Chinese artist Hong Ling is a modern-day incarnation of the traditional Chinese scholar. One of China’s most celebrated artists, his work combines ancient philosophy and contemporary oil painting techniques to produce landscapes of breathtaking beauty.
China’s Yellow Mountain is steeped in legend and has been the stirring subject of many great works of Chinese art; it has been estimated that over 20,000 poems have been written about this sacred place. It is small wonder then that Hong decided to base himself here, devoting the last two decades to creating his own traditionally-inspired artist studio-retreat in the misty foothills. Hong claims that his first visit to Huangshan in 1983 was like a homecoming, “it is in our nature to pursue the forests, the trees”.
Coming from a scholarly family in Beijing, Hong was heavily influenced by traditional Chinese art and literati culture as a child. In China, poetry, literature and art are not considered mutually exclusive, and this way of thinking is evident in Hong’s work.
Speaking at the Hong Ling Contemporary Landscape Lecture at King’s College on the 31st of October, Hong explained that he prefers to refer to his works as shanshui （山水）paintings rather than fengjing （风景）paintings, referring to a distinction that does not exist within the English term ‘landscape’. In the Chinese tradition, ‘shanshui’, a term for landscape literally meaning “mountain and water”, has far more spiritual connotations than ‘fengjing’, which is much closer to the English term ‘scenery’.
Hong explained that in the Western tradition, the landscape has always been considered secondary to the more celebrated figurative painting, having often featured as a mere backdrop. In China by contrast, landscapes have always been considered the highest form of visual art.
Hong’s shanshui paintings are more than just the sum of their parts; they are inheritors to China’s ancient intellectual tradition of interacting and immersing the self in nature, rather than just observing it. Hong cites this as the reason why he moved to Huangshan, in order to be closer to nature and thus to his art.
When asked whether this philosophical attitude towards art and nature still exists in China, Hong mused that today “many Chinese people do not have an emotional experience with nature; they visit places of natural beauty not for the cultivation of the mind, but to complete a check-list of must-see tourist destinations”. He added that the rising commercialisation of art in China has had a knock-on effect on the creativity of Chinese artists, with commercial pressure resulting in a diminishing of the artists’ spiritual connection to their work.
Hong admitted that he finds himself to have less and less in common with the young art students he teaches at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Despite this wide gulf, driven by swift social, political and economic change that seems to increasingly divide the philosophical shanshui traditions of the past from the avant garde of China today, Hong maintains that traces of Chinese traditions and symbols can still be found within contemporary Chinese art.