the College, is the principal organizer for the conference, Contemporary Ink Painting and Art Historical Perspectives.

Three Chinese institutions, the He Xiangning Art Museum, the Institute of Visual Studies at Peking University, and the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, are assisting in organizing the conference.

Wu, who also directs the University’s Center for the Art of East Asia, said that issues surrounding the future of ink painting have been “a focus in China,” where scholars have been studying the dramatic transformation of the form in recent decades.

Ink painting began in the 11th century and developed into one of the major art forms in China and elsewhere in Asia. The early paintings, usually made on silk or paper, often depicted landscapes and featured calligraphy and intricate brushwork.

In the last 30 years, a new generation of artists began to rediscover ink painting. Many of these painters moved away from traditional subjects and techniques. Instead, they embraced the abstraction that characterizes international contemporary art, according to Wu.

“Many people don’t want to just stay traditional. They want to bring this art form into the contemporary era,” he said. But the melding of indigenous tradition with modern tradition poses serious questions for scholars and artists. “This medium is local and traditional. How do you continue that traditional aesthetic? The future of these art forms is a very big question,” Wu said.

He hopes the conference will allow Western scholars to engage and collaborate with their Chinese counterparts.

“Chinese scholars have been discussing these issues for years,” he noted. “We can learn from them. For Western scholars, I feel we still have to understand the core of the problem, the subtlety and nuances. It’s important that we go there to listen to the discussion while also participating.”

—Susie Allen