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Yunnan Schoolfree

  • Ann Barrott Wicks

Term used to describe works by contemporary Chinese artists who use heavy colors to paint in a style made popular by Ting Shao Kuang in the early 1980s. The style emphasizes the linear quality of figures and plants by outlining each with thin but firm even lines of black, gold, or silver. The flattened shapes are then filled in with vibrant colors, using an ancient Chinese technique called zhongcai (“heavy colors”) that was revived in the 20th century by Huang Yongyu. Led by Ting Shao Kuang, painters in Yunnan Province in the late 1970s combined the zhongcai method with an elegant sense of line, motifs from ancient Buddhist cave paintings, and the flat, distorted figures of Western painters like Picasso and Matisse.

The origins of the Yunnan School can be traced to the camaraderie of a group of artists living in Kunming in the early 1970s who met almost nightly to buoy each other up with animated discussions on how to modernize Chinese art. After the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 the artists met more openly. In 1979 they formed an official society called Shen She and organized a daring exhibition of their works. Though the exhibition was held in remote Kunming, the innovative paintings caught the attention of the art world in other parts of China. Five of the artists working in the modernized heavy color style were invited to show their art in Beijing. The term “Yunnan School” was coined in magazine and newspaper reviews of the Beijing show in September 1981. The following spring, works by several of the heavy colorists were shown in Hong Kong. Many of the images were inspired by a combination of Yunnan’s lush scenery and minority cultures with motifs from the Buddhist caves in northwest China. The publicity that accompanied the brisk sales of these works referred again to the artists who painted in this “modern heavy color” style as members of the “Yunnan School.”

Early and best-known proponents of the Yunnan School style are Ting Shao Kuang, Zhou Ling, Chen Zhichuan, Liu Shaohui, Jiang Tiefeng, Ou Xinwen, He Neng, and He Deguang, all of whom lived and worked together in Yunnan Province in the 1970s. A well-known example of this style is the mural painted by Yuan Yunsheng (b 1937) for the Beijing Airport in 1979 (see Cohen, figs. 33–36). The majority of these artists subsequently lived outside China but continued to paint in the modern heavy color style. In the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of younger artists, including non-Chinese artists, adopted the Yunnan School style, many of them on commission from galleries in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States. Some of the painters were recruited from Kunming, but just as many lived outside China and had never been to Yunnan Province.

Bibliography

  • Xia Shuiqi. “A Brief Introduction to Five Yunnan Artists.” Chinese Literature (May 1982): 123–125.
  • Cohen, J. L. New Chinese Painting: 1949–1986. New York, 1987.
  • Cohen, J. L. Yunnan School: A Renaissance in Chinese Painting. Minneapolis, 1988.
  • Deng Qiyao. “Prints from Yunnan.” Chinese Literature 3 (Autumn 1988): 97–98.
  • Wicks, A. B. Painting Paradise: The Art of Ting Shao Kuang. San Francisco, 1998, pp. 19–26.
  • Gladney, D. C. “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/Minority Identities.” Journal of Asian Studies 53, no. 1 (Feb 1994): 92–193.