Two Paintings by Huang Pin-hung (1864–1955)


The acquisition last year of two paintings by Huang Pin-hung (1864–1955) was made possible by the Felton Bequest. Huang Pin-hung, who is without doubt 20th century China’s greatest painter, came from a cultured and learned family of Anhui province, a family which since the 16th century had produced fourteen famous artists. From the age of six Huang Pin-hung was taught painting by a local artist, and every day for over eighty years devoted his leisure hours to its practice. He travelled widely in China, visiting scenic mountains and studying the Imperial and also private painting collections, drawing inspiration from both nature and from the art of the old masters. Huang Pin-hung also had a distinguished literary career,1Lam Oi, An Album by Huang Pin-hung, The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Monograph Series volume 2, 1972 pp. 4–6. was an art historian and theoretician, a connoisseur and collector, as well as being an archaeologist and philologist. 

The earlier of these two paintings (fig. 1) dates from 1922 when the artist was fifty-eight years old. It is significant since it belongs to a less well-known period and yet it is very important in understanding Huang’s formative years. The landscape is painted very much in the traditional style, but already shows promise of great talent and individuality in the manipulation of brush and ink, in the rendering of undulating mountains and twisting trees, and in the forceful dots of vegetation. The interesting use of dark and light-diffusing ink creates a wet and misty landscape and evokes the poetic and lyrical mood of the inscribed poem: 

‘In broad daylight the surrounding is quiet. 

With birds singing and not a care in the world, I am sleeping in. 

(Everywhere) creeping vegetation is extending in long tendrils. 

Green roof and thin thatched eaves. 

Whenever the rain passes the bamboo wall, 

Winds (come through) the window and play with my books. 

No longer is there any track of horses and carriages.2Horses and chariots are the attributes of an official or of men of importance and wealth. They also symbolise all the worldly and conventional values of fame and wealth.

(Yet) I am taking delight in my rustic hut. 

What is there for me to linger over those (worldly aims)? 

By nature, I enjoy solitude. 

In the autumn of the year of the cyclical characters of Jen-hsu (1922), I write (paint) in accord with the poetic conception of a poem by □□ -i.3The family name and the top half of the first character of the personal name are missing in the painting. The bottom half of the first character of the personal name resembles that of the character Tsung. The writer suspects that the name of the poet might be T’ao Tsung-i who lived around 1360, and who after he had failed to pass the highest degree, the chin-shih degree in examination, retreated to a quiet life in the country. In the Hung-wu region of early Ming, he was called to serve in office but declined it repeatedly. The writer was hoping to find this poem in T’ao’s collection of poetry, the Nan-ts’un shih-chi (a collection of poems of the Southern hamlet), but this was not available in any of the libraries in Melbourne. (Signed with the signature Pin-hung and the seal saying Huang Chih the official name of Huang Pin-hung.)’4Pin-hung is his Hao or the name by which he is generally known. 

Both poem and painting express the scholar’s romantic attitude to a simple rustic life away from the petty intrigue which surrounds the public life of an official. Without a care in the world, our poet can sleep into the day and do whatever he pleases. He no longer has the luxury of horses and chariots which he once had as an official. Friends of importance no longer come to visit him, but what is there to regret compared to the solitude and simple pleasures of the life that he now enjoys. 

The second painting (fig. 2) was done twenty years later, in 1942, when Huang Pin-hung was seventy-eight years old, and belongs to the beginning of his mature period, when his painting blossoms: a period of tremendous creativity. In this painting, trees and rocks are transformed into an image of shimmering creative energy, the abstract pattern of colours, the ink and calligraphic brushstrokes seem to be dancing and bursting with a life force. By comparison, the earlier painting appears descriptive and timid in execution, although it already foreshadows many of the stylistic tendencies in, for example, the twisting trees and vibrating dots of foliage and vegetation. In the 1942 painting, there is a rich and imaginative variation in the shades of green and pink, of tonalities and textures of ink, and in the shapes of calligraphic strokes. Moreover, there is a tremendous feeling of freedom and spontaneity in the execution, almost a feeling of total abandon. Some of the brushstrokes give the appearance of awkwardness and carelessness but are actually perfectly controlled, the achievement of years of relentless practice and hard work. The entire landscape is a frenzy of creative activity. Viewed from a distance, the colours and ink have a life of their own, seeming to activate themselves and to merge from disorder into focus, and to configure into a landscape of mountain peaks and waterfall. Form and space are articulated with great clarity. As with works of all great masters, there is a sense of wonder and magic about this painting. 

The artist informs us of this remembered landscape which is painted with the following inscription: 

‘In the Omei Mountain (in Szechwan province) there is a Lung-men gorge. The mountain ranges are steep and precipitous. With the conception of the paintings of the Northern Sung (960–1127 A.D.) I did this painting. (Signed with the signature) Pin-hung (and the seal saying) “Huang Pin-hung”.’ 

Apparently, Huang Pin-hung was trying to capture the monumental feeling of the landscape paintings of the Northern Sung. He also expresses the feeling of tremendous exhilaration and excitement that he had experienced when he was wandering alone in the mountains and also, by implication, when he was doing the painting, for the seal at the bottom right corner of the painting reads ‘Going off on a long journey all by myself, I am both carefree and self-contented’. 

Perhaps no one can better describe Huang’s great achievement and development in these two paintings than Huang himself who once said about painting, ‘At the beginning, painting must have rules: and at the end it must suppress all rules. At the beginning painting must strive for likeness: at the end it must suppress all likeness.’5Quoted from Pierre Ryckmans, Modern Chinese Painters in the Traditional Style, The University Art Gallery, University of Melbourne, 1974, p. 13.

Mae Anna Pang 

Notes

1              Lam Oi, An Album by Huang Pin-hung, The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Monograph Series volume 2, 1972 pp. 4–6. 

2              Horses and chariots are the attributes of an official or of men of importance and wealth. They also symbolise all the worldly and conventional values of fame and wealth. 

3              The family name and the top half of the first character of the personal name are missing in the painting. The bottom half of the first character of the personal name resembles that of the character Tsung. The writer suspects that the name of the poet might be T’ao Tsung-i who lived around 1360, and who after he had failed to pass the highest degree, the chin-shih degree in examination, retreated to a quiet life in the country. In the Hung-wu region of early Ming, he was called to serve in office but declined it repeatedly. The writer was hoping to find this poem in T’ao’s collection of poetry, the Nan-ts’un shih-chi (a collection of poems of the Southern hamlet), but this was not available in any of the libraries in Melbourne. 

4              Pin-hung is his Hao or the name by which he is generally known.

5              Quoted from Pierre Ryckmans, Modern Chinese Painters in the Traditional Style, The University Art Gallery, University of Melbourne, 1974, p. 13.