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Symphony 2019 exhibition by Fan Hongbin - The Innovation and Heritage of Ink-and-Water Painting

While standing by a stream, Confucius once said, “time passes on just like this [running water], not ceasing day or night!” (Analects, 9:17 Zhi Han).  Confucius’ remark is a moment of awakening to the transience of time, and it is also the perfect example of nature’s ability to touch and invigorate our faculties to spiritual understanding.  In the greater context of Confucius’ other teachings, such recognition of time’s forward march is not merely a passing observation, but is also a call to cultivate the self, and in doing so, to help build a better society.


This Confucian awareness of one’s human purpose in the greater context of society and the cosmos, and one’s relationship with nature permeated not only traditional Chinese philosophical teachings, but also literati thought in all aspects of their scholarly activities.  Out of all these activities, there is none that better encapsulates the philosophical underpinnings and virtuous ideologies of the literati than shuimo hua(水墨畫), or “water-and-ink painting”.  In fact, this genre of painting is also called wenren xieyi  (文人寫意), which literally means a scholar’s writing of ideas. The “ideas written” are a learned person’s perception of cosmic spiritual concepts, and the essence—a semblance, instead of a perfect realistic rendering—of the chosen subject matter. With its emphasis on connotation rather than perfect replication, shuimo painting is considered by Chinese intelligentsia to be a poetic summary that distils the values found in Chinese philosophy, aesthetic and culture.  Landscape paintings (shanshui hua), for example, with their grand sweeping scenes reflected a desire to bring order to the world, an aspiration to look at issues from a grand-scale perspective,  and an acknowledgement of humans’ position as tiny specks in the vast universe.  


A deep knowledge of Chinese philosophy is only part of the equation to a water-and-ink painting that fulfils traditional definitions.  Another prerequisite is a mastery of brush technique. Much in the same way that the stylistic representation of the subject matter reflects the artist’s inner world view, the very strokes and brushwork of the artist reflect their character.  Traditionally, the mastery of brushwork is grounded in the study of calligraphy, and one becomes adept through an extensive period of time copying exemplary works, before one can develop their own style—an important foundation that yet again hearkens to underlying tradition and cultural thought. Lastly, an accomplished shuimo hua artist is also required to be skilled in prose and poetry composition if they choose to inscribe the piece with writing, in order to express their thoughts more fully than their art alone can do.  


The distinctly metaphysical nature of water-and-ink painting, as well as its integral foundations in classic Chinese philosophy and literature, and aesthetic traditions means that the entry point to the composition and appreciate of shuimo painting can be very high, making it challenging to fully engage with. It is also challenging to take something so rooted in tradition and try to fit it in a modern context. But it is its ties to tradition and its layered depths of meaning that cemented its position as the highest form of artistic expression for a thousand years, a position which largely remained unchallenged until the later part of the 19thcentury. Such is the prominence of water-and-ink painting in Chinese art, that even today, it serves as the departure point for many (if not all) modern Chinese artists in their own art. Do they distance themselves from this tradition and lean towards more Western aesthetics? Or do they engage directly with it and try to modernize it? If they engage, to what extent should they feel beholden to tradition?  


It is in the context of this grapple between tradition and innovation that artist Fan Hongbin has placed himself. After many years of careful experimentation, Fan has found a balance that he feels furthers the continuous legacy of water-and-ink painting, but simultaneously advances its innovation and relevance to modern times. 


Much like the literati of old, Fan has conscientiously built his foundation of technique and tradition to reach a high level of mastery.  His education in art started at a tender age.  At age five he had convinced his family to find him a teacher for Chinese calligraphy and shuimopainting. In his 20s, Fan spent years visiting the major Buddhist grottoes in different parts of China, honing his skills in figure painting by studying and repeatedly retracing individual cave paintings of what is considered some of China’s finest Buddhist art, until he felt he understood the subtle nuances in the use of colors, lines, and shadows in the portrayal of the human form.  This empirical exercise of tracing and analysis helped Fan to become a well-respected expert and authority on authenticating Buddhist art, but more importantly, this deep immersion in the vibrantly painted murals—whose history literally spans dynasties—helped him to cultivate a fine sensitivity to colors, and a profound understanding of the development of Chinese artistic tradition and its underlying philosophies. 


It is Fan’s personal belief that “in order for one to go beyond the boundaries of convention, you have to know what convention is in the first place, which comes from study.” The culmination of his different experiences opened his eyes to see the possibility and necessity of developing a contemporary language for Chinese water-and-ink paintings.  Taking this idea of a new language to heart, Fan started experimenting.  His moment of breakthrough came when he was visiting Yunnan five years ago. In an epiphanic moment one morning, the bright sunshine shone through his window, and in combination with the magnificent colors of the environment outside, something in him was touched deeply.  This moment was akin to the experiences of the scholar gentlemen who found inspiration in nature. At that moment, visions of the colorful grottoes came back to him, and Fan knew that his chosen language for his paintings would be a language of colors—a language understood across cultures, time and space.


Fan Hongbin’s Symphony 2019 is therefore a collection of painting that uses the traditional mediums of water and ink, and xuan paper, but it is unabashedly colorful.  It represents the hard work and experimentation of a life time, and within its very vibrancy is joy and excitement. The color palette is decidedly modern in brightness, hue, and combination—the skies are fiery red or orange, or green and purple, and the mountains as colorful. But the philosophical underpinnings of his paintings are a legacy of traditional shuimo hua. Fan reverently respects the footsteps of the great Chinese masters before him in the metaphysical meaning of his composition, instilling similar spiritual messages of tranquility and peace, and a meditative mood akin to old landscape paintings. The familiar theme of cosmic interaction between human and nature is present in Fan’s paintings, but instead of having the landscape be in the foreground, it is now in the background, as people are brought to the forefront, highlighting a more individual, personal approach to the humanistic ideologies as conveyed in traditional paintings. What is so distinctive about Fan Hong Bin’s accomplishments in the genre of Chinese water-and-ink painting is his ability to innovate without forsaking traditional media, and without sacrificing the unique aesthetic and philosophical frameworks of the genre.  


Symphony 2019 is collection about the universal human emotions and truths that can be conveyed through color. Like a masterful symphony that transcends time and culture because of the emotions it can evoke, this collection of painting is also about the expression of emotions in a language that crosses barriers. 


Symphony 2019 exhibition by Fan Hongbin

September 26-October 26, 2019

Oi Ling Antiques, 72 Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong



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