In this ‘Chinese Abstraction’ series, we attempt to comb through the origins and development of abstract art in China during the 1980s and 90s. As there are not a lot of archival materials and research on this topic, we focus instead on the artists, to gain an first-handed understanding and then explore the scope of research and criticism involved, hoping to present a more solid and comprehensive view on the phenomenon. For example, how do we understand the concept of abstraction under different cultural contexts? From the West to the East then back to art-making itself, how do artists approach abstraction? To do so, we need to return to the artists’ point of origin, and find out what they were exposed to and how they developed their individual styles.
INTERVIEW / Selina Ting, Kirsten Wang IMAGES / Courtesy of the artist
Shanghai artist Ding Yi (born 1962) is renowned for his abstract paintings such as Appearance of Crosses. The series was started in 1988. But the origin of the artist’s exploration of abstraction could be traced back as early as his student days: landscape paintings made in 1983. Ding Yi’s professional studies could be divided into two stages, the first is 1980 to 1983, where he majored in design at the Shanghai Art & Design Academy; the second is from 1986 to 1990, when he was enrolled at the Chinese painting department at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts. In fact, he had already started working on Appearance of Crosses in the latter phase. In this interview, we begin by looking at Ding Yi’s earliest works, attempting to trace his journey of abstraction for the past three decades.
Fauvism in Shanghai
From landscapes to abstraction, did you figure it all out by yourself? Did the design department and Chinese painting department teach this at the academy?
I learnt it all outside of class. So why was I painting landscapes that looked like the École de Paris and Maurice Utrillo (1883 – 1955)? My professor at the Shanghai Art & Design Academy was Yu Youhan (余友涵, born 1943), he was painting in a similar style that was influenced by Pissarro and Cezanne. But I was particularly drawn to Maurice Utrillo, so I borrowed a catalogue from Professor Yu. Perhaps I also saw Parisian street scenes like this around in Shanghai. I often took a painter’s box with me on the weekends to make sketches around Shanghai.
As a student, your works weren’t entirely figurative, they started exhibiting some abstract ideas.
While I was studying Utrillo’s work, it was 1982 or 1983, there was an exhibition of Guan Liang (关良1900 – 1986) in Shanghai. The retrospective showcased his earlier work that he made while studying in Japan. It was slightly fauvist, so it was comparable to Utrillo’s style. There were also life studies that he made when he visited East Germany with the Chinese delegation after the Liberation, oil paintings combining Chinese and Western styles, as well as ink paintings from later periods. My influences came from multiple directions. Although Utrillo was my most consistent subject of study, I had many sources of information and inspiration during my time at the Art and Design Academy. When studying Cezanne’s method, I painted Mount Putuo, as well as outlines of temples, trees, and islands, all because Cezanne painted many landscapes.
The brushstrokes in the painting Heroism (1983) seem to highlight an individualized heroism?
This could be my earliest abstract work. It has one focal point and outlines, like a landscape. Later on, I reflected on why I was so drawn to Utrillo. Perhaps it was because I was born in Shanghai and grew up there, and bore a continued interest and sensitivity to city streets and architectural structure. Even works today are related to the urban and architectural structure.
This painting is not entirely abstract either. I remember back then I watched a film called Breaker Morant, which was filled with heroic spirit and a majestic atmosphere. Perhaps I felt stimulated by it, and wanted to use abstraction to portray the film’s magnificence and individual grandeur, to represent the so-called “heroism”. This painting feels very imagistic, it has a kind of solemn quality, a little bit of bloody redness.
It seems that compared to other male painters of his time, Utrillo has more expressionist qualities?
What Utrillo depicted was a Paris without sunlight, one that was slightly gloomy. I was around twenty-years old at the time, and somehow felt an inexplicable sorrow. I was easily moved. Shanghai then was pretty much devoid of colors as it was an industrialized city. In a sense, Utrillo’s paintings were pretty ‘Shanghai’. In addition to occasional feelings of gloom, I also delved deep into researching his techniques. As you start to comprehend the expressive language of the West, you will find that many artists employed the same technique and method, including Picasso. As such, all of Picasso’s works in exhibitions I visited at the time equally attracted me. They exhibited an extremely complicated artistic language and technique, completely different from Chinese painting. Whereas we arrive at transformation within a single brushstroke, they produce intricate transformation by continuously layering brushstrokes.
In 1983, an Picasso exhibition opened in Shanghai. Why did that exhibition appear at that time?
Back then China had just begun Reform and Opening-Up, and started importing exhibitions. The West thought of China as a future market for cultural export. The cost for transportation and insurance for the cultural exchange programs was shouldered by the French, China simply provided a site, and dispatched police to escort the artworks from the airport to the museum. In the early nineties, I met these cultural officers from the consulates, they talked about occasions when the Terracotta Warriors traveled to Europe, or when their exhibitions came to China, and how they had always paid for it.
The first time I truly saw an original Western artwork was in 1978 or 1979, when I saw works from the Musée d’Orsay. It was an exhibition of 19th century French paintings of the countryside: there was the Fauvist André Derain, as well as the realist painters Millet and Corot from the Barbizon School. During my time at the Art and Design Academy, there were already exhibitions coming from the Boston Museum that showcased abstract works from the United States. From 1978 to 1979, there were many canonical shows, such as “250 Years of French Painting”, which attracted art students from all over the country to Shanghai.
Do you remember when renowned American paintings from Boston came to Beijing and Shanghai?
I was interested in the art movements, but I wasn’t particularly struck by Pollock’s work.
So your interest in abstraction is still rooted in French art such as Fauvism?
My in-depth study was indeed rooted in the Paris school. I liked Derain, and researched into his work. Among the older generation of Chinese artists who studied abroad, almost none of them did pure abstraction. Wu Dayu (吴大羽 1903 – 1984) was a little bit like that, but his works were more obviously imagistic. There was also Zhao Shou (赵兽 1912 – 2003), Guan Liang who painted in a Fauvist style.
How did you decide to take the route of abstraction later on?
Yu Youhan was a very important teacher who enlightened me a lot. He didn’t teach our class per se, a schoolmate saw that I like to paint so much and told me I should meet Yu Youhan. After being introduced to him, I brought over a pile of paintings and asked for his feedback. At that time, the Art and Design Academy was in the Shanghai suburbs of Jiading, so it made travels inconvenient. Teachers normally returned to their dormitories every other day, and used their spare time to paint in the evenings. Yu’s room was filled with paintings, some of which were devoted to figuring Picasso’s methods, others Cezanne.
The way I see Yu is that his whole life has been influenced by Cezanne: the core of his practice, his artistic judgement, his aesthetics, all took inspiration from Cezanne. Back then he had already started making abstract work. His earliest Circle series—one was black and the other white—he had not yet started making dots on the canvas. After I left school, I kept in touch with him. After graduating, I returned to the school as a teacher, and shared the same office as Yu. We often talked, as I witnessed how his works were produced, including the more complicated Circle and Mao series. His theoretical support for the Circle paintings came from Zhuangzi’s philosophy. However, as I pursued absolute precision, I was quite repelled by natural philosophy like Zhuangzi’s Free and Easy Wandering. While my abstract concepts were partly shaped by Yu, our footholds were completely different.
Ding Yi was born in Shanghai in 1962. He studied decoration design at Shanghai Arts & Crafts Institute from 1980 to 1983 and then completed a B.F.A. degree at Fine Arts College of Shanghai University in 1990. He has been making abstract paintings using crosses and grids since the late 1980s. The cross, whether a + or an X with thematic variation, is a motif that the artist has declared is a formal mark without meaning, in order to emphasize the rational approach to painting, while the context of this work is the industrial-paced development of the urban environment in post-socialist China. His series of paintings, whether predominantly black, based on tartan or else elaborated in intense fluorescent colors, all bear the title Appearance of Crosses with a date. His work can be found in many private and public collections, including Centre Pompidou in Paris, Daimler Art Collection in Berlin, DSL Collection in Paris, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, Long Museum in Shanghai, M+ in Hong Kong, and Yuz Museum in Shanghai.