Xu Xi: The Confident Trudger in Art

Li Songtao

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"Depuzzled" Decision



Upon his graduation from Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in July, 1965, Xu Xi decided to work in Gansu Province, for he had been so familiar with the beautiful landscape in the Jiangnan region that he preferred to change to a completely different circumstance of wilderness and roughness on the Loess Plateau and depict the snow scenes of the Gobi Desert in his paintings. Beyond his expectation he was, rather, assigned to work in Beijing, and again by chance yet not contrary to his own wish appointed to the People's Fine Arts Publishing House. The House, located at where used to be the campus of the former Beijing Art School, was established as a national institution for fine arts in 1951, whose faculty includes a number of famous painters and editors as well. Xu was appointed to be an editor, but unfortunately, in the fourth day of his work, he was reassigned together with some of his colleagues to join in the Four Clean- Ups Movement in Anyang country, Henan Province. Xioatun village in Anyang is where the last capital of the Shang Dynasty was situated more than three thousand years before, and has been well known for a century for the discoveries of inscribed bones, the Shang Dynasty palace foundation site and royal tombs. However, Xu had no luck to have a view of these magnificent ancient cultural relics. Nevertheless, he was sensitively conscious of the character and custom in northern China being quite different from that in Jiangnan river region. This caused him to make a large number of sketches after labour time and paintings of the village history co-worked with his colleagues.

In the next year, the Cultural Revolution broke out, the resulting great disorder of which destroyed the youth and vigour of the artist for art creation. It was until November, 1978, that Xu returned to the People's Fine Arts Publishing House and was re-appointed to its Creation Studio. Since then he became a professional painter, but it was thirteen years since he left and the artist was nearly at the depuzzled age of forty.

It marks a new point in Xu's career as an artist when he started to paint Chinese painting at the Studio. In fact, even before this period, some of his works in the method of Chinese painting, though not in a large number, have already caused attention in the art circle for their vigour in describing the real life and the originality in expression.

Chinese painting during the Cultural Revolution was not revised or developed until the year 1972. At that time when figure painting dominated the art world, landscape painting was mainly required for hotel decoration. The subject matters were limited to such realistic ones as the scenes of industrial and agricultural construction, resulting in less attention paid to seek significant artistic conception and the technical qualities characteristic of traditional Chinese painting. Favourable as the methods of expression were those mixed with that of water colour and gouache, particularly the fine-detailed realistic method with rich colouring, and the half-detailed and half-expressive one. The latter is more popular and appropriately called "colour and ink" expression, a common name in the 1 950s, as it is characterized by its mixture of Chinese and Western methods. As a result, Chinese painting developed under very difficult and even trouble-making conditions, as if it was dancing with shackles. Therefore, formularization, conceptualization and even vulgarization were the inevitable tendencies. In spite of all this, a certain degree of new development in Chinese painting was made. The painters active during that period were mainly middle-aged and young artists who graduated in the l950s and 1960s from art academies and those from other categories, all with strictly trained skills in technique and modelization. They were weak in traditional skillfulness but are more relaxed in mind. As a result, they could easily accept the positive qualities of other art forms and were free in expression when they described the real subjects with traditional painting materials. That led directly to an innovation of concepts in traditional painting and a breakthrough in method, which would show their positive value in a new creative period once the obstructions in ideas for art creation were destroyed.

During the Cultural Revolution, Xu Xi made use of every possible opportunity to paint. He even did sketches from memory at the breaks of labour time and public meetings of criticizing and debating. He started to do Chinese painting by the end of the Cultural Revolution, searching for the way suitable for his own development and seeking reference in the creations of his contemporaries.

In the middle and late 1970s, Xu joined in the activities of describing the event responding to Mao's callings "Learn from the Dazhai farmers in agriculture" and "Learn from the Daqing workers in industry", organized by the People's Fine Arts Publishing House for the painters. He was so serious with this opportunity that he went to live with the farmers in Dazhai village of Xiyang County in Shanxi Province for seven months, and soon afterward with the workers in Daqing oil field for three months where he conducted a training course for print-making besides doing sketches. It happened that the well known caricature painter Hua Junwu, accompanied by the Heilongjiang printmaker Chao Mei, were visiting in Daqing. Hua gave high praise on Xu Xi's paintings and recommended that they be published in the Meishu art monthly. Those works were not products of political purpose, but ones to fully show the artist's enthusiasm for real life, among which Before the Coalwashing Tower and Morning in the Coal Field, both done in 1973, represented the characteristics of Xu's earlier Chinese paintings. They are his creations based on the artist's sketches of Kailuan Coal Mine in Tangshan, Hebei Province and Yangquan Coal Mine in Shanxi Province. In some sense, it is rather difficult to describe coal mines in traditional Chinese painting technique. Xu's works are successful in the way that they display the vigour of life itself, though traces of sketches are still seen in his expression. In Before the Coalwashing Tower are tracks and trains expanding and zigzagging like wriggling snakes. From the exciting yet orderly arrangement of the objects one can imagine that the painter was calm and self-controlled when he started the whole composition. In Intense Working in the Oil Field, which Hua Junwu praised in Daqing, the vast expanse of sky, in textures acquired by the special rendering of the paper, is set off by forests of drilling towers and is in contrast with the grassland, pond, tractors and the workers brightly shined by the setting sun. Although the drilling towers in real life are not densely put together as depicted in the painting, it is comprehensible to have that kind of exaggeration in art. The colouring and drawing in this piece is near to that of gouache. By contrast, in his later work A New Pass of the Great Wall, the painter depicted the nocturne in ink and wash. Composition seems to be more subjective and original, and is quite close to that of Xu's paintings in his mature period. The objects in the picture are obviously arranged in principal and subordinate relationship; the mountains are dark but are still rich in layers; there are deliberate whites emerging in the Great Wall and the dam, representing the "eye of painting"; the lamp light on the mountain is in concert with the light in the water, as giving life to everything in the picture.

It is all a natural happening that Xu Xi's familiarity with the skillfulness in Chinese painting language comes out of his "learning from nature" and that he succeeds first as a print-maker and then as a Chinese painter. The key lies not in the fact that he changed his profession but in that he knows how to develop what is useful and discard what is not for an unfamiliar form of art, and that he always knows what he is. He started from the very first point, then he was able to hold his ground, and at last he is going along the way to the final success. Xu's self-consciousness helps him to be sober in his career.

Xu Xi had his favourable points and unfavourable ones on his way to becoming a painter of strong characteristics and creative spirit in the modern time.

The favourable qualities lie in that he owns rich experiences in life and that he was then still young enough to enrich his accumulation. Moreover, his training and creation in drawing, water colour, print-making and picture-story production would be favourable to the techniques in his Chinese painting and might well stimulate him to find a breakthrough where different forms of art meet.

However, he had a weak foundation in traditional Chinese painting, as he had only ten weeks for lessons on Chinese painting when he was at the Attached High School of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. The tradition of the national painting is a valuable heritage, and Xu Xi was aware that he had to make up what he missed. He visited Beijing Palace Museum and various other museums to view and copy old masterpieces, and he practices calligraphy still. What is more important is that he kept learning from contemporary painters including those who are successful and those at his age. He even respected Lin Kai, Zhang Guang and others in the same studio as his teachers.

A new problem that faced Xu Xi was how he should be in control of himself in the process of his "turning" to learn from the tradition. If the problem had ended up unsolved, it only meant that he would be destined to become a follower of the tradition, running out of breath after others.

Later Xu Xi makes a summary of his experience, "I was faced with the two choices upon my turn to learn traditional techniques: to weaken and even wipe out the existing individuality in my painting or to just insert traditional elements while reinforcing the original individuality. I called to mind an artist who said that 'Style means a creative expression of original experiences in life'. If art was deprived of style and individuality, repeated similarity would lead to the complete loss of its significance. My understanding of art drove me to choose the latter...." (3)

It needs to be added that it is the quintessence of the experiences for art creation in the traditional Chinese painting that artists should strengthen their unique feelings of real life and make them respond to the inner self before their aesthetical individuality is formed. Early in the eighth century, the Tang Dynasty painter Zhang Zao contributed his penetrating saying "Learn from the external nature, and create from the internal self".

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