Western wind through a Chinese landscape

MOST Westerners think of Chinese art as being something rather distinctly - well, Chinese. Or at least Oriental. They may not be able to describe precisely what that means - maybe it's ink-and-brush landscapes and delicate scrolls, or maybe it's propaganda art and socialist realism - but they know it when they see it. At least they used to. Now that Chinese culture has recovered from the Cultural Revolution, now that economic contacts with the Occident have become routine, a new kind of Chinese art has begun to surface.

Perhaps the most striking quality of this contemporary Chinese oil painting is how clearly it shows the influence of Western art. Perhaps that's not surprising, given the fact that China has no oil painting tradition older than the present century. The two paintings shown on these pages illustrate the point.

Without becoming a hodgepodge of late-19th-century, early-20th-century styles, the work of Luo Erchun quite clearly reveals the influence of Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch, and even of the Cubism of Braque and Picasso. Luo draws his incandescent colors from the brick-red soils of Hunan Province, where he was born in 1929. ``Old Town'' shows European influences, but remains characteristically Chinese in content.

By contrast, the work of Ai Xuan, ``Destiny'' shows the influence of Andrew Wyeth. We notice the same scrupulous attention to detail - in the modeling of the face, in the texture of the hide and the fluffiness of the fur. More significant, however, is the similarity of sensibility, the figure's seeming isolation in a vast, empty landscape. This landscape is that of Tibet, where Ai served as a soldier in the mid-'70s after his graduation from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Peking, the institution where Luo Erchun teaches as a professor of oil painting.

It may not be clear yet what has changed - Chinese art or Western perceptions of it - but it does seem as if ``the twain'' are beginning to meet at least in the realm of art.

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