Xu Xi: The Confident Trudger in Art

Li Songtao

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Diligence and Chance



Xu Xi's ancestral home is in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, but he was born in Chengdu, Sichuan Province and was primarily educated in Chongqing City as his parents moved to Sichuan shortly after the Anti-Japanese War broke out. In 1951, the family moved again to Hangzhou, and he finished his primary education in the nearby Yuhang County. It originated exactly from this kind of nostalgia that Xu described the scenes of Shaoxing and Chongqing with strong passion in many of his later works.

That Xu chose to be a painter is not the result of the family's influence but that of the guide of his art teacher Yu Zhiqing, who admitted Xu into the school's art group for his talent in art, when he was at Hangzhou Junior High School. Although he was recommended for admission to the High School for his excellent study, Xu, after graduation, decided to enter the Attached High School of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. But his decision offended his father who did not expect young Xu Xi to become an artist as the senior had witnessed the unhappy experiences of artists of the old generation. Despite all this, Xu Xi entered himself for the examination with borrowed money.

The Attached High School of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1954, which aims at training students preparatory for advanced academies of fine arts and general art workers and which has a strong and skillfully trained faculty. The examiners for the school numbered over four thousand each year, among which only forty would be admitted, Xu was admitted through such difficult competition, due to his training at Hangzhou Junior High School together with his own talent. Yet in the course of study, Xu found that he was surpassed by many other classmates in the basic training before their admittance to school. Thereafter young Xu Xi began to train himself with a sober analytical view of the circumstance and his competitors, adjusting his own structure in knowledge in order to turn what is unfavourable into favourable. He made great efforts to train himself in water colour painting and drawing as well. He often made sketches in water colour at the West Lake and did numerous copies of the old masterpieces, and his works within the first two years were more than one thousand. For the sake of improving sketching techniques, he even locked himself with his classmate Liang Hongtao in the classroom and kept drawing over the night. One summer he walked with other classmates along the Fuchunjiang River to make sketches, passing the nights in the farmers' house or on the farmers' threshing ground, and allayed their hunger with rice gruel and pickles or boiled clams.

In the second year since Xu entered the school, the Anti-Rightist Movement drove a few skillful and experienced professors and painters from Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts to the Attached High School, which offered an unexpected chance for the young students. The four years at school were divided into two parts, with the first two arranged for basic training courses, and the other for creativity practice. In his third year at school Xu was assigned with the whole class to have their creativity course taken at Qishuyan Rolling Stock Plant in Jiangsu Province. While labouring with the workers for several months, they produced collectively more than 300 pictures depicting the Plant's history. The pictures were later published as a picture-story book by Zhejiang Fine Arts Publishing House. This activity helped Xu Xi to become more experienced in art creation, and later his two other picture-story books, together with a few pieces of posters, were also published by the Publishing House.

After more than 30 years, Xu Yongxiang, a former teacher at the Attached High School, recalled that Xu Xi was then a "typically bright and talented student". He and another classmate Wu Shanming, were good assistants to the teachers as they showed extraordinary ability in organizing activities, particularly when they were out to the countryside for practice with the whole class. Though Xu was not among the best in study, he was very hardworking. The success of Xu and many others of his former classmates in improving their ability in art creation was largely due to their joint work in producing numerous picture-story paintings.

In the 1950s and 1960s, as the social needs required, the New Year pictures, picture-story books and posters in fashionable form were regarded as important art categories, and were taken as courses at art academies. Quite a few painters who are well known today joined in such production and they worked very seriously. Their creativity played an important part in promoting the standards of these categories. The picture-story books were not in the currently fashionable form of four or six pieces of cartoon pictures, but they were serious art creations, some of which could be appreciated as independent paintings. The picture-story creativity would serve to train students to obtain the ability to have a comprehensive observation and expression of objects, to have a good command of the skills in painting from memory and to strengthen their sensibility in catching the spirit of figures and the detail and vividness of surroundings. This has proven itself to be a speedy and effective way to improve the ability in art composition. Xu's training in picture-story production enabled him to easily convert any complicated subjects into powerful images in his painting. Even in his recent works there is the non-relaxed control in the seemingly freehanded rendering of the almost abstract surface. Here, it is not difficult for us to discover that this picture-story painter has a pair of sharp eyes for catching the surroundings.

Before his graduation from the Attached High School, Xu Xi had a piece of water colour selected to participate in a joint exhibition of the attached high schools of China's art academies and one of the Soviet Union's. That is the first time Xu had the chance to attend international art activities.

In the summer of 1960, he graduated from the Attached High School and was recommended for admission to Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. Probably because of his known ability in picture-story painting, he was allowed to study at the Picture-Story and Poster Studio and transferred to the Print-Making Department in the next year, majoring in wood-cutting and etching and lithography as well.

The then Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts was, nationwide, one of the most important institutes for print-making practice. There Xu Xi has been under the instructions of Zhao Yannian, Zhao Zongzao, Cao Jianfeng, Shu Chuanxi and others.

Xu Xi was fortunate that he was just in time for college when education was the most undisturbed and effective before the Cultural Revolution. During the period before, continuous political movements and overwhelming physical labour and unpractical education nearly took the place of necessary classroom instruction, the situation of which was adjusted to its normal way only after the winter of 1960 when more attention began to be paid to the importance of classroom instruction and the guiding role of teachers. The nationwide liberalized atmosphere caused by the "Let hundreds of flowers blossom, and let hundreds of schools of thought contend" policy led the Chinese art to a climactic period in the early 1960s.

It is possible that Xu was not conscious of that rare chance, but he surely made full use of the five years at college, which served as an important factor in his later success in art. He tells in his autobiography,

"During my college period, I studied the works of such 'black-and-white' masters as Germany's Kathe Kollwitz, France's Etienne Delaune, Italy's Bella, Belgium's Francis Mercille, Norway's Edvard Munch, the Soviet Union's Nekrasov and Venisky the Junior and more. I learned from different artists in order to enrich myself. Even today I still often draw inspiration from what I

accumulated for art creation at college, which may be exemplified by the fact that the way I depict a snow scene is a creation under the influence of Venisky the Junior's series of World Travels" (2)

It was in his first year at college that Xu had his woodcut Militia on the River reproduced in the People's Daily, which soon afterward appeared again in other newspapers and pictorials. In the picture are randomly arranged boats in which the fisher-militia are doing shooting practice. The formal composition and proper rendering of black and white make it a really excellent work even in the eyes of viewers today. The creation of this work was directly inspired by his experience in Tangxi near Hangzhou where he was excited by the scene of a boat loaded with loquat on the river illuminated by the setting sun when looking down from an arched bridge at nightfall. It seemed that in all of a sudden he found the key to the creation of the picture describing the militia then still as an idea in his mind. He put three small boards into one piece on which his first woodcut was soon finished. The picture shows the river as of several black surfaces on which are scattered white boats. The distinct rendering of the theme and the skills in cutting show that Xu already had the ability of a print-maker in transforming the subjects into art in black and white. If he had been going further along this way, he would have been a successful print-maker since he was determined to be devoted to the world of black-and-white art while still at college.

Years later, Xu Xi recalled his experience at the Attached High School and the Academy, and said, "The training in water colour, sketching and picture- story painting from memory at the Attached High School and my efforts made on print-making at the Academy exerted a subtle influence on my creation in Chinese painting."

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