Traditional Chinese bird-and-flower art with a modern twist

Shi Hua
Dubbed "contemporary urban gongbi bird-and-flower painting," Wan Fu's paintings on show at Jin Space Gallery are replete with masterful Chinese brushstroke and ink-wash techniques.
Shi Hua

Throughout history, Chinese bird-and-flower paintings have featured birds resting or flying amidst blossoms, leaves, branches and occasionally rocks and rippling waters. Exuding beauty and liveliness, these paintings reflect Chinese people’s yearning for happiness and harmony.

A colorful paradise flycatcher appearing with peaches symbolizes longevity. Magpies resting on plum blossom branches herald future happiness, fortune or good luck. A graceful egret frolicking amidst lotus flowers in a pond implies great career advances.

“I wanted to carve out a path of my own off the beaten track,” said artist Wan Fu, 61, at her exhibition’s opening ceremony earlier this month at Jin Space Gallery in Shanghai.

The professor at Shanghai Art & Design Academy has been working on traditional Chinese bird-and-flower paintings for decades, but her goal is to create a completely new style.

Dubbed “contemporary urban gongbi bird-and-flower painting” by collectors and art critics, her recent paintings are replete with masterful Chinese brushstroke and ink-wash techniques. Yet they look contemporary and modern, different from conventional Chinese paintings.

The birds are tiny and lifelike, as in a traditional Chinese gongbi (fine, meticulous line) painting. Yet, the flowers and leaves are scattered around the rice paper as if floating through the air.

Backgrounds consist of blurred squares and rectangles, abstract and non-descriptive, with a mixture of white and different shades of gray and black or colors reminiscent of both city skylines and reflections of buildings in a pond.

By incorporating constructivism from the West, Wan has dismantled integral parts of traditional Chinese bird-and-flower paintings and created her own unique style, an ethereal realm of flora and fauna.

Traditional Chinese bird-and-flower art with a modern twist
Courtesy of the artist and Jin Space Gallery

Wan Fu’s bird-and-flower painting on show at Jin Space Gallery

“I absolutely love these pretty, cute birds and flowers,” she said. “In each painting, I want to create a surreal yet natural realm that is serene, harmonious, secure and beautiful.”

Art critics say Wan’s paintings reflect her mind-set and yearning for peace, love and beauty in modern life.

The flowers are arranged in an independent yet interactive fashion, and the birds are depicted in a carefree, secure, fairy tale-like setting with blurred backgrounds adding a touch of modernity and sophistication.

To capture the most realistic, vivid bird postures, Wan once raised a pair of finches and even witnessed one coming out of its egg. Ten days later, she began feeding the infant bird using a recipe from a book.

She still has one finch that flies around her studio when she paints. Sometimes it dips its claws in paint and leaves its claw prints on paper.

“My paintings stem from real life,” she said. “I have been living and working in Shanghai for decades, so naturally I have put my love for and understanding of the city landscape in my paintings.”

Apart from a few large paintings, most of her works are small in size. They must be viewed closely to see the birds properly, offering an intimate experience to visitors.

Exhibition info

Date: Through September 25, 9:30am-6:30pm
Venue: Jin Space Gallery
Tel: 186 1681 6519
Address: 2F, 1191 Nanjing Road W.

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