Friday, April 6, 2012

Part 8: Shanghai Diary -- Chinese / Russian Drawing

The Chinese have a strong tradition of portrait drawing, and the bookshops are full of large folios of drawings.

These portrait drawings are not only accurate in the academic sense, but soulful and penetrating psychologically. This one by Jin Shangyi from 1977 is a good example. Jin Shangyi is associated with the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

This portrait by Sumiao Jifa Jiaoxue is from 1971. It is direct and sketchy, but precisely observed, with a lot of knowledge behind it.

This one, from 1993, shows a method practiced by many of the artists, where the image is constructed from tonal patches, made up of lines drawn quickly with the edge of the pencil. The angular construction gives strength and character, even in a feminine subject.

Back in 1991 I met Dafeng Mo and swapped portraits with him. His portrait of me has the same angular "patch" method. He was the son of a professor at the central academy, and he himself studied there. In his early career he was obliged to paint propaganda posters before making a career as a print and gallery artist in the USA.

While the West was exploring the various "isms," China under Mao was unswerving in pursuing traditional drawing. The drawing above is from 1960, from a book on the Guangzhuo Academy of Fine Arts, one of several academies still in operation. The training was solid, and these artists were and are extremely competent.

Part of the reason for this competence is that when China was closed to the West, it turned to Russia for its training. Following in the tradition of the great Russian portrait masters Repin, Kramskoy, Fechin, and Serov, the portrait tradition emphasized sincerity, something that is often missing in western portraits.

In terms of technique, the form is often described using not only smoothly smudged tones, but also cross-hatching, as the above portrait exemplifies.

The Russian / Chinese tradition is still very much alive. This portrait is from 2003.

In the Russian academies, students study anatomy for many years, and they are expected to learn the figure inside and out. By looking at the model, they can draw the layers of muscles underneath, and even the skeleton in the position that the model has taken.

Shanghai Diary Series:
Part 1: Getting There
Part 2: American School
Part 3: Old Town
Part 4: Jujiajiao
Part 5: Goat Man
Part 6: Sketching in Restaurants
Part 7: China Rising
Part 8: Chinese/Russian Drawing
Part 9: Sketching in Shanghai (Video)


Celeste Bergin said...

Just catching up on your trip to Shanghai! Great Scott, these are fantastic examples of exquisite drawings. I'm head over heels in love with your sketches in the posts below too. Breathtakingly cool!

PETE said...

This tradition is also alive in America.
I attended the academy of art in San Francisco (where I met you once), and several of the figure drawing teachers are Chinese. They teach the same angular/crosshatching and smudge technique. I know at least one of them went to Russia for training in the '60s.

Edward Foster said...

Yeah, Academy bases it's fundamentals on the Chinese/Russian tradition along with 19th century technique (Sargent) and early 20th century illustration.

James, I wonder how much China owes it's tradition not just to the Russian masters, but to the adoption of Communism. Totalitarian Russian Communism erased the abstract Modernist art of the Constructivists in favor of a saccharine state-ordained romanticism, "social realism". China had a similar propoganda tradition.

This isn't to take anything away from the great social realists like Repin, or to diminish the ability of any of the Chinese artists you've mentioned, but it's also interesting to note that much of the legacy of this tradition in the 20th century is owed to serendipitous totalitarian favor.

Charles Valsechi said...

I would love to see a piece by piece demo of someone drawing in the russian traditional method. I have always loved russian art and would really like to try my hand at this sot of drawing.

Great post Gurney!

Dan dos Santos said...

Ah! I haven't heard Mo's name in -years-. We both painted for the Greenwich Workshop around the same time.

Have you stayed in touch?

JonInFrance said...

Perheps Charles would find this interesting?

Arahmynta said...

I would really like to know, if Mr. Gurney could tell me - what do you mean precisely when you say that they are done with a sincerity that is generally lacking in the west? I literally don't know how to tell what you mean, what it is that you're seeing that makes this difference. Could you give examples perhaps? That kind of observation, because it sounds like it's divorced from mere technical excellence, sounds like a very advanced lesson, and I'd appreciate it if you could expand on what you mean - if not in the comments, then perhaps in a second post. You have me curious and I'd really like to know what it is that you're seeing.

Anonymous said...

@arahmynta I agree. What if said oriental artists lacked sincerity?

Actually I do find that Asian artists (and classical musicians ) are often technically competent but lacking in vitality.

James Gurney said...

Dan, no I haven't stayed in touch. I'd love to know how Mr. Dafeng and the other Greenwhich China artists are doing.

Anonymous and Arahmynta -- Sincerity is hard to define, but I'll try. By a sincere approach, I mean the opposite of a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, superficial, or overly high-concept approach. To me, it has something to do with a living quality, a sympathy, and an expression of an honest feeling. Maybe it has something to do with granting a human subject their own dignity, and showing more than the sum of their features.

Edward, yes, Stalin and Mao had definite ideas about art, and artists had to tow the official line, or else--but some great stuff was done under that system, just as great art was created to advertise Coca-Cola (Go Sundblom!)

Charles, some of the books I picked up have step by steps in the back, so maybe I can post something about that in the future.

Ken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SMC said...

I happened to visit the Russian Art Museum in Saint Petersburg without any previous knowledge or awareness of Russian art and I can say I stood awestruck in front of the first portraits I saw (there are literary hundreds of them in the museum). It may be difficult to describe, but there is definitely something different to them than traditional western portraiture. They have a presence, a reality, sincerity, as you call it, that is apparent even to the layman. The people depicted may be dead since hundreds of years and still you have the feeling you instantly know them, like old friends, in a direct and profound sort-of way. Since then, I wonder what is the secret, I mean how do you really practically achieve that "feeling" in a portrait. Glad to know this is a shared experience and was not just an illusion of my mind.

JNLeDuc said...

Regarding the Russian art. I've observed what James said and thought the same thing prior to reading this post. It just seems there is training going on in those schools or maybe it's the living conditions in general that allows artists to catch a sincere depiction of human emotion. I find that this quality, for the most part absent in work from certain other countries. Technical ability is one thing. Instilling character into a drawing is quite another. Wanna see lots of art, go to Stumble Upon and start stumbling!

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued. Where should I start to find out more about this Russian tradition? Any book or website recommendations?

This is powerful stuff; I agree that there can be a certain lack of sincerity in some Western art(as much as the majority of my influence and inspiration has come from the West).

Making A Mark said...

Looks like you may have found the topic for your next book James! :)

These are wonderful drawings - thank you for showing them to us and highlighting what makes them different.

Groo said...

Interesting read. I'd love to know if there is a popular name for this angular "patch" drawing method, so I could find out more about it.

James Gurney said...

Groo, I don't know the name for the "patch" method, but the idea of bounding a form with straight lines and using mosaic-like patches of tone was common in French training, particularly with Carolus Duran.

Anonymous, the Repin academy in Russia is still very active, and you can learn more about it online. There's also a school in Florence taught by Professor S. Chubirko, who I interviewed on a previous blog post:

Anonymous said...

thanks for the reply... I shall check those out.

Andreas K said...

Cool post! I was in Beijing about 10 years ago and they had art books filled with incredible figure work.
I immediately recognized the "patch method lady" from one of the many drawing books I bought, I'm not sure how his name is romanized but that guy is a machine.

Groo said...

Thanks a lot! I'll read up on Duran.

Cheap flights to Shanghai said...

Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.

Clara said...

Who did that third portrait?