"Tradition" is the word on everyone's lips at an ongoing exhibition at the Song Art Museum in Beijing.
But for those who think of museums as places for dusty old relics, not to worry. It's not an ancient or abstract exhibit.
With 96 artworks – spanning painting, calligraphy, sculpture, installation, and new media art – by 45 modern and contemporary Chinese artists, The Revival of Tradition aims to "show how tradition has served as a fertile source of inspiration for contemporary artists," said He Guiyan, the show's curator and an art critic.
In He's view, Chinese artistic traditions can be roughly divided into two types –"old traditions" and "newer traditions".
The "old traditions" mainly consisted of the literati painting and landscape painting produced during the classical era in Chinese history – the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (960-1911) that have been the primary inspiration for generations of artists.
Many a showpiece is steeped in these millennium-old traditions in one way or another.
For example, sculptor Li Xiangqun's Four Master Painters of the Yuan Dynasty, musing under the shades of the greeting-guest pines in the museum's court, conjures up images of ancient Chinese painting.
The four art giants of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) are Wang Meng, Ni Zan, Wu Zhen, and Huang Gongwang, creator of the world-famous landscape painting Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains.
The way the sculptor carved out these figures reminds viewers of the xieyi style of classic Chinese ink painting, which features a reduction in detailed brushstrokes.
These sculptures also bring out the literati painting tradition of Chinese ink art. The four masters blazed a trail in the tradition of this genre, which emphasizes the erudition of the painters who fused their craft with poetry and calligraphy.
Oil painter Yin Zhaoyang looks to another tradition for inspiration. Brimming with bold colors and vigorous expressiveness, his enormous works strike viewers as ancient ink wash landscape paintings transferred onto canvas.
"Tradition is like our innate habits which are associated with genes," the 50-year-old painter said.
Painter and sculptor Shao Fan's Circle & Chair: Circle appears to be a wooden round-backed armchair but is without a seat. It's part of the artist's conceptual series of reconstructed Ming Dynasty furniture, whose design, as the artist revealed, contains the essence of Chinese philosophy.
For example, the design of the round-backed armchair represents "a round sky over a square earth", an entrenched view of the universe in ancient Chinese societies.
Calligraphy, one of ancient Chinese intellectuals' most cherished pursuits, is also heavily featured at the exhibit.
Liu Jianhua's Trace is an eye-catching example. It is a series of wall-bound black porcelain pieces, which transforms a wall on the gallery's second floor into a large sheet of blank paper dotted with ink drops. Liu said he was inspired by wu lou hen (rain stains on the wall of a leaking house), an expression in Chinese calligraphy, where ink strokes are compared to shapes of water stains.
Next to Liu's Trace is a piece from Xu Bing's New English Calligraphy series the artist began creating in the early 1990s. Xu's calligraphy is familiar yet nonsensical to Chinese readers. But English readers can demystify the work, where the artist turns the letters of each English word into structures that resemble Chinese characters.
For this invention, Xu was awarded the MacArthur Foundation "genius" prize in 1999.
Gu Wenda, another internationally renowned Chinese artist, drew inspiration from Confucianism and the 24 solar terms the ancient Chinese used to describe the year's changes in season.
Gu's installation, Tian Xiang, literally "astronomical phenomena", is 24 rocks inscribed with unintelligible characters, each referencing one of the 24 solar terms. Sourced from the bottom of the sea in East China's Shandong province, the birthplace of Confucianism, the rocks are called Ru Shi (Rocks of Confucianism).
Along with the "old traditions", newer traditions – the cultural traditions formed during the century after the First Opium War (1840-1939), are also highlighted in the exhibition.
"The impact of Western arts and thinking, together with Chinese artists' endeavors in modernizing the country's culture, has formed a new artistic tradition," explained He, the show's curator.
In He's view, Sanyu (1901-1966) and Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), two eminent pioneers of modern Chinese painting in the early 20th century, belong to this tradition. Both Sanyu and Lin received solid training in traditional Chinese art before heading to Paris.
After World War I, China's intellectual leader Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) proposed "the Revolution of Art", part of the New Culture Movement to modernize the nation. Under the auspices of Chen's proposal, a generation of Chinese artists emigrated to Paris, then a world hub of intellectuals and artists, where they learned from Western visual arts to improve their own.
Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus, a small-sized oil painting on show, is widely believed as French-Chinese vanguard painter Sanyu's only work dealing with the theme of religion.
Despite the title, the work which portrays two figurines with indefinite looks also strikes many critics as the Child-giving Guanyin, one of the most popular Buddhist deities in China, as the goddess is believed to grant worshippers with healthy, intelligent babies.
Sanyu also used liu bai (leaving space), a technique held in high esteem by ancient Chinese painters, in this piece. He painted his subjects in a minimalistic style with a restrained palette, leaving vast swathes of the canvas blank. The use of liu bai enhances the sense of space in the painting, critics say.
Another key piece showcasing the new tradition is Egrets, an ink-and-color-on-paper painting by Lin Fengmian, who studied arts in the 1920s. The emotive qualities of Lin's work are often attributed to the influence of European masters such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Georges Rouault. But Lin painted this piece in a square format popular in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Emanating serenity and poetic melancholy, the work was rendered with rapid and smooth brushworks, lending a heightened sense of animation to the six creatures.
After his stint in Europe, Lin returned to China in 1925, becoming a prominent educator devoted to promoting the synthesis of the best of both Western and Eastern art.
The works of Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) and Zao Wou-Ki, two of Lin's renowned students, are also on show at the exhibition.
Both Wu and Zao studied and lived in Paris in the late 1940s. Wu is famous for fusing Fauvism and Chinese calligraphy, while Zao is known for combining the abstract and expressive styles of modern Western art with rich Chinese cultural traditions.
All these creations afford viewers with a "tradition-centered approach, a new approach among many others, to understanding and interpreting the history of contemporary Chinese art," He said.
As China is still in the throes of achieving deeper globalization, reviving tradition matters even more in terms of establishing our own cultural identity, the curator said.
The exhibit runs through Feb 21.
If you go:
10:00 am-6:00 pm, Tuesday to Sunday; Song Art Museum, Grass Road, Shunyi district, Beijing