Kong Zhongqi is one of China’s best known landscape artists. I know this because some years ago on a visit to Shanghai we somehow ended up at the opening of a retrospective of his work at a now forgotten gallery. We climbed the stairs to the main gallery where Shanghai’s artistic worthies were mingling. A long scroll was spread out and those arriving signed their names on this. Despite our protestations, we were prevailed upon to do the same, our English script like little boats afloat on a sea of Chinese characters. We were also presented with the exhibition catalogue with reproductions of all the works on display.
Zhongqi is a tutor at the China Academy of Art, a position he has held for most of his artistic career. While he stands in the tradition of classical Chinese landscape painting it was fascinating to see some of his works from the Mao era. In one the soaring mountains have been replaced by the soaring walls of a dam under construction, the swirling water, a feature of Zhongqi’s work, still swirling but now emerging from the base of the dam.
In another, all the traditional elements remain: the mountains, the river, the lakes, but here the workers hew a road out of the side of the mountain, the river has been dammed and the lake is an artificial reservoir. The landscape is being tamed, beaten into submission and forced into a manageable order by the workers. All credit to Zhongqi. I’m sure nobody would have objected had he chosen to lose thes pieces somewhere along the way, yet he chose to include them in his exhibition as expressions of his work.
Naturally, Zhongqi’s works were out of our price range, even if they had been for sale. We did eventually manage to acquire an old landscape of our own at the city’s Dongtai Road antiques market. I’m not sure where I first developed an appreciation for these classical Chinese landscapes. I suspect it was probably a result of visits to the V&A and the British Museum. I’ve been fortunate enough to see many more superb examples on visits to Shanghai and Hong Kong.
If you are not that familiar with Roy Liechtenstein’s work you might be wondering what any of the above has to do with that particular artist. I had never been particularly taken with Lichtenstein, knowing only his comic book, pop art works, but decided to visit a Lichtenstein retrospective at the National Gallery of Art a couple of years ago when I was living in Washington DC. Once past the early period, his work became more interesting, though still not that compelling. The final room, though, was a revelation. This room contained a selection of works from a series of Chinese landscapes that Lichtenstein produced towards the end of his life.
It seems that Lichtenstein had an appreciation for Chinese landscape painting from his earliest student days and remained an admirer throughout his life. It was only in his last years that he produced works in that style but using the distinctive methods that had made his name. The result is fascinating, and for all the apparent dissonance the works are superb. Unfortunately, the Gallery, presumably for commercial reasons, marketed the exhibition with those early pop art works that are widely recognised. This is a shame. For me the great thing about this exhibition was discovering sides to Lichtenstein’s work that I knew nothing of, in particular the Chinese landscapes.
The exhibition is long gone and I don’t know where these works are permanently on display, if they are at all. An image search on the web will give you an idea of the work, though without the impact of seeing them for real. There are a couple of short YouTube videos of Kong Zhongqi and his work here and here and a short biographical piece at the website of the National Art Museum of China. My own attempt at a Chinese landscape, below, was taken on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.