Chai Zu Shun began painting when he was just six years old, and he has never stopped. Born into a scholarly family in Shanghai, China, in 1935, shortly before the Japanese invasion of his homeland, Chai’s artistry has evolved much as have the political and social directions of mainland China. He learned from and gained stature from the vicissitudes of the times in which he lived, while his work both reflected and was affected by those times. Ultimately, he embraced modern Western methods of painting, but he never lost touch with his traditional cultural roots.
At the age of 17, he enrolled in the Shanghai Fine Arts College and studied under several masters of traditional Chinese painting. In his early years after graduation, Chai concentrated on sketching and painting portraits, choosing politically popular subjects such as peasants, soldiers and Red Guards. In 1970, as the leader of the Shanghai Oil Painting Creation Team, Chai was in charge of creating the famous oil painting “Chairman Mao Visits the Iron and Steel Factory.” However, the painting was criticized during the Culture Revolution, and Chai was banished to the countryside. He worked in a factory as part of his “re-education” until Prime Minister Zhou En Lai interceded for him. When the painting of Chairman Mao was published by the Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House as a poster that was seen in a popular movie, Chai’s fame began to spread.
In 1978, he published an art study book on “How to Paint Head Portraits,” which sold more than one-million copies in 10 editions. Later, as a professor at the Shanghai Theatrical Academy, where he taught until his retirement in 1995, Chai began working on landscapes and animals. Drawing from legendary tales, he worked on paintings with flying dragons, waves, moonlight and dark clouds—all themes with a strong mythological flavor. In the 1980s, he began specializing in painting tigers, remarkably capturing the essence of the movement, power and anatomical representations of those fierce creatures.
For more than 20 years, Chai painted literally dozens of tigers, an animal that represents power and bravery in the Chinese culture. One of those paintings was acquired by the Boston Museum in the United States. Today, in China, he is honored as “a great master of tiger painting.” In 1988, inspired by the abstract artist Jackson Pollock, Chai began experimenting with an ink and oil pigment splashing technique of painting. In his own words, Chai explains,
“I began to think about mingling the traditional Chinese freehand brushwork with Western abstract painting to turn it into mental imagery painting, which gives the audience a concrete association and an abstract inference.”
In the 2000s, in addition to working with rice paper (Xuan), Chai also developed a new type of painting that involved using ink and watercolor paints on Nijin paper (paper coated with glue and powdered gold or other metals). He discovered that indirect pigment splashing keeps the Xuan paper intact on large paintings, while repeated indirect ink and pigment splashing allows more space for brushwork. With this technique, he has achieved a unique, complicated texture effect in his paintings. Since 2003, the master has concentrated on mental image abstracts. More than 700 of these paintings are now owned by the Tong Xin Zhai Mental Imagery Art Gallery in Shanghai, and many of them are featured on this website, but none are for sale. Twenty-five of Chai’s mental imagery paintings are currently on tour internationally.