Sichuan-born Chenyu Wang 王承云 (pinyin: wángchéngyún) is an artist and professor splitting his time between Chengdu and Braunschweig. He earned his degree in oil painting from the Sichuan Art Institute in Chongqing; in 1991 he enrolled in a four-year free-art-studies course in Braunschweig, Germany, and graduated with a master's degree. After teaching as a guest professor at the Sichuan Art Institute he become a full-time professor at the Art Academy of the Music Conservatory in Chengdu.
When you started studying free art in Germany 16 years ago could you speak German?
I just went with "12 pieces of English" like "I'm hungry" and ended up learning German in my art class. I had big problems. At the beginning we communicated with pictures. I'm not satisfied with my German, but German is so complex. Well, I'm not a writer, I'm a painter. Where other foreign students were forced to pass a language test, they made an exception for me, because they thought I was so talented [as a painter]. Now it's too late—I don't wish to learn German, I don't have time, and I'm lazy. My wife is German, and she helps me fill out forms. But in a way it's good. People gave me a lot of freedom.
What do you think about traditional Chinese painting?
It's great art—traditional Chinese art has excellent and refined structures. But how long did it take? Artists spend one or two decades for refinement. They needed a long time to add one and one, just to find out it's two, because they were not looking for a solution.
We don't have the time to find ourselves in it, and for me it's too simple sometimes. To be honest, the differences in traditional Chinese art are very small and some masterpieces sell for a lot of money, but there are very few who actually appreciate the little details. Most people just don't see it. It's copying most of the time.
How do you teach?
I enjoy my teaching without lists and compulsory attendance. Going to the class in the morning and checking who's there and who's not, I don't like that. That is professional training, but not art education. ... Every Tuesday we work in the morning, and in the afternoon we discuss the results in a tea house. When I'm not here in Chengdu, the students send me the material online, and we communicate on the 'net. ... Every year we organize one experimental exhibition. Last year was a very big one that drew a lot of attention; this year's was a bit smaller one, but nonetheless successful. Together with the Goethe-Institut and some Chinese and German art academies we will organize a very big exhibition that will tour in several cities including Chengdu, Shanghai, Braunschweig.
For a certain period during Cultural Revolution you didn't have regular school. Was that the inspiration for your teaching style?
These times were a bit chaotic. For many years I didn't have a normal schedule. Together with my art teacher we just organized our own classes. The materials were provided by the school and teachers, which was great. I could draw and paint the whole day for many years. Many young Chinese artists developed their skills in those times and after that period became famous and rich. So to come back to your question would I be teaching free art now if I had had a traditional education? I guess not.
So are academies the right place for upcoming artists anyway?
Yes. The point is the academies have the duty to give a good art education, and they can. The problem is the "how." There has to be a good framework and good teachers.
How is your teaching concept received, and is it imitated?
Most Chinese artists who come to Europe are regarded as Chinese artists and can live off that. ... They don't take the time for pedagogical work. ... There are similar classes in Chongqing and in Beijing, for example, but they are experimental from a Chinese perspective.
I make my own schedule, I decide who to teach and what. The other teachers have to teach according to laws, they have to be in the classroom every day, there's little of the necessary autonomy. In German free-art courses, we are in the classroom once a week; it's enough.
So the way free art is taught in Germany is better?
You can't say it's better. The focus is different, more on the development of the student's own identity and own technique. The professor has more to say, which also implies that the students follow to a greater extent the concept of the professor. The personality of each is more appreciated, and there's more creation of own identity and thoughts, which when discussed collectively form a zeitgeist.
Why is there no such program at other art schools in China?
Basically we still follow the Russian system and old traditions. When I went to Germany, there were also limitations, namely the professor.
Will the way art is taught change?
Slowly, because laws have to change, and old people don't want to give up old positions and etiquettes. But there are debates outside the schools and inside.
Then how are you able to teach art in this way?
I won national and provincial awards before, in China, even while I wasn't here. Also in Germany I won awards, and finally I lived off my art there and obtained German citizenship.
My former teacher, Mei Yi Ping, the vice-president of the art school, recognized my talent and asked me to teach a class. I accepted the offer only under the condition that I could teach it as I wished. In 2004, I started building up the experimental class.
And how did your class develop?
The students have their own identities, they developed their own techniques, and a big portion passed the tests. The graduates can later live off their art; galleries and collectors want to buy all. I say it's too early, but look the last exhibition: We sold 60 percent of the art, and galleries and art lovers offered money and space to continue our program. Ten years ago it would have been impossible; today it's difficult.
Do you give a lot of interviews?
My students do. They are quoted a lot in the current debate of contemporary art in China. I think it's possible that my class will to start making changes in that way. ... I was interviewed by "Newsweek" in Beijing. They wrote, "He can't change laws but he can change students."
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 7 ("culture hopping"). Interview translated from German. Photos by Chenyu Wang.