Reflection on Connotation and Legitimacy of Different Civilizations in Christian Lu’s Paintings

Lü Peng 

November 18, 2014

In recent years, “new ink-wash painting” has become the most eye-catching artistic form in China’s mainland. This innovative conception is siphoning off zests not only from capital market, but of critics, and even, of researchers of art history. With profitable sales of paintings of some new-generation artists, “new ink-wash paintings” are enormously arousing high attention. However, people diverge to a large extent in perception of this nova. Although “new ink-wash paintings” seem to highlight the legacy of traditional ink-wash paintings from the perspective of “Confucian orthodoxy,” its appellation and implication of practice over nearly a century are reminding us that it belongs to a new “tradition” deriving from the May Fourth Movement. On the other hand, it remains heir of traditional ink-wash paintings in terms of medium, but it presents “counterrevolution” against traditional ink-wash paintings when it comes to ideological connotation and artistic purport, posing doubts and challenges to “old tradition.” 

The reason why “new tradition” comes into our mind in the first place is because we are still embracing “revolutionary tradition” under the flag of the “May Fourth Movement.” Or, if we unleash our vision and let go of our ideology, we will find ourselves constrained in the tradition of the “Westernization Movement” or the “Hundred Days’ Reform” implemented in the way of “learning advanced technologies from the West to improve ourselves.” We should start meditation from 1840 to understand the history after 1919. Over a century or since more than 150 years on, to what extent have we gotten rid of the anxious mood of “imitation?” or is it because we have no other choices but repeatedly follow the West as an apprentice? By contrast, traditional calligraphy has been immune from such an impact from the West while traditional painting has witnessed a dramatic self-renewal, which confined Zhang Daqian and Xu Beihong who historically differed from each other to the same age with the same anxiety and appeal. In an era bearing invasion of Western ideology, system, culture and even languages in China, everything was expecting changes and reform. Given ever-present debates on the relationship of “ideology” and “technology,” a burning question culminates in the choice between to express new thoughts and a new world through China’s traditional calligraphy and paintings and to renew Chinese ideology with Western materials. This also remains an inevitable and tough question to artists who are lingering around between ink-washing paintings and Western paintings.

Although both Zhang Daqian and Xu Beihong began their painting career by learning traditional calligraphy and paintings, they all studied and engaged themselves in Western paintings in part. If Zhang Daqian represents “using advanced technologies of the West to serve China’s Confucian orthodoxy” in the “Westernization Movement,” Xu Beihong must be on behalf of “learning advanced technologies from the West to improve ourselves” in the “Hundred Days’ Reform.” If the two are defined as landmarks, it is natural to comprehend that Christian Lu’s paintings embody the style of his mentor Zhao Wuji, who, with his disciple, belongs to this more profound tradition. Without consideration from this angle, the access to specific painters will lack integrity and sense of history which are more important than criticism and artistic creation.

Thanks to his family education tradition and study tours that allowed him to contact numerous prestigious calligraphers and painters, Christian Lu’s experience in painting learning resembles those of witnesses to the vicissitude of Chinese paintings. His study in Paris also shows us a sense of historical circulation. We could feel the efforts he imbued in traditional ink-wash paintings drawn thirty years ago. It is Zhao Wuji who totally influenced Christian Lu in terms of medium and form of painting and bestowed a decisive change on him. However, an obvious difference is that the nature of Christian’s works is still traditional compared to that of Zhao, a totally different way of mergence. This could be echoed in literature by Francois Cheng who studied at Institute de France while Zhao went to France’s Academy of Fine Arts. Both of them were fully aware that only thorough mergence into France and the West could guarantee seamless acceptance.

However, to draw “images” of traditional Chinese paintings with Western materials, or to express Western “ideology” and even “images” with Chinese materials, that is a question. The former witnessed a well-known failed attempt in China’s modern art history and the latter has been demonstrated in “new ink-wash paintings” on a regular basis in recent years. Actually, there is another possibility: to express Chinese “ideology” with Western materials, a try initiated by Zhao Wuji but improved greatly by Christian Lu. Although Christian’s works completed through Western medium seemingly bear no distinction from ordinary abstract paintings, people familiar with traditional Chinese paintings will not miss the conveyed “ideology.” This is not the “style of stroke” in a traditional way, but more profound as the opposite to “image” in the zero-sum game of “ideology” and “image.” Is it ink and wash or “style” and “ideology” conveyed by the media that really define both real landscape and genuine landscape paintings?


This is a question that cannot be answered at a stoke, but Christian’s works indeed generate new inspirations. In recent years, serious reflections and discussions on legitimacy of “Chinese philosophy” and other Chinese academic conceptions and disciplines have been conducted by Chinese ideologists. Beginning with the introduction history of Western theories occurring 150 years ago, scholars have pursued an “ideological archeology” of our own survival. For this “archeology” is far from enough for Chinese art, it is necessary to initiate “artistic archeology” to give a conclusion to the vicissitude of Chinese paintings in a span of 150 years. Every try for this “archeology” is meaningful. The distance between Chinese artists in Europe and America and the Chinese art should be considered as some kind of protection in some way. Artistic works created by overseas Chinese are endowed with special values after unique tempering as a result of globalization.