The Significance of Manuscripts in the Study of Art History
First of all, I'd like to thank Ms Li Lanfang, Head of Triumph Gallery, and Mr. Lu Hong, curator of this exhibition, famous critic and art historian for his kind invitation, as well as the great hospitality from the Triumph Gallery team.
I'm quite enlightened by the speeches you just made about the significance of manuscripts from different angles and their overlooked value. My speech is titled “The Significance of Manuscripts in the Study of Art History”,or rather, “The Wide Space of Wisdom”. For the creating process of an artist, the manuscript has been an indispensable part and has been around for a long time; it should not be neglected. However, for a quite long period of time, it has long been overlooked, shelved, neglected or even forgotten in the research and review by critics and art historians. In other words, manuscripts were deprived of its due status in art history. Since 2014, Wuhan United Art Museum has begun to address the value and significance of manuscripts. Under the initiative of Mr. Lu Hong, a string of manuscript exhibitions have been held including “Exhibition of Fu Zhongwang's Manuscripts”,“Research Exhibition of Fang Lijun's Manuscripts” and “Research Exhibition of Pang Maokun's manuscripts”. What's important about these exhibitions is that the emphasis has been placed on the significance of manuscripts, leading to more manuscript exhibitions blooming in the years to come and draws attention to manuscript that it deserves. Especially for art historians and critics, through the revelation of the manuscripts, they are able to feel and understand how artists approach complex issues in terms of visual languages. Or, when we face manuscripts of different ages, our concerns will vary due to different social backgrounds, artistic concepts, and the huge differences in methods of each individual. All this can be discovered from and approved by the manuscript. In this sense, the manuscript hold special value for the study of art history and individual cases, and thus it cannot be ignored.
In 2000, for the preparation of the book, History of Chinese Oil Painting, I interviewed Mr. Chen Yifei, an oil painter, in Xinzhuang, Shanghai. We focused on a large-scale work named The Destruction of the Chiang Dynasty, which he completed jointly with Mr. Wei Jingshan in 1977. He showed me a lot of photos taken at the time, a several-meter-high sculpture draft just like the building models for estate sales, and sketches from different perspectives. Models of different sizes were made to find out the best angle for the painting, and he also drew a large amount of sketches for the characters and parts of the painting. I think these qualify as the manuscript that we're talking about today. They were just not called as manuscripts at that time. Today, manuscripts are no longer confined to sketches or variations of the painting, but rather an expressive and quick way of recording memories in the daily thinking about the world. In fact, every artist has this kind of habit or practice, but our research in this aspect has long been stagnated, because were still focusing on the completed works.
In fact, if the manuscript is understood in the traditional artistic context, it can be defined as the original draft that is written or recorded by the author on paper, cloth or other materials. It has both broad and narrow interpretations. In China, "manuscript" refers more to the sketches, color drafts and variations made for a work, and some of them are supplied with descriptions and clues by the artist. Manuscripts are often made very quickly, spontaneously, and flexibly. They come and go easily, serving as subordinates for the creation rather than existing as an independent category. Sketches can reveal a great variety of information about artists, which we could barely imagine, as well as their thoughts and mental activities.
In my opinion, since 1949, due to the needs of national ideology and cultural construction, great changes have taken place especially for the reestablishment and demand for the view of fine arts. However, our study of art works and manuscripts has barely scratched the surface and lacks in in-depth analysis behind the works. Of course, this is another topic. From my personal point of view, the manuscript itself is not complicated. However, as an academic issue, it will become rich sources for discussion. The definition of manuscripts becomes meaningless and empty. Instead, we should look at the privacy and authenticity of the manuscripts that are usually obscured, especially the process from obscurity to clarity, from chaos to absoluteness, from unity to diversity, from complexity to simplicity. Even the vague, the uncertain, the perplexing and the worrisome are just what every artist has to go through in the creative process.
The 10 participating artists in this exhibition are all dazzling stars in the practice of Chinese contemporary art. They are unique and distinctive artists in different fields, including painting, sculpture, installation, performance and video. So are their manuscripts, mirroring their own mental outlook, dynamic state of life, as well as the way they think, understand and interpret the world. Judging from the works of this exhibition, they cast their own experience of living and feeling of life on paper or different materials and render their own opinions visually. The manuscripts are not simple representations, but newly-born images by devices of fiction, exaggeration or symbolization. They are natural manifestations of the artist's mind, which I believe will penetrate the heart of every viewer. As far as contemporary art is concerned, they are no longer aesthetic representations, but demonstrations of ideas. What I want to say is that only time can penetrate the phenomenon and bring the audience into another space and time to familiarize them with the way, in which artists use different materials to get involved in the contemporary society and think about the art today. This exhibition is no longer to express an aesthetic, but an attitude. As we all know, the influence of art creation does not depend entirely on the media, but on how artists can relate art to social life and social issues, for which it is important to have independent problem awareness and a certain method. Only the most distinct expression of art can win the favor of time, space and people; this is my understanding of this exhibition. The research and questioning of the manuscript will raise unexpected questions about the original works and uncover things hidden on the original works. This will also play an irreplaceable role in the correction of art history.
Finally, I would like to add that manuscripts are about romance, thoughts, reality, abilities, choices, innermost feelings, desires, controls, goals and values. Therefore, to some extent, manuscripts are an experience, transformation, process, communication, perspective, excavation, evaluation, research, setting, possibility, attempt, profit, information, strategy... Manuscripts are personal spirits and a way of presenting epiphany.