The remarkable renaissance in Chinese art
More than half of the world's best-selling painters and sculptors today are from Asia – a major shift after 500 years of domination by Western art. Andrew Johnson reports.
With its £2 trillion surplus, China's economic might dominates the world. Now its painters and sculptors are developing, collectively, into a contemporary arts superpower. Asian artists, and in particular those from China, dominate a new list of the world's best-selling contemporary artists of last year. Among the world's most sought-after artists are the unfamiliar names of Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi.
2004's 'Tiananmen' by Zeng Fanzhi.
Of the world's 20 top-selling artists, 13 are from Asia, with 11 coming from China. Asian artists make up six of the top 10 biggest sellers at auction, five of which are Chinese. Experts predict that within a decade, the term "Asian art" will be as widely used as "Western art" and will be responsible for most global sales.
The annual survey of the global art market by the auction tracking site Artprice and the Axa insurance company lists the 500 top-selling artists at 2,900 auctions between July 2007 and June 2008. While the top four selling contemporary artists at auction were the Western superstars Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst and Richard Prince, almost all the rest are Asian. Other Chinese artists in the top 10 include Wang Guangyi and Yan Pei-Ming. Japan's Takashi Murakami comes in at number eight, while the Indian-born Anish Kapoor, who lives in England, is number 18. It is a seismic shift in an art market dominated by the Western tradition for almost 500 years.
"The total auction revenue generated by 100 Chinese artists in 2003-4 amounted to £860,000," the report says. "The same 100 generated total revenue of £270m over the last 12 months. Of these 100, three are striking for having each generated more than £26m."
Vinci Chang, head of sales at Christie's Asian contemporary department in Hong Kong, said: "These artists grew up in a post-Mao China and have seen a country under decades of turmoil and political and social change. All this has informed their work."
Such is the interest in Chinese art that Charles Saatchi has opened his new gallery in Chelsea with an exhibition of new Chinese talent. Originally, he said, he found Chinese art as very "kitschy" and "derivative". "But there's enough stuff to put on a good show," he said in 2006. "My rule is: if you can put this in the Whitney Biennial and nobody is going to say, 'Oh, that's very good for a Chinese artist,' then that will be fine."
World’s 20 top selling artists
The Chinese artist is seen as an exponent of 'political pop'. His work, including 2005'2 'Porsche', left, combines the styles of communist propaganda posters with consumer logos. 'Stylistically merging the government enforced aesthetic of agitprop with the kitsch sensibility of American pop, Guangyi's work adopts the Cold War language of the 1960s to ironically examine the contemporary polemics of globalisation,' according to the Saatchi Gallery.
Murakami is regarded as one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking Japanese artists of the 1990s. His work ranges from cartoon-like paintings and almost minimalist sculptures to giant inflatable balloons. He also puts on performance events and designs factory-produced watches, T-shirts and many other commercial products. Murakami, 46, is credited with creating the 'superflat' style of painting, which features flat planes of colour and graphic images derived from the Japanese traditions of anime and manga. Much of his work is emblazoned with his signature character, Mr DOB.
Zhang is known for his surrealist paintings, with Picasso and Dali among his influences. His Bloodline series of paintings, including 'Big Family', right, feature stylised and monochrome portraits of Chinese people in stiff, formal poses, which recall portraits done in the 1950s and 1960s.
Zeng is among the most sought-after Chinese contemporary artists. He combines expressionist and realist styles in his work, which often deals with relationships between people. His series of Great Man paintings – featuring Karl Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao among others – appear at first glance to be official portraits, but subvert the traditional representations with use of monochrome and expressive brush strokes. Pictured above: 2004's 'Tiananmen'.
Yue is a member of the Chinese 'cynical realist' movement. He is noted for depicting 'cloned doppelgängers', grotesquely contorted with maniacal grins, such as 2005's 'Backyard Garden', left. The forced jollity of his anti-heroes echoes modern anxieties.
World's 20 top selling artists
1 Jeff Koons, born 1955 in Pennsylvania, incorporates kitsch imagery. Sold £69.4m in the past year.
2 Jean-Michel Basquiat, born 1960 in Brooklyn, New York, was a graffiti artist who died in 1988. Sold £54.3m.
3 Damien Hirst, born 1965 in Bristol, a key member of the Young British Artists. Sold £45.7m.
4 Richard Prince, born 1949 in Panama, is an American painter and photographer. Sold £33m.
5 Zhang Xiaogang, born in 1958 in China's Yunnan province. Sold £32.3m.
6 Zeng Fanzhi, born in 1964 in Wuhan, holds the auction record for a contemporary Asian artist. Sold £27.8m.
7 Yue Minjun, born 1962 in Heilongjiang. Sold £27.8m.
8 Takashi Murakami, born 1962, Tokyo, Japan. Possibly the best known Eastern artist on the list. Sold £15.5m.
9 Wang Guangyi, born 1957, in Heilongjiang. Sold £11.7m
10 Liu Xiaodong, born 1963, Liaoning. Painter and photographer documented the controversial Three Gorges Dam project. Sold £10.5m.
11 Cai Guo-Qiang, born 1957. Performance artist who uses gunpowder to produce 'explosive events'. Sold £10.1m.
12 Yan Pei-Ming, born 1960, Shanghai. Best known for epic portraits of Mao Zedong and Bruce Lee. Sold £9.9m.
13 Chen Yifei, born 1946 in Zhejing. Among the first to break into Western art market. Died in 2005. Sold £9.7m.
14 Fang Lijun, born 1963, Hebei. Painter of the 'cynical realism' school. Sold £9.6m
15 Liu Ye, born 1964, veteran of the post-1989 avant-garde movement. Sold £8.8m.
17 Zhou Chunya, born 1955, Sichuan. Renowned for green portraits. Sold £8.3m.
18 Anish Kapoor, born 1954, in Mumbai, India. Turner Prize-winning sculptor who has lived in England since 1972. Sold £6.7m
19 Peter Doig, born 1959. The Scottish artist's paintings are among Europe's most expensive. Sold £6.7m.
20 Rudolf Stingel, born 1956, in Merano, Italy. Sold £6.5m.
Zhang Ding spent 70 years at forefront of China's art scene
Renowned Chinese artist Zhang Ding, described as "a combination of Picasso and traditional Chinese painting", died on Sunday at the age of 93.
"People pay their last respects to Zhang Ding(seen in inset), a famous artist who died on Sunday in Beijing. [China Daily] "
Devoted to painting for more than 70 years, Zhang was famous for integrating Chinese folk painting and Western contemporary art. He was also open-minded in trying various art forms and critics called him one of China's greatest artists of the 20th century.
"It is hard to give Mr. Zhang a title because he excelled in many fields," says Wang Luxiang, a well-known art critic and television documentary producer. "His versatility in cartoons, paintings, murals, calligraphy and landscape paintings made him a legend in the art circle."
Zhang taught himself traditional Chinese painting at an early age and first made himself known as a cartoonist during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45). Determined to become a true patriot, he published his works in newspapers, rousing the public to protect their country.
He later moved on to decorations and murals. Zhang took charge of the art design of the founding ceremony of New China in 1949, responsible for the layout of Tian'anmen square. After that, he designed New China's first set of commemorative stamps and the emblem of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
"Zhang was the image designer for New China," Wang commented, adding that Zhang not only provided a brand new look for China domestically, but also contributed a lot to building the country's international image.
During the 1950s, Zhang was the major designer of China's pavilions at expositions held in Leipzig, Prague, Moscow and Paris. His designs impressed overseas audiences so much that at the Paris exposition several French millionaires even offered to buy the whole pavilion.
Zhang also produced China's first wide-screen color animation, Prince Nezha's Triumph Against Dragon King, in 1978 and painted a mural for the Beijing Capital International Airport with the same name a year later.
But Chinese paintings were always special to Zhang. As an educator, he was the first vice-president of the former Central Academy of Arts and Design, now the Academy of Arts of Tsinghua University, in the 1960s. Zhang studied Chinese folk art for more than a decade and found a lot of similarities with Western impressionism and abstractionism.
"Zhang always encouraged us to be creative. He mixed Chinese classic painting skills with Western contemporary genres, which was quite bold at that time," recalled his student Liu Jude, now a professor in the academy.
Liu says Zhang became a fan of Pablo Picasso at the age of 17. "In Zhang's costume paintings, he liked to use eye-catching colors and abstract painting language. It reminds people of Picasso's works."
The two met each other in 1950 and Zhang later visited museums in Europe, absorbing the essence of Western art.
In recent years, Zhang shifted his focus to pure-ink Chinese painting and insisted on going outside, painting nature under harsh weather conditions. His students say his doctor always tried to stop him because of his age and health problems, but Zhang never took the advice seriously.
"Zhang kept saying to me that he was an ordinary worker in the art world. Only hard work can produce good pieces," Liu says, adding that he was moved not only by Zhang's painting but also his devotion to art.
At the end of January this year, Tsinghua University established a research center for Zhang Ding's art.
"Zhang is a key master in contemporary Chinese art history. His works and spirit are worthy of our respect forever and should be passed down to the younger artists," art critic Wang says.
A little about Chinese Ink Sticks.
More than 3,000 years ago, Asian artisans discovered how to turn the residue from burnt wood into one of the most important and lasting vehicles for human expression: ink. For more than a thousand years, the method of making Sumi sticks has remained the same. Soot from pine is mixed with deer horn glue, molded and kneaded like dough and dried to form a well-shaped solid block which, when gently rubbed against a certain kind of stone with water, turns to ink. It is unsurpassed for producing the famous Five Colors, or shades of black, that form the basis of monochromatic Sumi painting. The subtlety of Sumi ink is evident in the variety of tones and values it produces.
Ink Stick Grades
|tungoil soot||gelatin||musk, gold, borneol, pearl, rhinoceros horn|
|General use 1
General use 2
|There are seven grades in Chinese ink stick. The grade is usually stamped on the body of an ink stick either in its traditional name or in numbers. The numbering system has been in use since 1965 during Chinese Cultural Revolution, when the names were done away with for they implicated old culture.|
Ink sticks vary in shape and size. Basically because when it is pliable, it is like plastercine and can be shaped as you wish. Normally it is pressed into a wooden or stone mold and set to dry for some years stored away safely.
The older the ink the better it is to work with but contact and exposure to sunlight destroys it. Be wary of ink stick suppliers because they can sell you crude oil based soot ink sticks and these contain seriously poisonous ingredients.
For me, the best way to make ink is with an ink stone and an ink stick. I dont use any other method. To do something that was done trhousands of years before me is very satisfying simply to create a black mark on ancient xuen paper.
You can also purchase coloured ink sticks and so on but the main black soot ink comes in many forms, even premade bottled form though this contains a spirit that allows faster drying and not to be used on your ink stone. Ink stones are not supposed to become dry. The set ink destroys the surface qualities of the stone and pores and hence ruins further use.