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Wang Nong
Contemporary Sumi-e Exhibition  July 2002
See more of this artist's work: 2006 show, 2010 show
sumi-e painting

In his classic book ‘Composition’, Arthur Wesley Dow (1857 – 1922) introduced a creative approach to art that profoundly influenced many American artists of the era, including his student Georgia O’Keeffe. Dow’s approach, which emphasized harmonic composition, was built upon three compositional elements: line, notan, and color. His thinking was strongly influenced by Oriental art. Dow even advocated practicing with Oriental brushes and sumi ink in order to develop aesthetic acuity with line and notan.1

The term notan (often translated simplistically as dark-and-light) was derived from two characters originally used in Chinese and Japanese sumi-e: no (dense) and tan  (dilute). Together, no-tan refers to the varying ink density produced by grinding an ink stick in water. In the hand of a master, a single stroke can produce astonishing variations in tonality, from deep black to silvery gray (See Wang Nong's examples here). In its original context, notan thus means more than simple juxtaposition of dark versus light areas. It is the basis for the beautiful nuance in tonality unique to Oriental sumi-e and brush-and-ink calligraphy.

In describing sumi-e, Dow noted, "The painter ...put upon the paper the fewest possible lines and tones; just enough to cause form, texture and effect to be felt. Every brush-touch must be full-charged with meaning, and useless detail eliminated. Put together all the good points in such a method, and you have the qualities of the highest art"1. Dow’s fascination with sumi-e no doubt played a part in shaping his approach to art, steering him and many American modernists from what he called a "story-telling" approach towards more creative directions.

While western artists looked to the east for inspiration, sumi-e artists in Japan and China also explored new directions. Instead of copying the works of the old masters, some contemporary artists started to experiment with new styles. In addition to traditional black-and-white sumi-e, color is used increasingly as a compositional element. At the forefront of contemporary sumi-e is a Chinese painter, Wang Nong, whose strong brushwork combined with bold forms, color, and compositions have earned him recognition as one of the outstanding sumi-e artists of this generation.

The stark beauty of Wang Nong’s sumi-e evokes a sense of tranquillity as well as melancholy, which echoes the ups and downs in the artist’s life. Born in Beijing in 1953 as the second son of a famous Chinese philosopher, Professor Wang Sen-Ran, Wang Nong aspired to an artist career since early childhood. By a horrible twist of fate, his dream almost never came true. In 1969, when Wang Nong was 16, China fell into the vise grip of the Cultural Revolution. Perceived as one of the privileged, Wang was sent to a labor camp in the remote Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River) district near the Russian border. Known as the "Northern Vast Wilderness", it was a place of extraordinary beauty and harshness. Wang endured six years of hard labor there, where winter temperature regularly dropped below minus 35 degree Celsius. By the time Wang returned to Beijing in 1975, he had missed the opportunity of entering university. He felt a great sense of loss, not only for himself, but also for an entire generation of promising talents.

To find emotional retribution, Wang turned again to painting. His bold forceful brush strokes turned memories of the Northern Vast Wilderness into startlingly beautiful landscapes. In his book Wang Nong’s Album of Paintings, he wrote, "I often find myself painting rain and snow scenes, perhaps because I spent a good part of my youth in rain and snow. The stark beauty of the Northern Vast Wilderness has become an indelible part of my memories. As if to compensate for the wounds and loss of my generation, I paint to seek balance and consolation"2. To this date, Wang continues to paint from memory. He rarely makes sketches when he travels. Instead, he would mentally record the journey and, upon returning home, he would immerse himself in his studio, painting intensely from what he sees in his mind.

Wang’s powerful, evocative style of sumi-e soon attracted attentions in China. His big break came in 1987, when he was invited to exhibit at the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, Holland. One of Wang’s paintings from the exhibition was acquired as permanent collection by the museum. Soon afterward, Wang had the honor to be the first Chinese artist invited to work in Japan under a new cultural exchange program. Wang’s unique style of sumi-e gained immediate recognition in Japan, where he received an award in the Japan National Premier Sumi-e Painting Exhibition in 1987. A year later, he finally fulfilled his dream and entered a graduate program in Tokyo Metropolitan University. After finishing the program, he stayed in Japan and joined the National Chiba University as a visiting scholar. Through teaching and over a hundred exhibitions in his career, Wang became an influential figure in contemporary sumi-e.

The current exhibition, entitled "Misty Where the River Turns", showcases Wang’s distinctive style and mastery of the medium. For example, in the title piece "Misty Where the River Turns", he uses just a few brush strokes to bring to life the awesome power of the Yellow River as it thunders around a bend. Another piece in the show, "Dawn on Yellow Mountain", puts the viewer among towering rock formations as dark forms emerge from the morning mist. His "Moonrise", a night scene of a village by the water, is a masterwork of exquisite composition and tonality.

The exhibition also includes Wang’s bokusai-ga (color sumi-e), noted for innovative use of color as major compositional elements. In his piece "Spirit of the Season", a stand of red trees define the season and provide contrast against the dark mountains in the background. In "Remembrance", a patch of green provides hope in a bleak wintry landscape. The same color in "Echoing Green" may suggest new life. Wang sometimes even uses color as a dominant compositional element for drama and impact. "Sentinel", for instance, is a desert scene dominated by a vast expanse of sandy-pink, broken only by the dark form of a lone bare tree.

Despite his popularity in Japan, Wang maintains a simple life-style and devotes his energy single-mindedly to teaching and making art. Speaking recently in his modest apartment in Tokyo, Wang explained his working principle, "A true artist paints with his heart. What he paints may never be appreciated or understood, or may even be misunderstood. But what he paints is the truth and truth is eternal. Some artists paint what the audience likes to see, rather than from their hearts. Those works may achieve temporary success, but they are a pretense that cannot withstand the test of time."

Asked how his horrific experience might have affected his work, Wang replied in his usual modest way, "Years ago, I had a dream. I wanted to capture the beauty of nature and longing of my (Chinese) generation for a better life and distill them into something beautiful, and offer it to my own generation that has lost so much. If I could do that, perhaps I have contributed my small share to this generation." Wang may not admit it, but his work is already making an impact on this traditional art form that had inspired so many western artists a century ago. Now, at the dawn of a new century, Wang is standing at a crossroad, looking beyond traditions for inspiration. He named one of his most compelling works in the show "Santa Fe (in a Dream)". This may offer a hint for the exciting directions being contemplated by the artist.

Click on images to view


WangNong_Sentinel_LFr.JPG (148148 bytes)

Wang Nong  "Sentinel"

Color sumi-e  13"x17"  Sold 


WangNong_EchoingGreen_LFr.JPG (163688 bytes)

Wang Nong  "Spring"

Color sumi-e  14"x18"  Sold 


WangNong_HiddenVillage_LFr.JPG (238867 bytes)

 Wang Nong  "Hidden Village"

Sumi-e  14.5"x18"  Sold


WangNong_MoonRise_LFr.JPG (174099 bytes)

 Wang Nong  "Moon Rise"

Sumi-e  14"x18"  Sold


WangNong_MistyWhereRiverTurns_LFr.JPG (139679 bytes)

Wang Nong  "Misty Where the River Turns"

Color sumi-e  18"x26.5"



WangNong_NightPassage_LFr.JPG (137649 bytes)

 Wang Nong  "Night Passage"

Sumi-e  18"x21"  Sold 


WangNong_DawnInYellowMountain_LFr.JPG (140734 bytes)

 Wang Nong  "Dawn on Yellow Mountain"

Sumi-e  18"x26.5"  Sold


WangNong_SpiritOfMountain_LFr.JPG (167096 bytes)

Wang Nong  "Spirit of the Season"

Color sumi-e  16"x26"   Sold


WangNong_Remembrance_LFr.JPG (124695 bytes)

 Wang Nong  "Remembrance"

Color sumi-e  14"x18"  Sold 


WangNong_CedarsBlue_LFr.JPG (112607 bytes)

 Wang Nong  "Cedars Blue"

Color sumi-e  12"x20"  Sold


WangNong_EndOfTheDay_LFr.JPG (133565 bytes)

 Wang Nong  "End of the Day"

Sumi-e  14"x18"


WangNong_SilenceOfTheNight_LFr.JPG (152185 bytes)

Wang Nong  "Silence of the Night"

Color sumi-e  14"x18"  Sold 


WangNong_EnchantedLand_LFr.JPG (55028 bytes)

 Wang Nong  "Enchanted Land"

Color sumi-e  13"x17"  Sold


WangNong_DreamingOfSantaFe_LFr.JPG (112921 bytes)

 Wang Nong  "Santa Fe (in a Dream)"

Color sumi-e  14"x18"  Sold


WangNong_RemnantSnow_LFr.JPG (63383 bytes)
Wang Nong  "Remnant of Snow"
Sumi-e  18"x26.5"  Sold


Selected Exhibitions (from over 100 in career)


1987 Rijks Museum, Amsterdam, Holland

1989 Gallery Ginza Salon, Ginza, Tokyo

1990 Gallery Tochi, Ginza, Tokyo

1990 Daimaru & Sogo Department Store, Osaka

1990 Sogo Department Store, Nara

1991 Gallery Tochi, Ginza, Tokyo

1992 Tohbu Department Store, Tokyo

1992 Lecture and Exhibition, Nobeoka

1993 Japan-China Friendship Museum, Tokyo

1993 Ozu Washi Museum, Tokyo

1994 Ozu Washi Museum, Tokyo

1995 Ozu Washi Museum, Tokyo

1996 Kyobashi Art Museum, Tokyo

1996 General Culture Center, Nobeoka

1997 Gallery Himawari, Ginza, Tokyo

1998 Izukohgen Museum, Shizuoka

1998 Keioh Plaza Hotel, Shinjuku, Tokyo

2001 Touching Stone Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico




1.  Dow, Arthur W. 1913. Composition. The County Life Press. Garden City. New York.

2.  Wang Nong’s Album of Paintings. 1998. Shanghai Fine Art Publisher.