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Allan Ermann’s Chinese Brush Paintings

I came to know Mr Ermann in the early 1990’s, when he paid a visit to Taishan on his own to do some sightseeing. A friend introduced him to me as a professor from a university in the U.S. who loved Chinese paintings, and I was pleased to invite him when he expressed the wish to come to my home to see my landscape paintings.

I was very impressed on our first meeting. After arriving at my home, instead of sitting on a chair, Mr Ermann simply sat himself down on the floor to study the paintings, a bit like an artist who “took off his robes and sat on the floor with his legs stretched out”. A man true to his own heart! He impressed me quite favourably.

In the essay “Tian Zi Fang” in the book of Taoist lore Zhuang Zi, it was recorded that Lord Yuan of Sung wished to have some pictures painted. His court officials all came, greeted each other and then stood there respectfully in attendance with their paper, brushes and inks. Half of the officials were lined up outside. However, one official arrived late, yet remained perfectly composed and unhurried. After offering his greeting, instead of just standing there, he went back to his own quarters. The ruler sent someone to see what he was doing, and it was discovered that he had taken off his robes and was sitting on the floor with his legs stretched out, naked. “Excellent,” said the ruler. “This is indeed a true artist!” What the ruler meant was that before attempting to paint, an artist must be settled and at ease, having cast off all formality in order to be frank and true to oneself. Yun Nantian of the Qing Dynasty also said, “The Painter, taking off his robes and sitting with his legs stretched out, ignoring others around him, grasps the muse in his hands and is overwhelmed by creativity.” Mr Ermann, according to my impression, clearly possesses this quality.
Later, Mr Ermann went to Shandong Province to learn Chinese painting under the eminent Chinese plum tree and flower (meihua) painter Shen Guangwei. Eventually, his learning came to be transformed into his achievement.

In learning how to paint in the Chinese style, the initial barrier is, obviously, that Mr Ermann was born, raised, and came to maturity within the Western cultural tradition. However, Chinese painting is a vehicle of Chinese culture. A painter must have a rather solid grounding in traditional Chinese cultural accomplishments before being able to create any type of Chinese painting. In the past, I had thought that it would be very difficult for Mr Ermann to sustain his interest in studying Chinese painting, and even more difficult for him to be able to carry on this pursuit in any depth. However, I changed my mind and gained new understanding when I went to Hong Kong in 2009 and again met Mr and Mrs Ermann, who had already moved there. On that occasion, he and I exchanged some basic knowledge about the contemporary development of Chinese painting, especially the understanding and appreciation of Mr Shi Lu’s landscape paintings. In our discussions I found that Mr Ermann had through his study acquired a certain in-depth understanding of Chinese painting. He had developed a profound mastery of the composition, brushwork, ink-work, and artistic conception of Chinese painting.

Moreover, it happened that an exhibition of Rembrandt’s copper etchings in Hong Kong took place during my visit there. Rembrandt has always been a favoured subject of my research, for he is unsurpassed in the handling of composition, styling, light and dark, and spacing. Mr Ermann and I continued our discussion while appreciating the etchings, and discovered that we shared the same view about Rembrandt’s work, especially in regard to his handling of empty space.

On this issue, I have written an article, “Empty Space in Chinese Painting”. In the article I argued that the fundamental difference between Eastern and Western painting is not limited merely to different ways of expression. The difference of underlying cultural concepts plays an even greater role in shaping works of art that present different aesthetic values. For instance, people from different cultural backgrounds would differ in their understanding of empty space in Chinese painting. However, after studying the religions and art of people of different races, it would not be hard for us to discover common qualities among various art forms created by the human race the world over. To put it more precisely, common feelings shared between people have become a key that can open the door leading to different kinds of art. At least, this is an experience that Mr Ermann and I have shared.

In addition, Mr Ermann has been practising Chinese calligraphy in a serious fashion. He is also well-versed in Chinese poetry. Thus, his Chinese painting is imbued with an Eastern cultural flavour.

In the realm of Chinese painting, apart from the deep-rooted cultural accomplishment required of the painter, one must overcome the greatest difficulty of all, i.e., gaining mastery of the tools and materials, a skill that takes a painter a decade or longer of training to acquire. The first thing to master is the quality of the lines, namely a sure control by a painter of the rhythm of the lines, a skill that can only be acquired through long years of practice in calligraphy. After that come the various types of composition and styling, control of the humidity and the shading of the inks. These matters are to be learned through sketching from nature and imitating the practices of the works of others. Mr Pan Tianshou once remarked that a painter has to be talented, skilled, cultured, and a man of integrity. Falling short in any one of these aspects will not do.
Mr Ermann’s paintings can be grouped into three stages. The first stage is pre-2004 when he was still learning and building up his skills. From 2005 to 2007, his works began to form a class of their own. After 2008, his works are rather mature.

His early works, especially his paintings of flowers and birds, clearly show the influence of Shen Guangwei and, through him, the latter’s teacher Yu Xining. His works from 2005 to 2007 started to break free of the original constraints, becoming more lively and natural. His brushstrokes became more carefree and daring. Since 2008, his works have begun to be woven together in an even more mature artistic language, with well-thought construction, better control of brush rhythms, greater charm of the ink-work and more articulated expression of inner feelings. His application of light ink is especially great in enriching the layers of a painting, strengthening the artistic appeal, adding weight and depth to the picture, and allowing his character to stand out.

Jing Ho of the Five Dynasties period said in his Essay on Brushwork, “There are six fundamental elements in painting. The first is Qi (Spirit); the second is Yun (Charm); the third is Si (Idea); the fourth is Jing (Perspective); the fifth is Bi (Brushwork); and the sixth is Mo (Ink-work).” Spirit and Charm come first among the six fundamental elements. Fang Xun of the Qing Dynasty, for his part, noted, “In full spirit, one can draw all lines at will, without any obstacles. During that process, charm will come to life naturally.” Moreover, Xie He of Nan Qi placed “Spirit, Charm, Liveliness and Movement” at the top of his Theory of the Six Ways. The above examples show the importance of Spirit and Charm in Chinese Painting. However, some believe that these attributes cannot be acquired, but come from a painter’s nature. Others believe that they are the result of “accomplished skills” and can be acquired through training. In my opinion, it takes both natural gifts and hard work to succeed. In any case, Spirit and Charm form the soul of Chinese painting and can only be presented in a painting to which one has devoted one’s full effort.

And that is the most precious quality of Mr Ermann’s paintings. His true nature and humour shown in the paintings are full of spirit, charm, liveliness and movement. Straightforward, child-like, natural, random, non-artificial, not overdone, being carefree yet measured; borrowing from nature at will, yet full of mystical thoughts. That is why I appreciate very much both his paintings and his being!

Wang Shuxia, College of Arts, Shandong University of Science and Technology
Summer of 2011 at Qingdao.



《莊子•田子方》載:“昔宋元君將畫圖、眾吏皆至,受揖而立,紙筆和墨,在外者半,有一吏後至,儃,然不趨,受揖不立,因之舍,公使人視之,則解衣盤礡,贏。君曰,可矣,是真畫者也!”意思是說:畫者做事神閒氣定,不拘形蹟,坦然、率真、才能為畫。清代惲南田也曾說過 “作畫者解衣磐礡,旁若無人,然後化機在手,元氣狼籍。”顯然我印象中的歐安龍先生具有這樣的氣質。



五代荊浩《筆法記》中說:“畫有六要,一曰氣,二曰韻,三曰思,四曰景,五曰筆,六曰墨。” 六要中氣韻第一要也,清代方薰也說:“氣盛則縱橫揮灑,機無滯礙,其間韻自生動矣”。另外,南齊謝赫的六法論中也將 “氣韻生動” 列為六法之首,可見氣韻之於中國畫的重要性。然而,對於中國畫中的氣韻,有人卻認為 “氣韻不可學”,是畫家與生俱來的。也有人認為是 “由技入道” 的結果,可以通過後天的訓練獲得。但我認為,先天秉賦與後天努力缺一不可。無論如何,畫的氣韻是中國畫的靈魂,是需要在中國畫上下足功夫後,方可得到的畫面氣象。

山東科技大學藝術學院 — 王書俠