Tradition and Breakthrough: Kwong Lum’s Ink-on-canvas Painting Wang Fudong
Half a year ago, Kwong Lum told me that he would hold a personal art exhibition in the National Gallery of Art Museum of China. I didn’t realize what it meant immediately. I thought it was quite common for an artist to hold a personal exhibition. There are thousands of painting exhibitions held in the world at each moment. Personal exhibition is such a necessary tool for an artist to promote himself and get known by more audiences. Duchamp used to say, if an artist didn’t know how to promote himself, even if he created the most powerful art work in the center of Africa, his art didn’t exist. Duchamp emphasized that an artist only exists when people know him. About a month ago, Kwong Lum told me that,the largest art work of his personal exhibition this time is in the size of 104 feet. When I went back home, Kwong Lum’s words was lingering in my heart. This painting is even larger than my studio, how can Kwong Lum paint it successfully? What did he paint? In order to find an answer, I decided to go to his studio. Kwong Lum is one of the few Chinese artists living overseas starting thirty years ago.
Kwong Lum has consistently drawn the attention of master artists, curators and critics. At the age of nine, he became the student of Ding Yanyong, the painter, connoisseur and educator who was also one of the three founders of the Shanghai College of Art. As Kwong Lum’s proficiency began to mature, Ding Yanyong treated him as a son, teaching him traditional painting, calligraphy and poetry. At 17, he transferred from New Asia College (now Hong Kong Chinese University) to the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, thus beginning his life as a Westerner. After graduation in 1964, he moved to New York. He held a series of personal art exhibitions both in Canada and in New York, such as the Albert White Gallery in Toronto, and the Huston Gallery in SOHO of New York. In 1968, he started to research on how to paint ink on canvas. Usually, canvas cannot be painted on by Chinese ink, because canvas cannot absorb ink as rice paper. However, after Kwong Lum mingled inks with dish soup, and successfully paint Chinese ink on canvas. When I asked Kwong Lum the reason he used canvas to create Chinese ink painting, he said, one can paint
on canvas just as he paint on rice paper, but one cannot paint on rice paper just as he paint on canvas. He also said, I compared Chinese painting to western paintings, I suspect why Chinese painting doesn’t include marvel works with a large size as western paintings. He realized later that it is because rice paper are usually small, which will limit artists’ creativity. The reason Kwong Lum’s personal exhibition is unique this time is not only because he showed how to paint Chinese ink on canvas, but also there are just 9 paintings for the exhibition much fewer than other exhibitions. The largest painting of this exhibition is in the size of 104 feet , which is a colorful ink on canvas painting called The Redrawing of The 87 Immortals. The 87 Immortals is a classic painting from the Song Dynasty by an anonymous painter. The original painting used to be a collection of Xu Beihong, and now a collection of the Beijing Palace Musuem. Three years ago, Kwong Lum bought a copy of this classic painting from Hong Kong, and thought about how to break through the restrictions set by painting materials and create some large paintings. He said, if we compared Along the River During the Ch’ing-ming Festival to The Coronation of Napoleon, the prior is less grand than the latter partly because the rice paper is much smaller. In July, I went to Kwong Lum’s studio to take
pictures of his painting for his archive, and had a chance to see how he painted The 87 Immortals. His painting tools were so extraordinary including mops, brooms, and bamboos and water buckets, etc. If the predecessors in history came back to lives they must be shocked by the new methods of Chinese ink painting. Eventually, Kwong Lum achieved the marvelous art work in five days and then framed it, mounted it and made scrolls for it. Beside The 87 Immortals, Kwong Lum’s personal exhibition also included other large ink-on-canvas painting such as Loyal Dance in the Sky (49 feet),Birds’ Heaven(43 feet), Lotus of Summer(18 feet), Withering Lotus, Hawk, Monkey, Warships, Night Dream, etc. All exhibitors are very large, so Kwong Lum has decided to donate all to museums in China. Before his trip to China, he will organize a pre-show reception in Tonny Goldman Gallary in SOHO of New York on Aug.13th. Kwong Lum’s ink-on-canvas painting features elements of both ancient Eastern and contemporary Western painting. Kwong Lum’s painting weave images from the East into the West and to find amazing correlations between the two. The breakthrough could significantly reformed traditional Chinese painting.