Ink-Wash with a Modern Feel

The Colored Landscape Paintings of Wang Lan Hsiung

2018 / January

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell

In his quest during his painting career, the brush of Wang Lan ­Hsiung has never rested. Emerging from tradition, he hesitated between abstract art and hyperrealism, then turned back once again to ink-wash painting, except that now the views he saw were different. Wang has used color to produce modern ink-wash paintings in his own style, and has become the only artist in Taiwan to win the following four major arts prizes: the ­Chung ­Hsing Literary Award, the Chinese Writers and Artists Association’s Literary Award for Painting, the Literary and Artistic Creation Award presented by the Sun Yat Sen Academic and Cultural Foundation, and the National Arts Award.


Asked about his relationship with painting, Wang Lan ­Hsiung says it goes back to when he was in elementary school, when his father gave him his grandmother’s inkstone, and he began to grind ink and paint rudimentary images. Unable to find any reference materials about painting, he started by doing copies of the images of the deities Guan Gong and Guan­yin on the labels of cloth sold at his grandaunt’s store. In art class at school, the work turned in by his classmates was virtually all done for them by Wang.

Untiring practice

After graduating from junior high school, Wang, who was unable to test into a public high school, took a temporary job as a janitor in a lawcourt. He often used his free time to copy images from books. At that time Wang had yet to receive any formal training in ink-wash painting, and he used printmaking paper to practice on. One of the court officials told him he needed to use Xuan calligraphy paper for Chinese painting, and only then did he learn that Xuan paper even existed. At that time a janitor’s monthly salary was NT$120, with holiday overtime pay of NT$20, while one sheet of Xuan paper cost NT$20. Wang bought one sheet of Xuan paper each month, and, taking advantage of working duty shifts on days when the court was closed, he would push together the tables used by the judges into one big platform, and paint one large sheet each time. Thinking back on those days, Wang says it was really a pleasure to paint back then.

After testing into National Feng-Shan Senior High School, he met Yang ­Hsiang-yun, who instructed him in the basic techniques of ink-wash painting. From that time forward Wang won one prize after another, and he was able to define his future direction, deciding to take the test for entry into the Department of Fine Arts at National Taiwan Normal University. But Wang had never even heard of sketching, which was a required part of the test, so he searched for help in all directions, even insinuating himself into the art classroom at a girls’ school to learn on the sly. Luckily, he finally found two elder classmates at NTNU to point him in the right direction, and after cramming for three days he was ultimately able to test into the department as he had hoped.

After graduating from NTNU, Wang began teaching at Tai­bei High School in Tai­pei, while he maintained a painting studio off-campus. In addition, the parents of one of his students, who ran an art gallery, invited him to consign his works for sale. At that time, when ink-wash painting was very popular in the Japanese market, Wang got up at four every morning and took up his brush to paint. After arriving at school he would use the early self-study time and free periods to continue to paint, producing at least four works per day, so that after 12 years, he had created nearly 10,000 pieces of art. Creating these types of paintings for export was in fact a common experience for many artists at that time, but most of them are unwilling to talk about it. But Wang says straight out that the works he produced in those years helped him out of an economic pinch, and moreover that the expectations that a painter has of him or herself lie in training oneself, in each work, in new compositions and in practicing brushwork, which are steps each artist must struggle through to arrive at his or her own style.

Producing a style with color

It is no easy feat for a painter to create their own personal style. When Wang tested into the Department of Fine Arts at NTNU in 1963, with guidance from well-known teachers such as ­Huang Chun-pi, Lin Yu-shan, and ­Chang Te-wen, he had to study both Chinese and Western painting, and the school encouraged students to do sketching from life as well as creative works.

Wang at that time was inclined to use modern painting methods to express his own ideas. Wang, along with classmates Su Hsin-tien, Wu A-sun, Tosi Lee, and others, together formed the “Hua-Wai Painting Association,” which extolled visual shocks. Wang experimented with ink-wash, oil painting, spray painting, and prints. “I was hesitating at a crossroads between being a Chinese- or a Western-style painter, and didn’t know where to go, but I faced up to it unflinchingly.” This is not only the ­painter’s self-description, but is a struggle and a process that everyone who wants to honestly express themselves in art must go through.

In 1980, Wang left the teaching profession and fortuitously ended up at the side of ­Huang Chun-pi. Wang says, “My return from modern painting to relatively traditional ink-wash painting began when I was with ­Huang Chun-pi.” He discovered that the two had different angles on appreciating paintings, and often what he would consider good, ­Huang would just shake his head at. This caused him to reflect on the question: What is the difference between us? So he began copying works from books published by the National Palace Museum, beginning with the very basics. Thus he relearned, painting by painting, how to do traditional landscapes, and so confirmed his path as a modern ink-wash artist.

Wang took the principles of Western painting-from-­nature, sketching, and perspective that he had absorbed in his time at university and applied them to traditional ink-wash painting. He took nature as his teacher, singing her praises with brush and ink. Wang also applied colors to traditional landscape painting, with the fluctuations of the seasons—the new greenery of spring, the deep blue of summer, the red maples of autumn, and the white snow of winter—becoming the color schemes of his paintings. He traveled the world, integrating beautiful scenery from many lands into his brushwork. Not only the red-tiled houses of Taiwan but also the dazzling cherry blossoms of Osaka, the magnificence of European castles, the vitality of a Moroccan fish market, and the dignity of India’s ­Ganges River all have made guest appearances on his Xuan paper. But he always likes to mix a little black ink into his poster colors to reduce their brightness and ensure they are not too gaudy. He is insistent that you have to keep the charm of brush and ink in ink-wash paintings.

All along his path, Wang says, he has kept firmly in his mind the search for beauty. “Beauty” is the yardstick in the minds of painters, and Wang describes himself as an aesthete. “Beauty of course has personality,” says Wang, and moreover the expression of beauty definitely requires skill and effort. It is not something you just come up with in a moment of inspiration, but is produced by following your heart on a sturdy foundation of basic skills.

Collecting things of beauty

Collecting antiques is a hobby of Wang’s. When we enter his “Half-Farming Cottage” (besides painting, Wang spends half his time on farming, so he calls himself “Master of the Half-Farming Cottage”), there are sculptures from the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (10th century CE) displayed in his living room, works which he has collected over the course of more than 20 years. The facial features of one bust of Prince Ananda unearthed from the tomb of Gao Huan of the Eastern Wei Dynasty reveal farsighted wisdom and compassion. And there is a wooden statue of a “Water-Moon Guan­yin,” sitting in a relaxed manner with her right knee drawn up and her left foot hanging down, whose grace and elegance make the space even more tranquil and harmonious. Next Wang pulls out his collection of incense burners, bowls, and potshards from the Ru Kiln of the Northern Song Dynasty (960‡1127). Such pieces, with their glossy sky-blue Ru glaze and elegant charm, are rarely seen on the market. These artworks have a beauty that has passed the test of time.

Naturally there is a learning curve when investing in antiques, but this is no bad thing, says Wang. At one point, someone wanted to sell him an “Eighteen Arhats Scroll” by Wu Bin of the Ming Dynasty (1368‡1644), but his friends all maintained that it was not authentic. Wang had some concerns, but still bought the work for NT$770,000. Later, he re-sold it through the auction market for about NT$12 million. To his surprise, several years later this work was sold for the record-breaking price of RMB169.12 million (about NT$800 million). As he tells this story, Wang shows us a scroll made from photos of the work that he hired a photographer to take back then. His words reveal something of his pride and joy in his ability to distinguish the genuine from the fake.

In order to authenticate these antiques and paintings, collectors need to gather information from more or less every field of knowledge, and you can get an indication of this from many of the items that grace Wang’s home. The orange-and-white-patterned koi carp in the pond in his front yard are in excellent health, the variously shaped bonsai pine and cypress are the fruits of a long-standing hobby, and in the past he has cultivated orchids too. In each case he has progressed from mere interest to expert proficiency. And all of this can be attributed to the painter’s reverence for life and his passion for beauty.

Now in his seventies, Wang still has a regular and disciplined lifestyle. He shows us the calligraphy that he does upon arising each morning to practice characters and record events, and for many years now his daily routine has included early morning walks when he also recites verse from memory. Recently, the preparations for opening the “Wang Lan Hsiung Museum” have been at the center of his life. He bought the house across from his and has renovated and redecorated it, and there he will display color ink-wash works from over many years that sing the praises of nature, as well as a good number of the extra­ordin­arily beautiful antiques he has collected.

Looking back over the path he has travelled, Wang uses the motto “From shouting to slender streams” to express the understanding he has gained over the course of his life. Art is open to the masses and aesthetics are intuitive, but he no longer pays tribute to nature in the manner of someone dancing to his own tune or shouting from the rooftops. He hopes that his works can interact with the viewer at close quarters, and leave lasting memories of beauty; and he hopes that even more people can enjoy and appreciate them, so that art brings sustenance into our daily existence, providing an essential ingredient to viewers’ lives.

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