Exhibition blends traditional with modern

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 July, 2008, 12:00am

Paintings by Huang Bore show the Hong Kong of yesteryear from a Chinese viewpoint and with a dash of western flavour

Ink painter Huang Bore (1901-1968), who revitalised traditional Chinese landscape painting, is one of Hong Kong's most respected landscape painters.

While Huang was born in Dongguan, Guangdong, he spent the latter part of his life in Hong Kong and he was one of the first painters to dedicate himself solely to painting local scenes.

More than 180 works by this celebrated painter are now on display in the exhibition A Eulogy of Hong Kong Landscape in Painting: The Art of Huang Bore.

As a young painter in the 1920s, Huang actively defended traditional Chinese painting, but by the time he reached his 60s, he took a drastic turn and began incorporating modern thoughts and ideas into his works.

With China thrown into turmoil in the mid-20th century, many mainlanders flocked to the colony in search of sanctuary.

At first many considered themselves visitors rather than permanent residents, and showed little interest in Hong Kong and its culture.

Of the artists that came to Hong Kong, some chose to preserve their traditional cultural heritage through research, teaching and artistic creation, while others immersed themselves in their new home, sowing the seeds of a new local culture using their own knowledge and experience.

Huang had played a part in the arts activities of Hong Kong long before he migrated here in February 1949.

Once he had settled, the painter took advantage of his social networks in Hong Kong and Guangzhou and became even more active in organising exhibitions, contributing articles and making and collecting art.

Huang's most remarkable contribution to art is his depictions of Hong Kong in ink paintings and in sketches.

The expression 'sketching from life' (xiesheng) is often used in traditional Chinese painting to describe paintings that succeed in capturing the vital essence of birds and flowers through careful observation.

Huang had access to many ancient masterpieces to gain insight into the theory and practice of old masters, thanks to his friendship with painters, calligraphers and collectors in Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Shanghai. His early imitations of Hua Yan (1682-1756), for example, are so masterfully done that they can easily pass for originals.

Huang, who was familiar with western art and advertising, painted a large variety of subjects including birds and flowers, Buddhist figures, and landscapes, but his paintings of Hong Kong are what he is most respected and recognised for.

Like traditional painters, Huang took pleasure in the natural environment. He found inspiration in the local landscape and in the 1950s joined the Yung Sheh Hiking Club which took him to the remotest parts of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories and the outlying islands.

The interest and enthusiasm he showed for nature is reminiscent of the great traveller Xu Xiake (1587-1641) of the Ming dynasty who dedicated his life to exploring the hidden beauty of nature. Huang's explorations meant that he left behind many sketches, most of which were casually done on newsprint, wrappers or on the back of printed materials. Stylistically, they range from meticulous to playfully expressive.

While most of Huang's sketches and finished paintings capture the scenery he saw, they are not realistic in the true sense of the word as emotions were as important to Huang as a painting looking 'real' was.

Another striking characteristic of Huang's art is his minimalist landscapes, in which the styles of Shitao and Hua Yan (of the late 1600s) are combined with crisp watercolour rendering to conjure a precise, modernist feel.

For many Hongkongers, Huang's snapshots of old Hong Kong are precious not just for their artistic merit but because they capture the territory's pristine beauty of yesteryear.

The drastic changes that took place in the city in the second half of the past century altered the pastoral scenes that were once so familiar: the plain of Hung Mui Kuk in Sha Tin, the fish farms of Ap Lei Chau and the paddy fields of Tung Chung on Lantau Island.

Paintings on show in the exhibition have been selected from works donated by Huang's family to the Hong Kong Museum of Art or are on loan from Huang's sons.

The exhibition runs until October 9 at the Hong Kong Museum of Art.