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Framing a viewpoint

By Yang Yang | China Daily | Updated: 2022-06-27 06:07

Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers by Zhou Fang of the Tang Dynasty represents one of the peaks in the history of ancient figure paintings, as Yang Qi writes in his recent book on Chinese art history. Chinese art adopted a style that evoked different emotions than Western art during times of strife. [Photo provided to China Daily]

For a long time, 87-year-old Yang Qi, a former professor of art history at Tsinghua University, had applied Western art theories to study ancient Chinese art, the core of which sees art as the reflection of social life. But when it came to ink-wash painting masterpieces of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), he found it did not make sense. Yang had always agreed with French philosopher Hippolyte Taine that "in happy times, artists only create happy works, while in chaotic wartime, they produce only melancholic works".

This is true for The Triumph of Death, by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who, Yang says, created the work under the influence of war atrocities in the 16th century. In the appalling painting, a large army of skeletons sweeps a barren landscape and humans, men or women, rich or poor, young or old, all fall under death's scythe.

"It mirrors the chaos caused by war and people's sufferings," he says.

Chinese ink-wash painters in the 13th century also lived in chaotic wartime.

"Their life was painful, they were pessimistic and their future was hopeless. But how did they present that chaotic time?" Yang asks.

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