A Preface to Impressions of New York

Li Shan

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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 four years.

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 the climax.

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 their intimates.

"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 York.

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.

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