Famous Chinese Artist Paints Polluted Waters

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Original 12th-century paintings by Ma Yuan (left) and Zhang Hongtu's contemporary reworkings (right) to show the effects of agricultural pollution (top) and dams (bottom). Images via Foreign Policy.

Zhang Hongtu has never shied away from tough subjects. The New York-based Chinese-American artist has used his paintings to tackle Chinese propaganda, consumerism, and human-rights violations, often playing on iconic symbols of the country. For the past two years, he's been reinterpreting the most "quintessential depictions of China's countryside" to show how little of that bucolic imagery remains reality in this era of intense industrial pollution."Today the countryside is dying, and this is [a] great threat to Chinese people," Zhang told Foreign Policy, which recently published a gallery of his work, including his provocative takes on Ma Yuan's famous series of 12th-century landscape paintings:

Zhang's adaptations of these classics use similar brushstrokes, but the rivers show the effects of industrial pollution and agricultural diversion: some have turned bright green or are covered with a sheen of chemicals, others have dried up entirely. "I wanted to keep some of original line work, but show the change ... the pollution of water, and the shortage of water."

Today's Reality in China: 'Black Rivers and No Fish'
The artist is inspired by news reports -- about the drying up of rivers diverted by dams and irrigation canals; the lurid-colored dyes dumped into waterways; the 700 million people drinking contaminated water in China -- and his own personal experiences. He told Foreign Policy about his memories of "swimming in the cool, clean waters of the Yangtze River" as a young man in the 1960s. "Now it is too dangerous even to touch," he said. "This is the reality today, black rivers and no fish."

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Zhang depicts industrial waste as "dangerous sea foam." Image via Foreign Policy.

To bring this reality home through his paintings, Zhang upends the artistic conventions of his predecessors, according to an artist profile on ThePointerAdventure:

Traditionally, old Chinese masters rarely colored the water. They relied on the texture of the paper itself. Because of that, it had a natural sense of flowing and created a peaceful feeling that we were going somewhere where we could find our identity. Zhang Hongtu shows the change through color... He paints it green, or pink, or dark brown. The visual shock jars our retina.

"Where those masters saw raging waters, I see dry riverbeds. Where they painted clean water, now I am painting the polluted water," Zhang told the online arts magazine whitehot near the start of his project.

"The funny thing is the water is still beautiful, it might be very dirty, very polluted, but it is still beautiful," he added. "Think about [J.M.W.] Turner's paintings of the Thames, he made them during England's Industrial Revolution; that fog is probably smog, but it's still beautiful. Only it's a sort of poisonous beauty, the pollution isn't obvious like tin cans in a river, it is in the air and water much more deeply."