The Skies of Faith--On A Ding's Paintings
There is a theme in Chinas twentieth century aesthetic history that is worthy of attention: paintings with Tibetan themes. Beginning with the Tibetan themed paintings of Zhang Daqian, Wu Zuoren, Dong Xiwen, and others in the 1940s, these formed a full 70 years worth of paintings with Tibetan themes. The reason for this is that Tibets unique geography and culture provide artists an endless source of inspiration and creation. Tibets mysterious, pure, plateaued geographical environment gives to the people of the world an emotive reverie that turns this theme into an artistic resource that has become, in the history of Chinese art in the 20th century, an important issue worthy of research.
Tibetan themes are not merely new themes for modern art to be sensitive about and to make inquiries about. In fact, these themes also embody the self-reflection on modern civilization in the 20th century. All of the discussion and research about the sanctity of Tibets culture and geographical environment is in reverse contemplation and reflection on modern civilization, and is a part of the great issues of world history. Tibet is not praised as the roof of the world just because of its high and steep terrain, but more importantly because of Tibets unique traditional culture and tenacious spiritual faith that all people so revere.
With regards to Tibets artistic creativity, there are many methods by which we can discuss and express this creativity. This Tibetan world with its icy clean features, its Tibetan people in their snowy highlands, their temples and houses that stand towering above - all of these are subjects worth painting. Speaking from the perspective of research on the history of aesthetics, the artistic discourse structure that informs the paintings is something that we can discuss fully, as it encompasses not only ethnographic research, but also geographical and cultural integration, cultural landscape reconstruction, and research on political and social changes. The more one uses the wealth of scholarly theories to do research on this theme, the more one discovers the global significance of this theme. A Ding is an artist who was born and raised in the area between Sichuan and Tibet, and hence possesses the forthright, free, and uninhibited personality of the people from this area. He later left Sichuan for Yunnan and lived for many years in the city of Lijiang where he used his own solid ability to draw to create his own artistic world. Later on, because of repeated invitations from friends, A Ding moved to Xian city where, because of Xians grand historical heritage and heroic Qinling mountain culture, he settled down to live. In Xian, A Ding became even more obsessed with artistic creativity.
After several years, A Ding animated his paintings with his own life sentiments, and even today his artistic expressions of the lofty snow country are even more profuse with emotion. In his artistic creations, moreover, the paintings that he loves the most, that he is best at painting, and that he is most careful about, are paintings on the theme of Tibets snow lands. A Ding has many times visited Tibet, has become close with Tibetans, knows well the culture in the Tibetan regions, and has taken his familiarity with this region and transformed it into an emotional familiarity. In his terms, when he looks at the Tibetan regions, he is not merely seeing the regions but rather a great land of sanctity and spirituality that implies a kind of wonder that exists in the world, a place that allows people to meditate, prostrate themselves, and communicate with spirits.
In his heart, A Ding felt a deep love for Tibet because Tibet charmed his spirit and became a force for artistic inspiration. Over the years, the reason that he kept going to Tibet again and again was just because this inspiration attracted and fascinated him. Every time he went to Tibet to draw and to photograph, he wanted to record such feelings. Later on, he used a paint brush meticulously to portray all of these supernatural signs, to give them a lifelike depiction, and to allow the sacred images of these lofty snow lands to exist forever in our minds.
In fact, this is a statement of a cultural faith, and also a statement of the human spirit, and even more so the pursuit of an internal belief. On this level, art with Tibetan themes is not merely the depicting of scenery and landscapes, but more importantly it is art that possess an internal appeal to the human spirit, and a religious spirit that transcends secular material desires. Either one discovers a steadfast spirit, a pure faith, and a modest human nature, or one merely finds strangeness, desolation, and bleakness. In fact, this world does not think of a profound belief as merely joy in worldly pleasures or the love of great wealth. On the contrary, a profound belief is understood as the aspiration for and the tracing of timeless values; and even more so, a profound belief is the hope that, by means of a commitment, one will obtain purification. Even if mankind were granted a strength that would last for a thousand years without flagging, then I think that this strength would be a strength of belief, of faith, and of the spirit. Reviewing the history of mankind, in the distant past, a variety of unfavorable turns in life that resulted in misfortune and distress have befallen mankind, but what extends throughout mankinds existence without fail is just mankinds steadfast faith. From the East to the West, from ancient times to the present, it is almost always spiritual inspiration and faith that lead a battered mankind out of encounters with misfortune and crises, one after another.
A Dings Tibetan paintings seek just this kind of spiritual road, and reproduce just this kind of faith. Every single image on his canvasses is full of such expressions of faith: no matter whether the painting is of a hand holding a bunch of flowers, or Shakyamuni showing a flower to his disciples, the faces are full of kindness. Some paintings show believers making the nine prostrations and three kowtows. Even if they are doing so to a monument, their lowered bodies express sincere belief in and joy at the possibility of crossing to the other shore of nirvana. Some paintings show believers with their hands holding prayer wheels, their minds yearning for the Bhūtatathatā, while they continue to walk on their pilgrimage with a majesty that moves the viewer. Some paintings are stalwart portraits of Tibetans at peace, watching the world with serenity, without any distracting thoughts. A Dings paintings of these Tibetan believers making a pilgrimage is in fact A Ding painting his inner desires. A Ding uses a fair, calm, and egalitarian state of mind to hold a dialogue with the sacred. Faced with holiness and purity, those who aspire to such a dialogue must purify their minds!
After residing in Xian for five years, A Ding had become accustomed to the majestic scenes of the Qin Ling mountains, an area in which compassion comes first, and tranquility is fundamental. This area itself helps dispel the ego, as one loses oneself in the grandeur of nature. Shaanxi province allows one to appreciate the aura and grandeur of Chinas ancient places. In Shaanxi, A Ding, by looking back on the Sichuan-Tibetan plateau, painted that plateau with even more profundity. A deepening of his infatuation with and love of Tibetan culture promoted his artistic expressions. Under his brushwork, Tibet becomes a symbol of faith and a spiritual environment. A Ding uses his paintings to over and over again slough off the endless earthly cares and wash away troubles, until the painting directly presents a simple image of the soul. This then is A Dings goal, and also the goal that makes his soul blossom. From this we can see that painting is a means of self-cultivation, something that has a long tradition in China. Today, painting can also reflect an orientation to new values. At the same time, we can use paintings to observe and research Chinas modern paintings with Tibetan themes, as this will allow us to acquire new inspirations and new ways to do research. After exhaustively researching the folk style perspective, it would be worthwhile to develop research on Tibetan paintings from the perspective of the history of cultural beliefs. A Ding relies on his mind to undertake a retrospective of his own faith, and we in the present age need to recover our spiritual home by building it on a greater belief in the ethical dimension: we are forever being moved by the visual sense to ponder our past and present - and how heavy and prolonged this pondering will be.
July 26, 2012 in Beijing
Wang Chunchen, who holds a doctorate from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, is a critic and a curator currently employed by the Art Gallery of the Central Academy of Fine Arts where he is engaged in contemporary art theory and studies of criticism. Dr. Wangs academic focus is criticism of contemporary images and their development, the transformation of contemporary painting, and theories of cultural criticism and art.
Dr. Wang has developed a curriculum that includes courses on foreign art history, modern art and design, contemporary art theory, contemporary art criticism, criticism of contemporary images, and so on. Dr. Wangs publications include: Art Since 1940 (2006), The Phenomenology of Painting (2006), New Thinking about Decor (2006), After the End of Art (2007), The Abuse of Beauty (2007), Interpretations of Art (2008), The Language of Art History (2008), Cai Guoqiang: I want to Believe (2008), and other such works on aesthetic theory and translations of books and articles on art. Exhibitions that Dr. Wang has curated include: Historical Sites and Statues (Beijing), Visions: the Psychology of Urban Images (Beijing), Perspective: An Exhibition of Contemporary Art (Hong Kong), A Study of Image Dynamics (Beijing), A Youthful Horizon (Beijing), Supernatural: An Exhibition of Chinas New Century Photography (New York), Past and Present: An Exhibition of Chinas Contemporary Art (South Korea), Puzzle: An Exhibition of Images from China by Five Artists (London), The Dao of Ink and the Characteristics of Dharmas: An Exhibition of Jizis Art (Beijing), An Exhibition of International New Media Art (Beijing), Curator for the China Pavilion at the Venice International Art Biennial (2013).
Translated by E. F. Connelly, PhD