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Pang Jiun: Master of Elegant Grey Tones and Sublime Oriental Freehand

 

 


 

It must have been around the fall of 2005 when I flew to Beijing at a friend’s introduction to visit painter Pang Dao and her husband Lin Gang. The purpose of the trip was to learn more about the work of senior Chinese painter Pang Xunqin, and also take the opportunity for a closer appreciation of my two hosts’ paintings. As I was leaving, Mrs. Pang Dao, as sophisticated and hospitable as ever, gave me two collections of paintings, asking me to take them back with me to her brother in Taiwan. So finally, in a rather circuitous fashion (taking me from Beijing’s Fifth Ring to Xindian in New Taipei City), after having admired his work for so long, I got to meet this senior painter who was both familiar and strange to me: Pang Jiun.

 


 


Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei: A Painter´s Journey
 

We arranged to have our first meeting at a little coffeehouse near Pang Jiun’s studio. It was already dusk, and the three of us — the artist’s wife, Mrs. Ji Hong, also joined us after giving me a very warm welcome — had a great time eating dinner together. Afterwards I had the good fortune to be given a tour of the painter’s studio and storeroom, where many assorted paintings where mounted on steel shelves. It looked rather like an exhibition unit for a museum collection, everything was so neat and well organized. I was deeply impressed by the wide range of outstanding works form the artist’s long career. Mr. Pang was both eloquent and passionate about his art, generously and with a professional air showing us some of his most treasured works on paper, kept in the drawer of his desk. He also explained in some detail the dehumidification system used to protect his valuable artwork. We also talked about their past, how he and his wife came from Mainland China to Hong Kong via various stations, and lived there for a while before eventually settling down in Taiwan. Mention was also made of the little rituals observed every year in their family, such as the “New Year’s Inaugural Brush” and the “Birthday Painting on August 8” — on these days Pang Jiun will invariably complete a major painting to celebrate the progression of life.

 

That year, Pang Jiun was approaching his seventies, yet he hardly looked his age at all, brimming with confidence as he fluently articulated his opinions and shared his insights. After the year 2000, one would occasionally see some of his minor paintings at auctions in Hong Kong, but the truth is that back then the number of collectors in Hong Kong and Taiwan that were buying Pang’s work was fairly small. Coming from China, his brilliant academic achievements were little appreciated in Taiwan, and the mainstream was not ready to embrace him at first. Later, he found work teaching art and design at the National Taiwan University of Arts, and received various invitations to participate in exhibitions, both from museums and commercial galleries. He also set up the Pang Jiun Studio, where he took in students to make a living. All in all, from 1987 onwards, it was a long and bumpy road, paved with hard work, towards his current recognition as an eminently collectible artist in the domestic and regional market.


 


 

Ten years later, Pang Jiun is already one of the most sough-after painters in today’s art market, with his landscape paintings commanding prices of at least 1-2 million HK dollars, and his collectors no longer found only in Taiwan and the former crown colony, but across all Chinese communities in Asia, as well as Europe and North America. The year 2015 saw a series of exhibitions and lectures titled “Pang Jiun at 80: A Global Retrospective,” which was organized by You Renhan, curator of the Ever Harvest Art Gallery. In May this year, timed to coincide with the 56th Venice Biennale, the Istituto Santa Maria della Pietà showcased the artist’s work in an event titled “Orient Civilization – Pang- Jiun Solo Exhibition,” and in June the Ueno Royal Museum in Tokyo hosted an exhibition named “Pang Jiun: Expression of the Orient.” Further solo exhibitions are planned in other Asian cities, including Singapore, Shanghai, and Taipei. In addition, Taipei’s Red Gold Fine Art, in collaboration with Artist Magazine, will publish a monumental collection of Pang Jiun’s oil paintings. Scheduled to appear in the second half of 2015, this album will catalog the artist’s major works throughout his career. At 80, Pang Jiun is still full of energy and creative drive, and continues to amaze his admirers.

 

Hailing from Changshu in Jiangsu province, Pang Jiun was born in 1936 into a prominent artistic family that had already produced three generations of renowned painters, including his father, Pang Xunqin, who belonged to the first wave of Chinese artists studying in France, and his mother, Qiu Ti, who studied painting in Japan. Pang Jiun’s parents also were a driving force behind the Juelanshe (sometimes translated as “Storm Society”) movement in the 1930s in Shanghai, where they pushed for innovation and reform of Chinese painting and art education, together with contemporaries such as Sanyu and Lin Fengmian. Pang Xunqin’s field of expertise was decorative painting, which he researched extensively, introducing many concepts of modern Western art and design to China. He was also the founder of the Central Academy of Art and Design in Beijing, and enjoyed a very high reputation in Chinese fine arts circles. Although born in Shanghai, Pang Jiun was raised in Beijing in a household steeped in artistic endeavor. He showed great promise from very early childhood, creating his first self-portrait at the tender age of two years and eight months. Together with his sister Pang Dao, two years older than him, he held his first exhibition of oil paintings at Shanghai’s Yili Gallery when he was 11 years old. At 13, Pang entered the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. He was soon transferred to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he studied under Lin Fengmian, Pan Tianshou, Huang Binhong, Xu Beihong, Dong Xiwen, and Li Keran. In fact, he was the last student that Xu Beihong took under his wings, and when he graduated at 18, he was the youngest graduate that the Central Academy of Fine Arts had ever seen.

 

Born and bred as an artist, Pang remained active and immersed in art throughout his entire life. His parents had undergone the baptism of Western oil painting, and been great promoters of modern art in China. Absorbing both the experience and knowledge of his parents, while at the same time being imbued in Oriental art and culture, Pang Jiun soon began to develop his own individual style of painting. But during the Cultural Revolution, his father was denounced as a rightist, while Pang Jiun himself came under fire as a revisionist. He was forced to specialize in mainstream decorative paintings of landscapes and historic sites, but even there his unique style and talent made his work stand out so much that the members of the diplomatic staff at various foreign embassies took notice of his paintings. His output became so popular that the paintings and sketches from life he delivered at the Beijing Fine Arts Academy on a daily basis were sold almost as soon as they went on exhibition. This way, his reputation slowly grew, and somehow Pang was able to at least partly shake off the social and political restraints typical for a time when all art and literature had to serve the Communist Party. As much as he could, then, the artist “painted for the sake of painting.” In 1959, the then 23-year-old artist painted a scene at the construction site of the Shisanling (“Ming Tombs”) Reservoir in Beijing, and this monumental oil painting later became a part of the collection at the National Art Museum of China.


 


Freehand Transformation of Chinese Oil Painting
 

Taiwan art critic Pedro Tseng feels that Pang Jiun’s ingenuity lies in the way he blends tradition and modernity, as well as Chinese and Western elements, in his work, creating a style that displays the best points of all its eclectic elements. Writes Tseng: “Pang Jiun as a researcher shuns both the older-generation preference of realist depiction to modern art, and a blind worship of the Western modernism which radically denies the classical heritage. He relates the classical to the modern, and imbibes their peculiarities to his advantage; in the process, he also discovers the thread running through oil painting and Chinese painting, particularly the Xieyi ink painting, despite their different systems. In the modernist masterpieces, he perceives the qualities of Xieyi, symbolism, and expressivity indicative of those of the literati painting. His examination of the theory and practice of both the modern Western oil painting and the Chinese ink painting leads to his conclusion that a highlight of Xieyi is one of the most important ways to regenerate Chinese oil painting.” (Pedro Tseng, ‘Realism, Impressionism, and Eastern Expression: A Phenomenological Approach to the Cross-cultural Thinking in the Language of Pang Jiun’s Painting.)

 

Pang Jiun’s oil painting style has all the characteristics of Eastern art, including a penchant for lines drawn in black ink, which add whole new shades of aesthetic allure to his artistic vocabulary, firmly underlining the compact yet passionate quality of his work. Pang has earned particular praise for his sublime grey tones, both classical and modern in their appeal. Some people say that Pang’s paintings “are a bit reminiscent of Wu Guanzhong’s,” and this is probably largely due to the fact that both artists are fond of using the color grey and enjoy a lyrical mode. However, their styles are really quite distinct. Others have called Pang Jiun “the Qi Baishi of oil painting,” a statement indicative of their shared love of the freehand (xieyi) style and ability to capture the essence of their subjects. As Qi Baishi himself put it, “The art of painting lies in treading the fine line between likeness and unlikeness: if your work does not resemble your subject at all, you are just a cheat; if it resembles it too much, you are just producing kitsch.”


 


 

Pang Jiun’s grey tones remain an important reason for his popularity, but nothing impressed him more than his father’s comment, made just before the artist left Mainland China. Pang Xunqin was not in the habit of criticizing his son’s artistic output, but on that occasion he declared, “Your palette is wonderful, especially your grey tones. Very few artists can paint grey hues like that.” That was in 1980, at a time when Pang Jiun had already made a name for himself in Chinese painting circles. Even so, it was particularly gratifying to the artist to receive such a generous compliment from his own father.

 

When recalling why he fell in love with the grey palette, Pang Jiun writes: “One time, my mother brought home the catalogues of Picasso and Matisse. I adored Fauvism then. But because the Cultural Revolution was in its heyday, I had to destroy my oil paintings created in the earlier days, and resign myself to study the academic paintings. This is perhaps why my attention is directed more to aesthetic concerns than to social ones. In my delving into the form and color of oil painting, I gradually realized why Impressionism emerged in nowhere other than to social ones. In Impressionism emerged in nowhere other than France. I think it is because France is full of colors in both countries and cities. By contrast, with its grand mountains and deep waters — my sketching experience in Huang Shan (Huang Mountain) — China in grey in tone, which difficulties in painting. The reason my landscapes were popular during the Cultural Revolution was precisely that they have a fine grasp of the grey tone, for which the name Pang Jiun was known. To my observation, the grands mountains and deep waters of China are definitely to be portrayed in grey and the grey, consonant with the sentiment and ethereality of Chinese poetry and the reserved and lowkey style of Chinese people, reveals the spirituality of Chinese culture.”


 


Subtly Poetic Landscapes v.s. Radiantly Bold Stills and Nudes
 

For many years, collectors have been favoring Pang Jiun’s landscapes, a fact that is reflected in art market quotations. Over the years, virtually all of the artist’s highest-selling works at auction have been landscape paintings. But while most collectors may have set their sights on this type of works, the truth is that as he grows older, the artist prefers painting nudes and stills, and his flower stills in particular are worth a look, with their vivid charm, mature composition, sophisticated palette, and expert lines. Most recently, Pang Jiun’s style is becoming even bolder, with intense strokes and vibrant colors, as well as a use of black that is both daring and ingenious. All this makes for radiantly delightful pictures.

 

Chinese art critic Shui Tianzhong writes about Pang Jiun’s painting, “If the color of Pang Jiun’s still life paintings is characterized by floweriness and fullness, the color in his landscape paintings is characterized by elegance and implication. When we compare his landscapes with his still lifes, we feel surprised that such distinctly different color tunes come from the same artist, which is expressed by high intense in depicting his painting.” All his works have their own style and mood, and Pang Jiun’s flower stills are masterpieces of the genre. In his preface to Poetics- Landscapes , Pang Jiun writes: “ … the flower works that I paint are more free, and distinguished The flowers are beyond flowers, they are the fuse of colors, strokes, personality and sentiments, illustrating the visual language of spirituality; it is both western and eastern. Hence, the renowned critic, Mr. Shui Tianzhong’s wisdom lies in his comprehension of searching for the innate essence of art creation. Indeed, my works on landscape, after 50 years of persistence on the pursuit of existing characteristics, which is the integration of gray tones and state of mind, the Chinese literati’s sentiments, the so-called literati’s oil painting. As Yuan Ma and Kwei Hsia, the ‘small view scenery’, ‘the corner view’. Has touched the hearts of thousands of Chinese people. That is poetry but also music, and the realm of grand nobility. The ‘scenery spots’ and ‘historic sites’ are the demands of the common people”. (The preface, Pang Jiun, ‘Poetics — Landscape’)


 


 

With his fluid strokes and bold confidence, Pang Jiun is an artist full of creative energy, and today numerous galleries in Hong Kong and Taipei carry his work. Thanks to the increasing number of exhibitions, both at galleries and museums, that are showing his paintings, as well as his work’s growing presence at international auctions, Pang is now considered to be in the “grand master” category of artists. In the same way, his appeal to private collectors is increasingly a global one. Currently, the following museums and institutions feature his work in their collections: the National Art Museum of China, the National Museum of China, the Changshu Art Museum, the Pang Xunqin Art Museum, the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Tsinghua University’s Academy of Art & Design, the Art Museum of the Beijing Fine Arts Academy, the Yunnan Arts University, the Capital Museum in Beijing, the Beijing Artists Association, and the Liu Hulan Memorial Hall in Shanxi. In Taiwan, there are the National Taiwan University of Arts, the National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, and the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts. Some of his work made it all the way to Mexican museums, and much more is in the hands of private collectors.

 

While Pang Jiun may not have had to struggle quite as much throughout his artistic career as did his father and his mother, who belonged to the very first generation of modern Chinese painters trained abroad (be it in the West or in Japan), he probably walked farther on the road of artistic exploration than either of them. Unsurprisingly, in Pang Jiun’s large oeuvre, there are some works recalling his parents’. Early in his career, he copied some of their old works, and these paintings he later donated to the Beijing Fine Arts Academy, where he had worked during the Cultural Revolution. The handsome painting “Monet’s Garden,” commemorates his father’s early travels in Europe, while “Mother’s Last Memory” depicts Gulang Island off the coast of Xiamen (Amoy), a place his mother was very fond of. With their unique lines, characters, and decorative patterns, the monumental oil paintings “Proclamation of the Storm Society” and “Life in the Warring States Period,” new works first shown at the solo exhibition “Orient Civilization” in Venice this year, pay homage not only to his parents’ works, but to the entire Chinese literati tradition. Firmly rooted in the past, Pang is an artist who yet manages to pioneer the future. His inventiveness and innovative drive help him to avoid becoming set in his ways, and instead of following a rigid formula, he shows the Western world how Eastern oil painting can be both modern and relevant. 

 

At 80, the light of Pang Jiun’s monumental paintings shines brighter than ever in the global art world. The artist continues to paint, and is planning to do so as long as he can. The spirit of the Storm Society is alive and well, and continues to be passed on to future generations.


 


 

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