Jiang's Early Life
Jiang was born in 1938,
in Ningbo, Zhejiiang Province, in China. Even as a child he displayed
a great love and talent for painting
and drawing, and early on he knew the course his life would take.
In 1959, in a highly competitive
exam he won admission to the prestigious Central Academy of Fine
Arts in Beijing. From 1962-64 he studied
the famous Chinese artist Huang Yong-yu, who first exposed him
to the paintings from the Dunguang caves. In 1964 he earned his
of Arts degree. This was the last class to graduate before the
Jiang also learned about
traditional Chinese art, an influence which would remain with him,
and which I will discuss
in more detail
later. Upon graduation in 1964 Jiang and a small number of other
artists volunteered to go down to the Yunnan province.
turned out to
be a blessing. This beautiful province is on the Vietnamese
border. It is lush and tropical, filled with exotic flora and fauna,
home to more than 20 different minority peoples. His new home
allowed his talents to burst forth. Jiang's talent was so obvious
1966-73 the Chinese Government assigned him to produce "Socialist
Realism" propaganda posters and sculptures during the Cultural Revolution.
He even painted the famous
large red-faced poster of Chairman Mao. But this sterile exercise
did nothing to release the emotional side
of Jiang's nature, and at night he worked in his small room,
on his bed, to create his own style. The natural beauty of the
inspired him. With two other artists, He Neng and Liu Shaohui,
Jiang secretly formed the nucleus of what was first called the "Heavy Colorist"
school and is now known as the "Yunnan School," began.
of the "Yunnan School" has been rightly described as a "Renaissance
in Chinese Painting." As was the case in Europe, many factors went
into the formation of this Renaissance. And, similarly to the European
Renaissance, this Renaissance not only introduced new elements, but
breathed new life into, and at the same time took sustenance from,
Traditional Chinese influences
Modern Western influences played a part in the formation of the
Yunnan school, but traditional
Chinese art--such as the sculpture from the Han Dynasty
(221 B.C.-220 A.D.) played by far the most important role. The "flung ink " technique.
This method, invented by the ancient zen artists more than 1500 years
ago, is the precursor of abstract expressionism. By flicking the
of the end of the brush the artists could create a totally energized
surface. This is precisely what Jackson Pollock rediscovered in the
1940s and 50s. But the Chinese had always used this technique, and
Jiang uses it masterfully.
The Dunguang Caves But the
greatest Chinese influence was the art created in the Dunguang
caves in central China.
In 1907 European explorers rediscovered the Buddhist
caves on the Ancient Silk Road that led from China throug Persia
and finally to
the West. At Dunghuang, the last caravan stop with
a plentiful amount of water and supplies before travelers from
China ventured into the
perilous Takla Makan desert, the explorers discovered
a group of more
than 400 caves with paintings of extraordinary quality
which had been very well preserved by the dry desert climate. These
been created over a period of 700 years, from roughly
300 to 1000 AD. They were commissioned as devotional acts by pious
warriors, princes, kings, merchants, peoples from all
walks of life-created in the same spirit as were the Gothic cathedrals
of Europe. But by
the 12th century wars and other geopolitical forces
caused the abandonment of the caves, and they lay forgotten until
their rediscovery by the
Europeans in the 20th century.
In 1942, a well-known
and respected traditional Chinese artist Zhang Daqian led an
expedition to the
He spent 2 1/2 years studying and copying the astounding
paintings there. When his work became available to other artists
it caused great excitement, for just as African and
Iberian art and the cave paintings of Lascaux had inspired and
so the revelation of the freeflowing qualities of
line and form and the rich mythic traditions of the Dunguang cave
and liberated the young Chinese artists. Jiang was
particularly moved by the colors, the linear quality, and the
mythic stories of the
painting--and we see this in his work. Jiang's colors
are of unsurpassed richness.
A colorist, Jiang's intention
was to reverse the trend
the stale Chinese tradition of painting in gray,
black, and white. Jiang says: "Chinese art had reached a sick level due to its lack
of color." Jiang's credo is: "Long live the Line! " He is a genius
at using line to give the illusion of depth to a flat two-dimensional
surface--almost like an x-ray. Jiang's paintings are like cubism:
by using superb drawing he creates transparency, and thus he reveals
more than one level of reality in each painting.
Jiang is a storyteller.
His paintings are steeped in Buddhist and Chinese mythology. Each
figure has a symbolic meaning. The paintings have so much complexity
and visual fascination that the viewer is constantly seeing something
new. Jiang says "For every picture there is a story, and for every
story there is a picture." But above all, the cave art was an indigenous
Chinese tradition, a tradition that gave the artists similar freedoms
to those won by the artists in the west, but at the same time it was
a tradition that the artists could freely pursue without fear of being
accused of being Anti-Chinese.
The traditional mythic themes
and images, and the rhythmic flow of the cave art have found their
way over and
over again into paintings of Jiang and the
other "Yunnan School" artists.
The influence of the Dunguang imagery and style combined with European
Cubist influences, such as the use of transparent washes of colors
to allow for a multi-leveled view of reality, characterize Jiang's
work to this day. Jiang would also incorporate many of these traditional
Chinese folkloric images into his art.
The Progress of Jiang's
Career Jiang's work quickly gained prominence and even the repressive
had to concede his talent. He became one
of the most well-known illustrators of children's books in China.
In 1974 he illustrated "Two Little Peacocks."
In 1976 he designed the animated cartoon of the same book. In 1978,
Jiang began to teach as an Associate Professor at the Yunnan Art Academy,
where he would continue until 1983. In 1979, the Chinese Government
commissioned him to paint a mural representing Yunnan Province for
the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. This was the "Stone Forest"
mural, one of Jiang's finest works.
For Jiang, success followed
success. In 1979 he illustrated "The Secret of Jinchun Tree," which won the
first prize as the best illustrated book out of Jiangsu Province.
His painting "The Legend of the Water Sprinkling Festival of the Dai"
was featured in the documentary film "Yunnan Scene." In 1980 the illustrated
books "Little Red Riding Hood"; "The Ugly Duckling"; and "A Shi Ma"
were published. For "A Shi Ma" Jiang was awarded Second Place in an
international United Nations competition of illustrated books. In
1981, Jiang's work was featured in the "10 Artists From Yunnan" show
in Beijing, and then, in 1982, was prominently featured at a show
in Hong Kong, which also featured the Yunnan artists as well as some
of their followers.
But as early as 1981 the
Chinese Government had returned to its repressive policies. Government
stated that they feared China was losing
its "socialist morality"
and becoming "morally polluted." Art officials favored a return to
Socialist Realism painting and they expressed their displeasure by
refusing to select paintings by Jiang, Liu Shaohai, or He Neng for
the permanent collection of the National Art Gallery. Jiang was the
prime target of their wrath-his paintings were excluded from television
coverage and a seminar was even officially organized to criticize
His work was criticized
as "...too daring and audacious...a nightmare." Jiang did have defenders. Liu Shaohai said that he would be glad to have nightmares every night if he could paint like that.
The President of the Central Academy of Art and Design, Zhang Ding,
wrote an article praising Jiang's work but withdrew it on the eve
of its publication at his wife's urging, who remembered how Zhang
Ding had been beaten and publicly humiliated during the Cultural
Even so, Zhang Ding did on a number of occasion's speak out and express
his admiration for Jiang and some of the other young artists. All
of this was making life increasingly difficult for Jiang.
a National Geographic reporter who
was doing a story on China saw Jiang's paintings, and brought some
back to the U.S. A friend of
reporter brought them to the Fingerhut
Gallery in Minneapolis, where Jiang's work met with great success.
In 1983, Jiang came to the United
States as part of a cultural exchange
program with the University of Southern California, where he became
a visiting Professor of Art.
Under the sponsorship of Allan Fingerhut,
Jiang moved to Minnesota with his wife Zhaolin.
For Jiang, success
in America quickly followed.
His rich, strong color, and exotic
but intimate imagery struck an immediate response with the American
public. Jiang's talent and uniqueness
quickly brought his work to the
attention of critics and museum curators nationwide, and this resulted
many public exhibitions.
Jiang had an exhibition at the
University of Southern California Gallery;
in 1985 at the New England
Center of Contemporary Art in Connecticut; in 1986 at the Portland
Museum in Virginia;
in 1987 at the Springfield
Art Center in Ohio;
the Connecticut College Art Gallery;
in 1989 at the Museum
at Northwestern University in Massachusetts;
and in 1990-91 at the
Everson Museum in New York;
the Springfield Art Museum
Michelson Reeves Museum in Texas;
Museum at Valdosta
State University in Georgia; the Art & Cultural
Center in Florida;
and the Olin Fine Art Center
During this period Jiang
also had 52 one-man gallery shows in cities all over the country. What is the secret of Jiang's popularity? Jiang's colors are of unsurpassed richness. A colorist, Jiang's intention was to reverse
the trend of the stale Chinese tradition of painting in gray,
black, and white.
Jiang says: "Chinese art had reached a
sick level due to its lack of color." Jiang's use of imagery. As noted
above, Jiang is a storyteller. His paintings are steeped in Buddhist
and Chinese mythology. Each figure has a symbolic meaning. The paintings
have so much complexity and visual fascination that the viewer is
constantly seeing something new.
Jiang says "For every picture there
is a story, and for every story there is a picture." Jiang's vision
has continued to grow and expand. Probably because of his personal
experience in two cultures he has increasingly seen the world as a
single system, as a meeting place of diverse forces.
This is reflected
the number of environmental and ecologic themes which have recently
begun appearing in his work, notably in such pieces as "Nature Suite," "Genesis," "Lovers Trees," and "My World." The secret of Jiang's work
is best expressed by the artist himself: "It is difficult for
me to remember what distances I have traveled, how many mountains
climbed, how many rivers I have crossed, and how many villages I
have passed through. I can only recall the countless joyous moments
hardships of the past years from the many pictures I have painted.
My deep love of the colorful
earth and for Xishuangbanna, a region of the Yunnan Province, has
encouraged me to explore and create unceasingly.
a mysterious land blessed with unique beauty offers innumerable
to be painted.
My paintings are not only
pictures: they are also
music and poetry that is bewitching, sweet dreams that are being