ARTicle | Raymond Fung: Singing to the Poetry of the Earth

August 11, 2020
Raymond Fung, Tolo Harbour, 2012, Ink and colour on paper, 60 x 240 cm
Raymond Fung, Tolo Harbour, 2012, Ink and colour on paper, 60 x 240 cm

ARTicle is a feature curated by 3812 Gallery, presenting must-read articles by curators, scholars and art critics focusing on Eastern Origin in Contemporary Expression for your weekend digest.  


In this week's ARTicle, we hope you will enjoy studying Hong Kong artist Raymond Fung's ink paintings through an essay written by Professor Tang Hoi Chiu, Former Chief Curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, first published in Fung's book Savouring Life.


Singing to the Poetry of the Earth: In the Ink World of Raymond Fung

Professor Tang Hoi Chiu (Former Chief Curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art)


Chinese painting has a rich cultural history. Over a thousand years, the age-old themes and techniques have continued to develop, and the tradition has now become an enduring art form well-known to the world. Since the Tang and Song dynasties, burgeoning painters have refined the painting styles, and the art scene has flourished a myriad of techniques and aesthetics. One has to keep abreast of the times – how to distill the essence of the tradition into a creative work but not to be bound by it is a real challenge to every ink painter.


Unlike the historical capitals of China, Hong Kong’s art scene has only come to flourish over the past decade. Although it has taken the city a long time to shake off its demeaning reputation as a “cultural desert”, it is still the place that is known for its vibrancy, full of tales to tell. As a region located on the southern part of China, Hong Kong has been one of the world’s most significant commercial and trading ports since the nineteenth century. During 1842 – 1997, Hong Kong was colonized and ruled by the British Empire. The colonial government back then was neither eager to support nor bothered to interfere with the art and cultural development in the city. Hong Kong is a hybrid of East and West – with its traditional root in China and its geographical proximity to the Mainland, the city is also open to Western modernism and invites the exchange of artistic perspectives from a wide world. Balancing of the two cultivates a space where artists, whether they grow up here or come from the Mainland, can freely foster creativity and authenticity in their work enriched by a mix of cultures.


Raymond Fung is an ink painter who grew up in Hong Kong. His background reflects how Hong Kong people keep faith through hard times and strive towards the better. Born in Hong Kong in 1952, his father passed away at young age, and he grew up in a struggling singleparent family. He lived in an old tenement building on Hollywood Road, neighbouring Possession Point and old districts of Sheung Wan and West Point, and he was surrounded by fishball stalls, clothing store, food markets, funeral parlours, and grassroots businesses including fortune-tellers, bone-setters, goldfish stalls, shoe repair, barber shops. These local living deeply influenced Fung, and he formed a strong emotional bond with the place. He did not come from a wealthy family, he had to work hard to make a living. He thought of drawing as a way, so he learned to draw at a community centre, setting the foundation for his later career as an artist.


His early education, as he said, was never perfect. He was enrolled to a fair secondary school, meanwhile he would also deliver drinks as a part-timer, not being able to fully devote himself to studying. The grades could barely promote him to Form 6 and enabled him to apply to university, and yet the Chinese University of Hong Kong rejected him. With his sketching skills, he was then accepted by HKBU School of Communication. During his study, he constantly questioned himself about the future. He asked his uncle for a flight ticket and applied to Louisiana State University in the U.S. To Fung, the imperfect process is always a part of what makes life interesting: he strives towards perfection, while accepting it is okay not to be perfect.


When Fung returned to Hong Kong, he first worked at the renowned Taoho Design and then Wong Tung Group, and participated in various major development projects. He later joined the government, although he temporarily left for a while, he returned after a few years to manage civic architectural work. He was once invited to Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, which was an invaluable experience. During his time working as a senior architect at Architectural Services Department, he was mainly responsible for unconventional architecture projects, different from the traditional building designs. He was able to unleash his imagination to create award-winning designs. Meanwhile, he never gave up on his passion in painting. On Valentine’s Day in 2008, he decided to leave the government, and wholeheartedly devoted himself to ink painting.


Fung was apprenticed to several painters. When he was at secondary school, he was apprenticed to Ip Chit Hoo, a famous painter from Guangdong, for five years, during which he also joined The Hong Kong Chinese Art Club. In 1970 when he was at HKBU, he once learned oil painting from Chen Shou Soo. To Fung, the contemporary ink painting master Lui Shou-kwan, had a direct impact on him. He was also influenced by the style of Zhang Da-qian. In 1971, he was apprenticed to He Baili from Lingnan School of Painting. During 1979 – 1982, through the recommendation of Hung Hoi, he further educated himself under the teaching of Shanshen Yang. In 1984, he was enrolled to CUSCS, where he was taught by Ho Choi-on, Liew Come Tong, Kim Chia-lun, Chen Ruo-hai. In the following year, he was enrolled to a contemporary ink painting course taught by student of Lui Shou-kwan, Chui Tze Hung at HKU Space, changing Fung’s perspective towards contemporary painting. Because of his multidisciplinary learning from different masters, Fung was not restricted by any single style of teaching. He was rather free to explore and develop his own style. Through Lingnan School of Painting, he learnt to paint the real and the surreal, with vivid strokes and bright colouring; in contemporary ink painting, it was about the abstract spirit. The rich brushtouch and force by contemporary master Li Ke-ran, the expressive splashed-ink landscapes from the prolific artist Zhang Da-qian; the poetic elements from the Song Dynasty, and the calmness and serenity in portraits and landscapes from the Ming and Qing Dynasty. As a local artist in Hong Kong, Fung has been an open-minded artist who explores different ideas which later give rise to his unique character in painting.


In early artworks of Fung, such as the sketch “Beyond Horizon” (1984) , “The Secluded Village” (1985), we can easily notice how He Bai-li and Ho Choi-on from Lingnan School of Painting influenced the artist. Slowly after he learned about contemporary ink painting from Lui Shou-kwan in the ’80s, Fung’s landscape style began to transform, becoming more and more abstract. In “Emergence” (1986), “The Great Leap” (1986), “Solitude”(1988), “Untitled”(1990), bold brush strokes and ink dominate the painting, while the lines and colour contrast reflect the distinct painting style of Lui. Fung also looked into the divisions and splits and hard-edge style in his visual composition. In “Fading Glory” (1988), the painting is split into three parts: the central part depicts the engulfing waters in Hong Kong with dense brush strokes and the silhouettes of yachts with simple lines, the left and the right are the sky and clouds in diffusing colours, striking an overall harmonious balance. In “Sublimation” (1989), the painting is split into two parts, with the two sun spheres rising on the waters but contrasting each other over the diagonal. The artworks show that he infused his thoughts and design into the composition, while improvising the contemporary style of Liu Guo-song in his style. Throughout the late ’80s, Fung discovered and established his own style of painting.


Fung’s landscape painting focuses mainly on the abstract brush strokes as the contour and outline of the nature, with soft diffusing colours. He never just uses the conventional paper folds to depict the mountain lines, but with minimal dots, clusters and lines together with paper folds to form the enticing visual effect. Peoples are never the main character in his paintings. “After Dawn” (1987) reveals his personal style and preference of abstractism and colour ink. The diffusing greens and heavy ink blend to form a misty feel, with thin lines representing the woods and a touch of red haze depicting the sunrise. In “The unforgettable Moments”, the paper folds create a shifting effects of lights and shadows, as if they were full of dynamics like the ripples on the water surface. The upper and lower parts of the painting forms layers that contrast the real and the surreal, building a visual rhythm that move freely in between. Fung also explores the traditional ink and compositions. In “Historical Trail” and “Blue”, the rocks and trees are outlined with small dots and very thin lines, replacing the traditional techniques of wrinkling and rubbing. The free-flowing movement of ink on layers upon layers exudes a profound feel, unique of its kind. “Over the Fringe” features a bold contrast of the light and the dark, with the part on the right being dominated by rich silhouettes of mountain ranges that are extended from the lines and dots of the leafy bush on the left.


Twin panels, handscrolls, hanging scrolls are Fung’s signature composition style, the twelve-stroll painting of “Once Upon a Time” is the most classic of all. The heavy ink and light ink infiltrate one another to form the ridges and ranges over the river, without the meticulous and fine details. The large and the miniature, the dense and the scattered, all elements are simple yet authentic. The painting is an impressionistic presentation.


Although Hong Kong is a small city, it is a subtropical archipelago with a myriad of small islands, stunning mountain peaks and shorelines. The breathtaking natural beauty of the city including the outlying islands, Lantau Island, and the southern part of Hong Kong Island has been overlooked. There is even a UNESCO Global Geopark in Sai Kung. Many artists have moved from the Mainland to Hong Kong for the scenic views, distilling the essence into their artistic creation. As a local artist who was born and raised in Hong Kong, Fung paints the cityscape of his hometown into his series. He lives in Hebe Haven in Sai Kung, and works as a Visiting Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong that takes in sweeping views of Pat Sin Leng and Tolo Harbour. The perfect nourishment on fine spring days, foggy winter mornings, the blessings of flora and fauna, islands and their birds, and the splendor of fall foliage have all been depicted in his paintings. Geographic spectacles in Sai Kung including Hebe Haven, Jone’s Cove, Yan Chau Tong, High Island Reservoir, Long Ke Wan, Big Wave Bay, Kau Sai Chau, Pak Sin Leng, and Tolo Harbour, render as the sources of his inspiration and creation. “Morning at Hebe Haven” is one of his early landscape works of Sai Kung. The wrinkles on the left were dyed in green, blending harmoniously with the splash in central, while unmarked blank space was left on the right, as if it were the sunrise in the first light breaking the dark. The repetitive white dots are the flying birds, indicating that the nature is alive and breathing.


In “Hong Kong Mountain Series – Pak Sin Range”, light ink outlines the Pak Sin Range, with wrinkles depicting the edge patterns and details, enriching the overall texture. Heavy ink on the right takes the form of the range, the centre shows the plains and mudflats. Everything is connected to represent the otherworldly scenery of Sharp Island. “Tolo Harbour” is a recent work from 2012. Dough-shaped mountain peaks, shift change of heavy and light inks, abstract feature of the picturesque coastline – the pleasing combination of elements in the painting tells about the artist’s work closely tied to his homeland, his hope in preserving the nature and his appreciation for the harmony of the universe.


Seeing Hong Kong as his home, Fung is emotionally attached to his hometown, the nation, and the people. He has travelled to many places in China, where the culture, the colours, and the values have given him inspiration to paint. “Return from Tibet” depicts his journey and his feelings towards Tiberian life. The series is constructed in vertical, and yet the lines are arranged in horizontal. Expanding from the bottom up, the lines, dots, and wrinkles are densely distributed to form the scarce and barren landscape of the Northwest. Unlike the magnificent depiction of towering mountain peaks, “Huang Shan Series” illustrates the elegance of Huang Shan through rich accumulation of ink and dyes, the shifting colour tone and rhythm. The work tells about Fung’s affection for the beauty of landscape in China and his strong emotional bond with the nation.


As a sensible artist who cares for the issues on the society and conservation, Fung’s work reflects his concerns for local affairs, humanities, and the environment. In “Revelation of freedom”, impulsive burst of thick strokes holds the burning flames atop, just like the suppressed feelings have finally found their way out. The power of the strokes sharply contrasts with the silence in the surrounding lands and water. The hollow and everything desolated suggest Fung’s feelings towards the June Fourth Incident in 1989. “Clean Water?”, “Blue Sky?” are his recent artworks. The visuals are black and bold, questioning our ability to protect our proud blue sky and seascapes on the earth this polluted and sick.


As an outstanding architect, many of Fung’s architectural projects demonst rate his concerns for natural conservat ion, as well as cultural and historical preservation. He advocates not for the interference in culture and environment, but for the protection of natural habitats and for our mutual respect for the cultural heritage. One needs not compromise the harmony for being eco-friendly, nor alter any core values. His projects including Health Education Exhibition and Resource Centre, Wan Chai Environmental Resource Centre, Hong Kong Wetland Park, and Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade highlight his vision and mission in the culture, history, environmental conservation, while proving his creativity and imagination.


As a diligent artist who strives for unique aesthetic sense, Fung is known for his diffusing ink techniques and variations in improvising for the new. He re-defines the traditional ink-wash, conceptualizing the landscape by painting what he feels and understands about it. He often paints in series and arrange them in matching strolls that are aligned to their meanings.


In the ’00s, his ink painting has already become sophisticated, transforming ink painting to a whole new level. Fung has painted a series of “Between Heaven & Earth” – “Between Heaven & Earth No.1” depicts the arresting Sai Kung Peninsula, with the ink distribution and climax hitting just the right note. The ink is bulk and dense, yet the overall texture remains; the background strikes a perfect balance between the light ink and the azurite blue, in tune with the cluster of islands in the foreground, creating a magic moment of tranquility. “Sam Pui Chau” is another classic work of the prominent view of Sai Kung. Thick and heavy ink forms the abstract silhouettes of islands, on a background of wrinkling, rubbing, and diffusing of colours. The space at the centre with small dots atop suggests the resting herons and egrets. The entire painting is vibrant and full of life. “6 Ten” is made of six vertical strolls, leaving a gap between each frame. The arrangement of hills and the layering enhance the sense of depth and distance, luring all of us into a world made of ink and colour. “Shades in Ink” even puts the landscape into 18 frames. Each frame has its own character, varying in layering and overlapping, lighting and shading. The mountains and the rocks, the flow and the rhythm, all radiate peace and harmony. The work can be viewed as a whole, or as eighteen individuals, reflecting the mastermind behind the rich and sophisticated composition and his artistic excellence.


“Dynasties” is the most recent monumental work completed in 2019 by Raymond Fung, which is a huge joint panel comprises of twenty-four vertical panels extending a width of over thirty feet. On the pictorial planes, Fung manipulated multi-perspective locations of peaks and islands rising from the vast sea and river like stars scattering in the sky or chesses spreading on the chess-board. More solid mountains painted in dense ink and color splashes form the backdrop at the right side of the painting. Withering trees and textural strokes on the peaks evoke a feeling of the fading of historical time and incidents. In this work, Fung develops a new creative technique by applying sprays to suggest smokes and clouds interspersing amidst mountain peaks, which produce distinctive 3D visual visions that the landscapes protrude beyond the pictorial plane as if floating outside the work with an effect of movement and dynamism. In this new work, Raymond Fung demonstrates his innovative artistic visions in that he depicts sea and river with spontaneity to suggest the vast lands of over 9.8 million square miles of China, which carry the historical traces of over five thousand years of the nation. The rising peaks are suggestive of numerous lords and nobles in dynastic China, who struggled for power by initiating fierce wars and fights in which smokes and wild fire spread over the country, yet now faded away and had become dust in the stream of time and history. The twenty-four volumes of history books known as “Twenty-four Dynastic Histories” completed in different dynastic periods of China are recognized as formal official historical records, and they are now imminently restored in the withered trees and peaks in his present monumental work, echoing historical struggles now ending in silence, leaving traces for memories and sighing. This new work by Fung fully illustrates a turning of his artistic creation, his fond passion of the history of his motherland China and his attempt to develop new techniques and visual language, marking a new path of artistic horizon.


Fung has worked at a number of architecture firms, later joined the government as a senior architect, and participated in both civic buildings and personal villas design projects, many of which are award-winning. He has also been a consultant, offering professional advice on arts and culture, environment, heritage conservation. He founded Ink Movement, advocating for the development of contemporary ink painting, with his work collected by art museums, various organizations and collectors worldwide.


I have known Fung for many years, and have been able to collaborate with him. His dedication to the society, his determination in preserving the culture and the environment, and his passion and effort in art are all intriguing. We once worked together on planning the new contemporary art museum and ink-painting museum in Hong Kong. Needless to say it was a regret that the projects did not work out as planned at the end. Just as Fung said, it was a near-perfect process. We strive towards perfection, we forgive our imperfection throughout the journey, and this process makes life interesting to keep us going and trying.


Hong Kong, May 25, 2019