ARTS: Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future: Master Ink Painters of 20th Century China

Exhibition ran from February 17 to July 4, 2010

The Cantor Arts Center in Stanford University hosted on March 7, 2010 an exhibition on the traditional Chinese ink paintings by the “Four Great Masters of Ink Painting” of the 20th century: Wu Changshuo (1844-1927), Qi Baishi (1864-1957), Huang Binhong (1865-1955), and Pan Tianshou (1897-1971). This exhibit’s selection shows how Western influence and China’s political turbulence in early 20th century affected artists’ expression since the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

Wu Changshuo was considered the most influential and forerunner of “modernized” Chinese painting. Wu’s style is characterized by bold and energetic brushstrokes that create a light and dark contrast through the wash technique to mimic the light and shadow on a subject during the day. Compared to traditional Chinese paintings of black ink, Wu uses red, pink, and other vibrant colors to paint his subjects; red is a color that was introduced by Westerners and used to make his subjects stand out from the contrast produced by the black brushstrokes. While his most famous subjects are plum blossoms, and climbing plants, Ding Tripod Cauldrons (rubbing, ink, and color on paper, 1902), a bogu tu painting of antiquities, stands out as the most Western influenced work. Inscriptions from bronze surface vessels from the Zhou dynasty (1046-771 B.C.E.) are rubbed with ink, pressed onto the paper, and embellished with peonies and plum blossom branches that arise from the vessels.

Following Wu’s footsteps, Qi Baishi developed his own unique style through his observations of nature. His work was inspired by his childhood memories, resulting in lively depictions of local wildlife: mice, chicks, shrimp, and crabs. The gray bodies in Shrimp (ink on paper, 1951) are made by successive washes of black ink with small, thin brushstrokes for the antennae and pincers. The different shades of gray give a sense of dimensionality and liveliness to the shrimps in contrast to the stark white background. In his figure paintings, line and color illustrate form and shape. Flowing brushstrokes depict the figures’ long robes and color washes indicate the various folds. The face and hands are the most detailed; eyes, hair, wrinkles, and hands are made with thin, delicate strokes that give his figures a lively and humorous air. The liveliness of Qi’s work, I believe, has to do with how he portrays his subjects. For example, he portrays a close-up view of Morning Glories (ink and color on paper, 1947) to show each petal using layers of color washes to convey the moisture of the flowers from the dew. Although Chinese art became more expressive through use of depth, color, and detail, the overall depiction of subject matter remain flat and 2-D.

Huang Binhong, by contrast, focuses solely on faraway landscapes of mountains rendered in high degree of detail. For example, Landscape in the Style of Song (ink and color on paper, mid-1920s) shows an expanse of mountains over a small stream. Fine black brushstrokes indicate individual trees and rocks and watery black ink recreate the moistness of the environment. Harshness of an environment is achieved using a dry brush (very little water is mixed with the ink) in the gufa yongbi style, brushwork made up of dots. Huang uses very little color; only an occasional light brown indicates the roof of dwelling in the cliffs. Since black is the most prominent color in his works, the landscape, although detailed, becomes dense and overbearing to look at. Also, Huang does not paint close-up views of scenery, such as individual dwelling. Only in the 1940s, he painted flowers showing their elegant beauty using less line and more color, yet the overall composition was less vibrant compared to those of Wu and Qi.

Of the masters, Pan Tianshou is the most revolutionary. He was known for painting illustrations accompanying the calligraphic poetry written by Mao Zedong (1897-1971) and for his subjects and painting techniques, which depart from Chinese tradition. Pan explores minor animal life, such as vultures and spiders, in a few works. His landscapes are often simple and abstract, consisting of rounded lines colored with an earthly tone to depict cliffs or rocks. However, his painting techniques were more diverse and westernized. In Water Buffalo in a Summer Pond (finger painting, ink, and color on paper, 1962), Pan uses his fingers to outline and add detail to the buffalo and background; and to apply colors. Faded black dots on the buffalo and rocks convey a feeling of abstractness but also depth. This Western technique is an indication of the types of influence during Pan’s time and suggests how Chinese art dealt with Western influences and observations.

Through the various painting styles and subject matter tackled by these four masters, it is clear that Chinese art successfully integrated Western ideals of art, as shown by Pan’s finger painting and Wu’s use of red, while maintaining traditional principles of brushstroke techniques and subject matter, such as plum blossoms and landscape. The art of this era also shows how political undertones influence the artist’s perspective. Seeing this exhibit has made me realize that the Chinese culture is still alive in this modern era and that these men were struggling to maintain their Chinese heritage amidst the wave of Western influence. The art in this exhibit is evidence that the Chinese spirit prevailed and will continue to do so in the records made by the brushstrokes of these masterful men.

More Information

Arts of Asia. (2010). Arts of AsiaThe Asian Arts & Antiques Magazine. Retrieved from

Cantor Arts Center. (2010). Works of Four Chinese Masters Premiere in America. Retrieved from

Cultural China. (2010, June 30). Arts- Calligraphy and Painting. Retrieved from

Pei, Ming L. (2010, June 1). Classical Chinese Paintings. Retrieved from