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The Winking Owl - Its Art Historical Thick Description


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The Winking Owl - Its Art Historical Thick Description


Guido Franci (1887-1969)
2012, oil on canvas, 20×25 cm

The Winking Owl - Its Art Historical Thick Description

Guido Franci (1887-1969)

The Winking Owl - Its Art Historical Thick Description




The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description (Part 1)

Eugene Y. Wang
The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description (Part 2)*

The Visual Model and the Contingency of Ascription

Any assertion that paintings such as Owl have an intrinsic meaning or cognitive content presupposes an investment of meaning by the painter. There is no denying that artists paint with a purpose and often want to make a point through their paintings. However, the relationship of the purpose and the point to the visual form is a matter of commensurability rather than causation. The artist tends to find a visual model, which he modifies to fit his purpose, and registers his point therewith, instead of having his purpose and point define and generate the visual form. This is to say that the artist's purpose and point, often private and circumstantial, have only a contingent and unfixed correlation with the visual form, which is often more public and stable. The purpose or point invested in a visual model is therefore contingent and, hence, external to it.

Huang invented neither the head-on owl image (fig. 2) nor the one-eye-open look. Both motifs have precedents in Chinese art.[25] He merely combined the two and adapted the motifs for his circumstantially rooted purposes. We can trace four different occasions on which Huang painted the one-eye-open owl. Huang first sketched a winking owl in 1963 for Ren Yu, a young female student of his in the graphics department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. It became one leaf in a set of unpublished sketched illustrations for his collection of fables, Noah's Ark.[26] The second and third occasions occurred a decade later. In 1973 Shao Yu, director of the People's Fine Arts Press, invited Huang and two other artists to his house for dinner. The host took advantage of the occasion to get the artists to paint on the spot. Huang painted "an owl with one eye open and the other closed." Some time later the same year Huang visited his friend Xu Linlu who took out an album left by Song Wenzhi, a painter from Nanjing. Song had requested Xu to solicit his artist friends to paint on the album. Huang initially declined for the simple reason that he was not in the mood, having been distracted by preparations for a trip to the south. Xu suggested that Huang could just do a casual sketch of an owl, and Huang obliged. Finally, from 1980 on, after he was exonerated from the charge, Huang did a set of owl paintings on which he inscribed his poignant thoughts and hindsight on the composition that had got him into trouble.

Jianfu, Owl (detail). 1930s. Ink and color on paper. Shanghai Museum.

Fig. 2. Jianfu, Owl (detail). 1930s. Ink and color on paper. Shanghai Museum.

It was the third occasion that was fatal to Huang. In 1972, with the initial frenzy of the Cultural Revolution subdued and diplomatic relationships with the outside world being gradually restored, China began to reopen her door to foreigners. With the increased influx of international visitors, however, the old, austere, and ill-equipped hotels became a public-relations embarrassment. More hotels needed to be built, and some old ones had to be renovated, including the Beijing Hotel in Wangfujing. The commissioner Wan Li, entrusted by both Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai to head the project, took brave measures. To decorate the hotel interiors with artworks, he released artists from labor "reform" camps.[27] In the meantime, Premier Zhou gave the executive order that traditional Chinese paintings, particularly those with bird-and-flower and landscape subjects, could be used to grace the walls of the hotels for distinguished guests.[28] This was a bold reversal of the extremist policy implemented in 1966 by Madam Mao, Jiang Qing, and her extremist clique, who sought to remove all vestiges of so-called feudalism, bourgeoisism, and restorationism from China. Canonical traditional Chinese painting had been among the host of things to have been swept into the dustbin of history. Zhou's reversal, with its beguiling pragmatic facade, had in fact the effect of softening the harsh contours of ideological regimentation, restoring the country to its normal cultural life, and giving back a certain degree of freedom to intellectuals and artists, many of them hitherto confined to reform camps. However bewildering the sudden change of fortune may have been for these erstwhile inmates, they unleashed, with gratitude and gusto, an outpouring of creative energy. Among the group was Huang, who was invited to paint for the Beijing Hotel. As a warm up, he was invited to travel to scenic mountains, such as Lushan and Huangshan, to do preparatory sketches.[29] This must have put him in a good, if not occasionally frivolous, mood.

Huang Yongyu, Behold Me. Ink and color on paper. From Shiyi (Poetic resonances)

Fig. 3. Huang Yongyu, Behold Me (1980). Ink and color on paper. From Shiyi (Poetic resonances) (Hong Kong, 1986), p. 77.

Little did Huang and other artists know, however, that they were soon to become pawns in a new round of upper-level power struggles. Toward the end of 1973 Premier Zhou's health was deteriorating. Seeking to topple Zhou, the extremist clique led by Jiang was searching for flashpoints in the art world that would be most useful in arousing the public. They saw in Zhou's authorization of restoring traditional Chinese paintings to the orthodox canon a good excuse for their orchestrated comeback. The so-called Hotel Paintings, presumably made with the catholic taste of foreigners in mind and relatively relaxed, if not unfettered, by the standard of the ideological strictures prevalent in China at the time, were an easy target for the cultural czars' diatribes, which made a living out of straining logic. Landscape paintings, especially those by Li Kuchan and Li Keran, in which massive spreads of black ink were predominant, could easily be characterized as exhibiting a sinister, brooding mood and animosity toward the political landscape of the Cultural Revolution. The extremists sent people to spy on the artists engaged in the hotel projects. Huang knew of none of these maneuvers. He did two owl paintings in friends' homes in a jovial mood. Little did he know that his occasional works would get him into deep trouble.

On the night of 23 November 1973, Jiang's partisans in art circles held a small meeting in the Friendship Hotel. Its participants included Shao, who thought of the owl that Huang had painted both for him-a fact he suppressed-and for Xu's friend, and presented it as a case of subversive art. Since Huang had been involved in the Beijing Hotel project backed by the premier, and since the ambiguous painting had a certain wayward overtone about it, Owl was immediately recognized as an easy target that could touch off a round of assaults on the premier.[30]

In early 1974, 188 traditional Chinese paintings produced between 1972 and 1973 were rounded up and shown to the public in the Black Painting Exhibition. Characterized as "unruly, wayward, dark, and bizarre," the works exhibited were all censured and castigated for their "serious distortion of the new landscape of the socialist country and tarnishing of the images of the workers and peasants." They were, in short, deemed "poisonous weeds." Foremost among the group was Huang's Owl, which bore the brunt of the castigation.

Huang Yongyu, Quick Change of Faces. From Liqiu yanshu renzhen sikao de zaji (Notes that aspire toward the uttermost solemnity and seriousness).

Fig. 4. Huang Yongyu, Quick Change of Faces. From Liqiu yanshu renzhen sikao de zaji (Notes that aspire toward the uttermost solemnity and seriousness) (Hong Kong, 1983), p. I, fig. 1.

The absurdity of this willful ascription of subversive content to the painting is self-apparent, but we should not let our moral outrage cloud our art historical judgment. The truth of the matter is that the ascription of irrelevant meaning to the image is as external and accidental to it as Huang's own investment of meaning in it. The first three occasions in which Huang painted the one-eye-open owl have three different purposes and points. On the first occasion the painting displayed, presumably, a jovial, upbeat, perhaps a tad flirtatious, exhibitionist wink by a witty male teacher who was probably in a frivolous mood, untempered yet by the succession of torments he was to endure in the years to come. On the second occasion a decade later Huang painted the one-eye-open owl for Shao, head of a publishing house and a social superior. The overtone of the wink could have been anything from ingratiation to withdrawal, or from earnestness to perfunctoriness. On the third occasion Huang painted the image with a seasoned artist as the appreciative and judicious recipient in mind. A number of professional factors must have pressured and motivated him: the calculation of effects that could impress and surprise, a display of skills (use of ink and brush), a novel approach (the frontal pose, and so forth) in a familiar genre (bird-and-flower painting), and the crisp way of taming and reducing the rough-edged, fluffy image of an owl into a pristine, near-abstract configuration of three circles-or in the artist's own words, "a large circle of a body with two small circles of eyes."[31] The painting was therefore a wink to a fellow artist to alert him to Huang's repertoire of skillful tricks, a sort of technical wink that only a fellow artist could get. The same visual formula suffices for the artist to achieve different purposes.

Generic conventions also contribute to the contingency of meaning ascribed to paintings like Huang's Owl. The painting belongs to the traditional pictorial genre known as xieyi, meaning "conceptual writing" or "ideographic sketching." The genre is characterized by a cursory and sparing use of brush outline and ink washes, resulting in an abbreviated composition that aspires toward the condition of minimalism. The underlying rationale is always to renounce the plenitude of physical appearance in search of the elusive conceptual overtones beyond representation. Driven by a desire to go beyond the limitation of physicality and to become what it is not, it is an art form in the vein of a self-denial, to the extent of erasing its own ontological status as painting-a deconstructive sort of painting.

Huang Yongyu, Shame. From Liqiu yanshu renzhen sikao de zaji.

Fig. 5. Huang Yongyu, Shame. From Liqiu yanshu renzhen sikao de zaji, p. 74, fig. 37.

As usually happens with a movement that aims at a more exalted goal, the xieyi mode often fell short of it and remained a utopian project. While the end is envisioned as a perpetual theoretical possibility, the means have hardened into a routine procedure, in the form of splashed ink and cursive sketches. By the twentieth century the genre had practically exhausted its energy. Its great practioners-Qi Baishi, Li Kuchan, and so forth-may still be household names in China, yet no one would seriously make too much of the generic promise of" conceptual writing" (xieyi) in the literal sense of the word. The conception or idea (yi) ends up becoming no more than a certain flavor, mood, and suggestiveness. It is customary for an artist to sketch a composition and then, on the spur of the moment, to endow it with some formulaic conception by inscribing a poem or some other discursive form on the painting. The identical composition could generate many inscriptions of varying content. Conversely, one inscription could be matched to different compositions, with minimal justification or cues from the pictorial images. The relationship between the visual design and the inscription that imputes discursive content to it is nearly always contingent upon the inscriber's improvisation.

Huang's own practice demonstrates the convenience of imputing discursive content to the owl painting and its resulting cognitive contingency and instability. In 1980 Huang wrote a lengthy two-part inscription on his newly finished owl painting (fig. 3).[32] Part 1 is a quotation from the ancient Classics of Poetry:

A wise man builds up the wall [of a city],
But a wise woman overthrows it.
Admirable may be the wise woman,
But she is [no better than] an owl.
A woman with a long tongue
Is [like] a stepping-stone to disorder
[Disorder] does not come down from heaven; –
It is produced by the woman.
Those from whom come no lessons, no instruction,
Are women and eunuchs.

They beat men down, hurtful, deceitful.
Their slanders in the beginning may be falsified in the end,
But they do not say [that their words were] very wrong; –
They say], 'What evil was there in them?'
As if in the three times cent. per cent. of traffic,
A superior man should have any knowledge of it;
So a woman who has nothing with public affairs,
Leaves her silk-worms and weaving.[33]

Here Huang quotes two passages out of a seven-stanza poem titled "Beholding Me" ("Zhan ang"), which assumes the bitter and anguished voice of an individual in the reign of King You (781-71 B.C.). The speaker deplores the "calamities" and "distress" of his time, brought about largely as a consequence of the king's indulgence in the caprice of his notorious consort, Bao Si.[34] The analogy Huang intends here between the ancient consort and her modern counterpart, Madam Mao, is self-apparent. The stanzas in the same poem that Huang omitted to quote and that are prompted as a muted subtext have an equally close bearing on the chaos and pathos in China during the Cultural Revolution:

Very long have we been disquieted,
And these great calamities are sent down [upon us].
There is nothing settled in the country;
[Good] men are going away,
And the country is sure to go to ruin.

Accompanying the lamentation of the country's disasters is an anguished outcry over the speaker's own lot:

Beholding me, Great Heaven,
But you have never shown me your kindness!
The sorrow of my heart, –
Is it [only] of today?
Why were these things not before me?
Or why were they not after me?[35]

Combining a diatribe against a queen with the pathos of self-pity, these lines work retrospectively as analogies to Huang's situation in the waning years of the Cultural Revolution. Yet keep in mind that the inscription is dated 1980, already four years into the post-Mao period. The collective ethos of that moment was a critical revision of the Cultural Revolution, taking stock of the range of disasters brought about by extremist ideology. With his acute experience of suffering in the previous decade, Huang apparently partook of that general climate. If the inscription is not entirely an afterthought ascribed to the painting, it is at least a retrospective revision, a schematic articulation and reformulation of the riot of feelings and moods that may have attended the 1973 paintings.

Huang Yongyu, An Agitated Courtier Making Faces. From Jiemoju zaji (Notes from the Mustard Studio).

Fig. 6. Huang Yongyu, An Agitated Courtier Making Faces. From Jiemoju zaji (Notes from the Mustard Studio) (Hong Kong, 1983), p. 54, fig. 27.

Herein lie the perils of ascribing discursive propositions to potent visual images. While the owl/queen metaphor ("But she is [no better than] an owl. / A woman with a long tongue") in the Classics of Poetry works for Huang as a none-too-subtle political allegory, it undermines a more pressing strain Huang sees in the owl image, namely, the innocent bird unjustifiably maligned by humankind, with which the artist emotionally identifies. Since 1964 he had repeatedly been castigated for his freakish fables, which were taken as veiled anti socialist polemics. It is perhaps no coincidence that Notes from the Jar Studio, the collection of fables he wrote in 1964, contains a piece that portends Huang's future lot. Its speaker, an owl, sighs: "In daytime, humans curse me in venomous language; at night, I work for them."[36] Realizing the potential self-contradiction in his inscription on the 1980 Owl, that is, the simultaneous condemnation of the owl-as-queen and the emotional identification with the unjustifiably maligned bird, Huang adds following the quotation:

The Classics of Poetry has done gross injustice to both women and owls, for there is really nothing wrong with either of them. Philosophically speaking, it is like equating particular individuals with the species to which they belong. Owls are beneficial birds, yet they have been maligned for thousands of years.[37]

Here Huang self-deconstructs. Quoting the classical ode to echo the prevailing revisionist sentiment of the post-Mao era, he finds that the political satire parasitic on the owl/queen metaphor actually demonizes the owl image, which is the last thing in the world he wants to do. His postscript following the inscribed classical allusion therefore seeks to redress the inadequacy, thereby in effect erasing the preceding inscribed text. This shows how volatile it is even for the artist himself to retrospectively ascribe discursive content to his own painting. When the artist keeps changing his mind about what discursive proposition to impute to his own painting, can there be an intrinsic cognitive content lodged in it?

Winking and the Instability of Communicative Efficacy

There is no denying that Owl has a communicative efficacy that is derived, among other things, from the owl's enigmatic facial expression. There are two ways of characterizing it: one can see it either as a one-eye-open stare or as a wink. Either way is associated with a set of moods and entails one particular interpretation at odds with the other. The stare connotes distrust and hostility; the wink connotes trust and secret-sharing. Huang's persecutors held to the former interpretation, which chimes with a familiar Chinese phrase, "keeping one eye open and the other closed."[38] The saying describes a sneering aloofness or a resigned stance pretending not to see what is essentially an undesirable situation. Once the visual form is reduced to a discursive proposition, it is easy to attach an interpretation to it.

If one accepts the validity of this crude reductionism, then the zealots' accusation appears not too wide of the mark. But this reduction of the painting to one verbal equivalence does not do justice to the force of the image. Following Ellen Laing's characterization, one could perceive the image as representing a winking owl.[39] At the outset, the odds seem to be stacked against such a characterization. An owl does not wink; it just keeps one eye closed and the other open steadily for a sustained period of time, as Mao himself acknowledged. However, we are not talking about a real owl but about an anthropomorphized pictorial construct. The playful and droll overtone attending the cartoonish painting and the frontal engagement of the owl image with its viewer all combine to create the effect of a wink. At any rate, the visual ambiguity is such that the image seems to oscillate between a one-eye-open stare and a wink.

The artist himself has always been intrigued by the communicative efficacy of what he calls "meilai yanqu," literally, making eyes at each other, a concept that includes winking. In an essay titled "On Making Eyes at Each Other," Huang tells of his unusual experience with this mute communication through the exchange of facial expressions. Before he was set free to paint the 1973 Owl Huang and one of his longtime close friends were both confined to the same room in a reform camp together with a few other inmates. The general oppressive atmosphere at the time forced the two friends into a dead silence. Sitting at either end of the room, they stared at each other across the space. Soon they found themselves deploying their facial features-eyebrows, mouths, noses-to fashion a muted sign language "with rich and complex connotations" such as, "Something has happened in my home!" or, "Now the matter is getting serious!" or, "Watch out!" or, "The guy sitting next to you is a bastard."[40] While the account generally confirms our impression that the painting registers the efficacy of pulling faces and making eyes, the end of Huang's own rendition of the story strikes home the impossibility of encoding those cryptic messages with facial expressions. After he and his friend were set free, they tried to prove the effectiveness of their wordless facial communication to Huang's incredulous wife, but they were unable to pull it off. His claimed success in getting across "rich and complex connotations" by pulling faces and making eyes may have been a shared illusion.

The effectiveness of making eyes in his paintings presupposes tacit knowledge on the part of the viewer. Take, for instance, Huang's playful illustration of two of his own parables. One parable, "Quick Change of Faces;' describes a person metamorphosing, with lightning speed, from a villain to a paragon of virtue. The other, "Shame;' concerns someone who, having sold out a friend, causing his death, attends his victim's memorial ceremony with a freshly composed elegiac couplet expressing profound grief.[41] Both illustrations are variations on the same design idea: a one-eye-open, one-eye-closed look. If the first parable somewhat warrants this visual form, there is little in the second that calls for it. Without the prompt in its title, the visual design for "Quick Change of Faces" (fig. 4) could easily be taken to suggest a split personality. The design for "Shame" (fig. 5) could be taken as showing a frightened man. Both compositions visually refer to, or quote, Huang's painting of the one-eye-open owl. Huang painted one composition of this for Shao only to have it used unflinchingly by him as a pawn in political intrigue, a liability to be held against Huang.[42] Having debased himself in 1973 with the ignoble deed of selling out friends to the extremist cultural authorities, Shao assumed a penitent posture in the post-Mao era. Huang's visual quotation of the owl design therefore underscores the memory of Shao's hypocrisy, his quick change of face in the post-Mao period from foe to seeming friend. The pictures are winks of a sort: they assume the viewer's knowledge of the owl painting, and even more, Shao's role in getting the painter of Owl into trouble. Only Shao and a few in the know could understand this topically specific wink. For viewers beyond a small circle, none of these cognitive contents can lodge in this visual device; nor is the image capable of speaking these messages.

In fact, in repeatedly using the motif Huang also deconstructs the success story of "On Making Eyes at Each Other." He once wrote a fable about a courtier having an audience with the emperor. Vexed by a flea that has accidentally got inside his pants, the courtier is agitated and grimaces, which the emperor takes as a signal of something unusual afoot. This leads to the spotting of an assassin hidden on a ceiling beam. For this the courtier is amply rewarded.[43] Huang's retrospective illustration of the fable shows the courtier ogling with one eye open and the other closed (fig. 6). Its moral stands our common assumption of the communicative efficacy of winking on its head. To recall Ryle, "to wink is to try to signal to someone in particular, without the cognisance of others, a definite message according to an already understood code." Huang in fact shows that none of this sharing can be taken for granted, and that winking, a signal of tacitly shared understanding, often leads to misunderstanding as well. The painting of the courtier's wink is therefore a kind of metawink in that it recalls how Huang's owlish wink, the meaning of which ought to have been confined to a shared understanding within a group of friends, should have been so grossly misunderstood.

* Eugene Y. Wang; The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No.3 / Spring, 2000, pp. 446-457.

The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description (Part 3)


[25] The source of inspiration for painting a one-eyed look may be traced to an iconographic trend in 1920s Paris that evidently had a palpable impact on young Chinese artists studying there at the time; see Chen Yanfeng, San Yu (Taibei, 1995), p. 51. They may have brought the motif back to Shanghai where Huang lived in the 1940s.
[26] Conversation with Wu Hung, an old friend of Huang.
[27] See Fang Dan, "Qicai Huang Yongyu (III)," p. 62, and Huang Yongyu, "Shao Yu he maotouying shijian," p. 101.
[28] See Wenhuabu Pipanzhu, "Yige jingxin cehua de fandang yingmo" (A carefully planned plot against the Party), in Jiefa pipan Sirenbang wenxuan (Essays criticizing and condemning the Gang of Four) (Hong Kong, 1977), p. 146, and Laing, The Winking Owl, p. 85.
[29] See Fang Dan, "Qicai Huang Yongyu (III)," p. 62.
[30] See Huang Yongyu, "Shao Yu he maotouying shijian," pp. 98-102.
[31] Huang Yongyu, "Shao Yu he maotouying shijian," p. 100.
[32] It is not clear whether he added the inscription to the original 1973 painting or repainted one with an added inscription. The caption for the reproduction in Huang Yongyu and His Paintings does not give the date of the painting, but indicates "Inscription in 1978" (Huang Yongyu and His Paintings, trans. Yang Xiannyi et aI., ed. Zheng Xiaojuan and Xiao Shiling [Beijing, 1988], p. 12).
[33] Anonymous, "Beholding Me," in The She King, vol. 4 of The Chinese Classics, trans. James Legge (Hong Kong, 1960), pp. 561-62; hereafter abbreviated "BM"; trans. mod.
[34] For various commentaries on the stanza, see Shisanjing jingwen (Text of the Thirteen Classics) (Shanghai, 1934), p. 77; The She King, p. 559; and Shijing yuanshi (The essential Classics of Poetry), ed. Fang Yurun, 2 vols. (Beijing, 1986), 2:568-70.
[35] For the text of "Beholding Me," with commentary, see Shijing yuanshi, p. 568. Recent scholars tend to interpret the phrase "zhan ang" as "beholding me" instead of Legge's rendition, "looking up." See, for instance, Fan Shuyun, Shijing quanyizhu (Classics of Poetry: a comprehensive modern translation and annotation) (Ha'erbin, 1986), pp. 540, 543.
[36] Huang Yongyu, Guanzhai zaji (Notes from the Jar Studio) (Hong Kong, 1983), p. 23.
[37] Huang Yongyu, Shiyi (Poetic resonances) (Hong Kong, 1986), p. 77. The inscription ends: "This is probably due to the Tyrannical Queen's exasperation upon her reading of the Classics of Odes." This closing line falters logically, though Huang's reference to Jiang makes sense.
[38] For the caption of Owl at the Black Painting Exhibition, see "PH;' p. 27.
[39] See her excellent survey, The Winking Owl.
[40] Huang Yongyu, "Meilai yanqu lun" (On making eyes at each other), in Wushimang luntan, pp. 7-8.
[41] See Huang Yongyu, Liqiu yanshu renzhen sikao de zaji (Notes that aspire toward the uttermost solemnity and seriousness) (Hong Kong, 1983), p. 1, fig. 1; p. 73, fig. 37.
[42] Shao reported another owl, the one that Huang painted for Song, instead of the one Huang painted for him.
[43] See Huang Yongyu, Jiemoju zaji (Notes from the Mustard Studio) (Hong Kong, 1983), p. 53, fig. 27.