BERKELEY, CA — Wesley Tongson, who died in 2012, was a contemporary Hong Kong painter, but his calligraphy, landscapes, and splash paintings were tied to tradition. In the show at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), Spiritual Mountains: The Art of Wesley Tongson, Tongson’s paintings, including 11 his family recently donated to the museum, hang alongside works from the museum’s collection of traditional Chinese ink paintings of the Qing dynasty and early 20th century.
Julia M. White, BAMPFA’s senior curator for Asian Art who curated this show, first saw Tongson’s work at an exhibition at San Francisco’s Chinese Culture Center in 2018, and its dynamism and wide range impressed her.
“I was flummoxed by the way he moved from one type of painting to the next,” she said. “His splash paintings are so ethereal and beautiful.”
White met Tongson’s sister, Cynthia Tongson, at that show, and invited her for a meeting at the museum with White and Lawrence Rinder, then BAMPFA’s director. They both hoped to expand the range of the collection, which has a wealth of Chinese classical work, but less modern ink art.
Cynthia Tongson had decided to donate some of her brother’s art after the response she got to a show of his work, Ink Explorations: A Wesley Tongson Retrospective, which she organized in 2014, after his death.
“I wanted people to know how Wesley had progressed as an artist,” she said about the show. “Even in Hong Kong no one knew how he’d progressed into finger painting. Everyone kept telling me how it was something they’d never seen before, and I realized I needed to share the work.”
Because of its collection of historical Chinese painting, as well as its ties to the University of California, Berkeley, Cynthia Tongson decided to donate Tongson’s paintings to Berkeley.
White says she organized Spiritual Mountains with an eye to showing Tongson’s connection to the past. “I wanted to focus on putting him in the context of greater Chinese historical perspective,” she said. “He learned from his mentors and there’s a respect and a linkage.”
Some of Tongson’s teachers are included in the show, such as Hong Kong artist Harold Wong, known for his landscape painting, and Liu Guosong, a Taiwanese artist who taught a workshop in Hong Kong, and who was called “the father of modern Chinese ink painting.”
Tongson’s “Spiritual Mountains 6” (2012) echoes Wong’s 1993 “Sound of the Waterfall,” with both landscapes invented. “We know it’s a mountain, and we know it’s a waterfall, but they clearly are imaginary,” White said.
Tongson’s monochromatic “Untitled” (1997) shows the influence of Shitao, the Qing-era master that Cynthia Tongson says her brother most respected. The show has his scroll of a lotus from 1704 and “Reminiscences of Nanking,” from the same year. Both artists look for the essence of the natural world, but don’t try to replicate it; White observed how Tongson’s mountains are only lightly defined by their shape.
Tongson studied at the Ontario College of Art for a few years and became fond of Cubism. Pablo Picasso was his favorite Western artist, and you can see his influence in “Untitled” as well. BAMPFA’s Picasso etching, “L’Homme à la guitare” (1915), hangs in the exhibit.
The show also has examples of Tongson’s calligraphy, done using his hands and fingers rather than a brush. This has precedence in traditional Chinese painting, as with Gao Qipei, whose 18th-century “Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller” hangs in the show.
Tongson was bold and prolific, drawing on techniques of masters of Chinese painting to make his large-scale landscapes and intricate examinations of nature his own.
“I think he had an open mind to a lot of different techniques,” White said. “He started painting with fingers and hands and gave up the intermediary that the brush provided and became almost a part of the work of art. Wesley was courageous in his willingness to experiment. In the way he expresses the natural world, for example, you see what Wesley did pushing the limits of ink and paper.”
Spiritual Mountains: The Art of Wesley Tongson continues at BAMPFA (2155 Center St, Berkeley, Calif.) through June 12.