Sun, Jul 03, 2016 - Page 8 News List

Yingge Town Artisan: Distant pasts, distant markets

Yingge-based painter Chang Sung-shan, trained in traditional Chinese painting, finds a more receptive market for his hand-painted underglaze blue porcelains in China

By Paul Cooper  /  Staff reporter

Composite photo of Chang Sung-shan’s underglaze blue bowl, before (right side) and after firing.

Photo: Paul Cooper, Taipei Times

Take a look at the photo of the lidded pot. How long do you think it took to paint?

Yingge (鶯歌) artist Chang Sung-shan’s (張松山) brush dances over the lid as he talks of his life, his art, his plans. I assume he’s just distractedly doodling during our interview.

As we conclude, I walk over and look at what he’s been doing. He has painted a fully-formed, complex, multilayered, monochromatic floral composition in the muted gray of the unfired cobalt underglaze pigment. It took him less than 30 minutes.

Six years ago, Chang returned to painting following a career serving in the armed forces. He has chosen to paint on ceramics. His challenges now are two historically entrenched mindsets biased against his art — the dominance of the Western-Chinese hybrid style introduced during the early Qing dynasty and the idea that painting on ceramics can only be considered a handicraft, not an art form — as well as an anemic market for his work in Taiwan.

Chang’s style predates Qing dynasty court painting techniques. The Italian Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione (郎世寧), who served under the early Qing emperors Kangxi (康熙), Yongzheng (雍正) and Qianlong (乾隆), introduced Western painting ideas such as vanishing perspective, meticulous, detailed brushwork and a tendency to fill the entire canvas. Castiglione’s hybrid style has heavily influenced Chinese painting since.

Chang still follows the traditional academic school (學院派), which he says has its roots in antiquity. This school concentrates on painting in the traditional xieyihua (寫意畫, describing ideas) style and moyun (墨韻, the poetic flow of the ink), eschewing gaudy colors and favoring the use of negative space to convey ideas.

“You don’t need to fill everything with paint: you give people space in which to use their own imagination,” Chang quips.

Chang says that traditional Chinese ink painting is quickly disappearing. Teachers nowadays teach the hybrid Western-Chinese style, and many artists have trained in Western painting.

The painter set up shop in Yingge District six years ago, thinking to combine the expertise of this pottery-making area and the painting skills he mastered before he joined the military.

Few others in Yingge paint underglaze blue directly on ceramics, so there’s little competition in that regard. Transitioning from painting on paper to painting on the surface of unfired ceramics came quickly to Chang. The problem has been overcoming the idea that painting on ceramics cannot be considered an art form.

Ming and Qing underglaze blue vases were generally decorated by craftsmen, not painters. Chang has a lot of respect for the tradition of painting in underglaze blues — “it’s the only thing that can really convey the ancient tradition” — and favors this technique over polychromatic overglaze colors.

Chang points to oil painting in Western churches and cathedrals, on ceilings and walls, to illustrate that painting doesn’t necessarily have to be done on paper for it to be considered art. He believes that art is about expression. The medium it is painted on is beside the point.

“A work of art is a unique object that the maker has put their all into conveying their ideas, has tried their utmost to make as beautiful as they can,” he says.

While the ceramic medium presents its own inherent problems as a canvas, there is also much to recommend it. So many factors must come together to create a perfect piece: the skill of the potter, the quality of the porcelain, the technique of the painter, and flawless application of the transparent overglaze, together with a bit of luck in the firing process.

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