Xu Xi: The Confident Trudger in Art

Li Songtao

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The Xu Pattern



Following the above words, Xu Xi said, "In the purpose of reinforcing the individuality in my painting, I am consciously in search of a customized tendency in the landscape painting with which I describe the rain and snow scenes and nocturnes that strike me the most. As to the method of rendering, I put much stress on the effects of black and white as I used to do in printmaking. I adopt much of the techniques in water colour when using the ink-splashing method on xuan paper, making stronger my own experiences in life. "

Ever since then, Xu does not change his choice for his artistic practice.

"Those who are good at learning learn from nature, and those who are not make copies." (Hua Quan [The Treatises of Painting] by Da Zhongguang of Qing Dynasty) Xu Xi is serious with and hardworking in seeking his original experiences, and in mastering the pulse of the time, which leads him to the creation of his own painting language.

In the first month of his work at the Creation Studio, Xu joined a group of painters organized by the Chinese Artists' Association to do sketches in Southern China. Among them were Lin Kai, Zhang Guang, the Shanxi painter Wang Xiwu, the oil painter Pan Shixun and others. They travelled from south- eastern Zhejiang Province to Nanhai of Guangdong Province to do sketches all along the way for three months. When they were at the Broken Bridge of the West Lake in Hangzhou in winter, the desolate scene of remains of lotus in pond reminded Xu of the master painter Qi Baishi's Remains of Lotus, in which the scattered lotuses are desolate but not isolated, declining yet still living, making the whole painting look vivid and lively. This understanding helped Xu to comprehend that art ought to be higher and more beautiful than life itself, and it affected him in the final establishment of his individual style. He is an optimistic man of great enthusiasm in life, and so is he in painting, which expresses no inexplicable sentiment or restrained artificialness but always reflects his enthusiasm to and self-confidence in life, even in pictures describing bitter rain or freezing winter scenes.

Every time he travelled to do sketches, he would spend two or three months living with workers, fishermen and herdsmen, not caring about the living conditions as long as it was convenient for him to paint. In fact, Xu was always on this kind of travel in the early 1980s.

Once, he lived for two months with the fishermen on the Taibu Lake where he was tanned. He spent the night in a fishing boat swaying with the tide and talked with the fishermen who drank with big bowls, chewing dried fish and watching them fish. In such strange experiences, Xu was strongly affected by the unconstrained and generous character of these heroes on the lake. At dawn birds flew round the reed marshes where their boats were at anchor, and women were already at the water, washing and dressing or preparing for the breakfast. Such impressions are expressed in Xu's Morning Tune on the Lake, which won in 1982 the Grand Prize at the Eighth International Painting Exhibition in the former Yugoslavia. The tune of tranquility, freshness and joyfulness was echoed even overseas.

He went to the beautiful city Guilin several times, travelling along the Lijiang River and found for himself a place to stay whenever he liked. The shapes of the mountains seem to keep changing as the viewer steps along, so do the feelings of the painter as he travels among the mountains. Not satisfied with the sightseeing manner on a yacht, Xu Xi would rather travel on a bamboo raft, sketching along the way. Once, he travelled from Guilin to Yangshuo on a wood raft for three days and nights, and the old raftman invited him to eat rice boiled in a thick bamboo tube and fried fish. Although the mosquitoes disturbed his sleep, he got the very chance to have a subtle observation of the light changes at dawn and sunset and the raining scene on the Lijiang River, particularly the fascinating nocturne of lamp light reflected in the water from wood houses and boats on the river. Here Xu Xi discovered the original beauty of the nature that others have no chance to see, which greatly enriched his own experiences.

The hardest travel was in July, 1 98O, when he went to Tibet. In the fifty days of visit and sketching, he suffered from mountain sickness--even a little action would quicken the pulse to 200 times per minute. He would spend him half a day to do one piece of sketch. By the time he was to leave, he was so sick with tableland diarrhea that he was hardly able to sit up. But he treasured the extraordinary experience in Tibet and did a number of sketches, including Street in Lhasa City, The Potala Palace, The Zhebang Market, The Ongkor Festival and more, which are characterized by the effects of black and white as in print- making. The 117 meter high Potala Palace on the Red Mount was described in bright sunshine, with the structure of the wood and stone building shown in distinct layers with light and shade. The mass of the whole object is expressed in chiaroscuro with crisscross lines, while the details and moving figures are drawn in active and forceful lines, making the surface look simple and integrated.

Before that, Xu Xi, bringing with him some of his sketches in the manner of Chinese painting and other black-and-white drawings, visited the painter Huang Zhou, who was at the Friendship Hospital for the relapse of the vertebral sickness, and asked for his advice. Huang took a careful look over each piece and said, "There are the tastes of print-making in your sketches. You have excellent sensibility." He suggested that Xu directly adopt this sense of the contrast between black and white in his creation of Chinese painting.

The enlightenment from Huang Zhou exerted a very important effect on the establishment of Xu Xi's individual style in painting. In comparing Xu's works, one would find that the expression techniques used before and after the 1980s are evidently different. For instance, the style of A Corner of the Zhebang Temple, done on a four-foot xuan paper in the autumn of 1980, is close to his sketches of Tibetan temples. The large shades of the building in the lower part are done in broad brushes, but the direction of the strokes is not in consistence with the structure of the building, while the golden roof of the main palace in the upper part is in white in order that the black and the white in the whole picture echoes each other and is in perfect harmony. Obviously, the language adopted in this picture is closer to that of a woodcut, whether in the idea of creation or the specific method of expression, but no one can deny that it is Xu's contribution to the new development of Chinese painting.

The works of Xu Xi are not all transferred or transformed from his sketches, though a few of them were derived directly from drawings from real life. Xu himself talks of this in his article Enlightenment of Life, "When I travelled to Chongqing last time, I was deeply impressed by that mountain city with its grandiose and varied scenes, especially the scene of the strange arrangement of layers of buildings. I was aware that a conceptualized tendency would be inevitable if I insisted in working according to the sketch, so I switched the usual method to one of painting directly from the real life. I used a whole piece of xuan paper for the picture and worked from six o'clock in the early morning till eight o'clock in the evening, with only two bowls of cool noodle and a few cups of tea at the lunch break. The continuous hours of outdoor painting is really a hard work, but the picture done in this manner is relatively rich in the atmosphere of life." (3)

Being turned from drawing from nature to painting directly from nature by the modern landscape painters, it marks an important development to the observation, perception and expression of subjects in the traditional Chinese painting. It has also exercised much influence on the liveliness and variousness characteristic of modern landscape painting.

That much stress is put on learning from nature is a highly valued part of the traditional theory. Theorists in ancient China wrote in their books or essays that those who pains according to regular principles produce works of skillfulness; those who paint after they make many a copy of various old masterpieces and have the mastery of books on art theory produce works of excellence; and those who strive for more advanced standards in their painting or "works high enough both in expression and aesthetic pleasure" will have to "travel all over the famous mountains and great rivers". (4) During extensive travelling, a painter's comprehension of specific subjects can be strengthened by drawing directly from nature, just as what the Five Dynasties period painter Jing Hao did when he made drawings of the old pines on Mount Taihang "in thousands of pictures before succeeding in describing their spiritual state." As for the description of the general situation of the mountains and rivers, the painter must pay attention to the practice of extensive observation, memory, accumulation and comprehension. With the response from the inner spirit, he can create an original work. Also, in the process of creation he should transcend the individual subjects in order to make the images flow naturally out of the painter's mind through the created landscape and theme, while the painter keeps himself in a "neither too inhibited nor too distant" relationship with the objects. (5) No doubt this is wherein the essence of the concept of creation in the Oriental Art lies. If it is united, in the very first stage of perceiving the nature, with the practice of creation, the artist will obtain a deeper comprehension and mastery of the laws of nature and art creation in the whole process of the creation of imagery. The success of this experience has been testified by Li Keran and other landscape painters ever since the middle 1950s.

The method of making sketch from life and painting directly from nature has an absorption of the Western painting experience, yet it is different from the latter in conception. The Chinese method lays much stress on the full play of the painter's subjective initiative and imagination in the process of perceiving and expressing. The painter should not only describe what he sees but also express what he perceives and thinks. An overall observation of the subjects and a decision of the best angle of expression must be made before the painter starts the whole work of creation. In the process of painting, a comprehensive mastery of the forms and spirits of specific images is needed, and so are integration, refinement and exaggeration.

The practice of Li Keran, for example, is marked by the fact that he took painting directly from nature as the first stage of his landscape painting. Once the master has fully put the mastery of the laws of nature and art expression under control and reached the state of following his own wishes without exceeding the limits, the possibility to transcend the concrete objects and step into the stage of free-minded expression of landscape image is achieved naturally.

When Xu Xi was at the People's Fine Arts Publishing House, he was appointed to edit Li Keran's painting album. Although the book was not published because of the old artist's modesty, Xu had the chance to get instructions from Li, whom Xu respected as his teacher. Nevertheless, Xu only "learns from the mind instead of the style" of Li Keran.

In 1983, at the age of forty-four, Xu Xi was in Chongqing, and he kept drawing from the scenes by the Jialing River till he exhausted himself. Coincidentally, it was also in Chongqing in the summer of twenty-seven years before that Li Keran kept painting untiringly by the same river. Huang Runhua, who joined Li on the long journey for drawing from nature, recalled in his A Recollection of the Time When Learning Painting from My Teacher, "On Mount Pipa of Chongqing that time, we kept making drawings of the mountain city and the Jialing River from the time we arrived at the mountain top in the morning till about five o'clock in the afternoon. My teacher Li Keran was so exhausted as if paralyzed that he could not even put the tools in order and asked me for help. He was able to descend the mountain only after he took a rest against a rock." Li was then 49 years old and in his prime for promising hard work. The difference between the case with Li and that with Xu lies in that what excited Li was the grandiose scene of the verdant mountain city where the Yangtze and the Jialing rivers are coincided, while what fascinated Xu was the beauty given by the irregular arrangement of the scattered houses in the mountain city and the splendour of the nocturne at the Jialing River.

Xu has finished altogether twelve pieces of works describing the mountain city, all complicatedly and painstakingly composed, some of which were shown at the "Exhibition of Xu Xi's Works" in 1988. Li Keran praised Xu, at the exhibition, for his boldness at using ink in his painting. When looking at The Linjiang Gate created directly from the scenery, he told Xu, "The vertical lines should not be too much differentiated, while the horizontal ones should be varied." It was in here that Xu obtained a comprehension of the excellence in the structures in Li's works of calligraphy and painting.

In the practice of Xu's painting directly form nature in Chongqing, he created a new method in describing the nocturne. He said, "In the two months of my stay in Chongqing, I spent most of the nights at the dock near the Chaotian Gate, from seven o'clock when the dim light of night dropped till the river city was so enveloped in heavy darkness that I had to return to the hotel, though quite unwillingly. Everyday I was fascinated by the nocturne at the Jialing and Yangtze rivers." He pondered upon, in the process of his penetrating observation, how he would be able to express his rich impressions upon the scenery before the eyes. He made a comparison between the Eastern and the Western methods for describing the nocturne and found that the associative way ancient Chinese painters used for the nocturne made the images clearly seen and missed the mystery of obscurity in the night darkness, though the chilly quietness of the night was sometimes expressed through an implied association of the images; while the Western way offers a sense of too much haziness, though it can truly display that kind of mystery. He understood, as if all of a sudden, that it might well be possible for him to integrate the useful elements of the two by first drawing the outlines and structures of the objects at dusk, and then expressing the darkness of the night with a wash of ink, which would show the structures of the objects and display the atmosphere of the night. Isn't this the very good quality of the Chinese ink-and-wash painting?

Xu Xi has also used the painter Zong Qixiang's method of describing the nocturne for reference in his own. Early in the 1 940s, Zong had created his own way of expression based on drawing from life, a mixture of Eastern and Western methods, which won a high regard in Xu Beihong's writing, "Zong Qixiang succeeded in describing the nocturne of Chongqing in Chinese painting techniques on the Guizhou handmade paper, in which the dim lamp lights, scattered buildings, the temple and streets are drawn in simple brushstrokes. Those who had paid much attention to the effects of the brush and ink used to indulge in meaningless verbiage, while the effects of Mr. Zong's are rich in images and light, a total creative contribution to Chinese painting really worthy a high regard." (Xu Beihong, An Introduction of the Works of a Few Artists, 1948) Xu Xi did not have the chance to learn directly from Zong, but he never denied the contributions of the old generation and confessed that he was following the way of Zong Qixiang in the creation of the nocturne to search for his own language in painting. That reminds me of Qi Baishi's inscription in a piece of seal Never deny the benefits from those I privately follow, which embodies the noble character of the painter.

His creative method for the nocturne, together with his continuous development in later periods, marked an important aspect of the "Xu Pattern".

What contribute to the original style of Xu Xi's painting and lead him to great success in the art world, besides the mentioned method for the nocturne, are his creations with rain and snow scenes in his landscape paintings.

It is in part a result of his nostalgia that Xu Xi preferred to depict rain scenes as subjects. Most of the rain scenes in his landscapes are commonly seen around the cities of Shaoxing and Suzhou, where the natural scenery is so beautiful and poetic that the cities are compared to the heaven as is in the common saying "There is the heaven in the upper world, there is Suzhou and Hangzhou on the earth". Streams zigzag through among houses with white walls and green tiles, crossed over by small bridges as they go along. In early times, citizens inhabited houses by the streams, in which they used to clean rice and vegetable for meals and do other washings. People were neatly dressed and good-looking. Various kinds of boats loaded with native products came down the streams. All this recalls to mind the famous verses "The bell rings from the Hanshan Temple outside Suzhou-Is heard on the boats late at night". Some of the streams have been filled up to be streets today. Yet, the like scenes with the arched and pointed eaves of the green tiled roofs, the walls decorated with fan shaped windows, and the small bridges, over flowing streams and boats described in Xu's pictures can still be seen.

"If you are in Jiangnan in the spring time, it's better for you to take the tour in the rain," the famous painter Wu Guanzhong said so when he gave his praise for Xu's paintings. It is beautiful in all seasons in Jiangnan, but even more beautiful in the rain, as is described by an ancient poet, "The rain in Jiangnan Covers the long river with the wind Misty are the green tiled roofs and darkened is the green bank The fragrant beauty in red Graceful and at ease as she is in the drizzles." (Wang Qi, Pondering over the Jiangnan Region, Song Dynasty)

How is the scene like that in Xu Xi's Joyful Rain in Jiangnan! The changing weather seems to be a reflection of the moods of nature, and the intermittent drizzles in the rainy season in Jiangnan wash the earth wet and damp. Yellow bamboo hats and colourful umbrellas dotted like rain-split flowers on the paths, bridges and boats, make the bright looking city of streams all the more beautiful and colourful.

The rain scenes in Xu's pictures are never seen in the landscapes of the past generations, in which the effects of the techniques with ink and water are played to the most possible extent. It is all wet in the picture at first look, while the rain is described in many gradations, making the space in the picture appear rather deep. The characteristics of Xu's method for describing the rain scene can be seen in a continuous series of pictures illustrating the procedure of Xu's painting Joyful Rain in Jiangnan in the book The Techniques of the Ink-and-Wash Painting Masters of the Mainland by Li Lang.

Xu is unrestrained in his application of painting tools and materials: his pigments include such mineral ones as green and cinnabar, and also acrylic, which is used for the special effects of the rain drops; the xuan paper is crumbled before it is spread out for painting in order to enrich the effects of the brushstrokes.

As for composition, Xu Xi pays much attention to a comprehensive arrangement of the black, the white and the grey as a whole. The ink he used is in rich tones, while the heavy sky is in striking contrast with the white walls, the water and the earth in the lower part of the picture.

In the aspect of the painting procedure and the brush and ink application as displayed in this piece, his pictures of rain scenes since the 1980s are development to those earlier ones, of which the expansiveness due to insufficient control over the brush and ink is eliminated, and yet the surface dampness and the sequence and speed of brush application are perfectly under control. Learning from the experience of Zhang Zhengyu's application of brush and ink in both dry and wet manner, Xu produced his rain scenes with a mixture of dry brushstrokes and ink, making the picture look both obscure and clear. The figures in the middle distance of the picture were painted from the back of the paper, with the light colour and weak brushstrokes making them appear at an imaginary distance on the surface.

Xu has created several pieces of Joyful Rain in Jiangnan, each in a different composition, among which two won him the awards in the international painting activities in 1985 and 1987. Later he painted another one in grand size. "But the large-scaled picture does not mean an enlargement of the small piece or the sum total of small pieces. He is faced with the problem of constructing a new art world of new life," as Wu Guanzhong said. (6) The largest piece of Joyful Rain in Jiangnan, measuring 180cm high by 920cm long and making up of ten pieces of xuan paper, was done piece by piece on the table in the studio of the People's Fine Arts Publishing House for more than twenty days in 1982. It was not mounted until the "Exhibition of Xu Xi's Works" had taken place in 1988. In the process of painting this picture, Xu first did the main parts in two pieces and then extended the whole surface in other pieces, linking them as a whole in the end. The fact that such a large-scaled painting is consistent in each part as a complete work indicates that Xu Xi has already had the ability to "construct a new art world".

Xu began to describe snow scenes in his pictures only after he moved to the north, some of which were even based on what he saw along the street when he went to work by bike. The so-called siheyuan (quadrangle) is commonly seen in Beijing, which usually has houses occupy the block between two streets and is surrounded with a grey enclosing wall. Those with a red gate used to be the residences of the of ficials in the past, decorated with delicately worked and painted porch or simply with graved patterns on the foot of the brick wall or on the stone threshold. Inside the gate is seen a screen wall that departs the inside courtyard from the outside world, creating an unpredictable mystery. The alleys in Beijing character are quite different from those Xu had been familiar with in Jiangnan. In winter, white snow completely changes the whole scenery of Beijing, in which the usually bustling streets look simple and quiet, and the quadrangles are covered in utter white, with the walls in triangular, square or rectangular forms appear in orderly arrangement. Everything seems to be in purity and brightness. Such a scene is described in the large-scaled Beijing Today that Xu finished in 1983, in which the high viewpoint displays row upon row of houses and the new buildings in the far distance. Though the new buildings will go further to replace the old houses including the quadrangles, changing the scenery as well as the life of Beijing, the snow scene of Beijing will remain fresh in the paintings of Xu Xi.

The snow scenes that Xu described also include those of villages, plateaus, and of oil fields or mines; some of them are displayed in chilly winter, while the others are implied with the information of spring.

Painters like Wang Wei, Ju Ran, Li Cheng, Huang Gongwang and others I in ancient China contributed many landscape paintings of snow scene, but the theoretical summary was not done until after late Northern Song when Han Zhuo, in his Collected Writings of Chunquan on Landscape Painting (Chunquan, an alias of Han Zhuo), made a detailed analysis of the phenomena as well as the artistic expressions of the changes of clouds, mist, vapour, haze, wind, rain and snow. He said, "If one wants to obtain a comprehensive mastery of the spirit (qi) of nature, he has to start with the clouds in general", for the weather in all seasons is closely related to the changes of the clouds, which are varied in the forms of the clouds over the valley, the wandering clouds, the chilly clouds, the evening and morning clouds. Next to the clouds is mist, which also has various forms of the dawn mist, the distant mist, the chilly mist and so on; and next to the mist is vapour, which is again varied in morning vapour, evening vapour, and light vapour; still next to the vapour is haze, which has the forms of the haze over the river, the evening haze and distant haze.... "The clouds, the mist, the vapour and the haze of nature play as colourful parts of the distant mountains and trees. Those who are good at describing these parts will comprehend the true spirit of the seasons and the principles of nature." Han went further to analyze the levels and categories of rain and snow scenes, "Rain scenes have the forms of hard rain, heavy shower, night rain and clear up after rain, while snow scenes include those of snow with wind, snow on the river, night snow, spring snow, evening snow, and before-snow and after-snow. The information of wind, rain and snow is implied in the look of the clouds. One could start his painting only when he is sure of the weather that he is going to describe." When the landscape painters in the Song Dynasty made an observation of natural phenomena, they did not merely pay much attention to the laws of the structures of the objective scenery, but they went further for the character of nature. Landscape painters of centuries before observed the changes of the weather in the way in which they observed the changes of human feelings. Their observation was so subtle and sensitive that the expressions in their works were very rich in aesthetic significance. What Han Zhuo did is a summary of the aesthetic perception and expression in the art practice of the old masters.

In his method of describing snow scenes, Xu Xi has adopted the favourable elements in the ancient painting experiences. Among the traditional paintings of snow scenes, Xu shows special admiration for Huang Gongwang's The Jiufeng Mountain after Snow and A Call on Mr. Dai in Shan, whose rendering of the main object in the techniques of drawing, making texture (cue) and washing in light ink gave him much inspiration. It is emphasized in ancient painting theory that "the special secret in successfully describing a snow scene lies nowhere except in the capability to know the delicate differences between the black and the white." (Tang Dai of Qing Dynasty) And this is exactly what Xu is good at. However, in the expression of artistic conception, the predecessors insisted that "the key to the success of describing a snow scene lies in the expression of chilliness ... and tranquility. Any implication of excitement will lose the whole sense" (Tang Zhiqie of Ming Dynasty) and that "the description of a snow scene should aim first at the sense of quietness, filling the surface with darkness" (Tang Dai of Qing Dynasty), while in the case of Xu Xi the description of a snow scene is quite modern in a sense that the snow scenes in his pictures are clearly described and are rich in vigour, with strong enthusiasm implied in chilliness.

A common characteristic is seen in Xu Xi's works of nocturne, rain and snow scenes, that is, the tendency of genre painting, which is also seen in traditional paintings such as Tour in Spring by Zhan Ziqian in Sui Dynasty. Such a tendency in Xu's landscapes, however, has its modern significance, which is noticed early by critics. Huang Mengtian has once said in his preface to Selected Paintings of Xu Xi, "It seems to me that some of the landscapes by the ancient master are sheer description of natural scenes, the cause of which lies in the fact that they only described the natural scenes isolated from the reality and that the painters themselves are deficient in emotions aroused by life itself. In contrast, Xu Xi's landscape paintings are descriptions of scenes in real life, which not only impress viewers with the natural scenery but also lead them to ponder over such questions as what is the background when the painter created the beautiful scene? Why can such a beautiful scene be seen in our time? Or even what kind of life are the figures leading, though they are not always in the pictures?"

One possible and important factor that keeps an artist creative and individual in his art practice is that he must remain always different from others, which requires him to be original in the selection of subjects and sometimes even forces him to give up the style and techniques with which he has been quite familiar for the purpose of finding new ones.

In his early period, Xu Xi produced quite a number of figure paintings, in the somewhat luscious style quite close to the one currently fashionable. Some of those, such as Summer Day, Pastoral Song and Feeding the Lamb, were included in the book Selected Paintings of Xu Xi, published by the Boya Publishing Company in Hong Kong in 1981. The painter Wang Ziwu in Shanxi, after viewing the paintings in the book, told Xu in his letter that his works of landscape and flowers were done in a consistent style, but the figure paintings were in utter inconsistency. Xu's former classmate Liu Guohui also pointed out that Xu was weak in his expression of figures. Xu was so excited by such well- meaning criticism that he secluded himself from the outside world for a long time and spent all day in painting. Later he created the large scaled work Song of Rice Transplanting, quite different from his preceding paintings of figures, in the method of his description of rain and snow scenes. The images are done in broad brushstrokes, and the sky is in silver grey; the larger part in the clothes of the main figure, a woman peasant, is rendered white, while the face of the woman and the other part of her clothes is depicted in light colour. The rendering of such a piece is neither seen in traditional figure painting nor in the works of other artists. The main parts on the surface are rendered in the method close to that of his print-making, therefore making his figure paintings consistent with the work of landscape and flowers. Xu's own new path in painting found in the state of excitement is actually the result of his long-term accumulation of creation experiences. A new "canal" is naturally formed once the floodgate of ideas is broken all of a sudden.

Even when he was out on journey for drawing from life, Xu Xi forced himself to be different in painting from others. When he was in Guilin, he brought with him the photos of Li Keran's paintings of Guilin landscape, but he was not willing to draw himself near the master's creation in painting, for which he paid much admiration though; and in Chongqing, he would take a look at the pictures by his colleague Zhang Guang almost everyday, but for the purpose of being stylistically different from the friend painter.

So is the "Xu Pattern" formed on the belief that "it is better to be original than to be similar".

The art of Xu Xi was not known overseas until 1981 when The Great Wall and The Potala Palace wonhim the First Prize in the Marvellous Asia art album competition. Later on, he had other works awarded in three activities of international painting competitions.

After his individual style was established in the 1980s, Xu Xi had the sphere of his landscape painting with genre tendency extended to include overseas scenery. From 1985 to 1988, he has been for many times on journey in foreign countries. In the fall of 1985, he joined in the delegation of Chinese publishers for Canada, the U.S. and Venezuela. Xu Liyi, then the head of the delegation, recalled and said, "Xu Xi paid much attention to the customs of the natives wherever we went. He was interested in everything, especially the Western art. He would take photos or make sketches of whatever interested him. His bag was filled with so many films, the used mixing up with the new, that once he even spoiled one used film by mistake. He felt quite depressed as he thought that the useful materials were missed by his carelessness." (Xu Liyi, Art Originates in But Stands High above Life)

From May to September, 1986, Xu was visiting in Austria, Hungary, the former members of the Soviet Union and other European countries on the invitation of the Austrian Chinese Chen Bosong and Yang Huan'en. He was given the chance to hold his solo exhibition in Vienna and New York. On his journey in Europe, he excitedly climbed on the Alps on which he had a view of the snow scene on the foreign land, and he went to the Rhine River which originates in the Alps. All these scenic spots were later described in Xu's landscapes.

In August, 1987, Xu Xi was on a visit to Japan, where besides giving a solo exhibition of his works, he finished quite a few pieces of paintings describing the red lanterns on the bustling streets of Osaka in exciting splashes of colours, and the nocturne at the beach of Atami in ink and wash. In these pictures are distinctly seen a reference to the Japanese ukiyoe genre painting.

From May to September, 1988, again on the invitation of Mr. and Mrs. Yang, Xu Xi took a travel to Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia and Austria. To him, it was not a relaxing travel, for he made a number of sketches and took many photos of the native customs and local sceneries that impressed him the most all along the long journey. He visited well-known theatres where he enjoyed the classic music and ballet of which the Westerners feel proud, and world-famous museums where he viewed the paintings of the past and the present. At some moments, he put even himself into the long stream of Western art history to compare and consult. He found that he paid much admiration for some of the works, and drew lessons from some of the others. Faced with the great composition of David's Coronation, Xu Xi felt that it was time for him to make new artistic direction.

Xu spent the whole winter after his return form Europe in working with the sketches done within the four months. Some of them could be transferred directly to paintings with little revision as they truly reflected the artist's impressions, while the others had to be reworked so as to re-capture the original sense. The picture describing the Greek beach by the Aegean Sea, for instance, is a work of six revisions. Xu's landscape of genre tendency was largely developed in the course of his drawing from nature in foreign countries. Those paintings that expressed the feelings, rhythms and excitements of foreign cities, societies and nations have thus won him a number of viewers overseas.

Xu Xi is freer and more unrestrained than ever in his application of tools and materials for painting. He tends to transcend the limits of traditional Chinese painting and prefers to make a new integration of the Western and the Oriental paintings in the sense of art conception as well as techniques in expression. Early in his career as an artist, he had spent much time and energy on the study of the tradition; and now he has broken through the limits of the tradition and the former self, yet not detached from that at a far distance. The case with Xu Xi is wonderfully explained in Zhang Guang's words, "Xu's style is an individual system of ink and wash based on the creative integration of the elements of the principles in the Oriental and the Western paintings."

Xu has also in mind the words of Wu Guanzhong, "Never let go of the rope to the kite when it is flying high in the sky."

The Exhibition of Xu Xi's Works solemnly but carefully given at the National Art Gallery in April, 1988 marks a successful end of the course of the painter's art exploration in the past ten years.

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