Learning to See: A Fulbright Semester Teaching Painting in Beijing

Posted by AmyCheng

proceeded to demonstrate on me and on her classmates. (The shaping knife was used to eliminate stray or excess eyebrow hairs. The eyebrow pencil, with its three component parts, was used to delineate a contour line around the eyebrow, fill in color to get consistent coverage, and as a final touch, had a small bristle brush for separating and combing the eyebrow hairs in upward strokes.) Some days earlier I had complimented the student on her eyebrows — Chinese women are particularly attentive to their eyebrows, which are traditionally seen as a focal point of beauty. After dinner we settled down to playing round after round of the parlor game Cops and Assassins.

Compared to the Master of Fine Art (MFA) students at the State University of New York at New Paltz where I have taught for two decades, the Renmin graduate students seemed — not young in the sense of being immature — but somewhat naïve. They are younger — most of them enter the graduate program directly out of college, whereas the majority of our MFA students have had some life experience. Returning to school the American students know that spending two-years immersed in a fulltime graduate art program is a privilege; most of them pay for their own education, often with student loans. They also clearly understand that once they graduate, in spite of having an MFA degree, like most artists, they will have to take up a day job; whereas my Renmin graduate students seemed to entertain vague ideas about life after school, a condition I associate more with undergraduate students. In China students who attend public universities like Renmin pay minimal tuition; they cover their own living expenses, but those costs are also modest. [1]

I was keenly aware of my lack of knowledge and understanding of how Chinese society functioned. In the U.S., although it is helpful to have connections, you do not have to be connected to get a job. In China, I noticed that a lot of my own Chinese cousins’ children had “inherited” jobs from their fathers. That is, if their college studies related to their fathers’ they would gain entry into the firm — especially if the jobs were governmental (in schools, hospitals, or city government); a couple of my cousins literally vacated their positions to their offsprings by retiring.

From what I could tell none of my students came from artistic backgrounds; they were clearly striking out on their own. A couple of them were or had been primary school art teachers, and the master’s degree will qualify them for high school teaching. In the U.S. the MFA is a terminal degree. It qualifies you to teach at the university level. Currently in China, you need to have a Ph.D. to teach at a university, although it is not uncommon to be hired with a Master’s Degree, and be given a period of time to complete a Ph.D.

Life in China for the Chinese is complicated by the Hukou, a kind of passport system that restricts access to government-funded services (like education and healthcare) to the birthplace of the holder. A Chinese citizen cannot relocate at will. A provincial student gets access to residence in Beijing if they are accepted into a Beijing university, otherwise a person can only legitimately move to another city if they gain employment in that city. Residency in Beijing is highly prized because the city offers more employment opportunities, and because it is urban and culturally sophisticated.

I asked some of the students why they chose to attend Renmin University and was surprised when all but one of them said they had come because of their professor. (They met the professor at the university in their home Province; when the professor joined the Renmin faculty, they followed them to Beijing.) I asked Yaning, the student who entered Renmin without a professorial connection, if knowing a professor increased the likelihood of getting accepted to the college, and she replied with an emphatic “Yes!” Renmin University is prestigious and entry is highly competitive: it took her two tries to get accepted. She also said that in China you cannot enter a Ph.D. program unless a professor agrees beforehand to be your advisor, and professors only take on two advisees a year.

Prof. Guo Chunning, a Renmin Art Department colleague, said that a close connection to a professor benefits a student because university professors can be well connected, and in China many art positions and opportunities are governmentally funded. Lest I sound judgmental or sanctimonious, let me admit that there was a time not so long ago in the U.S. that art department teaching jobs were handed out in similar ways. For decades if you graduated with an MFA from Yale you were almost guaranteed a college teaching job, and the alums laughingly referred to “the Yale Mafia” for the number of prestigious art prizes, like the Tiffany or the Rome Academy fellowship, won by the MFA alums. When I was hired into the SUNY New Paltz Art Department in 1997 one of the older art professors off-handedly asked, “Who does she know?”

 

II.

 

The larger cultural gap I encountered in China involved teaching. I developed a deep attachment to my students; but I came away confused by what I considered to be strange gaps in their education — by their inability to do certain basic tasks or perceive and articulate some elemental visual aspects of two-dimensional composition. My class at Renmin University was made up of graduate students majoring in “Western” Painting as well as “Chinese” Painting — in China they are seen as separate disciplines.

For an artist like me, who has spent most of her painting career working with a visual vocabulary inspired by Middle Eastern and Far Eastern art, it was with interest that I came to realize while in China that my students did not know what to make of my layered, highly patterned mandala-like paintings. My most advanced graduate student, Hong Xing, admitted to me that he found my work to be (only) decorative.

One of the lectures I gave when I traveled across China was titled Double Vision: Reconciling my Eastern Visual Sensibility with a Western Art Education. In the lecture I posited that Western art tradition, which descends from Ancient Classical Greek and Roman art privileges man, or at least the human figure, as centrally important. This viewpoint differs distinctly from Middle Eastern and Far Eastern art traditions that do not fetishize the human form — except in the guise of the Buddha or the Gods.

In a Chinese ink painting a figure, a house, or a bridge, is gently inserted into the landscape, occupying no more, and usually less, visual importance than a tree, a hill, or a body of water. The same applies to built pavilions, pagodas, and bridges that are designed to blend in with, not dominate, the landscape. Contrast this with the imposing roads, bridges, aqueducts, temples and amphitheaters the Ancient Romans constructed across Western Europe.

Chinese landscape painting, also known as Scholar Painting, was historically a refined and elitist art form practiced by noblemen and the literati. It was never an art of the people. The popular or commonplace art — porcelain wares, tiles, bronze vessels, cloisonné, or fabric design — in China, Japan, India, and the Middle East tended to be bright, colorful, patterned, and ornamented. What underlies public or popular Middle and Far Eastern art is a more decentralized, dispersed conception of the world that is consistently and insistently conveyed through the use of repetitive patterns. Visually this kind of repetition flattens hierarchy: what you sense is a pervasive, consistent, almost hypnotic evenness. No one component is more important than another, including man. And it is from this more popular and utilitarian art that I draw inspiration for my work.

European art with its dominant Classicism has not marched forward uninterruptedly in the West. There have been, in fact, two distinct periods when it fell out of fashion. The first occurred in the Middle Ages, starting with the Holy Roman Empire when the flatness of Byzantine art overtook the Classical; in fact, for hundreds of years the technique of Classical rendering was forgotten and essentially lost until it was revived in the Italian Renaissance. The second period of time when traditional Classicism was set aside in the West happened in the first half of the twentieth century with the advent of movements such as Cubism, Surrealism, Abstraction, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Land Art, and Color Field Painting.

It is this second period that is relevant to this discussion. I will show how China’s adoption of Western Painting was indelibly affected by a twist of historical fate that prevented the Chinese from undergoing and experiencing Modernism as it unfolded in the twentieth century.

 

III.

Like Russia, China in the 1910s experienced staggering political change. The Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1912; revolution was in the air, and “reform-minded Chinese debated how to modernize their nation.”[2] Chinese scholars left to study abroad; in the 1920s and 30s Paris received two waves of Chinese student-artists. (A number of Chinese artists were accepted into the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and a large survey of work by Chinese artists in Paris was commemorated by an exhibition at the Jeu de Paume.)[3] Although some of these artists remained in Paris, the majority returned to China, bringing with them the new medium of oil painting. In 1949, after the Japanese were expulsed, and the Kuomintang government routed to Taiwan, the Communist Party took control of China. For the next thirty years, until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, China would be closed to the West.

By 1949 – 1950 the USSR had become China’s closest ally. In the summer of 1949 a delegation of Chinese Communist Party leaders traveled to Russia to confer with Stalin and the Soviet leadership. The delegation stayed for three months and made a series of requests of the USSR for financial and educational aid. In a July 6, 1949 letter to Stalin, the Chinese asked to be allowed to study Russia’s public administration, requested Russia’s help in developing postal, telegraphic, and air service between the two nations, asked Russia to train the Chinese Navy and Air Force (including the building and repairing of aircrafts), and expressed the desire to establish a closer cultural relationship with the Soviet Union. [4]

Today, just as there are scattered remnants of Soviet-built industrial structures across China — such as the East German factories now occupied by art galleries in Beijing’s 798 Art District — there remains in China, less visible, but possibly more deeply embedded, systems acquired from the Soviets — and the Chinese system of art education is one of them.

 

IV.

Currently in China children who are interested in art are taught to render realistically from life. The Chinese have adopted wholesale the tradition of Western art as it was inherited from Ancient Classical Greeks and Romans, and their understanding of space is grounded on the Italian Renaissance discoveries of one- and two-point perspective.

Prior to my semester in Beijing, I had encountered only one student from Mainland China. Mei had completed a Master of Art in Painting at another American university prior to entering our MFA Program. Despite that experience, she stubbornly held to certain notions about contemporary painting that conflicted with our understanding on the subject. In the current art world anything goes: work can be figurative, abstract, illustrative, political, material, conceptual, narrative, appropriated. There is no one dominating movement or medium: all approaches and media are seen as equally valid.

It was disconcerting to have Mei insist that she wanted to make “modern art” because that turned out to be a series of acrylic wash paintings on large sheets of paper with a loose, clumsily painted female figure immersed in water. She seemed to believe that rendering the figures badly was precisely what made her work “modern” and expressive, which struck me as a superficial and simplistic, not to say misguided, approach to abstraction.

I had a similar experience at Renmin University, where I met an oil painting graduate student, Yu Chun, who had a gift for figurative work. He wasn’t just good at rendering figures. He had the ability to make his figures unusually expressive, yet he insisted that he did not want to paint representationally. He wanted to make abstract paintings. He showed me painting after abstract painting he had started and abandoned: clearly he was having difficulty moving forward.

Encouraged by Fulbright, I crisscrossed China lecturing at universities and art academies, getting glimpses into a wide variety of art departments, among them three of the six Chinese Art Academies, all impressively large, newly constructed campuses where an entire multi-story building housed a single discipline, like sculpture — quite a contrast to a vocational college in Hangzhou that offered a much shallower art education, where teaching a discipline such as ceramics is crammed into six short weeks of study. One of the more interesting places I visited was Xinjiang University in Urumqi, Capital of the Uyghur Autonomous Region where the Art Department only offered two disciplines, Graphic Design and Fashion Design. My hosts were two professors, Ablat Boshi, an ethnic Uighur, and An Xiaobo, an ethnic Manchurian.

Prof. Ablat and his wife had traveled to the U.S., where they toured art museums. Back home, he wanted to make abstract paintings. (He did his graduate studies in the former Soviet Union; prior to this he had painted portraits and landscapes.) He said, “Representational painting is of the past; abstraction is today.” Looking at his paintings I could see that he, too, was hitting a roadblock with his work.

I am sympathetic to these painters, not because abstraction is more current than representation but because being able to perceive and understand abstract visual language is essential to understanding contemporary visual art. A prime characteristic that runs through most Modern and contemporary art is that the work is undergirded by abstract qualities encapsulated by what we call Formalism. Formalism is based on the relationship between the abstract elements of art, which consist of color, value, line, form, shape, space, texture, and pattern.[5]

The main difficulty for realist artists moving into abstraction lies in the need to negotiate a different sense of space. An artist who has only learned to paint representationally can perceive perspectival space, overlapping space, and stacked Chinese painting space, but she does not know how to see in terms of abstract space.

Of course, every artist works with the elements of art, but when you work abstractly, that is, when you take away the “thingness” of the subject, you automatically change the nature of the space in the painting. Without “things” (like a person, a stand of trees, a bowl of fruit) there is no need for a “realistic” sense of space, the laws of gravity need not apply, nor do we insist on having a unified sense of light. The paradigm shift is so extreme that unless the artist has been taught how to see abstract relationships, she will be lost; the traditional bearings she has always relied on are missing.

This was the condition of my former student Mei and the two painters I met in China. I knew they were failing to understand something, but I did not know what it was. Only after returning home, where I sought out Mei, exchanged texts with Prof. An Xiaobo of Xinjiang University, and queried Maxine Leu, a New Paltz graduate student from Taiwan, did I finally dig down to the root of the problem.

 

In one form or another college level art education in the industrialized countries teaches the design principles on which Modernism is based. The Bauhaus School in Germany codified these design principles and established a Vorkurs (preliminary course) that taught students how to work with color, value, line, form, shape, space, texture, and pattern isolated from representation.[6] Also known as the International Style, Modernist aesthetics cuts a broad swath across the globe in architecture, graphic design, and much of industrial design and fine art. Because the Bauhaus was a school as well as an art movement, the faculty and students who fled Germany before and during the outbreak of World War II, taught Bauhaus-based education methods wherever they landed — in Europe and the Americas — but China and the Soviet Republics, cocooned in their self-imposed silos, were cut off from this larger artistic conversation taking place in the world.

Today, contemporary Chinese artists and art students are familiar with the history of Western art, including Modernism. Simply teaching Bauhaus design principles as theory in lecture classes, as it is currently done in China, does not work. Most art forms, like athletics, belong to a category of cognition known as embodied knowledge. Embodied learning is acquired only when the body and its senses are engaged, not just the brain. You cannot teach a person to sing by lecturing to them about singing; people learn to sing by singing. Learning to see color relationships, seeing the compositional interaction between positive and negative shapes, or understanding the spatial effects of color — must all be experienced visually, and the knowledge acquired physically, through trial and error.

Chinese artists who have not had the benefit of a Bauhaus-based studio education acquired their knowledge of Bauhaus principles only through book learning, so to speak; because they were not physically trained to work with the visual phenomena, they have not been sensitized and as a consequence they either do not see or do not look for their effects. Basically the art schools in China do not realize the importance of training students to use these principles in studio courses, and the faculty, because they themselves have not been trained, do not know how to teach it.

 

A consistent and notable thing I found with art students in China is how little they regarded space. Even students who were clearly working with a sense of landscape were at times unable to describe the space in their work. In China, working with the students, I kept coming up against what I can only describe as an astonishing level of space-related visual illiteracy. It was as if, in their art education, space was never discussed.

When I returned home and met up with my former student, Mei, I pointedly asked what she saw when she looked at the work of her MFA classmate, Brooke Long, who made architecturally inflected abstract paintings. Mei said, “I see color, shapes, lines, and rhythm.” I asked, “What about space?” She looked at me, tilted her head, and repeated – “Space?” – and blankly shook her head.

A year later in 2018, I returned to China and met with my former students at Renmin University. By then I had completed a draft of this essay and could tell them of my findings. The penny dropped when Yu Chun, the student who tried, unsuccessfully, to paint abstractly, admitted that he only considers the lateral space in his artwork, not the depth!

The two incidents confirmed what I had experienced in China. The students — whether they painted representationally or abstractly — were literally not looking at, much less giving consideration to, spatial depth in their paintings.

Ironically, it is in painting — a two-dimensional art form — that space is most present, most manipulated, most dramatic. Sculptures have bulk and sit in space, as do installation art, but they do not manipulate the space around themselves. Painting, on the other hand, using the magic of illusion, can flatten space, exaggerate perspective, deepen space, contort space, invent space, and spatially fool the eye. Most people, when asked, would probably say that color is what makes painting and drawing unique mediums, but sculptures, photographs, installations can also employ color; it is the possibilities of creating and inventing space that make painting and drawing singular.

 

VI.

It should also be noted that the Soviets did not aim to produce fine artists; they were training art workers. Art workers are distinguished not by a personal vision as much as by accomplished skill and craft. To produce an art worker you emphasize skill training, and Chinese art students are generally quite skilled. A sculptural course on the figure at a Chinese art academy might begin with students copying Roman busts and Renaissance sculptures before they go on to copy a wide range of ancient styles of Chinese Buddhist and dynastic sculptures. Chinese professors are conscientious about passing down traditions of fabrication. Skilled graduates from such programs of study are able to restore, repair, and imitate ancient artwork. To acquire this level of skill is arduous and time-consuming; it swallows up the majority of time and energy of a student undergoing four years of college.

In comparison, U.S. art education is usually less insistent on teaching skills. Skills are taught, of course, but at least as much emphasis is placed on helping the art student develop her individual voice, her subject matter and concepts. Without development in these areas it is hard for an artist to become self-actualized, and she is likely to remain a “mere” craftsperson.

 

 

This brings me to the most startling discovery I made while in China. It occurred around midterm when I scheduled a class critique. Arriving at the student’s studio, I was surprised and mildly annoyed to see she had not set up her artwork. I asked her to do so and was irritated by the haphazard way she proceeded. (Artworks are seen in context, and it is important how work is presented.) I moved things around and when the work was passably set up I turned to the class and asked them to start the crit. They looked at me in confusion, then at each other, which caused me to look back at them with equal lack of comprehension. It took a couple of beats before I caught on — the students did not know how to start because they had never held a class critique before!

Coming out of an American system of art education I was unable to conceive of this. In American pedagogy the class critique is how students are trained to “see.” Critiques discipline students to speak analytically about artwork because they are forced to articulate what they see and how they see. When the artwork of a particular student is being discussed, she receives feedback that allows her to hear how her work is being received, read, understood, interpreted or misinterpreted.

In his art blog Kurt Ralske explains the centrality of the group crit in American art schools:

The Crit

 

The word “crit” is not found in the dictionary, and is not used in normal conversation. But to those in art school, it’s a term that points to the center of the universe. Here, “crit” means the most essential and familiar of events: the critique session, in which a student’s artwork is formally evaluated by a group of faculty and students. A student presents his work, and the group responds with feedback: comments, questions, advice, cheers, jeers, and tears.[7]

The flip side of not integrating class crits into studio art courses is that, the professor, by default, becomes the single “authority” in the classroom since she does all the talking. The students are not given a structured forum that demands their verbal participation, their active engagement. This top-down aspect of art education reflects the top down structure of the Chinese and Soviet governments.

The regrettable result of not being trained to speak in class crits is that students are left unable to verbally analyze what they see. This was demonstrated to me at the end of the semester: I took some students to the Faurschou Foundation to see a small retrospective of paintings by the Scottish painter Peter Doig, which included Doig’s early paintings — the landscapes he made during and immediately after graduate school.

When we walked into the gallery, we immediately felt uplifted by the paintings; the students and I caught each other’s eyes, nodded, and smiled. As I stood in the first room surveying the paintings, my student, Hong Xing asked me:

“Are you able to say why a painting is good?”

I said, “Yes, I can. Why? Can’t you?”

He said, “No, not really.”

So I gathered the students in front of the first painting and “modeled” for them how I looked at the painting. I said, “These are landscape paintings, but they are not like any landscapes you have ever seen before, right? That the artist managed to do this is already remarkable. Landscapes have a very long tradition; it isn’t easy to bring something new to a landscape.” I then did a Formal analysis of the painting, talking about the visual effects Doig achieved and how he achieved them — the range of paint application, the layers of information the painting delivered, the variety and inventiveness of his visual vocabulary, and the spatial complexity of the painting. I then took them around the gallery doing the same with a few of the other paintings in the show.

That this occurred at the end of the semester was unfortunate and frustrating. I had been with these students for three months, but because their art training had been so different from my own, I was slow on the uptake. I had to hear, see, or experience a student’s inability to do something before I could perceive the deficit. This made me feel foolish and negligent as a teacher. But it wasn’t negligence; it was a failure of imagination on my part. Apparently I was so conditioned by the style and sequencing of American art education that I could not imagine a system that left out such important and fundamental art-teaching practices.

 

 

 

[1][1] Lim, Jason. “Why China doesn’t have a student debt problem.” Forbes, August 29, 2016, accessed September 30, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jlim/2016/08/29/why-china-doesnt-have-a-student-debt-problem/#3ce6c3641a58.

[2] “Pioneers of Modern Chinese Painting in Paris: Chu Teh-Chun, Lin Fengmian, SanYu, T’ang Hatwen, Wu Dayu, Wu Guangzhong, Xu Beihong, Siong Bingming, Zao Wou-ki,” deSarthe.com, May 12, 2014, accessed April 18, 2018, https://www.desarthe.com/exhibitions/pioneers-of-modern-chinese-painting-in-paris.html.

[3] McHugh, Fionnuala, “Exhibition illuminates Chinese artists who lived in Paris in the 20th century.” South China Morning Post, International Edition, November 1, 2017 accessed April 26, 2018, http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/article/1526589/exhibition-illuminates-chinese-artists-who-lived-paris-20th.

[4] Heinzig, Dieter. The Soviet Union and Communist China 1945-1950: The Arduous Road to the Alliance. Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, 2004.

[5] Morley, Simon. “In praise of vagueness: re-visioning the relationship between theory and practice in the teaching of Fine Art from a cross-cultural perspective.” Journal of Visual Practice, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2017) 87-103, February 23, 2017, accessed April 30, 2018, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14702029.2017.1292380.

[6] Morley, Simon. “In praise of vagueness: re-visioning the relationship between theory and practice in the teaching of Fine Art from a cross-cultural perspective.” Journal of Visual Practice, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2017) 87-103, February 23, 2017, accessed April 30, 2018, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14702029.2017.1292380.

[7] Ralske, Kurt, “The Crit,” KURT RALSKE (blog), May 2011, accessed April 26, 2018, www.retnull.com/index.php?/texts/the-crit/.

Instagram

Instagram