author: Yang Wei
( Translated by Liu Weihong )
‘War Hawk’ is originally a proper term of politics which refers to those who advocate jingoism and aggressive military operation. Here in this paper it is used to discuss the artist Zhang Fangbai and his art, not only because of the great number of hawk totems in his works, but also his rhadamanthine cultural character. With his protest against the fad and trend, Zhang Fang-bai displays such a kind of idiosyncrasy as clear-hearted and direct-minded, being accordant with the tough attitude of so-called war hawk politics. Of course, the war hawk of art is basically different from that of politics. The tough attitude of War Hawk involves the intention of aggressive military operation, while the war hawk of art emphasizes on the integrity of independent personality. It also stresses the surpass of reality via certain cultural introspection. Just like what Zhang Fangbai says, ‘I prefer to stay away from being in trend excessively. I feel sometimes I am fighting against the society, against myself, or against the culture shaded by entire social environment. Once the trend gets overwhelming, I will begin to feel it questionable. Over these years, I have always believed that the ‘hawk’ has a kind of telepathy with me. I can feel that when I am lonely, it may comfort me; when I am timid, it may give me strength and courage. And all the time it is giving me a kind of willpower, which is also my artistic declaration to the world.’ ①
From the interpretation of Zhang Fangbai, we may see his cultural attitude and his original intention of showing hawks’ postures in his paintings. In fact, as a kind of fierce flying beast, hawks have always been related to strength in Chinese culture. There is such a saying in Chinese as ‘The hawk is so big and strong that it can swallow the whole world when it spread the wings’. How strenuous and commanding it is! No wonder Chinese traditional artists love painting hawks. They want to manifest that hawks not only have a sort of intrepid strength, but a certain invincible liberty. It is said that Tang Bohu, an artist of Ming Dynasty, once painted a picture of Flying Hawk. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it. So I know nothing about that painting. What leaves me a deep impression is The Hawk painted by Zhu Da, one of the Eight Greats ( the eight famous landscape painters of the late Ming and early Tsing Dynasty), in which the hawk was standing there, lordly and gracefully. Zhu Da was a descendant of loyal family of Ming Dynasty. In order to escape the control of a different race, he became a monk after Tsing Dynasty came to the throne. His paintings show his dissociation with the reality and his angry against the authorities, just like the hawk in his paintings which was supramundane, high and proud. This kind of cynical attitude reflects Zhu Da’s character－aloof and proud.
Zhang Fangbai has pointed several times that his artistic works are specially influenced by the Eight Greats. He thinks the influence as an abstract inheritance of Chinese traditional spirit. I don’t doubt at all that culture can stand long only because of the abstract inherited relationship. While, anyway, that is not my interest. My focus is on the interest of Zhang Fangbai in Chinese traditional culture. Why does he have so much passion for the Eight Greats and insist in carrying on their legacy? On this question, we have to turn back to the present time, and back to Zhang Fangbai’s cultural decision in such a background.
As we all know, China has been a nation developing out to the world since 19 century. But this kind of ‘development’ didn’t originate from its initial motivity, but the influence of the West. Just as what Lu Xun once said, ‘it didn’t move until it was whiped by a big lash.’ It was this situation of being oppressed that forced Chinese people to think about self-tradition, which not only helped accomplish the May 4 New Culture Revolution, but also start the trend of learning from the West. Over a hundred years, China has been involved in the trend, saying goodbye to its own tradition. What’s more, under the open policy, China has made the West as its model to pursue, and stepped into the express track of speeding development during the late 30 years. Undeniably, the learning from the West is a timely help for the survival of the endangered Chinese tradition. The open policy has greatly inspired the advancing of productivity and brought the liberation of ideology. Nevertheless, the progressive course has brought some kind of negative senses of being lost as well, among which the biggest one is the retreat of the principle part of culture, i.e. in the hope of walking to the world, our self-awareness has become gradually mere figurehead over the westerners, being homelessly without even knowing it.
Zhang Fangbai was born in 1960s, the time of Chinese social transform in 20 century. Early in the late of 1970s, Zhang Fangbai began to learn painting. The artistic training made him more sensitive to Chinese social unsteadiness and change. In the late of 1980s, he was admitted by Academy of China Central Fine Arts (ACCFA). He left his hometown Hunan province and came to Beijing. In Beijing, the cultural centre of China, he saw the reality of fad and trend. Once in a while, he was excited by the dramatically changing reality, and made some daring attempts in art. He is said to have had quite a few behavior art while he was a university student in ACCFA. No matter in the form or the content of art, Zhang Fangbai has rushed to the front of the time. But things will normally turn to the opposite direction when they become extreme. After 1989, in more exquisite unsteadiness, Zhang Fangbai suddenly changed, from an impulsive and indulgent painter to a deep and silent artist. Since then, his paintings has changed as well, from the influence of the Western expressionism to the deep effect of Chinese cultural tradition.
In 1991, Zhang Fangbai graduated from ACCFA. In the same year, he had his personal paintings exhibition in the gallery of ACCFA, including the series of Real-life. Later Zhang Fangbai explained about this group works, ‘I didn’t name them ‘Real-life’ at first. In fact, this series of paintings is something like human beings or not. It’s only a simple body, something like a lonely man, a symbol of a man or not, or an image of a ghost. Because I was a little bit lonely and isolated at that time. The estrangement from the reality made me immerse into my own ghost.’ ② From his explanation, I understand why Zhang Fangbai tended to be related in spirit with the Eight Greats. Like the Eight Greats, Zhang Fangbai also experienced the dramatic unsteadiness of time, the desolation and loneliness of life. As a way of clearing up the blocks in their mind, painting makes them resonate over the time. Therefore, their works possess a kind of internal quality about ghost world.
On the base of the series of Real-life, Zhang Fangbai got related with the spirit of Eight Greats over the outside influence, which seemed to help decide his paintings evolve from the nonobjective human body to the nonfigurative hawk. As I have said above, as a representative of strength, hawks have a magnificent symbolistic meaning in Chinese traditional culture. This symbol may substantiate one’s personality, and upgrade one’s character as well. The Eight Greats preferred to paint hawks, because they needed such a totem to reflect their aloofness in face of the troubled times. Zhang Fangbai decided to inherit their legacy, making the hawk as his own artistic symbol, because he also needed that totem to convey his idea to show his spurn against the trend.
In fact, in Zhang Fangbai’s paintings, the totem of hawk has already been not a simple symbol. The rugged brushwork in his paintings gives us an impression of layers of thick texture. All of these are against the trend of complanate smear from a contradictive point of view.
Superficially, the transfer of the trend of present Chinese art, i.e. from the attention of inside spiritual problems to outside social politics, has resulted in the massive appearance of advertising pictures, which seems to have something with public spread in the age of media. Some people defend it as the following: since art cares about public problems, it should be spread in a public way in order to show directly artists’ intention. It seems to be a reasonable logic, but actually it is a defilade of the problem. Today, with more and more frequent international communication, the using of ichnography as an output model may only simplify Chinese culture, and bring about a kind of direct artistic language, which takes on the influence of western bop art meanwhile as it pulls out its spiritual nature. This is the tragedy of Li Xianting’s ‘spring-roll’ style ( Li Xianting, a famous Chinese art critic who is regarded as Chinese modern art’s ‘godfather’ by the West.), and it is also the cultural bad luck faced by Chinese art after it broke away from its traditional contexture over one hundred years. Apparently, Zhang Fangbai doesn’t want to follow the same old disastrous road. He evolves his paintings from the series of Real-life to the totem of hawk. What he inherits is the human tradition of self-broken. In his paintings, Zhang Fangbai stresses the sense of the canvas’s strength with his rugged expressional language in order to overpass the complanate reality.
Talking of his love for rugged but powerful artistic style, Zhang Fangbai explained, “when I was early in Hunan, I used to draw pictures of human figures on straw paper with a brush. Aesthetically, I like something rugged but powerful, which seem to have connection with the heroism of my generation. Aesthetic in that age emphasized particularly on things of simple and powerful. Probably due to my own temperament, I have always been dreaming and loving for those things, never been interested in other things. When I appreciated the painting book of Zhao Wuji ( a great famous Chinese artist, who is now lives in France) , I guessed that he was an artist born in South China, somewhere in Jiang Su or Zhe Jiang…. Hunan is a historical province of war fire and blood, which may always give us a feeling of natural strength and power. Chairman Mao wouldn’t write those shabby lines, all he composed are those verses full of strength and power. From the examples above, we can see that a man’s temperament can not divided from his living environment.” ③
This is the self-analyse of Zhang Fangbai, conveying the significance of cultural reflection. Undoubtedly, this kind of cultural reflection provides us an approach to understanding Zhang Fangbai and his art. We can see that he penetrates his art into tragic ideology, due to his temperament and the influence of some culture. It is the combination of the heroic culture influence and his stalwart character that helps succeed Zhang Fangbai and his art. He disdains the plain and trite expressions, esp. those which are sentimental and emotional. He is charmed by something mighty and majestic. He loves for simple but firm human power. Therefore, Zhang Fangbai classifies himself as ‘war hawk’, and associates himself with the Eight Greats in art. The fates of Eight Greats were full of sadness, while Zhang Fangbai’s rugged but powerful artistic style, which was created from his tragic ideology, provides us an unflinching spiritual symbol beyond the encroach of outside culture.
①、②、③, consult Zhang Fangbai: I don’t believe the trend by Wang Meng, from ‘art international’ web, August 6, 2009.
Dec 17, 2009