Ink Art: questions for Hongyu Zhang

17 March 2014

Ink Art: questions for Hongyu Zhang

Since 11 December 2013, the Metroplolitan Museum of Art in New York has been running the exhibition Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China. The exhibition examines the production of 30 Chinese artists who, since the 1980s have transformed the Chinese tradition which they inherited, while maintaining the close ties with the expressive language of the past. Revolving around four main thematics, Ink Art shows how the artists have used the graphic resources of calligraphy and landscape painting.

 This approach is at the core of young Chinese painter Hongyu Zhang’s work. He has lived and worked in France for 10 years, and we are very happy to count him among the artists with Artistics. Using the exhibition as a pretext we decided to ask him a few questions about his own rapport with Chinese cultural tradition.

"Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China" exhibition Poster. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (USA). Until 6 April 2014.

In the press release of the exhibition “Ink Art”, it is said that writing is the highest form of artistic expression in China. Do you agree with that?

Hongyu Zhang: Totally. Calligraphy, for me is the skeleton of Chinese culture and ink is the blood. Together, they form the most essential element of Chinese culture. According to tradition a painter is also calligrapher and poet. The three define an artist. Of course, today, the relationship to writing is completely different: we no longer need to write by hand, this has not however challenged the importance of calligraphy in Chinese culture. In contemporary art, calligraphy is used more as a symbol than a vehicle to get a message across. Chinese contemporary art is closer to western art, but there are still lots of calligraphers in China. It is not unusual, even today, to buy a calligraphy to hang up at home. It still remains very popular.

You were introduced to calligraphy at an early age. What was the training like?

Hongyu Zhang: I started my training with my uncle when I was 7. He was a teacher at the local Fine Arts school. At the same time, I attended calligraphy classes for children. It really interested me and very quickly I stood out from the others. After two or three years I was introduced to traditional Chinese painting. According to tradition the two go hand in hand, and for children, the pictograms are like little drawings, images… Very young therefore I was able to develop a calligrapher’s thinking: how to create images, how to appreciate aesthetic… Calligraphy is based on a dual relationship: the one between ink and paper and the one between Chinese brush and paper. All techniques revolve around these two things. It should also be said that calligraphy is always done in black Indian ink. Very rarely are other colours used. This is perhaps why I personally paint in black and white. It is quite common in Chinese painting. 


How important now is calligraphy in your artistic practice?

Hongyu Zhang: Firstly, I still use Indian ink, at the same time new materials and I paint with Chinese brushes. When I create a portrait I think of a Chinese landscape: that’s how I draw lines and strokes of the brush as it should be in calligraphy. In China, there are several types of writing: normal and cursive writing. In the latter the strokes are very similar to painting. I utilise the techniques of calligraphy allowing more freedom in my lines and brush strokes. I am not interested in making a accurate portrait, like a photo… For me a work is the meeting between the subject and the artist’s thoughts, his experiences. It’s to give an impression, convey a feeling… Traditional Chinese painting pivots around this approach: it is more about expressing a feeling than painting a reality.

How did you integrate this ancient art form into your artistic practice? Did it happen in the continuity of your apprenticeship or through ruptures?

Hongyu Zhang: There were not really any ruptures. When I started studying at the Fine Arts of Mongolia, I was led to study the different forms of western artistic expression, from engraving to oil painting. Each student had to experience each of these disciplines for three months before deciding to specialise in one. At the end of this period I chose to further my experience in engraving: I wanted to learn something new, something different… but even then during the three years I spent with this training, I never stopped practicing calligraphy.

From left to right : Zhu Da (1625-1705), Liang Kai (end  XIIth. - begining  XIIIth century.) et Xu Wei (1521-1593).

Which movement of western art most influenced your work?

Hongyu Zhang: Over and above artistic movements, I think it was more the culture itself that most influenced me: the cinema, the music… All this gave me a new outlook, a new way of thinking. The series Salut aux maiîtres reflects both my aesthetic and thematic interests. Expressionism is of great importance to me. In my own painting I like to get out the most direct feelings, the strongest expressions.

In an interview in the magazine Art in America, Mike Hearn, the curator of the exhibition Ink Art, stated that “If you don't understand their past, you won't understand the complexity and richness that these artists are invoking”. Do you agree with that?

Hongyu Zhang: To me, contemporary Chinese art is very separate from traditional art. Contemporary art is a common ground which all artists share whatever their nationality. Contemporary Chinese art feeds itself from philosophy and western techniques, to the extent that you don’t have to be Chinese to be interested in it. If these artists also use traditional calligraphy it is more like a symbol of Chinese culture. I think that this is the whole point of contemporary art anyway, in the fact that it is a link between all cultures: a link simple and easy enough to get across.


Salut Michel Ange I, by Hongyu Zhang (Series: Salut aux maîtres. Indian ink, pastel acrylic and engraving on pasted cardboard, 148 x 112 cm).

To find out more about the artist Hongyu Zhang please consult the video filmed in his workshop.

Hongyu Zhang - Peintre - Painter - from Artistics on Vimeo.