Two Generations: Ink Art by Peng XianCheng and Peng Wei

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Eunice Tsang explores a rare duo exhibition of father and daughter, Two Generations: Ink Art by Peng XianCheng and Peng Wei

Like father, like daughter right? Yes and no. Maybe this is the question that led Peng Wei to refuse the constant suggestions that she do a duo exhibition with her father. It comes as no surprise since Peng Xiancheng, born in 1941, is one of China’s most distinguished modern ink painters, celebrated for his mastery of the boneless ink wash and ink-splattering techniques. Something of an introvert, some have even said hermit, the older Peng prefers to paint quietly on his own, and chooses not to exhibit much, though his works are internationally collected. Peng Wei, younger by 33 years, is one of the few internationally recognised female artists currently working in China. “It’s hard to pinpoint what my father’s influence on me is,” Peng Wei ponders, “because it’s something that has been gradually ingrained in me since I was born, bit by bit, in all aspects of life.” She recalls how as a child her bed was placed right next to her father’s painting table and how she would go to sleep staring at the silhouette of his back, waking up to see the same figure hunched over the table, still painting. “The image of my father’s back has left a very strong impression on me,” she continues. “His sincerity to his artistic creation has deeply affected my own attitude towards art. To both of us, art is work but it is also life – it’s what we love to do most,” she says. Young Peng speaks very highly of her father. “I’m very close with him – he is a great artist, friend, father and teacher.” The titles of some recent series on show are evidence of her great affection towards him – Father and Daughter, Dear Father. In a few scrolls that at a glance look like traditional Chinese landscape painting, she has included text – Chinese translations of Mozart’s letters to his father. “When Mozart was little, his father was the one who brought him around for performances,” she explains. “When I read Mozart’s letters that describe his daily thoughts and musical ideas, I realised how similar it is to me phoning my father every day. That’s why I used his letters as a parallel to my close relationship with my father,” she explains. A closer observation of the other classical Chinese landscapes reveal figures clad in periodic costumes that actually depict scenes of the Pengs’ daily life – the father teaching the daughter how to draw, taking her out on trips, and accompanying her to her public exams. 

Looking at their paintings, it is undoubtable that the two Pengs have very individual, unique approaches to art making. Self-taught, old Peng’s paintings are vibrant and carefree, showing a mastery of brave dry brushwork in balance with watery, dissolving ink. On the other hand, young Peng emphasises on detailed brushwork, and explores with a wider range of medium, including sculpture, but it is obvious that both have very strong roots in traditional Chinese ink painting. Of course, it is only natural that daughter would learn from father. “Her early works showed influences of my paintings, but she abandoned them really quickly,” the older Peng says. Young Peng recalls how in 2000 she felt that she had finally found her own language, and suddenly she felt that all boundaries evaporated before her. “I felt that I could paint anything, I felt like a mute who has finally learnt to speak. From that time on, I never again asked my father questions like, ‘Is my painting good?’” It took a while for the older Peng to understand his daughter’s individual style. He recalls how he used to think that her shoe paintings were far too minimalistic, and, not comprehending her painting of a tiny shoe on a blank surface, he had attempted to help her compensate the emptiness by stamping a red traditional Chinese seal in the blank space. “As soon as she saw it, she broke down in tears and said, ‘What! You stamped my painting like that!?’ I thought about it for a while and it made sense, so now I even benefit from it!” It’s fascinating to see how the two bounce ideas off each other.” As the younger Peng explains, “We are two individuals, from different generations, with different education, experience and ideas about creating art. Instead of using the word ‘influence’, it’s more like us facing and looking at each other.”

Two Generations: Ink Art by Peng Xiancheng and Peng Wei Until Thu 29 Oct, Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery; sothebys.com.

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