Qing Shui / Clear Water: The Nudes of Jin Weihong by Bridget Goodbody
The Jin Weihong's nudes, all done in ink on paper in the Shui Mo style, are beautiful. Beauty, a fugitive sensation of inspiration generated by an aesthetic experience, is a heavily loaded concept with which art historians and philosophers in the West have always struggled. The conflict is intensified when the nude female figure is at the center of the debate.
Are we to worship beauty from a high moral ground, believing that the transcendental experience generated from contact with an object of beauty, especially in the form of the female nude, is free from sensuous, worldly desire? Or, are the sentiments derived from gazing at this kind of beauty tied to the baser and more personal instincts of erotic desire? As a feminist art historian engaged in the critical debates about beauty and femininity in the West and as a woman who derives deep, sensual pleasure from Jin Weihong's work, I find that Ms. Jin's paintings induce both the lofty, contemplative and intellectual experience of beauty and the baser experience of physical desire. When I showed her paintings to traditional figure painter Chen Dexi, a colleague of mine from the Chinese University of Hong Kong who, like Jin Weihong, is from Nanjing, he commented that Ms. Jin's paintings evidenced what Chinese people called "Qing Shui," or "Clear Water." He explained that this meant that her pictures were unpolluted by commercial nuances or immoral connotations that would be evidenced in work more pornographic. In short, he viewed Ms. Jin's paintings as "pure art." Chen Dexi's words indicate that he found Jin Weihong's paintings beautiful while recognizing - albeit by noting that her nudes were not pornographic - their erotic content. Beauty and eroticism (sexual, physical yet contemplative longing) are not universal concepts. Because Ms. Jin's paintings evoke similar reactions in a Western art historian and a Chinese traditional painter, the moments in them where both Western and Chinese elements elicit the sensation of having experienced something beautiful are worth exploring.
When we enter into the world of Jin Weihong's ink paintings; we enter a realm where beauty and desire overlap. Jin Weihong's nudes, usually women, lounge on Ming-style horseshoe chairs and overstuffed armchairs or lie languorously on Kang tables. In many pictures, elegantly rendered flower arrangements and potted plants in porcelain pots perch on delicate Chinese-style tables. The references to "real life" environments are abstract. Sleepy palm trees sway in sitting rooms (See "Two Peopl) and watery passages of ink that pass for clouds hover above apparently domestic interiors (See "Air"). The environment belongs entirely to the women in the paintings. When there are at least two women together in a picture, they seem oblivious to one another. Men exist in some of Jin Weihong's art but they either lack facial features that would give them individual presence or their heads are cut off at the edge of the painting (See "Green Cloud"). This, combined with their passiveness and inactivity, allows the viewer a personal, meditative response without the interference of a strong narrative or the need for polite or even intimate conversation. This silence and static quality of her pictures is what makes them so ideally beautiful and erotic rather than obscene. As viewers, we are free to enjoy the moment without being confronted by the sweep of Jin Weihong's brush as it caresses the contours of her figures.
In Western art history, the female nude is perhaps the subject that mostsymbolizes Art's power to transform unruly nature into high culture. The female nude often appears as Venus, the goddess of love, and each century has its most important Venus. Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, for example, is the Renaissance counterpart to the ancient Greek Venus de Milo. In Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, the naked female figure stands in perfectly balanced contraposto as she travels across the windy sea standing in a shell. Her nudity is donned with the cloak of art through balanced, elegant lines, carefully molded flesh, and scientifically rendered artistic composition. No hint of the excesses of a real woman's body, which would be inappropriate for a goddess, is visible. Titian's Venus of Urbino (153) -a copy of which I saw hanging in Nanjing's Jiangsu Art Gallery - does not actually depict the goddess herself. Instead, this "Venus" is actually a portrait of a virgin bride, which was mostly likely hung in the privacy of its owner's bedchamber. The affianced virgin lies stretched across her unmade bed as she awakens to her new role. Her innocent averted eyes demurely invite her partner (the viewer) to enter her private boudoir. The composition of Titian's Venus of Urbino became the primary composition format for nudes painted afterwards. Velzaquez's Rokeby Venus and Alexandre Cabanel's Birth of Venus, for example, also depict a single nude figure with averted eyes stretched horizontally across the canvas. The allure of this type of composition is that it draws the viewer's eyes across the canvas in such a way as to allow the viewer to gaze at the figure's nudity without being confronted with a returned glance that would force the observer into a conversation with the sitter. Consequently, each viewing experience feels like a personal voyage of reverie. In fact, as is evidenced by the repetition of style and format of the pictures, the code of viewing is circumscribed by the history of artistic form. Contained by the rules of art, the female nude became an object of beauty, pure in its status as high art, but erotic nonetheless.
In China, the history of painting the nude begins in the twentieth-century.
During this century, the nude has provoked deep controversy about the social
responsibility of art. Artists Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian brought traditions of
the French Academy into China in the 1910's and 1920's with the intention of
invigorating Chinese painting by introducing elements of Western art. The nude
was one such tradition. In Shanghai in 1912, Liu Haisu established an art school
that taught nude figure painting in the Western style. The presence of nude
women in the classrooms of these institutions caused great strife among
educators and warlords. One warlord even threatened Liu Haisu's life, which was
saved by Chiang Kai shek when he took Shanghai for the Koumingdang in the 1920s.
After the Communist revolution of 1949, teaching figure painting was seen as a
necessary evil in order to create scientifically correct figures and good social
realist art. However, during the Cultural Revolution and possibly against the
will of Chairman Mao, a group of Communist party officials determined that the
nude did not meet proper standards of artistic meaning because it did not
educate the masses about the revolution. Accordingly, nude figure painting was
outlawed in China from 1965-77. In 1977, after Mao's death, the genre was
reintroduced into art schools. Today, nude figure painting is a standard part of
tertiary art education in China. However, while nudes are a part of most
artistsi portfolios, it is uncommon for artists, especially those working with
traditional Chinese media, to choose the nude as their primary subject; a fact
that makes Jin Weihong's paintings all the more interesting.
When I look at Jin Weihong's nudes, "Venuses of the West" come to mind. The overall experience I have of her work, however, is that she takes certain principles from what she has learned from looking at Western art and studying the nude in the Western style and merges these principles with those of traditional Chinese ink painting. In this catalogue's body of work, the most direct quotation from the West appears in Jin Weihong's Floral Tribute, taken from Eduard Manet's Modern "Venus," Olympia. In both paintings a central nude figure reclines across the picture while a maidservant presents her with a bouquet of flowers. Jin Weihong's version has no Oriental tapestries lining the bed. To Manet's viewers, such tapestries signaled the decadence of a Turkish harem. Manet's nineteenth-century viewers determined that Olympia was a prostitute because of the setting and because Olympia's direct eye contact with the onlooker indicates that s/he is an expected guest in her boudoir. In contrast, Jin's "Chinese Olympia," does not stare straight at her viewer and does not force the viewer to recognize his/her desire for the sitter. Instead, Jin's "Chinese Olympia," like most of the nudes in her other paintings, entices more than she shocks. She closes her eyes so that the observer is given plenty of time to gaze at her lithesome body without feeling embarrassed. Chen Dexi's referral to Jin Weihong's paintings as "Qing Shui" suggests that she has adhered to the rule of Chinese connoisseurship that requires the brushstroke to be clear and graceful like water in order to be considered beautiful. The way the lusciousness of the ink and the subtly varied brushstroke caress the skin of her figures' languid bodies brings the viewer into even closer contact with the beauty and eroticism of Jin Weihong's paintings. By referencing the masterpieces of the West and incorporating the standards of traditional Chinese painting, Jin Weihong is carving a spot for herself in the realm of high art merging the grand traditions of the West and China into a single art form centered around the female nude formed by the sweep of a brush.
The above, I believe, suggests one way in which Jin Weihong's paintings add to the art historical debates about beauty and eroticism. More interesting still is the contradiction of Ms. Jin's claims that her paintings use the language of Chinese painting and the subject of woman to express her reflections of the world and her private intuitions. Although I am deeply interested in the social and historical implications of Jin Weihong's nudes, i.e. their relationship to the nudes of the West and Chinese connoisseurship, it is the personal and intimate response they invoke in me that I find most interesting and most troubling about them. In her essay for this catalogue, Jin Weihong writes: "I can never give up (ink-painting) because it signals a kind of uniqueness, with which I can express the world I understand". This could be interpreted as the Chinese tradition of Qi where the ink and the stroke are seen as a mediator between the existence of self and its manifestation. However, I find it impossible to see the brushstroke as personal because I do not believe the artist and the viewer can escape the tradition of painting of which it is a part. Further, because I have been trained as an art historian by feminist theories of art that are deeply troubled by representations of the nude female body because such representations are usually aligned with patriarchal systems of defining woman's nature, it is hard not to search for ways in which Jin Weihong's paintings are anti-feminist. Despite these inclinations of mine, I cannot help but see Jin Weihong's paintings in the light of what she intends them to be--an attempt at creating a space where a private, fantastic dialogue can occur for her and, subsequently, for the viewer of her paintings who chooses to engage in the dialogue.
When I contemplate Jin Weihong's paintings, I have the sense that my private world and pleasure has been seductively represented. When I look at her paintings, I am filled with the sensation of being submerged in a pool of crystal water in a secluded, safely walled garden of my own fantasy. I long for my body to be as fluid as some of her subjects. I do not want to question my yearning to be so erotically elegant during these moments. I just want to experience the pleasure of the sensation. Just as Jin Weihong says in her essay that her paintings are an attempt for women to find a way to win the right to claim love, I want the right to claim my desire. Frankly, it is more rewarding to experience my own pleasure in relation to Jin Weihong's paintings than to try to account for it through assorted intellectual or art historical systems. So, while I realize there is certain risk in so stating, I want to say to Jin Weihong, woman to woman: "I know and I understand your search."
Hong Kong, October 1998
(Bridget Goodbody is Assistant Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Chinese University of Hong Kong)