Zhao Zhunwang keeps the ink flowing

 

By Guo Ying

Throughout his career, Chinese ink painting artist Zhao Zhunwang has focused on the beauty of Beijing, while opening himself and his art up to modern times and the rest of the world.

The Beijing-born artist integrates Western painting styles with traditional Chinese ink painting techniques, offering unique perspectives on both his hometown and cities abroad.

Zhao has a deep attachment to Beijing, which serves as unending inspiration for his work. He still remembers the good old days when he would cycle for five hours to the Summer Palace and paint scenes from the Beijing landmark in his sketchbook.

After settling in the U.S. as a visiting professor at Northwestern University in 1991, he dedicated himself to cross-cultural communication activities. He held an exhibition in San Francisco in 1995, showcasing his ink paintings of the landscapes of San Francisco and Beijing.

“Americans were very excited to find that their familiar city views had been painted in an exotic way. But for me, it was more nostalgia than a painting exhibition,” Zhao says.

Zhao returned home in early 2001 to support Beijing’s bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. He took part in the exhibition “Famous Painters in Beijing,” and his paintings were collected in an album given as a gift to members of the International Olympic Committee and foreign leaders, such as former U.S. President George W. Bush, in early 2001.

The constant and continuous changes in Beijing’s landscape inspired Zhao to extend his themes. Not limiting himself to old Beijing and nature, he also captures the metropolis’ rhythm and vitality.

During his years living in the U.S., Zhao systematically studied Western painting styles. As a result, his work is influenced by ideas and shape concepts of Western painting.

Meanwhile, though they have found a shared muse in Beijing, Zhao’s juxtaposition of Western and Chinese painting styles is dramatically different from that of other Chinese artists turning out East-meets-West work.

“Chinese ink painting is widely regarded as a way to depict great rivers and mountains or broad landscapes. But when I am doing modern metropolitan-themed paintings, I experiment with an abundance of bright colors, which is rare in traditional Chinese ink painting,” Zhao explains.

His unique painting style is evidenced in a 10-meter-long scroll that romantically joins Beijing and London with the clouds and the sea. It served as the focal piece at an exhibition held in London’s Barbican Center in August 2012 to show Chinese artists’ passion for the 2012 London Olympic Games.

“At the beginning, I planned to use oil paint, which might be more familiar to Western audiences. But Chinese ink painting is a more romantic way to express this theme. The dots and lines, as well as the brush strokes, of ink painting can vividly convey the message of beauty in the vertically and horizontally intertwining landscapes,” Zhao says.

“In my view, Chinese and Western paintings are not oppositional. I try to dig up the essential beauty of Chinese ink painting through Chinese brush strokes and the Chinese way of adding color, hoping to get the idea across to Western viewers,” he adds.

His paintings have been sold at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and other art auctions, and he believes there is enormous market potential for paintings that reflect current times.

To remain relevant and stay alive, he believes the ancient art form needs to keep pace with modern times.

“Ink painting artists should use their brushes to record the substance and the spirit of their time. Only in this way can the traditional art form sustain its vitality,” Zhao said.

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