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Imaging Nature Before and After Photography Zeng Xiaolian Solo Exhibition

2022.03.05 - 2022.05.22


“Imaging Nature Between Painting and Photography” features a selection of 40 masterful artworks of Zeng Xiaolian, each depicting the richness of nature and the cycle of botanical life. Zeng Xiaolian is one of China’s leading botanical illustrators, and still holds the title of Senior Engineer of the Botanical Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in whose name he devoted his life to paintings of flowers and birds with a rigorous scientific spirit and reverence and passion for life. Since his retirement in 1997, Zeng Xiaolian continues to depict biodiversity in praise of the flourishing beauty of nature.

As Paul Strand is quoted as saying, “Photography is only a new road from a different direction, still moving toward the common goal, which is life”. Since the invention of photography in 1839, photography and painting have developed with a significant degree of mutual influence. The style and form of early photography were influenced by compositional formats and human expressions found in painting. While photography also had an impact on the artistic concept of painting and the change of its form, modern artists even directly introduced photography into painting.

Prior to the invention of photography, botanical illustrators recorded shapes and habitats of plants according to their observations and notes as part of the increasing interest in understanding, appreciating and, even, controlling nature. Through time, with developments in technology, other imaging technologies such as microscopy and X-ray found applications in the field of wildlife research. Increasingly photography could provide important reference materials for botanical illustrators, but could the photograph replace the patiently crafted painting? Naturally this is a question for lively debate, since we now know of numerous examples of fine photographers who have made extraordinary studies of plants and animals as subjects of their work.

Zeng Xiaolian remains committed to his craft of painting studies of flowers and birds through painstaking observation and creative rendering. When he joined Kunming Institute of Botany under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1958 and began his 40-year work as a botanical illustrator, Zeng Xiaolian first studied scientific painting methods, but over time would create his astonishing botanical illustrations based on his observation. Since retirement, his technique has become arguably ever more innovative. Remarkable examples can be found from the veins of the flowers’ petals and leaves to the texture of a bird’s feathers.

The exhibition presents Zeng Xiaolian’s flower and bird paintings alongside examples of photographs and artworks by domestic and foreign artists such as Nobuyoshi Araki, Liu Ye, and Giovanni Ozzola. Viewers may perceive nature through photography and painting and broaden their horizons while understanding the harmonious coexistence between humans and nature.

Artist’s word

“A stubborn boy who likes to draw, comes to painting by chance. From humble beginnings pressing leaves, he slowly enters the field of botanical illustration. It’s not essential work, but it is all the sustenance he needs. I sit on cold benches, trek deep into the mountains. At times, my heart swoops in awe at the beauty of the wild in the deep mountains and ancient forests. At others, I sit like a wooden chicken watching flowers blossom and fall, cherishing what feels like the true meaning of life. Between movement and stillness lies a fertile ground for inspiration. I compensate for my clumsy hand with its diligent practice. Flowers, birds and other natural elements flow from my brush, coaxing themselves into a semblance of life that leaves some small impression on the viewer. This is what I love to do, that’s all.”


Zeng Xiaolian

About the Artist

Chinese botanical artist, Zeng Xiaolian was born in 1939 in Kunming, Yunnan Province. In 1958, upon graduation from high school, Zeng was recruited into Kunming Institute of Botany under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, retiring in 1997. During his career, he worked as an illustrator on numerous scientific texts such as Flora of China, Flora of Yunnan and Flora of Tibet. From 1983 to 1988, he served as Deputy Director of the China Botanical Society Council on Botanical Illustration. From 1988 to 1993, he served as director of that council. In 1995, he was named Senior Engineer of the Botanical Research Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences. He is a member of the China Artists Association. Over the years, Zeng has received numerous awards for his paintings, which have also been widely exhibited and collected. Also, beginning in 1991, Zeng’s works have also been featured in no less than ten series of stamp designs commissioned by China State Post Bureau.

About Contemporary Gallery Kunming

Contemporary Gallery Kunming is a non-profit art institution sponsored by Kunming Top River Group. Since its inception in 2018, CGK has staged numerous important group exhibitions, including “Notes on Region”, “Espace et Temps: Sino-French Architecture Exhibition,” and “Constellation: Yunnan Oil Painting Since 1978,” and solo exhibitions of such artists as Zeng Xiaofeng, Tang Zhigang, Marc Riboud, Zhang Chunyang, Zeng Xiaolian, Ma Yun, Yu Jian, He Duoling, Shui Yanfei, Du Tianrong, Yang Liping, Liu Jianhua, Li Ji, Yao Zhonghua, Wu Jialin and Luo Xu. Contemporary Gallery Kunming is rooted in the history and culture of Yunnan Province, strives to build connections with Southeast Asia, and aims to serve both the local art industry and the general public through objective research of Yunnan’s contemporary art history and comprehensive presentation of the latest trends and creative output in contemporary art.

About HLiiC

Established in Nanjing in 2020, HLiiC is dedicated to the research and practice of 19th century handmade photography process, exploring another possibility of image. Based on modern apparatus and advanced equipment along with a laboratory with constant temperature and humidity, HLiiC Lab provides the public, professionals in photography and related art fields, art organizations and commercial institutions with visualized custom printing services, making the transition from digital images to 19th century handmade photography works. In close collaboration with dozens of international handmade photography artists and several top-notch international 19th century photography galleries, HLiiC is committed to the promotion and research of handmade photography, regularly holding exhibitions regarding handmade photography at HLiiC Gallery, also provides support and curating for external art space or art exhibitions.


SCoP would like to thank Zeng Xiaolian and his family, Nie Rongqing, Jeff Crosby and Zhu Zijia from Contemporary Gallery Kunming, staff at National Geographic, and HLiiC for their great assistance in the preparation of this exhibition.


We would also like to thank VANKE Shanghai and Dior for their continuous support to SCoP.

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