the primal directness of cave paintings, lyricism of abstract expressionism,
and scholarly research, the late Huang Yao produced an original body of
work that's charming in its child-like joyfulness, it may also be one of
the most important discoveries in East Asian art in recent years.
Text by Denise Wee & Ivan Ke
Carolyn Wong knew her grandfather drew all the time. She just didn't know how much of his art there was and how important they could possibly be. In 1998, she was about to find out; but only after she had braved a dusty closet in her grandfather's home, poked around his belongings for something pretty to hang in her own house, and came upon the legacy her grandfather, Huang Yao, bequeathed. A legacy that could well be one of the biggest and most important single finds for East Asian art in recent years.
"I wanted to put up some new paintings in my home and my grandfather is an artist, so I thought why not put up his works? The art was stored away diligently by my grandmother, using old but very effective methods, like lots of peppercorns to keep the paintings dry and the bugs away. We opened up trunks and found paintings; opened up shelves and found paintings; opened up cupboards and found paintings. Recently we found more under a bed, but I think that's the end. The find was really exciting because it is an aspect of my grandfather I never knew. Some paintings I saw growing up; others I have never seen in my life. Also quite exciting was the fact that publishers from China contacted us wanting to republish his works from the 1930s and were surprised at what he produced in his later years."
However, there was much work to be done first before any kind of assessment could reasonably be made. Someone needed to comb through the disorderly multitude of paintings, journals and other writings Huang Yao amassed in his lifetime. That someone was Dr. Tan May Ling, Carolyn's mother, who initially believed it would take no more than two months to make some sense of the mess. Two months became two years. It also became a labor of love and an educational journey: as she referenced and catalogued her father-in-law's work, she fell in love with the Chinese art and culture.
It is easy to see why, Chinese words and characters never looked better than in Huang Yao's art. It appeared to be calligraphy, yet there are little, chubby cartoon figures beneath a coconut tree at the edge of the rice paper, and it doesn't seem all that serious. There's also a riot of colors applied apparently haphazardly, reminiscent of Jackson Pollock's most famous works.
But there is really little that is abstract about Huang Yao's paintings and calligraphy. Nor do they look like they were executed by the whimsical hand of any eight-year-old, although the pieces possess a charming innocence and childlike joy. In fact, the works of this Shanghai born artist are based on serious, scholarly research; they revealed the Chinese language as it has evolved over some 16 centuries, and at the same time, exemplifies its complex deconstruction. In the process, Huang Yao has turned Chinese characters- pictographs- into arresting art: a unique form he called wenzi hua (calligraphic painting).
Also equipped with an immense wealth of knowledge of Chinese history, literature and art, Huang Yao was able to transform Chinese characters, idioms, and Tang and Soong poems in their entirety into seemingly abstract paintings, but always tinged with an unpretentious sense of humor,
"What Huang Yao did was, he had a work of calligraphy in front of you, and the painting takes the secondary role," says Dr Chew Kim Liong, Assistant Professor of Visual Arts at the Nanyang Technological University. "So instead of a painting with calligraphy inscribed on it, the calligraphy takes a major role."
But experts are less willing to commit themselves to declaring how much of an impact Huang Yao's works will actually have in the region or the world in future. While some are hopeful that this heretofore-unknown collection will advance the cause of Chinese calligraphic art, others say Chinese art has gone far beyond calligraphy. Many are, however, enamored by what they've seen so far.
"He unearthed a lot of issues such as the innovative use of calligraphy and quite a bit of research potential to tap into," says Patricia Ong, who curated the premiere exhibition of Huang Yao's paintings at the Singapore Art Museum recently. "What I am trying to say is that Huang Yao did not restrict himself to that field; he also experimented in other forms. He combined his knowledge of Chinese culture and philology and a spirit of innovation and he was able to interplay and fused everything together. This was very new, especially in the region, during that period of time."
Although there is little doubt that Huang Yao's intensive personal research into philology contributed immensely to the study of Oracle-Bone Script, some observers feel that he did more than just reveal the root meaning of Chinese characters.
"This artist for me has many associations with some of the best artists I can imagine, in a global sense," says Alan Rubenstein, vice-president of LaSalle-SIA College of the Arts. "This sort of thing clearly is eastern, but it transcends its background, (Huang Yao's work) speaks to me and I'm a western artist; I'm not an Asian artist per se, although lots of things about Asian art interests me very much and informs my work. What this indicates to me is that this artist whether consciously or subconsciously is making links with the universality of symbolic language, symbolic marks that are universal."
Indeed, despite his art being deeply rooted in Chinese tradition, Huang Yao encourages the blurring of lines between western and eastern art, the way calligraphic strokes inform Jackson Pollock's work and Mainland Chinese artists' attempt to fuse Surrealism into Chinese ink painting. Looking beyond the surface, Huang Yao believed that art can transcend the boundaries of culture and language.
"These creations of mine have a correlation with the ancient, yet have a touch of modern," he explained in his published article. "Some people see it and think it is a modern painting, but in fact, this is the oldest art form. Others think that it is western abstract painting, but they are actually eastern characters. Thus I believe that art does not differentiate between the ancient and the modern, the east and the west. It is all one and continuous, and this is the greatness and sacredness of Art."
This past July, 110 of his works hung proudly. Inside, against the antiseptic smell of the museum, the scent of old rice paper cannot be more obvious--the very scent one can imagine having breathed life into the pictographic phoenix sprawled across a painting. Very likely, Huang Yao was smiling when he first birthed this phoenix with a steady, fluid stroke of his hand--what's certain is, he didn't fit the stereotype of the angst-ridden artist.
Born in China in 1917, Huang Yao first gained fame in the 1930s as a cartoonist with his wacky Niu Bizi (Bull's nose) comic books, serialized in Shanghai News. Later, he was also a journalist, artist, Baptist preacher and teacher, eventually making his way to several destinations in Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. In every destination he made news for his unusual method of writing calligraphy upside down (he literally wrote his words from an inverted perspective).
But fame was not what Huang Yao was after. That's why his paintings remained hidden even from his family while he and his wife were alive: it was 12 years after he passed away and shortly after his wife's death in 1998 that the surviving members got to see all the paintings. Above all, he spent his life searching for innocence, peace and truth.
As an artist, he was prolific, experimental and ahead of his time. Most importantly, he never lost the joy of painting, be it cutesy cartoons or calligraphy. Writing upside down was not a gimmick--it expressed his essential philosophy of art.
"I used to enjoy watching him write upside down," recalls Carolyn. "I've never seen him write things right side up. I asked him why he did that and he said that when you work upside down, it's almost like you are a child again, your writing is unstable and it looks different."
His aspiration to innocence, however, belied a rigorous classical training. At six he studied Chinese classic under the tutelage of his father, a skilled calligrapher. Huang Yao used to dip his brush in pure rain water and practice calligraphy on smoothen citywall brick. In retirement, he conducted his own extensive research into the Oracle-Bone Script, the earliest documented form of writing curved on the bones of animals; Bell and Gong inscriptions; and pictorial calligraphy. Numerous volumes of his handwritten journals reveal the multiple variations and etymologies of hundreds of Chinese characters.
Huang Yao emphasized that new art must come from the remnants of the past, like the mythical phoenix that rises gloriously from ashes. His interest in the traditional tuhua wenzi, or pictorial calligraphy, resulted in his development of wenzi hua, a re-interpretation of original pictorial Chinese calligraphy into paintings, which allows for more creative expression within the form of calligraphy.
"Sometimes, I can spend my whole day lying or sitting down, reading or writing tuhua wenzi and not tire, just because of the incomparable beauty of its form," he wrote in his journal. "as an artist, what I really want to do is read Oracle-Bone Scripts, which records the history of everyday life in ancient society, and speculate about our ancestor's lifestyles according to the existing inscriptions."
Japanese calligraphers were deep into shu dao (the Japanese version of wenzi hua) as early as the mid-20th century, but the Chinese, who denigrated the status of calligraphy as an art form, lagged behind. Huang Yao, who experimented with wenzi hua in the early 1970s when it wasn't a common thing to do, is considered a pioneer; most Chinese artists follow his lead at least 10 years later.
With wenzi hua, Huang Yao hoped to bridged the gap between Chinese painting and calligraphy. He firmly believed that both art forms shared the same root (shuhua tongyuan). "There is much truth in this phrase shuhua tongyuan," he wrote in his journal. "It is a matter of deep regret if a painter does not know calligraphy, and it is a matter of imperfection if a painter does not know how to dexterously and soundly pen one's strokes with the most delicate technique of calligraphy."
Despite his firm, impassioned belief, Huang Yao was never pedantic. He was born and raised in a literary family, but was never part of the 'establishment'. While the literati focus their energies on painting bamboo, Chinese orchids, and the Four Gentlemen, Huang Yao painted children at play, peasants, and caricatures of Chinese mythological characters. Even in his later works, the ever-humorous artist couldn't resist sneaking in an adorable cartoon figure here and there amidst the wenzi hua. Even his art material was rough and ready, whatever that was at hand. Not for him the fussy insistence on elaborate scrolls, palettes and expensive brushes, unlike most artists. His art truly reaches out to the masses, breaching the gap between the layperson and the literati.
"Huang Yao is important because he is telling you, 'You don't need to be part of that inner circle of Chinese cultural elite" says Kwok Kian Chow, Director of Singapore Art Museum. "There are always reference books you can refer to tell you during the Tang dynasty how this was written, during the Han dynasty how that was written. After that, you're free to combine these words in ways you like.
"I think it's wonderful what Huang Yao was doing. It's like playing a game: let them tell you about the rules, let them tell you about how to play, and after that, it is your creativity."
No doubt Huang Yao would agree.
& Ivan Ke
EAST, December 2001, volume3 issue12, pp64-70.
Niu Bi Zi and his Art Xie Bing Ying (in Chinese)
>> Several Skill of Niu Bi Zi Huang Yao Cheng Rong Ning (in Chinese)
>> Memory of Huang Yao Chen Ji Ying (in Chinese)
>> A Family Legacy Parvathi Nayar
>> A Master's Stroke Denise Wee & Ivan Ke