A Preface to Impressions of New York
About Xu Xi
New York, which stands with the American Continent behind and the
Atlantic Ocean in front, is the largest city of the world, and I have lived here for
The city is beautiful, in the way that she, standing in the sea wind, is
decorated with the innumerable lights as bright as the stars as it dressed in a
brocade of thousands of pearls all the year round; she is advanced in culture,
with the worldwide known universities, libraries and museums attracting the
intellectuals from every corner of the world; she is generous, with the worldwide
network of airline bringing people to wherever they want to go; she is busy and
hard-working, with the floods of mobiles hurrying along the highways in all
seasons; she is at leisure, with the music from the cinema, theatres and music
halls joining in the chorus with the sound of the tide from the sea; she is happy,
with the fireworks laughing in the sky and the buntings' dancing on the streets in
holidays; she is sad and ashamed, sighing and shivering at times because of
such unresolved troubles in social security as murder, robbery, drugs and the
timidity of a woman passing on the street at dark; however, she is strong and
steadfast, as is embodied by the Statue of Liberty, who, with the torch in hand,
has been standing there firmly by the stormy sea for more than a century,
declaring the inviolability of human rights and freedom, by which those who
break through the shackles of autocracy and come to New York from over the
world are moved to tears.
Such is New York, a city of tremendous and complicated intentions.
In 1985, the painter Xu Xi came to New York for the first time; and years
later in 1989, he was again shocked and excited by the grandeur and dazzling
complexity of the great city, which stimulated him to have a strong desire to
express his deep impressions in more advanced technique. Thereafter, he started
the hardworking period of exploration in art. 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.
As a result, nearly after one year, Xu finished the series of Impressions of New
York that is consisted of five parts of forty pieces.
It is not an easy work to depict such a great city in painting; it requires not
only the skills in realistic drawing but also the talent of the artist. The realistic
technique may enable the painter to describe truly, like a camera, the
appearances of the buildings or even make the spectator recognize a specific
street or house in the painting, but it is unable to help the painter to express the
character of the city and the complicated emotions it arouses in the spectators.
Before Claude Monet, a lot of painters had described lawn and ripples in
their works, but none of them was able to show the effects of the shining
sunlight reflected in the lawn and the ripples as Monet did, who gives us the
striking feelings of the smile and breath of nature. And prior to Vincent van
Gogh, there were numerous painters who had described woods and the sky, but
none of them had acquired the effects of the hot air and the fiery passions as in
the works of van Gogh. For thousands of years, the Chinese painters have been
describing mountains and rocks, trees and bushes, but who has got the noble
and grandiose spirit of nature as is successfully expressed in the works of Pan
Tianshou? And who has revealed the beauty and colourfulness of nature as Fu
Baoshi has done in his landscape paintings and Zhang Daqian in his late works
of colour-splashing manner and Li Keran in his late works of dark-ink manner,
who have succeeded in arousing great enthusiasm for nature in the viewers?
Advanced skill is important, but it only serves as one of the necessary
factors for one to become a real artist, while what is more important is his strong
feelings for nature, life, society and history, and his abilities for expressing such
feelings. "If you want to learn to write poems, you had better make efforts
beyond poetry." (words of Lu Fangweng, Song) "If anyone discusses painting
in terms of formal likeness, his understanding is nearly that of a child. If when
someone composes a poem it must be a certain poem, he is definitely not a man
who knows poetry." (lines of the poem by Su Dongpo, Song) That a painter with
high skills is not necessarily an artist of superb cultivation in art is one of my
standards when I make researches of art works.
I am pleased to see that the series of Impressions of New York is exactly that
kind of real art works which I most appreciate.
The first group of the series is entitled The Prelude, which starts with the
descriptions of the aloft towering skyscrapers and scenes of the streets in New
York. Seen in the paintings are the skyscrapers bathed in the glow of the setting
sun and the streets emerging in the deepening dusk, which tells that night is
going to spread all over the city. The colours and brushstrokes used in this
group look calm and tranquil, like the beginning of a symphony when it slowly
starts with the prelude.
The second group, When the Evening Lights Are Lit, are descriptions of the
city views under the night sky where the lights in the city begin to shine like
"The blossom decorates thousands of pear trees, as if the vernal breeze comes
all of a sudden overnight" (lines of a poem by Cen Chen, Tang). In some of the
pieces, the night sky is depicted with the effects of "the gold-melted sunset, the
jade-like evening cloud" (lines of a verse by Li Qingzhao, Song), while in the
others the shadows of figures are mixed up with the car lights on the streets; the
lights from the buildings respond to those outside; the sounds of the cars, the
figures and the music seem to be heard floating in the air; banquets are probably
being given in the skyscrapers, while passersby are in a hurry at the crossroads.
That is what New York looks like in the evening, joyful and difficult, leisurely and
tiring. The colouring in this group is apparently stronger than that of the last
one, and the brushstrokes seem to be more restless, all indicating the coming of
In the third group entitled Fascinating Nocturne, when it is late at night in
New York, the lamp lights, the star lights, the car lights are all mixed up with the
lights from the skyscrapers and those of the neon signs, making the city look all
the more dazzlingly and confusingly brilliant, just as the festival fireworks or the
moving songs made the viewers feel giddy and fascinated. Such a scene reminds
me of the view described in the verse by Xin Qiji of Song Dynasty, "The
numerous lamp lights look as if the east wind blows thousands of trees into full
blossom at night, and the stars in the sky are like rain drops. The streets are
crowded with luxuriously decorated carriages drawn by treasured horses. The
music sounds melodious and moving, and the moon is shining high in the sky,
and the lanterns in the forms of fish and dragon dance all over the night."
New York is the most fascinating at night, for which the painter shows his great
enthusiasm by his skillful application of splashed ink and colour. Here
Impressions of New York is being drawn to the climax as in a symphony.
Among the most beautiful scenes depicted is the nocturne at the Central
Park described in Rainy Night, where New York seems to be dancing in the
twinkling lights. In the park are rows of buildings and trees, which seem to be
dancing with the skirts fluttering under the night sky; the equestrian statue in
the lower part of the painting seems to be the audience, and the passing
carriages are accompanying the dance with the clip-crop from the horse's hoof.
The lights are continuously shining, and the night stars are twinkling. New York
seems to be drunk, so does the statue as the audience.
That New York seems to be dancing is but the illusion of the painter when
he fascinatedly admires the great city. Yet the expression of the illusion mean'
the manifestation of the artist's deep feelings, which will not be realized in an:
description of realistic manner.
"I sing, and the moon accompanies; I dance, and the shadow shows itself
in disorder. The moon and shadow share the joy with me when I am awake; and
they go their ways when I am drunk." (a verse by Li Bai, Tang) Here the moor
seems to be the accompanist.
"The Yellow River seems to fall down from the heaven and goes fast
forward into the East Sea...." (lines of a verse by Li Bai, Tang) The Yellow River
seems to be hurrying like a giant to the East.
"Mountains and valleys are rushing toward the Jingmen Gate." (words of a
verse by Du Fu, Tang) The mountains seem to be running forward.
"When I sigh, the flower is moved to tears; when I leave in sadness, the bird
feels surprised." (lines of a verse by Du Fu, Tang) "The cotton rose hibiscus
drops tears like dew, and the fragrant orchid is in a smile." (words of a verse by
Li He, Tang) The bird seems to feel sad for the departure of the poet, and the
flowers seem to be in tears or smile.
"The Bianshui River flows, and the Sishui River flows; they all flow to the
old Guazhou Ferry; the mountains in the Jiangnan region look worried." (lines of
a verse by Bai Juyi, Tang) The rivers and mountains seem to be in sorrows.
"The clouds are floating in the blue sky; the land is decorated with yellow
flowers; the wild geese are flying from the north to the south. Who dyes the
frosted woods red at dawn? It is the tears of the people who depart." (a song by
Wang Shifu, Yuan) The foliage in the frosted woods is not reddened because of
drunk, but it looks as if dyed red by the bloody tears of those who depart from
"The dawn begins to emerge in the heavy clouds; Milky Way is changing
as if thousands of masts are dancing there." (lines of a verse by Li Qingzhao,
Song) The stars and the Milky Way are disappearing, and the stars seem to be
dancing like moving boats.
All this is but the illusions of the poets and artists and the expressions of
the most striking feelings deep in the hearts of the authors.
If the line "The Yellow River seems to fall down from the heaven and goes
fast forward into the East Sea" were replaced by a sentence like "The Yellow
River is flowing from the highland to the East Sea", though it is a realistic
description, would the grandeur of the surging vast river and its threatening
power still be expressed in the poem? Likewise, will the fiery passions be
embodied in van Gogh's paintings if he had not described the objects in short
red lines? Would the effects of reflections of the sunshine and the vividness of
the dew be that impressive if Monet had not painted the lawn in points of
colours? Hundreds of painters have drawn rocks in a more realistic form than
that of Pan Tianshou's, but if Pan Tianshou had not transformed the rocks into
forms of nearly right angles, how could he have succeeded in expressing the
nobility and solemnity of nature? For the same reason, if such illusion had not
been presented in Rainy Night and the whole series of Impressions of New York
as well, how could the painter's admiration for the great city have been revealed?
How could the paintings have had been so appealing to the viewers?
For several decades, in the numerous painting albums that 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
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.
I believe that it is not difficult for a Chinese painter to use the technique of
permeating with water, which has been applied by numerous painters for the
description of flowers, trees, bushes and rocks in various forms. But such
technique is seldom used to a great extent for expressing the grandeur and
joyfulness of the city in the state of changing, except in the works of Xu Xi.
Ordinary painters will correct the permeating effects as factors of failure in
their works because they are afraid of losing the accuracy in the shapes of the
buildings, while those with extraordinary courage and insight will grasp every
occasional effect which appears in the process of his exploration in art and
develop it for the purpose of forming his own language because they have a
comprehensive understanding of what art is really about. This is why courage
and insight are praiseworthy.
All those who learn Chinese calligraphy and painting are instructed to hold
the brush in a vertical position for the effects of rounded brushstrokes and are
told that the brushstrokes of tilted brush are wrong and should be corrected. It is
a fact that the brushstrokes of a vertical brush will give the effects of vigour and
power, but the famous Chinese painter Shi Lu found the unrestrained and calm
individuality implicit in the strokes of tilted brush. Shi Lu made full use of the
effects of tilted brushstrokes in his painting and calligraphy for the expression of
his lofty character deep in heart that is unyielding to any autocracy and
persecution. The technique of tilted brush had been neglected for centuries till
Shi Lu paid enough attention to its originality. Such ordinary yet difficult
knowledge will only be turned into useful experience by the courage and insight
of the artist.
The fourth group of the series is entitled DrizzlingNightRain, where New
York is faintly visible in the drizzles at first but seems to disappear in heavy rain
with association of a distant roll of thunder in the following pieces. And in the
other pieces, the streets are filled with inverted images after rain. This group of
works is characterized by distinct rhythms, like the clear and melodious sound of
a flute solo by the end of a symphony.
In the fifth group called Good Morning, New York, the city is still asleep in
the dim light of dawn after the shining luxuriousness of the night is fading into
the distance. In the last piece, "the Milky Way is disappearing in the first rays of
the morning sun" (words of averse by Chen Zi'ang, Tang), and it dawns. The
situation is similar to the coda of a symphony when the music is going further
and further away and everything is again in tranquility, marking the end of the
whole play. But five minutes after, there explodes the thunder of loud applause.
Such is my feeling after I take a careful view of the series of Impressions of New
New York, July, 1990
Li Shan is a famous Chinese painter, who was born in Qingdao City of
China in 1926. He formerly studied literature and then turned to creation and
researches of Chinese painting. He settled down in the United States of
America in 1981.
About Xu Xi