Next week in New York we open a new exhibition mounted in collaboration with Marcus Flacks exploring the relationship between Contemporary Chinese ink painting and British art of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The ‘parallels’ of the title, may at first sight seem limited. But this is a project we have been discussing over several years. Marcus has been commissioning work from leading Chinese artists – such as Liu Dan, Li Huayi and Zeng Xiaojun – aware of their conceptual and aesthetic similarities to British landscape painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In the catalogue we have produced to accompany the exhibition Marcus and Jonny Yarker tease out some of the unexpected intersections both formal and conceptual between British drawings of the ‘Great Age’ and contemporary Chinese art. One of the striking revelations is that it is not a new idea. Writing in the 1930s, the Chinese author and artist Yee Chiang noted in his memoir The Silent Traveller in London after a visit to the great collector Paul Oppé that: ‘[t]he more familiar I become with English water-colours, the more points of similarity I find between them and our paintings. The treatment in the black-and-white wash drawings of Cotman, Cozens, Constable, and Cameron, make me believe there is really no boundary between English and Chinese art at all.’ It was the work of Alexander Cozens in particular that Yee Chiang felt was so close to the Chinese practice.
Even more fascinatingly is the discovery that British artists of the eighteenth century were thinking about the connection as well. In a letter written to Alexander Cozens from the Netherlands, the great collector and amateur, William Beckford wrote a vivid account of his journey conjuring cultural and aesthetic connections that Cozens would have been acutely aware of:
‘Towards evening, we entered the dominions of the United Provinces, and had all their glory of canals, treck-schuyts and windmills, before us. The minute neatness of the villages, their red roofs, and the lively green of the willows which shade them, corresponded with the ideas I had formed of Chinese prospects; a resemblance which was not diminished upon viewing on every side the level scenery of enamelled meadows, with stripes of clear water across them, and innumerable barges gliding busily along. Nothing could be finer than the weather; it improved each moment, as if propitious to my exotic fanciers; and, at sun-set, not one single cloud obscured the horizon. Several storks were parading by the water-side, amongst flags and osiers; and, as far as the eye could reach, large herds of beautifully spotted cattle were enjoying the plenty of their pastures. I was perfectly in the environs of Canton, or Ning Po, till we reached Meerdyke. You know fumigations are always the current recipe in romance to break an enchantment; as soon, therefore, as I left my carriage and entered my inn, the clouds of tobacco which filled every one of its apartments dispersed my Chinese imaginations, and reduced me in an instant to Holland.’
We can therefore look with new eyes at the works of J. R. Cozens – such as his spiky tree rendering of Grindelwald in rich ink – or Alexander Cozens’s own brush landscapes derived from blots and think of their imagined journey to ‘the environs of Canton, or Ning Po.’
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November 13 –18
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November 30–December 8
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