Over the past two decades, Wu Yi has been conducting his creations through “wandering”. He always roams the streets and alleyways in various cities quietly and alone, experiencing the scenery of the world, and recording his thoughts during his travels with paintings and words both loosely and frankly. He always likes to present an entire act of art creation through a publication and an exhibition.
The “Prague” is a series of paintings that Wu Yi created with local people and scenes of Prague seven or eight years ago. Since the pandemic in 2020, he started these “unfinished” sketches again and mentally returned to this mysterious city.
The interview between Wu Yi and CAFA ART INFO starts with the “Prague” series. Meanwhile, Wu Yi’s creative methods, the eternal value and aesthetics of painting, learning from tradition and the artist’s talent are further discussed in the following conversation. Part II will feature Wu Yi’s teaching experience, his unique opinions regarding copying the ancient paintings, as well as the importance of talent to an artist.
Interviewee: Wu Yi, Artist, Professor and the Director of the 4th Studio of the Department of Mural Painting at CAFA
Interview conducted and edited by Zhu Li, Editor-in-Chief (CN) of CAFA ART INFO
Text Sorting and Translated by Emily Weimeng Zhou/CAFA ART INFO
Edited (EN) by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
III. “When copying the ancient paintings, the space you cannot reach is yourself.”
Zhu Li: We just mentioned art education. Apart from being as an artist, you are also teaching at CAFA. How do you teach students? Are you in charge of foundation training or creative teaching?
Wu Yi: My practice and teaching are closely related. I graduated from the Department of Chinese Painting, so ink painting is part of my creative expression. At that time, my supervisor Professor Lu Chen expected me to control not only ink painting but also other western painting skills such as oil painting and acrylic painting simultaneously. President Jin Shangyi allocated me to the Mural Painting Department after he had seen my work. At that time, the Mural Painting Department was beyond the painting concept, which included oil painting, Chinese Painting, materials, reliefs, mosaics and other artistic expression categories. It was like a “Freie Kunst” (Free Art) Department. I felt that my ink painting at that stage was in an uncertain state and still needed further exploration. It would be a great risk to deliver uncertain things to students. Learning Chinese painting requires people to learn to communicate with the ancient styles all through their life, and at the same time to learn from reality, which makes Chinese painting dramatically difficult to learn. I understand such a state, so I didn’t offer courses in this area in the Mural Painting Department, but instead I feel that I am very lucky both in terms of teaching and my personal life by making this choice
In 1993, Wu Yi drew the demonstrating painting of "Murals of Yongle Palace".
The course I teach in the Mural Painting Department is entitled “Eastern Traditional Painting Copying”. The students majoring in Mural Painting have a particularly good intuition as they have received the foundation training of Western painting. They usually look upon Chinese line drawings based on what they have learned in the foundation stage and have developed a holistic and painterly vision. During this process, various understandings of traditional styling will arise which I believe is the lucky part. Some students also practice ink painting, but I try not to emphasize the state of my personal practice in ink painting with them, because I am not sure, and I am also developing in the process.
View of “Eastern Traditional Painting Copying”, October 2021.
I think the constant standard during the fundamental teaching is inherited from ancient times. My students often ask me how could they emerge from so many Chinese paintings they have copied? I replied that if you imitate the art from ancient times, what you cannot reach is yourself. The differences between copying the ancient work and the original pieces undoubtedly exist, but I think it is precisely the differences or the distance that shape our particularity. We can never reach ourselves. In the process of copying, we will realize that we cannot reach the realm of the ancient artists and the part that cannot be reached is everyone himself/herself. That is why people can recognize Zhang Daqian’s works—the sense of the difference between him and the ancient artists is accomplished in Zhang Daqian’s unique style.
Everyone has such a question— Where am I during the process of copying the ancient paintings? In fact, the part that cannot be reached is precisely ourselves.
In 1997, Wu Yi and students were at the foot of Mingsha Mountain, Dunhuang.
In May 2007, Wu Yi and classmates from the First Studio (graduated in 2008) were on the Mingsha Mountain.
Zhu Li: Do you teach any other courses besides “Eastern Traditional Painting Copying”?
Wu Yi: I also teach a course about Investigation on Traditions. I was initially interested in the mural painting itself, but later I developed a special interest in their background stories. I think the story behind the image should be the core of mural paintings. It is a transition process both for my students and me. During the teaching process, I always feel that teachers are not much better than students; instead, the sensibilities of many students of their age are very touching. I often say that in the art academies, we still need to learn from students rather than preach at them. In the face of such huge changing times, the value of personal experience may be insufficient. There is a gap between teachers and students, which is far more than age. What is more essential is that, compared to the students in this era, our knowledge structure does not match and our education and vision are limited. Currently, all the changes in the world can be captured by a mobile phone.
Zhu Li: From the beginning of the admission, the students of CAFA are obliged to receive some paradigmatic and basic painting training. The standard of such training either came from the West or are developed from the fusion of local traditions. After graduation, however, students need to practice their own creations, and painting is merely one of the creative methods they would choose. From your teaching experience, do you think there is a contradiction between this basic training and the students' future creation? Will it be out of touch?
In June 2013, Wu Yi was introducing the studio he supervised to students.
Wu Yi: It largely depends on one’s destiny. There are too many uncertainties and possibilities. Every year, we have a number of graduates moving into society. What is the acceptance level of society at this stage? It’s really hard for us to control. What are the standards of our teaching then? I feel that the standard is now blurred. Although education is in the academy, the academy is dramatically influenced by things at social levels. Nowadays, a large amount of complex information brings ups and downs, and the whole world is changing every second. When we talk about standardization in this era, it is actually more of an ideal and a good wish of our generation. However, the reality is many things keeping changing.
“Overlook”, 60cm×50cm, Oil on canvas, 2021
“Plant and Woman”, 50cm×40cm, Oil on canvas, 2021
Zhu Li: I feel like many practical artists would inevitably mention their creative experience when teaching students. But as you mentioned just now, you are rarely forthright with your personal experience to students.
Wu Yi: When some practical art projects are presented visually, of course, necessary textual explanations are required. But as far as painting is concerned, over-interpretation by artists may affect or limit the audience’s thoughts. My communication with students on painting is not only about the technical aspects, such as the experience of painting by ancient artists, but also about the living conditions, the current state of mind, or the views on a certain matter. I gradually realize this can inspire students’ painting on another level.
I never propose specific advice to students; I encourage them to explore by themselves instead. I merely exchange the overall feelings with them. I firmly believe that art cannot be taught, nor can it be learned. For students who are enrolled by CAFA, I think their basic ability is completely sufficient. If we continue to solve their technical problems after enrollment, it will wear off the students’ sensibility and eventually, cause the disappearance of their sensibility. Students are full of energy. How could teachers mobilize these hidden abilities of students? Sometimes, we should admit that students even do not need teachers. They can dig out their hidden abilities by themselves at a certain stage.
“CAFFE PERLEI”, 31cm×22cm, Oil on canvas, 2013
“Ready to Take Off”, 60cm×50cm, Oil on Canvas, 2020
As I get older, I find that there are many things that cannot be explained. Originally, I always pursued an answer. As I am near retirement, I suddenly realize that whether in life or in painting, it is the process, not the answer, that counts.
III. The Artist’s Talent
Zhu Li: For students and teachers within CAFA, we express our appreciation for an artist by simply commenting on “painting well”. However, there are increasingly fewer artists who can be regarded as “painting well” nowadays. What is your opinion? Do you think there is still a standard for “painting well”?
Wu Yi: Definitely. The standard can be harsh. The comment “painting well” will never be used casually. But in this era, I feel that people do not care much about being good or bad. The galleries and art museums are accepting diversified artworks, which makes the standard of being good or bad blurred. However, in people’s minds, at least easel painting still insists on a strict standard.
Exhibition View of “Wu Yi: Prague”, Song Art Museum, 2021
I think two aspects construct the standard: One is cultivated from the traditions of China and the West, while the other is the sensibility of reality. The things in my paintings may be seen by everyone, such as street scenes, everyday objects, etc. Everyone may have such an ability to perceive reality, that is, what we see with our eyes and feel with our minds. But how do people transform and convey their perception to the canvas by their own hands? This requires talent, and the ability of transformation should be the core. It can neither be educated nor cultivated; it must be innate.
Zhu Li: Is there some acquired influence that can inspire it then?
Wu Yi: Sure. But talent is essential. I now increasingly feel the importance of talent. It is as indispensable as everyone’s acquired accumulation. Talent includes one’s character—it is far more than its literal meaning.
“Art”, 45cm×38cm, Oil on canvas, 2021
“Balcony I”, 60cm×50cm, Oil on Canvas, 2020
Zhu Li: Can people improve their tastes and characters by their acquired reading and accumulation of knowledge?
Wu Yi: Not absolutely. I agree that reading is important, but there is a misalignment in the transformation between textual words and visual images. Reading a lot of books and memorizing ancient painting theories thoroughly do not mean that the core of painting or ink work is comprehended. Also, the notion of “calligraphy and painting have the same origin” proposed by our ancient artists cannot be understood superficially. Talent must account for a large proportion of being great artists. However, as you said, talent needs a lot of acquired things to nurture and inspire. The existence of a good artist seems to be related to nurture, but it is not always the same case. If it could be explained, art would not be art any more. I would say it is one’s destiny.
“Balcony III”, 60cm×50cm, Oil on Canvas, 2020
Zhu Li: A comprehension, I would explain it like this. I think it is very close to philosophy or “Tao”.
Wu Yi: We have mentioned the notion of “External Learning from Nature and Back to One’s Internal Comprehension” several times. It is not the case that if one can memorize the words fluently, he or she can actually realize it. Instead, many geniuses who never heard about it can reach the state by their own creation.
Image courtesy of the artist.
Read Part I via: https://www.cafa.com.cn/en/opinions/interviews/details/8331268