Artist Paints ’90s Pop Culture Into Classical Chinese Landscapes
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2017-08-16 11:02:40

BEIJING — Dressed in traditional robes with loose lapels, two figures sit at the prow of an ornate boat gliding over a serene lake. At first glance, the painting resembles a classical depiction of a Chinese landscape, but look a little closer and you’ll see that one of the characters is Doraemon, the blue cat-shaped cartoon robot from Japan.

At his day job, Wang He creates professional reproductions of ancient Chinese paintings, a means of preserving them for the Palace Museum in Beijing. Since 2014, however, he has spent his free time combining traditional shan shui landscape paintings with elements of modern Japanese animation. Wang’s creations have gained popularity on his Weibo microblog, and he has even sold some to collectors.

My artistic choices are just based on a boy’s interests.

Trained in Chinese painting since the age of 3, the now-34-year-old artist wears round wire-rimmed glasses and exudes a scholarly air. At his apartment near the traditional hutong neighborhoods in downtown Beijing, Wang opened a newly finished scroll and explained the piece to Sixth Tone: The bonsai in the painting are miniature versions of those seen in old masters’ drawings from the sixth through 14th centuries. Meanwhile, Doraemon holds one of his most frequently used magical gadgets: a flashlight-looking object that can shrink anything. His best friend, an elementary school boy, admires one of the bonsai, while Doraemon’s favorite snack is served nearby.

Wang attributes his creativity to his diverse educational background. Deviating from ink and pigment, he majored in industrial design at Tsinghua University, where he experimented with different types of visual art. In 2008, he secured a position in the Palace Museum’s restoration department by chance, when the elderly team was urgently looking for young people with digital restoration skills.

“I’ve done all sorts [of visual art], from rustic and old-fashioned to smoking-new modern,” Wang said.

‘Watching,’ 2017. An ancient Chinese scholar flies a drone. Courtesy of Wang He

‘Watching,’ 2017. An ancient Chinese scholar flies a drone. Courtesy of Wang He

Like many Chinese born in the 1980s and 1990s, Wang grew up with Japanese manga and animation and still has vivid memories of these cartoons from childhood. Besides Doraemon, characters from other Japanese shows popular at the time — such as “Saint Seiya,” “Dragon Ball,” and “Dinosaur Corps Koseidon” — have also made cameo appearances in his paintings. Western elements such as a yellow submarine from the Beatles song and Blériot XI — the French aircraft that made the first flight across the English Channel in the early 20th century — also fit surprisingly well on the brown silk scrolls he uses. “My artistic choices are just based on a boy’s interests,” Wang said.

The backgrounds of most of Wang’s paintings are copies of works from the Song Dynasty, which marked the beginning of China’s shift to a modern society and introduced art depicting people’s vibrant daily lives. In this sense, Wang’s style echoes the Song painters’ efforts to popularize art in the mainstream. “I hope that my paintings can build a bridge between young, modern audiences and ancient paintings,” Wang said.

Speaking with Sixth Tone at his home in Beijing, Wang discussed the challenges of painting in a strictly traditional style, his job creating reproductions of old paintings, and the criticisms he’s received regarding the influence of Japanese culture on his art. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Wang He poses for a photo in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, 2015. Courtesy of Wang He

Wang He poses for a photo in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, 2015. Courtesy of Wang He

Sixth Tone: Some commentators have asserted that putting elements of Japanese animation into Chinese traditional painting is an insult. What do you think?

Wang He: Basically, I don’t get involved in politics. What I’m doing is merely expressing my happy childhood memories, which are also the memories of the 1980s generation — that’s undeniable. Politics are always changing: Today we might cotton up to a country, and tomorrow we might be enemies. But our childhood memories can’t be changed.

When we talk about having confidence in our culture, we can’t only be proud when the Japanese come to learn things from China — the cultural exchange must work both ways.

Sixth Tone: What’s your response to criticisms that your work turns serious art into entertainment?

Wang He: I don’t think my work is entertaining, as all the creative procedures are the same as for so-called serious paintings. If people insist on saying my paintings are a joke, then at least I’m telling the joke in the most serious way.

Sixth Tone: Contemporary creations riffing on traditional culture have proliferated in recent years. For example, the memes of Qing emperor Yongzheng making faces and a series of GIFs showing his daily life published by the Palace Museum in 2014 became very popular online. Do you see your work as part of this trend?

Wang He: I think that indeed, Chinese people are now more confident in our culture. We didn’t used to think highly of it; now we do, and we hope to dig deeper into the culture to unearth more elements. Some overseas museums have done a good job of creating modern products based on their collections, and in the last couple of years, we’ve started to do the same. Also, 10 years ago, when designers wanted to insert traditional symbols into a work, they might just add a lotus flower pattern. Now, the young generation’s designers have a much deeper understanding of traditional culture.

If people insist on saying my paintings are a joke, then at least I’m telling the joke in the most serious way.

Sixth Tone: To what extent do you consider your paintings traditional?

Wang He: If I want the audience to get a glimpse of ancient Chinese paintings through my own work, I have to insist on using traditional techniques without the help of a computer.

The procedures include dyeing the silk a brownish-yellow color, brushing the surface with a solution to make the colors last longer, drafting the design on paper, copying it onto the silk, outlining the shapes, coloring them in repeatedly, and finally, hiring a craftsman to mount it on backing paper. It takes more than a month to finish a silk painting.

Sixth Tone: What advantages has your work at the Palace Museum brought to your own art?

Wang He: At work, I copy ancient paintings precisely, as required; when I’m off, I can express myself. It’s just two different mental states. Working at my day job and creating my own pieces benefit from each other, as I use the same techniques in both.

Sometimes my job allows me to get a good look at pieces by master painters, but most of the time, I just go to the exhibitions like ordinary visitors.

Editor: Denise Hruby.

(Header image: A partial view of ‘Miniature Landscape,’ 2017. The bonsai are copied from ancient paintings ‘Dragon Stone’ by emperor Song Huizong, ‘Spring Excursion’ by Zhan Ziqian, ‘Mountain Hermitage’ by Qian Xuan, and ‘Travelers Among Mountains and Streams’ by Fan Kuan. Courtesy of Wang He)