The Influence of the Lotus Flower in Chen Wenguang's Paintings
Through Nihonga, such traditional decoration is preserved in Japan, but was lost centuries ago in China, except for the technique’s rediscovery by Chen Wenguang.
Chen’s interest in the lotus surfaced when he was a graduate student in Japan. In 1991 Chen painted The Song of August, containing an image of a lotus patch in gold and silver. The natural plant grows energetically, lush and profuse, which Chen interprets into a spatially complex composition. A broader perspective of the lotus in its environment is shown in By the Pond of 1999, where the boundaries of amassed plants are highlighted in gold, defining an aggregate block of shape, color and texture from the leaden ground. By 2006, the luxurious, but complicated growth of the plant is simplified in November No. 4; the lotus is shown by individual leaf and blossom, often disintegrated, nearly formless, revealing the flower’s bare essence, no longer bound by water and earth, but airborne and ethereal. In the painting November No. 6, the sense of renewal and the springtime freshness of melting snow are captured in the cold blue and silvers in the icy palette. The challenging winds of the fall season are caught in the moving forms and warm colors of Brightness, 2003, a visual aria of an autumnal song.
The art of Chen Wenguang is the rediscovery of a long forgotten Chinese sensibility, a richly decorative, yet immensely profound tradition that once flourished in ancient times. Buddhist, Taoist, and palace paintings were vibrant with azurite, malachite, and gold, while the sacred and secular arts borrowed the archaic blue and green style. The quality of the decorative tradition lay not in precious pigments and metals, but in the mystic transformation of things – from the material to the spiritual – where the image was the portal to paradise and Truth.
In this light, Chen Wenguang’s creation of Shade of Jade, 2003 emerges as a singular aesthetic force: a supreme expression of beauty, a portrayal of the eternal moment. The lotus, luminous against its leaf, describes a nebulous of mystery, where the remote conveys a deep sense of stillness, solitude, and tranquility so intense that it reflects the Infinite. Here, in Shades of Jade, the artist masterfully engages the viewer in a vision of sublime perpetuity. The worldly beauty of the lotus is distilled to a transcendent and elegant purity.
[Subsequent Lotus paintings by Chen but unmentioned in Owyoung’s writing maintain these same earlier influences.]
The greatest influence, however, on the work of Chen Wenguang is that of his Japanese teacher, the celebrated Nihonga painter Kayama Matazo. Kayama is renowned for his decorative screens, paintings of swirling, kinetically charged images. One of Kayama’s most famous works is A Thousand Cranes, a symphonic design of birds in flight between the sun and the moon. Kayama’s own work was influenced by the Rimpa School of Decorative Design and Painting and the screen Red and White Plum Blossom by the eighteenth century artist Ogata Korin. In this screen static pictorial elements are juxtaposed with visually kinetic motifs, seen as plum trees in empty space next to the swirling waters of a stream. Kayama Matazo took the curvilinear form of the Rimpa water design and gave them emotional power as the rolling waves of the galactic Heavenly River in Star Festival, a screen painting based on an ancient story of the festival of the celestial Herdsman rowing his moon-boat to his lover. The painting techniques found in Star Festival – the painstaking application of costly mineral powders and precious metals to paper and silk – are all traditional methods that can be traced back to the twelfth century as the decorative basis for calligraphy.
By: Steven D. Owyoung – Former Curator of the Asian Art Department at the St. Louis Art Museum
From: Chen Wenguang – exhibition catalog (1990 – 2007) – pgs. 72 - 75
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