Ju Lian (1828-1904) is considered one of the most successful painting masters from Guangdong Province in southern China. He is renowned for his meticulous brushwork (gongbipaintings) and his ability to craft delicate colours. It was these highly realistic works that set him apart from his contemporary counterparts.
Although Ju Lian portrayed a vast array of subjects in his art, his real talent is best captured in his depictions of plants, birds and insects. The depiction of insects was a minor genre in Chinese painting at the time, but Ju Lian led the way for the popularization of insect paintings in the nineteenth century.
His lively renderings of insects came from his technique of observing them from life. As described by one of his students, Gao Jianfu (1879-1951), Ju Lian used to either pin an insect in a specific position, or he would capture it in a glass box so that he could portray it in immense detail. When he would finish his drawing, he would preserve the body of the insect in order to study it again later. He would also observe living insects in gardens, paying close attention to their interactions with flowers, grasses and fruit.
Ju Lian had an incredibly unique painting technique which resulted in vivid, yet delicate, pictorial effects. The technique, called “zhuangshui” and “zhuangfen,” refers to the manipulation of water and powdered pigments. He would create forms using puddles of water, or damp silk in combination with the powdered colours ,to create these highly detailed and almost tactile works. Ju Lian’s insects never looked like tired repetitions, he had a skill for succeeding in transferring the life force of insects using his paint and brush.
Ju Lian taught many students, including all the founders of the Lingnan School of painting, which is a style of painting that developed in the early twentieth century in the Guangdong region of China. Just as his style lived on through the work of his students, and their development of a school of art, the insects that are depicted in his images lived on through his work. Lepidoptera, winged insects such as moths and butterflies, have tragically short life spans. Despite this, Ju Lian uniquely captured a certain insect, at a very specific time period and geographical location, preserving its form through paint and ink.
During the time period in which Ju Lian was active, Chinese art was booming in the international market. The process of reproduction was at the centre of this business. In workshops in Canton, illustrators would replicate artistic imagery on objects such as porcelain, fans, and wallpaper, which would then be shipped to Europe and North America. This imagery included Chinese flora and fauna, in what would be described as a traditional Chinese style brushwork – like that created by Ju Lian and the images of the Chinese Insect Album in the Mactaggart Art Collection. The butterflies that Ju Lian captured with his painting brush thus had a far greater space of influence than the painting surfaces they were confined to.
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