Dimensions of the Spirit in Portrait Painting
: The Matter of Exploring Intense Spirituality within the Figure in Oil Painting, Referencing Chinese Cultural Influences

  • Li Huang

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The motif of spiritual transformation beyond death is a major preoccupation in human society, and Taoists have never stopped searching the path to immortality for thousands of years. Current medical research reveals many phenomena regarding this.

I was brought up and educated in China with socialism and communism as the dominant social mores in Chinese society instead of superstition, spirituality. None of my family were Buddhist, although my parents did practice some rites of ancestor worship occasionally each year. Beyond this, I had never considered death or the destination of the human spirit after life until the sudden loss of my father in his 60’s following a long-term illness.

To this day people in China continue the tradition of treating the beloved one who has passed away as if one is still alive. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand what they will do to memorialise him according to this tradition. However, it is more difficult to sense how people would have performed these acts in the memory of the beloved one during Mao’s era (from 1949 to 1976), when most acts of ritual, religion, and personal memorialising were forbidden. The imprint from the tradition of any nation exists in a person’s life and it flows continuously from generation to generation. But under the particular circumstance of Mao era repression, did it disappear under political taboo, and did anything new derive from this environment?

My visual research explores cultural and religious practices and beliefs regarding the attitude of the human soul or spirit after physical life, particularly within Chinese society during the 1960s and 1970s. The manifestation of this research are paintings that represent the aspects of my personal spiritual grief within the context of Chinese cultural and religious iconography, custom habitude, and objects from daily life, as symbols to narrate the relationship between me and my father, now and then, here and there.

From this research further questions emerge, such as:

a), How is it possible to interpret cultural identity in paintings? Furthermore, how may one explore the dimensions of what can be called ‘spirit’ in portraiture paintings, especially as it may be aligned to specific cultural inflections?

b), Is it possible to combine notions from traditional Chinese philosophy with Western painting (e.g., the tradition of Romanticism in contemporary oil figure painting and even earlier such as artist such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder during Renaissance) to evoke a convincing spiritual dimension?

Consequently, the artworks that have emerged from this research relates to attitudes to death, and the reminiscence of family members who have passed away. There are many rituals of worship according to traditions in China. Historically, people prefer burial instead of cremation, as the relatives believe that the deceased person belongs underground, within the underworld. The funeral ceremony is a ritual of farewell: a group of monks are invited to chant, aiming to release the spirit of the deceased to the heavenly sphere. Candles are regarded as torches guiding the spirit to its destination. Incense burning is regarded as communication between departed and beloved. A paper house, paper servants, paper models of daily utensils and paper money are normally burnt during the process of funeral, hoping that the spirit would immediately be able to settle down comfortably, as when alive, or better than when alive. From this ceremony onwards, the relatives will visit the cemetery on the 5th of April, or around that date, burn some more paper money for the beloved one, and light incense and candles to establish a connection between the living and the departed. Rituals on the deceased’s birthday and the date of passing away are also scheduled in many families. Other worshipful acts are undertaken year after year. These enactments of activities from his daily life would be expected to be appreciated by the departed beloved.

My PhD research extends the themes I began during the MFA course, in which I explored a parental kinship, “the relation of the natural and supernatural, of the here now extending to the beyond.”

After I received my BA in Fine Art in 2018, I had returned to China and stayed with my mum for the whole summer. We recalled a lot of trivia in the past related to my father who had passed away long ago. The reminiscence of joy from the times the three of us had spent together as a family for almost three decades triggered my motivation to evoke the affection in daily life with all its emotional trauma through a series of paintings. I saw this as a key to interrelate the spiritual journey in my art works: the unchained relationship between me and my father who is no longer in this world. I concentrate on any fragmentations in my memory of my father, and although he is in the other world, there should be something between us. I asked myself, "what is it? Or would the memory fade away like the colour in an old photograph? Where is he now? How is he? I could only begin to depict this spiritual dimension from my imagination and memory within the limitation of one year’s study. In this PhD project I expand this research into the spiritual dimensions, which were also common themes in the work of Renaissance portraiture, to map out an illusory world for my father. This expands on extensive research from various cultures including religion and tradition during the Mao era, and in the context of our current era, I wish to link a visualisation that connects spirituality and memorialisation through the process of figurative painting.

The thematic map of this investigation is my father’s life journey, from when he was a teenager, an adult, a soldier, a worker in a state-owned factory, and later in his marriage and his family life within the political environment of his day and his passing due to long-term illness shortly after retirement. I overlay the micro with the macro: from the daily life of my family spread over to the extensive environment of Chinese society, my work draws tacit parallels.

There are significant differences in culture between China and the West. For example, there is no comparable longstanding political movements in the West as there was in China during the Mao era, which had the same profound influence on a person’s daily life.

Therefore, what is presented within my paintings is research into my father’s life journey as a thread, in the cultural context of the 1960s and 1970s with a focus on death through further investigations of traditional Chinese folk culture, religion etc.

I interpret the spiritual elements inherent in the painting itself under the cultural aspect and concept of art, as there should be some common ground between western painting and contemporary Chinese painting.

The research into the daily life of my family seeks to reveal a truth of Chinese culture during the political environment of the 1950s to the 1970s, using firsthand resources such as The People’s Daily, the official Chinese Government newspaper in contrast to the lived experience of the public.

“What terrifies individuals most about death is not the loss of the future but the loss of the past.”

In my practice-based research, I explore cultural and religious rituals and beliefs regarding attitudes toward the human soul or spirit after physical life, particularly in Chinese society during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The paintings represent my personal spiritual grief within the wider context of Chinese culture and faiths (such as Taoism, Buddhism), and explores customary habits and objects from daily life as symbols to narrate the relationship between me and my father.

Scientists have found evidence of quantum entanglement, suggesting there could be something remaining between us regardless of different spatial and temporal dimensions. These works seek to explore the similarity between the sufferings of our newly disordered world following the pandemic and the recent conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and the tragic and turbulent events in China during 1960s and 1970s. Starting from an immanent connection with my father, then incorporating a broader range of symbolic elements including daily utensils such as enamels, whistles, etc. I strive toward a map depicting an environment closer to life. Further, I seek inspiration about death, spirit, and rebirth from Tibetan Buddhism into my studio practice to bring to myself the release of personal grief, such as a belief that the spirit of my father will settle in his world.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorCalum Colvin (Supervisor) & Philip Braham (Supervisor)


  • oil painting
  • Chinese culture and history
  • portraiture
  • spirituality
  • mortality

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