Author: CUI RUZHUO 崔如琢
Signed and dated: Painted in 2019
Estimate: Estimate Upon Request
Final Price: RMB 120,000,000
One Sunday morning last summer I awoke in a wilderness cottage approximately two hours north of Manhattan. I flicked open my email and read a message from Beijing announcing an exhibition of work by the artist Cui Ruzhuo who many consider a leading figure of traditional ink painting in China. There was no image accompanying the text. So it was difficult to get a clear idea as to what the show was about. While I have done research on various contemporary Chinese ink artists in recent years, the work of Cui Ruzhuo (b. 1944) was less familiar to me than many other Chinese ink artists I had encountered in New York or in Beijing or Shanghai galleries.
My first response was to consider that traditional ink painting in China today is still regarded as having a more authoritative connoisseurship than contemporary ink art, the latter being relegated to the position of the
Nature And The Spiritual
avant-garde. By having an avant-garde status, it had ironically become more acceptable than ink painting coming from a traditional historical point of view. Glancing through the final paragraph of the message on my iPhone I noted an invitation to attend the artist’s grand opening in St. Petersburg slated for the 12th of September. The exhibition was being promoted as the largest ever shown by a Chinese artist in Russia, thus implying the artist’s importance. Was this an exhibition I really wanted to attend?
While I had been several times to China, I had never been invited to attend an exhibition in Russia before, let alone a Chinese exhibition in St. Petersburg. I reflected on the face that I had never seen the Hermitage, the statue of Pushkin, or the former Dobychina Gallery where the Suprematist paintings of Malevich were given their first exhibition in 1915. Finally, I had never walked the seedy streets of the neighborhood where Dostoyevsky was influenced to write Crime and punishment. While the offer to go to this extraordinary city of canals and bridges interested me, I retained a lingering curiosity about the artist Cui Ruzhuo and about the circumstances that informed my invitation. Marketing and politics are inevitably two concerns that enter into such invitations and are usually understated
Rather than equivocate, I sent an inquiry to a Chinese colleague with whom I had previously worked and whose analytical scope on such
matters is irrevocably to the point. His unfettered response read: 「Cui Ruzhuo is traditional in his approach to painting but amongst those who follow this path, he is one of the best.」 That was enough to spur my curiosity even further. Given the welcoming aura that accompanied my invitation, I made the decision to accept the offer to attend the artist’s opening, which would be held at the impressive, recently renovated Manege Exhibition Hall in the center of historical St. Petersburg.
A month later, I was there. The scrolls and paintings by Cui Ruzhuo on view in this vast hall were impeccably hung. The exhibition had three levels. Although a significant quantity of Cui’s work was on display, it was spaced properly and did not feel overcrowded. Visitors could move easily through the exhibition given the openness of the floor space and the soaring steel-girded ceiling with natural light pouring through(during the day). It could have functioned alternatively as an airline terminal. Even so, the sense of lightness and intimacy that surrounded Cui’s monumental hand-painted works was truly extraordinary.
One of the major works was a handscroll that ran 65 meters along a single wall. Titled (English translation ), Snow Lies on Red Maple Trees. Meanwhile the Sisban Mountains Stretch into the Distance (2015). It served as the silent masterpiece in the exhibition. Having spoken with the artist on several occasions (through an interpreter), my understanding is that Cui paints mostly with his hands and fingers with occasional intervertions requiring a brush. He claimed that his technique was entirely his own. This hand-painted ink quality gave his long scroll a particular resonance. While studying it for nearly an hour, I sensed a blend between controlled restraint and exuberant sensuous improvisation. In contrast to Western paintings, these qualities art not separated from one another, but occur simultaneously.
Somehow the notion of wu-nien (「no mind」) associated with Chan Buddhism appears omnipresent in this scroll (as well as in many other works included in this stupendous display). The snow scenes are intimate, yet filled with grandeur. Nevertheless the entangled markings on the snow, the paths, the piles, the deciduous trees, sporadically coated with red dots, give a special qi-yun to the atmosphere. The landscape surges ahead, always with momentum. The traditional build-up of momentum in ink painting requires internals or pauses by which the momentum is allowed to build, to open up, and gain speed. One can almost imagine the scroll as a score as sound builds over time, then ever slowly diminishing only to build again into a trembling resounding crescendo.
Again in the scroll, in observing some of the heavily inked areas, one can almost hear the pounding of the artist’s palms hammering
against the table on which the xuan paper is fixed as the artist moves through a densely discordant passage. Yet the remarkable control of his timing is most assuredly there. It is held within the moment of the sound as the sounds build up a recognizable space between the snow-beaten hillsides harnessed by a storm and deterrent trees bundled together as the wind blows through them. Every dark mark overlaid upon one another evolves in a fully conscious emptiness of mind. Through this observation, one may recall that after years, maybe decades of experience, the artist may understand the art of speed as being the source of precision in his automatist lexicon of marks and deftly scribbled striations that move in exact coordination with one another, laterally through the space of the scroll’s journey. This is the kind of evenly paced narrative that emerges only through nature when the internalization of nature is left to its own ecstatic and rejuvenating outpouring of 「emptiness.」
Another painting, closely related to the scroll, caught my attention from the year before. Titled At the Footbhill, the Willows Sink in the Fog (2014), this horizontal painting suggests segments of the longer work in which the atmosphere appears damp as the darkened landscape is becoming absorbed in wetness. Thus, the heavy layering of the ink from multiple applications accounts for the appearance of this saturated landscape. The nearly systemic diagonal applications of a light gray wash contribute to this effect. The snow on the mountain peaks in the distance is represented as black, not white, while the trees in the foreground are drenched in moisture, spotted with touches of green and red. Amid the deluge, there is fertility. In contrast to the long scroll, the season suggests a passage from one season to another, perhaps, the afternoon of winter into the first days of spring. There is an aura of turbulence or struggle between the forces of nature, a perennial theme found among painters of the Ming and early Qing dynasties, now brought into a new light as the familiar techniques from the academies of days gone by are in the process of being trans-formed and re-invigorated with revised forms of application involving the artist’s hands and fingers.
To understand the tradition behind these methods, one might consider the work of two important traditional Qing dynasty ink painters: One, the 18th-century. Manchu finger painter Gao Qipei (1660-1734), and two, the early 20th century ink painter Pan Tianshou (1897-1971), who, in addition to his career as an art educator and historian, was also a painter and calligrapher. Both artists were engaged in working with ink in direct relation to their fingers and hands. Gao Qipei, who was a civil servant under Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722), was a calligrapher and painter whose interest in ink painting with his fingers began in his early twenties. Eventually he
would grow the length of his fingernails to give more precision in his remarkable paintings.
A very different story at a later period. Pan Tianshou was born in Guanzhuang Village, Ninghai County, Zhejiang Province, near the end of the Qing dynasty prior to the founding of the Republic of China in 1911.
His experiments in finger ink painting began in 1922. In addition, Pan was a scholar appointed to direct the prestigious Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art from 1945-1947 and from 1957-1966. His academic tenure terminated at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. He died in Hangzhou in 1971.
Perhaps, the most significant historical figure for Cui Ruzhuo was the 17th century artist-monk and scholar, Shih Tao (1642-1707), who was considered among many an iconoclast. In addition to his ink painting, Shih Tao wrote one of the great art manifestos of the time, titled hua yulu or "compiled utterances on painting." This work, written near the outset of the Qing dynasty offered a point of view that went contrary to the academic standards of the previous Ming dynasty and opened up a new vicarious approach to painting, which had never been heard of before in China. It is important to note that the ink handling of Shih Tao was considered one of the most ingenious for its time, going against all the preparations, the rules and regulations of the Academy. Somehow Shih Tao’s declaration served as an appropriate culmination to the emphasis on propriety during the Ming period. His forceful pronouncement offered a resounding cry for freedom to which many painters of the Qing would respond, some favorably, however, not always to their advantage.
Given the originality and importance of Shih Tao’s paintings, Cui became a collector early on. He understood the importance of this painter who was able to envision the course ahead. For Chinese ink painting to remain vigorous and prescient it must represent the possibility of freedom for artists to invent and develop their own styles of painting, a point of view that Cui, during the course of his own career, has found important, perhaps, even enlightening. Therefore hands and fingers have continued to evolve as important in his work, including the long scroll from 2015, the masterpiece of his recent exhibition in St. Petersburg.
As mentioned earlier, the seasons as a motif in Chinese ink painting hold a profound place in the history of the medium extending back to the Tang dynasty before coming to fruition during the Sung dynasty (960-1279). Recall Cui’s long scroll, I considered that before the snow fell over the red maples, there was the season of autumn. The spirit (qi) of autumn emits yet another source of emotion, a relaxed preparation for the hidden qi that is yet to come. This is apparent in another ink work. In Autumn the Colors Brighten on the Lake and in the Mountain (2008), painted seven
years prior to the scroll. This painting is on xuan paper and is nearly square, measuring 74.5 x 71 cm. The ordered chaos of this ink painting reads differently from the paintings of a winter landscape. Here the obverse perspective reveals mountains in the distance, painted in a gray ink wash, with a river closer to the foreground. In the space of the river is a boat holding three figures. This is to suggest that the river is not actually shown, but is implied in the empty space. In the off-center foreground to the left, a chaotic tangle of dried foliage in black ink, most likely painted not with a brush but by hand, is anchored at the edge of the river’s embankment
Other works in the exhibition impressed me through their sheet grandeur, such as the large 12-paneled work on the ground floor, titled Welcoming the Arrival of Spring, the Snow Whirls (2014) a work comparable to the long scroll in its showy release of energy. The difference would be the scale of the 12 vertical panels with the repeated variations of whirling snow below the heightened horizon at the top of each panel.
Other relatively recent works, Gold Empty Pond (2015) and Sunset Spoiled by Snowfall (2013), have an incessant yet even-handed feeling of nature that feels closet to a Confucian than a Taoist aesthetic. This is to suggest then the expressive context evident in there works could hold political content, but not necessarily. In either case, the delivery of the ink painting, whether by hand or brush, is convincing in its completeness, is in the sense of wu wei in the resolute stillness of these landscapes that nevertheless seem to vibrate less through optical manipulations than through the expressive feeling that underlies the manner of the linear, often angular strokes and the depth and sheer lightness of application: the intensity is in how the ink resonates.
While the motif of the seasons plays an essential role in traditional ink painting, there is another important aspect that is undeniable: philosophy. Upon meeting Cui Ruzhuo at his reception, we soon entered into a lengthy discussion relative to the philosophical dimensions of his work with the help of my Chinese interpreter. It became clear that both the material and spiritual dimensions of his work required an understanding not only of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian ideas, but also more current references to Marxism and existentialism. It was an interesting discussion. But, most of all, it was the overwhelming aspect of seeing these large-scale ink paintings maneuvered with such control and audacity in the 21st century. This suggests that Cui Ruzhuo understands his art as a transition whereby the inherent qi delivered or released through wu wei is very much an issue that needs addressing in what Westerners might regards as a world beyond modernism.