Issue 2: Making Conversation

Self-expression: Revisit narrative landscape painting

The essay traces my artistic evolution from realistic painting under socialist realism to a quest for artistic freedom and primarily explores the possibility of transcending the constraints of national ideology in my personal landscape paintings, aiming for self-expression. It also critically analyzes and attempts to philosophically position my painting practice based on Adorno aesthetic theories.

Our labour, Oil on canvas, 250 x 200cm, Summer 2022

1. My own narrative landscape painting

I started to learn realistic painting at the age of ten, and I gradually learned more about all aspects of socialist realism. During my undergraduate studies, I insisted on using Chinese narrative landscape painting as my only rule of expression, and learning this painting technique occupied all of my time.

Chinese narrative landscape painting is a distinct art form that emerged after 1949 in the People’s Republic of China. Unlike its Western counterpart, the style is shaped by the government’s ideology, mixing realism with narratives that reflect socialist propaganda to resonate with national identity and the interplay between power, knowledge and the Chinese Communist Party. This process involves embedding symbols and metaphors into landscapes to communicate socialist values through consistent compositions and realist techniques. The rigid approach sometimes threw up challenges for me, as it adhered to specific ideological perspectives, influencing most of my undergraduate works.

Over time, I grew uneasy with these confines and wondered whether art only had one form of creation that I had to follow. Meanwhile, the rigidity of the approach limited my understanding of Western contemporary art, prompting me to transition from painting to sculpture during my MA in the UK because I was trying to break free from constraints and understand contemporary Western art using a different medium of creation. A year in the UK reshaped my artistic perspective, allowing me to appreciate diverse interpretations that transcended the stringent criteria of Chinese narrative landscape painting. The shift sparked a renewed interest in Chinese painting style, inspiring me to integrate my newfound Western insights into its evolution. I used my practice to explore how Chinese narrative landscape painting transcended political and temporal constraints to become a form of personal expression?

Referring to Gerhard Richter’s series of photo paintings, I discovered that he explores the relationship between subject and object, offering an internal critique and a rejection of Socialist Realism within the realm of painting. Richter skilfully melds his socialist realism painting techniques with contemporary concepts, striking a balance between abstraction and realism. I believe this method can be emulated in my own experience of socialist realism. I also took inspiration for my painting from the works of Zhang Xiaogang and Liu Xiaodong, who expressed Chinese narrative landscape painting by using realism and embodying the Chinese socialist experiential landscape. Both artists actively explored ways of refining creative methods of Chinese narrative landscape painting and expressed themselves using a realistic approach. By altering the symbolism of landscape, they captured an interpretation of reality that was not only imbued with profound social allegory but also infused the works with a sense of history and contemporary characteristics. Their works also achieved a deculturalisation of artistic expression by reinterpreting elements and landscapes that represented mainstream ideologies and cultural propaganda, becoming a means of cultural criticism and self-expression. This inspired me to consider how changes in the political identity of landscape in painting might help me to create and self-express.

Anselm Kiefer’s paintings allowed me to integrate more melancholic elements into my images, which enhanced the visual impact of my paintings and added a profound emotional hue to my work. I created a sense of decay and estrangement in my paintings, strengthened by abstract brush strokes and textures. This desolate portrayal was not merely a visual expression but an intuitive reflection of the inner world. In general, my painting departed from the expression of realism. I was no longer content with the mechanical reproduction of reality and the direct narration of social stories and began to engage in artistic creation through self-imagination, initiating a more in-depth exploration of the spirit. I also used vibrant colours and different brush strokes and painting textures to create a dreamlike and mystical visual effect. Ultimately, the landscape within my paintings became subjective and abstract, serving as an exploration and expression of the soul and articulating personal feelings within a self-constructed landscape.

In my Secret series, I narrated serene and dignified images by altering colour saturation and using different brushstrokes. I avoided intense conflict, instead incorporating ambiguous visual elements to create an uncertain reality. This approach responded to Adorno’s concept of the enigmatic as an unspeakable and elusive feeling, invoking a sense of alienation between the art and the audience. Meanwhile, the uncertain reality I created signified a resistance to societal expectation, emphasising the freedom of art from traditional constraints and reinforcing the idea that the integrity of the work was separate from simple communication or external influences. Through the incomplete sense of the painting and the flowing traces of pigments, I expressed a desire to transcend traditional rules and constraints, reflecting a return to a natural state of self-expression that differentiated the final image from the aesthetic of traditional Chinese narrative landscape painting, Finally, my painting also expressed the desolation within me that stemmed from my confusion about self-identity and different artistic learning environments while creating art in a Western context.

Secret, Oil on canvas, 150 x 120cm, Summer 2023
Secret, Oil on canvas, 150 x 120cm, Summer 2023

2. Narrative landscape painting in subject and object

I don’t approach my painting from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but prefer to explore the philosophical underpinnings and profound implications that underlie landscape painting. I believe that Chinese narrative landscape paintings demonstrate certain limitations in the interplay between the subject and the object. Such singular modes of expression need to change. Through my painting, I explore an existence that transcends the present societal relationship to forge new social connections. This liberates my painting from mainstream societal consciousness and serves as an inward exploration and a challenge to ingrained ideological frameworks.

From my perspective, the concept of “self-constructed landscapes” represents a reflection on and resistance to the relationship between the subject and control. When paintings are bound by real-world norms as subjects, their inherent uniqueness and autonomy become compromised. Chinese narrative landscape paintings are often laden with political and cultural implications, turning them into tools for ideological propagation. This top-down imposition and intervention mirror humanity’s exploitation of nature, setting it as the rule, compelling other subjects to yield and making them oppressed objects.

I advocate breaking away from this established mould through self-constructed landscapes. I aim to construct an artistic utopia that transcends societal shackles and individual constraints and offers artists a sanctuary for the purest form of emotional expression and contemplation, ensuring the preservation of artistic autonomy. During the creative process, I consciously eschew predetermination, leaning instead towards natural techniques such as flowing strokes and blank spaces that emphasise spontaneity and serendipity. These elements, linked to my emotions and personal state when I paint, render the artwork a more authentic form of self-expression. In so doing, the painting regains true freedom as a subject, unshackled from external impositions.

This methodology is a manifestation of my personal outlook and a means of self-expression that liberates landscape painting from its traditional association with Chinese socialist realism and elevates it to a form of pure artistic expression, distancing it from existing as a tool of political propaganda. I challenge set notions of socialist realism by ensuring freedom of expression in my artwork. Within the self-constructed landscape, I reshape my self-awareness, resist the singular subject-object relationship of Chinese narrative landscape painting and breach established artistic boundaries.

3. Autonomy of art

By reflecting on the relationship between subject and object in my painting, I have created an existence detached from societal ideologies which aligns with Western Marxist aesthetics represented by Adorno, emphasising artistic autonomy and the concept of non-identity in art. Adorno published Aesthetic Theory in 1970, proposing that art is autonomous and achieves this through the concept of non-identity. Based on his perspective of Negative Dialectics, he believes that the subject forcibly violates the object within the concept of identity, and this has already occurred in society to become the cohesive mode of the modern world. Adorno points out that subjects dominate nature, and that when reason materialises and solidifies as a governing mechanism, the subject becomes the oppressed object. In individual consciousness and in societal coexistence, there is an overwhelming sense of non-freedom brought about by this identity. In his book Negative Dialectics, Adorno sees the “subject” turned into an object of oppression, in both individual consciousness and the common life of society, by the identity brought about by the domination of nature. For example, the aesthetic concept of “ideology” appears on the experiential level. The homogenisation of individuals and particularity that is suppressed by art and the cultural industry that serves politics in an external manifestation of homogenisation and the bondage of freedom (Adorno, 1973 p18). This mode of identity therefore dominates ideology.

I believe Chinese narrative landscape paintings as subjects are bound by real-world norms and are often laden with heavy political and cultural implications, turning them into tools of ideological propaganda that compromise inherent uniqueness and autonomy. This top-down imposition and intervention mirror humanity’s exploitation of nature, setting it as the rule, compelling other subjects to yield and making them oppressed objects. This process resonates with Adorno’s “identity thinking”, turning making Chinese narrative landscape painting into “heteronomous art”.

In my paintings I draw upon Adorno’s concept of autonomous art as a theoretical guide, turning them into a method of resistance against Chinese narrative landscape painting and making them autonomous art. Adorno maintains that non-identity implies that the subject is free, correcting the identity of rationality. The autonomy of art stands in contrast to heteronomous art that is governed purely by ideology or rules set by the subject. It achieves beauty through “non-identity”, a correction to the identity of reason (Adorno, 1973 p241). This involves reflecting on the ideology formed by rationality under the condition of experiential identity. Art thus becomes autonomous through “non-identity,” enabling it to “refuse to be defined” and to follow its own trajectory, resisting or pushing back against the overburdening of functions imposed on art.

Through non-identity, art can refuse to be defined and progress on its trajectory. Ultimately, art no longer needs to serve utility or propaganda in an autonomous state. Instead, art exists for its sake, without any overt purpose. This does not mean that art lacks significance or societal meaning. On the contrary, the meaning and allegory of art stem from its intrinsic logic and structure and is not externally imposed. Overall, for art to maintain its autonomy, it must resist being subsumed under dominant categories or being used as a tool for straightforward representation (identity thinking). Instead, art retains its critical potential by embracing non-identity.

Self-constructed landscapes are a crucial factor that represents a reflection upon and resistance to the relationship between the subject and control. By separating the relationship between the subject (self) and object (social consciousness), my painting takes on an existence independent of current societal relations, forming new connections and discussing the new relationship between subject and object as an exploration of “non-identity”. Meanwhile, my autonomous artwork highlights the non-identical elements of reality that elude our standard modes of understanding by resisting easy categorization and challenging the viewer.

The self-constructed landscape encompasses philosophical contemplation on painting, liberating the landscape from its preconceived cultural identity tied to Chinese socialist realism and transforming it into a medium of personal expression rather than a carrier of political consciousness. This approach has changed my artwork from socialist realism art to contemporary art, emancipating it from the confines of Chinese narrative landscape painting, resonating with Adorno’s notions of non-identity and the autonomy of art.

Tree, Oil on canvas, 150 x 120cm, Autumn 2023
Tree, Oil on canvas, 150 x 120cm, Autumn 2023

4. Conclusion

My primary focus is on landscapes constructed through self-expression. I strive to liberate scenic elements from the rigid cultural framework of Chinese socialist realism, transforming them into pure mediums of self-expression rather than tools of political consciousness. This reflects both a critique of socialist realism and a manifestation of my personal expression. I explore the motivations behind my creations, as well as my philosophical engagement with Adorno’s concepts of non-identity and the autonomy of art. Through this approach, I present landscapes as subjective and abstract entities, offering a pathway for narrative landscape painting to break free from ideological constraints and to embrace the potential of true autonomous art.


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About the author

Yan (Steve) Kong graduated from MA Fine Art: Sculpture in 2023.

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