The Asian market is mad about this traditional medium, so conducive to hybridisation and technical innovation, and Western museums and collectors are becoming fascinated in turn. Perhaps ink will spread on an international scale…
By Marlène Corbun de Kerobert and Hugues Cayrade
The ink market is expanding rapidly, particularly in Asia. In 2017, the fine arts and calligraphy category, which includes modern and contemporary artists working in ink, already accounted for 66% of the Chinese market in value (43% in volume) – which "not many people are aware of outside China”, says Christopher Reynolds, co-founder and director of the Ink Studio in Beijing. In his view, if ink is still little recognised in the West, this is largely due to a different perception of time. In the East, it is infinite, and the art of ink chimes in with this philosophy, radically different from the West's linear time with its clearly marked historical periods.
The ink market really took off between 2010 and 2012, once Chinese art had recovered from the financial crisis. In 2013, Sotheby’s began to believe so seriously in its potential that it staged a first sale in Hong Kong and created a specialist department. Christie’s followed suit the following year. In 2016, Sotheby’s sold the Origo collection: 83 monumental ink paintings, sold in Hong Kong for a total of $5.6 M, setting several records for artists. Modern and contemporary artists continue to achieve ever-higher prices. In December 2017, Qi Baishi (1864-1957) became the first Chinese artist to sell a work for over $100 M when his group of brushed ink panels, Twelve Landscape Screens (1925), fetched $141 M with Poly International in Beijing. Modern artist Huang Binhong (1865-1955) also broke a record last year with his Yellow Mountain, sold for $49 M with China Guardian. On the contemporary side, Cui Ruzhuo, born in 1944, became the most expensive living Chinese artist after the sale of Twelve Screens of Finger Ink Landscape for $34 M with Poly.
Ink was the driving force of the Chinese art market when it was still in its infancy, according to Chan Shing Kau, Chairman of the Modern Chinese Ink Painting Association of Hong Kong. Auction houses are expecting significant growth in terms of both turnover and the diversity of pieces. Carmen Shek, head of sales specialist in Chinese painting at Christie’s in Hong Kong, predicts increasing international recognition through a reinterpretation of this traditional Chinese art form. A few prominent Western collectors, mainly American, have already shown an interest, like Ethan Cohen with the Origo collection, and more recently Wilbur Ross, who has bought pieces by Liu Kuo Sung, one of the greatest contemporary artists in this discipline (born in 1932), for their aesthetic quality and as valuable investments. In March 2017, an exclusive sale of Chinese works from the Fujita Museum in Osaka generated $262 M in a single evening at Christie’s in New York: more than the entire result in 2016 for Chinese art in the American market. For their part, Western collectors are mainly fired by their patriotic instincts, particularly those in mainland China, who now account for two thirds of the Ink Studio's turnover, according to Christopher Reynolds…
"Audiences with a taste for the art of ink look set to increase daily," says Chan Shing Kau, because the medium meets a need for spirituality in the West and the East alike. International museums' and other cultural institutions' contributions to greater knowledge of ink art are further proof. In 2012, Michael Goedhuis staged an event for the Saatchi Gallery in London, entitled "Ink: The Art in China". A year later, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art presented a magisterial exhibition on the art of ink and in 2016, the curators Betty Lutyens-Humfrey and Chen Lin took over the London scene again with the exhibition "In Ink: Contemporary Chinese Ink Painting" at the Royal College of Art. In 2018, the Guggenheim Museum was decidedly in the picture with its exhibition devoted to art in China after 1989… Permanent collections in America and Europe have also incorporated more ink works, like the LACMA in Los Angeles with the Cognié collection. In 2016, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London acquired a large ceramic work by Liu Jianhua (born in 1962), one of a series where "ink drops" feature largely.
And yet the revival of this art began in the late 1950s outside mainland China, in this instance Taiwan, where Liu Kuo Song (now aged 86), one of the main founders of the Fifth Moon group, had taken refuge. The modern approach to this medium in China only developed in the Eighties after the Cultural Revolution, as Mao considered the artistic practice of ink too elitist. Two movements have developed side by side since then: one is traditional, represented by artists like Liu Dan, Li Xubai, Li Huayi and Yang Yanping; the other is more avant-gardist, embodied by creators like Yang Jiechang, Qiu Anxiong, Qiu Zhijie, Xu Bing and Qin Feng, who freely use other supports (installations, videos, multimedia and so on) as ways of giving a creative context to the ink. It thus preserves all the requisite qualities for writing the future of world art.