An Odyssey in Contemporary Ink Painting

Bridging the Gap between Tradition and Innovation.

Chinese ink refers to the medium of ink, typically applied to Chinese ‘xuan’ paper, sometimes with the addition of colour. The history of ink painting followed a parallel trajectory to oil painting in the West and is considered both a marker of Chinese identity and also a repository of Chinese culture – being an art form where representation, abstraction, calligraphy and poetry intersect.

The academic and commercial interest in Chinese contemporary ink painting currently enjoys stems from its established roots in China’s 5000-year-old art history. Many of today’s leading ink artists trained assiduously in traditional techniques and boast impressive personal collections of Chinese antiques and classical Chinese paintings. The works from these artists bear a timeless quality, accessible to antique connoisseurs, who would usually find that contemporary art might leave them cold.

But at the same time the expressive aspect of the ink movement coupled with the distinctive individual styles of the artists lends itself to a broad-based appeal beyond traditional Chinese art collectors.

Qin Feng (1961-). Civilization Landscape Series 0017, 2012, ink on paper, 125 x 200cm. £18,000 – 22,000


A Historical Moment

Historically the contemporary ink movement comes at a unique moment of transition in Chinese society and Chinese art and saw a generation of artists impacted by the Cultural Revolution. There had been significant migration out of China around 1945 and then again in the 1980s, of which the contemporary ink artists were a part of and it deeply informed their artistic practices. When the Stars Movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s hit China and kick started the Chinese contemporary art market, it saw several artists reject Chinese traditional art wholesale. However, Chinese ink painting had already been significantly enriched by cross-cultural pollination from overseas trips by artists to Japan in the 1920s and Europe in the 1930s. So, ink artists were in a special position of being heirs to a great artistic tradition but with a huge impetus to create something new for a rapidly changing society.


The International Component

The development of the contemporary ink genre has been enriched by a number of artists who have relocated internationally following a wave of migration around 1949 which coincided with the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and was followed by the economic opening of China from the late 1970s onwards. The effect of international migration in the contemporary ink genre can be seen in the work of two artists from the Nanyue Pavilion Collection.

Wucius Wong (1936 –) is considered a leading figure of the Hong Kong New Ink Movement. He moved to Hong Kong from Guangzhou in 1946 and studied under Lui Shou Kwan and worked as a scholar producing dynamic paintings fusing Chinese classical paintings with inspiration from Chinese and western literature and western graphic design.

Chun-yi Lee (1965 –) studied under Liu Guosong, founder of the Fifth Moon Group, which channels abstract expressionism to merge Chinese calligraphic with the shapes and colours of western abstract art. Lee applies ink to paper with a square cork, using thousands of impressions to build up the final image incorporating Chinese calligraphic into each square to seamlessly merge poetry and landscape.


Painting in Poetry, Poetry in Painting

 Chun Yi-Lee (1965 –). Painting in Poetry, Poetry in Painting, 2012, ink on paper, 152.4 x 68.6 cm. Estimate: £12,000 – 15,000

Expression in Calligraphy #29

Wucius Wong (1936 –). Expression in Calligraphy #29, ca. 1998, ink and color on paper, 64.5 x 112 cm. Estimate: £8,000 – 12,000


Expanding Ink

Recent exhibitions at the MET and Guggenheim Museums have recast contemporary ink within the dual artistic canons of 20th century ink painting and contemporary Chinese art and has seen the medium become more prominent across markets. There has been a dedicated INK art fair to the medium in Hong Kong since 2015 and Sotheby’s and Christie’s have offered sales in this category in Hong Kong from 2012 and 2013, respectively with Sotheby’s presenting the Origo Collection in 2016, all providing further focus on the medium. 


Li Jin(1958 -). Enjoy the Cool, 2009, ink and colour on paper, 44.9 x 44.5 cm. £1,500 – 2,000


As the realisation dawns that ‘contemporary ink’ should be given its rightful place at the centre of both 20th century Chinese art and contemporary Chinese art many argue an inevitable consequence will be an upward surge in prices, placing the market on a par with prices achieved for both 20th century Chinese art and contemporary Chinese art. Currently for the medium, price points remain reasonable (the Nanyue Collection includes works starting at £500) making it the perfect time to enter this exciting and dynamic collecting area.


The sale, An Odyssey in Ink: the Nanyue Pavilion Collection of Contemporary Chinese Paintings, will take place on 29 September 2020. Please contact Lazarus Halstead, Head of Asian Art, for more details:

Lazarus Halstead