Xu Xi: The Confident Trudger in Art

Li Songtao

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With Intimate Friends Far Away in the Motherland

NEW YORK, 1989--

Xu Xi left Beijing for New York in June, 1989, just at the age of fifty, the age of "knowing the destiny" as is considered in traditional Chinese thought.

One year later, he finished the series Suite of Manhattan.

Two years afterward, he created the series Suite of America.

In 1993, he had his solo exhibition at the City Hall in Hong Kong.

A brief review of Xu's career as an artist since the 1980s will lead to the exciting facts and figures as follows: he has given eighteen solo exhibitions in China and abroad; he has more than ten works included in the collections of art museums over the world; and he has fourteen albums of paintings published; and in 1993, he was given the "World Lifetime Achievement Award" and the "Award for World Outstanding Men and Leaders" by American Biographical Institute, and the "Award for Excellent Work in Twentieth Century Art" by Cambridge International Centre of Who's Who. Xu was also engaged as lifetime consultant by the Centre.

Xu said that he has concentrated on painting ever since he left his motherland. "I have been running forward with my art, and I feel that I have not let down my friends and collectors."

Zhang Guang was delighted to see Xu's recent works and said, "It's evident that you have spent your energy on art ever since you left China as an artist."

The series Suite of Manhattan, consisting of forty pieces, are expressions of his impressions upon New York. Some of them were finished at one go, but most of the others were not completed until he was satisfied with the eventual effects after repeated revisions. He even destroyed more than two hundred pieces because he was not satisfied with them.

It is said that depicting New York City is a difficult task, however, Xu Xi found that the changes of the sunshine and weather bring about a colourfulness to the seemingly boring skyscrapers. "The lamp light reflected on the streets, washed as brightly as mirrors by the spring rain, looks fascinatingly beautiful." Again he discovered subjects most suitable for his painting.

Here in New York, the largest city as well as the largest port of the U.S., in downtown Manhattan, Xu Xi is deeply struck by the impact of the twentieth century, which is felt everywhere as in the skyscrapers, floods of mobiles along the highways, achievements of high technology embodied in everyday life, information new work extended in all directions, and Broadway, Wall Street, the Harlem district, the Opera Theatre, and the Metropolitan Museum. "In New York, he often leisurely walked about at night, and sometimes he would like to wander in the rain, or stand alone by the window in the skyscraper room and look into the far distance, or take a tour along the river on a yacht, all for catching and strengthening in mind how New York has impressed him and the related feelings and emotions." (Li Shan, A Preface to "Impressions of New York")

In the series Suite of Manhattan, the effects of the Chinese ink-and-wash painting are expressed to the ultimate extent, in the manner close to that of abstractionism and quite different from that used for the expressive Chinese painting of freehand brushwork. Speaking from the aspect of Chinese painting itself, the series Suite of Manhattan marks a development that is suitable for the expression of modern life; while speaking from the aspect of city subjects, it means the discovery of the proper method for deeper and more accurate expression of modern feelings. Moreover, it can be taken as evidence for the variousness, inclusiveness and significativeness of the language in the Oriental painting.

The Western painting has a rich accumulation of experiences in the description of urban scenes, many works of which are successful in revealing the complexity and contradiction of the human spirit behind the flourishing world. As essentially an Eastern painter, Xu Xi has his own individual and sensitive perception of life, and therefore what his works tend to display is not merely objects in life but also the internal beauty and the restless movement in modern city. His art world is constructed on the base of his individual expression of movement and silence, accuracy and ambiguity in the manner of contradiction and union. Xu is successfully in control of the rich textures caused by the moving, permeating, flowing the mixing of colour, ink and water on the xuan paper, in which is magically reflected the effects of the sunshine, floods of mobiles, music, the sound of wind and rain.

His method for describing the rain scenes is newly developed in the "Series" in a sense that more elements of abstraction produce the effect of the images being integrated as a whole in the picture surface, just like the scene flashing by as one watches out of the rain-dripping window in a bus. It seems that Xu has brought with him the rain from Jiangnan to Manhattan, and that he must have heard the familiar sound in the drizzles, or else how could he be so excited in the process of creation?

In the pictures, the colour of the sky echoes the prosperity of the world. It is a result caused by the interplay of colour, ink and brushstrokes arranging in order and disorder as well. At times, the painter would deliberately break away from the set principles by splashing water on the paper or by drawing a few disorderly brushstrokes on the surface, yet strangely enough the effects would be all the more lively and vivid. The manner is not restrained to the set rules, but is in consistence with the laws of art, which was already seen in Xu's earlier works but with much more freedom and energy in the works done after he moved overseas.

The title Suite of Manhattan of the series was given by his friend, the painter Li Shan.

Li Shan is the former class monitor of Xu when they were at Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, who moved to New York a few years earlier than Xu.

After he viewed the series of Impressions of New York, Li Shan told Xu quite frankly, "Although your paintings have won you several national and international prizes, still I do not like those of the previous period. What did strike me, among your works done before you moved overseas, is half of March in Jiangnan. However, with this recent series, you will stand firm in art. You really indulge yourself in painting."

Li Shan helped Xu Xi to classify the series of works, according to different artistic conceptions, into the five groups of The Prelude, When the Evening Lights Are Lit, Fascinating Nocturne, Drizzling Night Rain and Good Morning, New York, among which the twenty pieces of Fascinating Nocturne express the climax of the Suite, as if they were the painter's impressions of New York when he took a leisurely walk in one night. In his preface of poetic passion to the series, Li Shan says, "For several decades, in the numerous painting albums what I have read and in the galleries and museums that I have visited, I have never found any painter who succeeded in expressing the dancing movement and the fascinating sense of the great city as strikingly as in Xu's Impressions of New York. The ability to express the illusions is owned only by true artist. I believe that Impressions of New York will stand confidently firm in the forest of world art."

Soon after it was completed, the series was bought by the collectors Han Chongzhi and Xiong Luyang from Taiwan. Han bought Xu's pictures of rain scenes seven years ago, and he held an exhibition of Xu's works at the H & W Art Center in Taiwan and had published the painting album Suite of Manhattan.

After the Suite of Manhattan, Xu Xi created another series Suite of America, again in forty pieces, which was later included in the collection of a Sino-American collector and was reproduced in the book Selected Paintings of Xu Xi: Suite of America.

With the experiences in describing New York, Xu Xi found it easier and more relaxed for him to extend the realm of subjects to the whole America. This series was based on the drawings from his memory and impressions of his journey throughout the U.S., and was recomposed and finished in his New York apartment through a comprehensive study of the subjects. Though it was not painted directly from the real scene, it looks all the more true than the sketches. In Morning Tune, the Statue of Liberty is dimly seen, but at the same time it seems to be rising up and extending in all directions against the grey background of marvellous texture. This piece was finished after seven revisions. On his return from Vancouver, Xu stayed for twenty days in Seattle, the largest city in Washington State, the impressions of which was concentrated in the work Spring in Seattle, in which the scene looks extremely smooth and glossy. The beauty of the scenery in different regions is embodied in the Suite of America: the brightly blue sky and clear sea of Hawaii, the steamboat in the hazy Mississippi River, the year long snow in Alaska, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and the seascape around the Long Island, all of which are expressed in a qualified form of concentration, summary and refinement. The American critic Dennis Wepman, with his understanding of the spirits of Xu's paintings, said, "The stunning emotional impact of these paintings does not derive from the associations implicit in their content. Xu's work is not about Americans, or even America as a nation. It has a large aesthetic and philosophical subject." He made a detailed analysis of the techniques used in these paintings, "Water colour is usually associated with delicate or transient effects in the West, but Xu uses it with extraordinary power and weight without sacrificing its unique properties of directness and vigour. Like France's Monet and America's Winslow Homer, he is concerned with the effects of outdoor light, which he represents with the same exuberance and economy as the earlier masters. His forms are suggested with a few telling lines, given substance with planes of subtle blues, greens, and violets. He sacrifices nothing of his medium's transparency and fluidity, and yet his combinations of varying densities of pigment, clear and smooth, or heavy and opaque, give his work the rich texture of oil." (7)

Perhaps it ought to be added what is functioning everywhere in Xu's paintings are the essential elements of Chinese painting, that is, Chinese brush, ink and the xuan paper. The black ink is varied in rich planes when it is mixed with water on the xuan paper; and the moving traces of Chinese brush dipped in ink on the xuan paper, together with the painter's skills in the control of the effects and the flexibility of ink, create rich and moving images in the picture and add to the sense of power and weight of the finished work. The changeable effects of textures in the works of Xu Xi come out not as a result of an application of salt or washing powder mixed with ink as commonly seen in the paintings of some other painters, but of his use of glue and alum, ordinary materials in traditional Chinese painting, and even brush-washing water, which produces the graceful grey beyond any intentionally blended one. As for the xuan paper, Xu Xi declared confidently, "The xuan paper offers great possibilities of art expressions." In the process of his contact with the foreign cultures, Xu has benefited much from the medium of traditional Chinese painting, which enables him to feel at ease in his art creations and gives him great energy and power.

In March, 1993, Wan Fung Art Gallery held the Appreciation Show of Xu Xi's Paintings at the Exhibition Gallery, High Block of the Hong Kong City Hall, at which about 80 of Xu's recent works were on display. The exhibition aroused the attention of the media and collectors, although the international art market was at a low ebb.

Among the exhibited works were the large-scaled Auspicious Snow, Misty Rain on Lijiang River, A Swiss Town, Nocturne of Hong Kong and more, some of which are as large as 34x 137cm as if in the form of a handscroll. The images are repeated and overlapped in harmony like the notes of a symphony, successfully expressing the tremendous momentum of nature and life. Some of the pieces were reproduced in the November and December issues of Sunstorm Fine Arts magazine, 1992. While overseas viewers used to regard Xu's paintings as works of water colour, they will surely acclaim these grand compositions of ink and wash as proper examples of perfection.

The impressions of Hong Kong are vividly expressed in the works, the slabstone street in rain, the stream of customers at the night market, a forest of masts within the Wanchai Harbour, the bright light reflected from among rows of buildings, the rich and the poor and the bright and the dark mixed up in a strange confusion, from which viewers will get a real experience of Hong Kong as though they were seeing it with their own eyes. The aesthetical sphere shown in Xu's landscape paintings of genre tendency is extended wherever the artist goes. He plans to create a number of series describing the scenes in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, France and North Europe, just as he had done with the Suite of America.

As is seen in the published Selected Paintings of Xu Xi: Works of Flowers, Xu has been cultivating in his field of freedom. He has been experimenting with the medium and techniques for painting flowers, with which he expresses his individuality to the ultimate extent, and the images of flowers are thus depicted particularly splendid. At his apartment in New York, he has fresh flowers in all seasons, from which he often observes the process of the sprouting, leafing, budding, blooming and fruiting of the plants. He seldom makes sketches from the actual flowers, but he often makes a serious appreciation and study of works of flowers by other painters and even translates them into his own in his individual medium and methods. Yet, his translation is not appropriation but rather utilization for the purpose of expressing his own ideas; therefore it does not have to be more faithful to the original than understandable and graceful.

The new pursuit of the painter is apparently seen in the recent works shown in Hong Kong, including Auspicious Snow and A Town in Jiangnan, which were done unaffectedly in delight. Although Silent Mountains is the first work in which Xu directly describes the mountains, not in the traditional techniques of making sketches in light ink, and he was not quite confident about it when it was finished, the favourable response to the work at the exhibition encouraged him to go forward along the way. He is now planning to make a series of mountains, and says, "I will even have the confidence to describe Mount Huangshan in my painting." Xu Xi has been to Mount Huangshan before and made a number of excellent sketches, but he has not had enough confidence to convert them into the form of Chinese painting in ink and wash because he believed that Mount Huangshan depicted in that way would not belong to the "Xu Pattern".

The art of Xu Xi has been appreciated and highly praised overseas. In his preface to The Art of Xu Xi, Wepman makes a detailed analysis of the characteristics of Xu's paintings, "Xu Xi's painting has always reflected the control instilled in him by his scientific training" and "strengthened both the formal control of his technique and the pictorial sensitivity of his execution". He accurately explains the reason Xu has succeeded in art from the aspect of the two "combinations": one of them is that Xu has made a combination of the styles of the Southern and Northern Chinese painters in order to search for the neutral and harmonious one between the subtle and lyrical style and the grand one of tremendous power; the other is that he has combined the techniques for abstractionistic expression both of the past and the present and of the Oriental and the Western art to create his own technique of marked individuality.

While living in the foreign land, Xu Xi has had the pleasures of success and even the frustrations and troubles as ordinary people.

"There I often feel lonely. Usually I don't work too long, just for hours. However, once I get down to work, I would completely indulge myself in the creation and forget anything else. If the picture is not satisfying, I just throw it away."

"I really regard success and money as nothing important. Also, I have not signed any contract with any American gallery."

"I feel as if I were still a student at Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts and that I have to learn everything from the very beginning."

Xu Xi has kept practicing Chinese calligraphy. In the luggage he brought back from Beijing was the calligraphy of Poem to the Pine and Wind Building inscribed by the Song Dynasty calligrapher Huang Tingjian, the works of the Qing Dynasty calligrapher Shen Zengzhi, the collected works of calligraphy entitled A Collection of Flowing Bubbles by Xu's friend Lin Kai.... and the newly acquired paintings by Huang Zhou, Zhou Changgu and others, and again a former scrapbook of the reproductions of Huang Zhou's works. Xu Xi said, "Huang Zhou is one of the few great masters of figure painting in the recent centuries." He showed much admiration for Huang Zhou and Li Keran as well. When A Complete Work of Li Keran's Painting and Calligraphy was published in 1992, Xu's mother, who knows her son very well, went to buy the books at the Rongbaozhai Gallery and sent them to Xu in the States.

Though he has old and new friends in America, Xu Xi is still concerned about his teachers and friends in the motherland. He would feel sorry for those who are not successful at the international art market though they have made great achievements, and he would feel worried for some of his old friend painters who are unable to step into a new stage in art. Every time during his stay in Beijing, he would spend much time in talking with such intimate friends as Zhang Guang and Zhang Lichen. On the other hand, the art world in China has been paying enough attention to Xu Xi, and no one feels that he is far away in the distance but that he seems to be still active in the art circle. At Xu's solo exhibition in Hong Kong, his friend and painter Shi Hu, with whom Xu Xi has kept in friendship for thirty years, sent his large-scaled inscription of congratulation from Macao, which praises Xu as a "Great Master of Ink-and- Wash Painting". The other old friends too feel happy every time they know about his achievements.

Xu has his own ideas about the future:

"I will make more efforts to promote myself in the technique, presumably by executing bird-and-flower works in the large-scaled formats."

"I will deep practicing Chinese calligraphy for another twenty years, aiming at the individuality of my own calligraphy."

"I am experimenting with the transplanting of Chinese painting into the form of oil on canvas, by using the newest American technology to enlarge the picture and render it into a large piece of oil painting. I plan to create eight pieces of such creation a year. I believe that modern art of China will not be replaced by the art of other nations."

"In my late years, I will possibly draw myself to abstractionist oil painting."

Xu plans to return to China at least once a year, for he insists on the view that the creation of art should not be a transmission from nothing to nothing, otherwise the artist will find himself in lack of stamina. He is going to make the series of Nostalgia of the Motherland, in which he will only describe the scenery of China. He says that he will move back to China because the root is in the motherland.

Xu Xi hangs in his studio the calligraphic pieces by Lin Kai, on which is inscribed the antithetical couplet of the Yuan Dynasty poet Wen Tianxiang, "The heart will not be changed by the situation, while the mind should be in harmony with the universe."

Xu must always have had the words in mind.

Beijing, February, 1994


1. Xu Xi, The Words of XuXi, see The Works of XuXi: Suite of Manhattan, New York.
2. Xu Xi, The Road Is Long and the Destination Far Away: My Exploration and Pursuit, see The Life and Works of Xu Xi: Contemporary Chinese Artists Series, Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House, 1989.
3. Xu Xi, The Enlightenment of Life, see The Painter Xu Xi.
4. Tang Dai, A Brief Study of Painting: Sight-Seeing (Hui Shi Fa Wei: You Lan), Qing Dynasty
5. Ibid.
6. Wu Guanzhong, White Lotus Blooms Every Year, see The Life and Works of Xu Xi: Contemporary Chinese Artists Series.
7. Dennis Wepman, America through Chinese Eyes: The Art of Xu Xi, see Selected Paintings of XuXi: Suite of America, Inspiration Press, Hong Kong.

Li Songtao was born in Yangliuqing Town of Tianjin in January, 1932. He learned Chinese art history and Chinese paintings at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1957 and became a teacher there later. After the Cultural Revolution, he was transferred to the Meishu and Chinese Fine Arts as vice editor-in-chief and then editor-in-chief and editing inspector. He was also one of the editors for The Great Chinese Encyclopedia and The Chinese Art History. He is now a member of the Council and the Theory Committee of Chinese Artists' Association, and a committee member of the Research Academy of Chinese Painting.

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