Summarizing the development of art in the West, the artist Chen Hengke (1876-1923) described Western painting as typically faithful to forms.

In the late nineteenth century, however, there was a break with tradition and a new focus on the subjective at the expense of the objective.

Switching his focus to China, Chen wrote that by this measure, Chinese art had always been inherently modern in its emphasis on the expression of ideas rather than the verisimilitude of forms.1

Indeed, centuries before the Bloomsbury Group in England articulated the idea, the cultivated gentleman scholar of China practiced art for art’s sake, having no need to paint for money.

It is supremely ironic then that the founding father of modern Chinese art, Xu Beihong, gained fame because of his use of the most conservative of Western representational techniques (albeit to represent Chinese themes—very much like the founding father of modern art in India, Raja Ravi Verma).

 

Further underlining the absurdity in the division of Chinese art into “traditional” and “modern,” eminent modern artists of our era have borrowed heavily from “traditional” Chinese art.

 

Take, for example, the modern Indian artist V.S. Gaitonde (1924-2001). Although he spent time in New York during the heyday of the Abstract Expressionists, in the end he turned to a very Eastern tradition: Chan (Zen in Japanese) Buddhism. Gaitonde strived to achieve the Chan ideal of stillness through his art. In the style of the Chinese scholar artist, he painted in a monochromatic palette with ink or ink and wash on paper.2

If the “traditional” is in fact the essence of “modern,” then it follows that these distinctions do not make any sense outside of a Western context. Some rethinking of labels is in order…

Trop small with birds nest