Scenes From Home: Xu Xi Recalls His Native Land

Dennis Wepman

About Xu Xi Home

An English poet of the eighteenth century wrote, "Tis distance lends enchantment to the view." The harsh details of a mountain are softened and made romantic by space, and no less by a distance of time. The magic power of memory elevates the scenes of our youth and transforms commonplace reality to a higher level. An artist who has already addressed the forms of his own past in his work is doubly empowered on returning to it after the passage of the years, seeing it with the added depth of a doubled perception.

The renowned Chinese artist Xu Xi provides an especially eloquent illustration of the influence of detachment on the creative act in this extraordinary album of paintings. Absence from his native land has provided him with a heightened sensitivity to the form and the substance of his material as he returns to it in spirit. He recaptures both the appearance of his homeland, in its many diverse aspects, and his own unique personal experience of it. Distilled by time and elevated by the genius of his hand and his imagination, these images assume an emblematic significance which speaks to the spirit as well as to the eye.

In 1993, Xu Xi produced a distinguished album containing views of the United States, where he now makes his home. His 14th such volume, Melody of America, captured the character of his new land with unique force and expressed it in a personal voice incorporating something of the eastern traditions in which he had been educated. To the western eye, long familiar with the scenes which he presented in this much-admired series, the images had a freshness and originality which artists raised in the country he depicted could never achieve. Now he turns that eye homeward to recapture the land of his youth and give the memories of his past a permanent form.

Working from memory (sometimes aided by sketches done during his wide travels in China), but above all drawing on the wellsprings of his own inner vision, Xu Xi has provided us with a stunning panorama of the vast and varied nation of his birth. Unlike the French impressionists, whose work profoundly impressed him when he first encountered it in his early studies of art, Xu Xi does not work en plein air, reflecting the immediacy of first-hand exposure to his subject and seeking the effect of the raw visual stimulus. His paintings rather reflect what John Keats described as the origin of poetry: "emotion recollected in tranquility." Some of the paintings in this collection dated from as far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s, but most were done from 1991 to 1993 and reveal the perfected form of the artist's perception, reduced to its purest essence.

The landscapes which Xu Xi has retrieved from his life in China range widely, as one might expect of a survey of so great and varied a land, but all retain the distinctive emotional impact of the artist's unmistakable sensibility. The album contains serene village scenes and animated depictions of bustling river life. His haunting, mysterious "Hometown Rain" (9), "Night in Yang Shuo" (13), and "Snowy Evening" (22), remind us of the signature themes of rain, darkness, and snow for which he has become famous, but the colorful characterizations of Hong Kong, such as "Hong Kong Fisherman's Families" (2), "Aberdeen Fishermen" (34), and the scenes of Causeway Bay Harbor (27), and Kowloon Harbor (36), are bright and lively. Although clearly Chinese in subject, "Market in Ha Shi" (7), might be an Arab bazaar, and "Rain in Jiangnan" (35), and "Water Street, Jiangnan" (46), have the elegant balance of scenes in Venice.

Perhaps the most impressive subject in this series, and on which appears frequently, is a new theme for Xu Xi: the somber majesty of mountains. In "Spring Comes to Tai Hang Mountain" (5), "Lake in Tibet" (18), "Spring at Ma Tian" (33), and many others, the awesome pinnacles dominate the compositions with a power beyond mere topography, assuming a symbolic weight. Emphasizing the abstract values of his material, Xu Xi employs an almost monochromatic palette in these renderings, using the black and white contrasts traditional to Chinese brush painting in a fascinatingly contemporary manner. White-the unpainted surface of his paper-embodies both snow and pure light in these masterful paintings, producing a visual tension of great complexity with the most economic pictorial means.

Even those paintings in which the mountains are nominally subordinated to other subjects in the foreground, such as "Tad Hang Mountain Village" (17), "Qi Lian Mountain Village" (26), "Southern Tibetan Nomads" (28), and "Ri Ge Zhe Temple in the Himalayas" (32), are dominated by the mountains they contain and reflect them as their central themes, using the human or architectural subjects as mere compositional elements, reduced in scale and detail as if to establish their relative position in the larger scheme of things.

Especially striking are those paintings in which the two elements mountains and the works of man-are balanced; in "Market in Mountain City" (10), "An Evening in Mountain City" (12), "City in the Sky" (21), and "Mountain City in Wang Long Men" (30), the artist achieves a singular harmony of composition. By juxtaposing the intricate detail of the sprawling villages with the soaring slopes on which they are built, he produces a breathless equilibrium. In the perilous poise of these remarkable cityscapes, Xu Xi has achieved a triumph impossible to imagine in western art.

The importance of landscapes is a relatively new concept in western art, which until the middle ages considered views of nature to be of secondary merit. The European and American objective in landscape painting has historically been either to document or to romanticize nature. By the 15th century, France and Germany had established a tradition of meticulous accuracy in landscape painting, creating precise and literal records of gardens, and by the 17th century the realism of the Flemish masters had made the landscape one of the most important subjects of art. With such artists as Lorain and Poussin in France, nature became an increasingly romantic and idealized subject, and in the United States during the 19th century it acquired a patriotic significance in art and was exaggerated to dramatize the grandeur of the new nation.

Chinese landscape painting, in contrast, has a long and distinguished history, having played an important part in the national aesthetic since primitive times. A profound reflection of Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, landscape painting has long been valued as an element of the contemplation of nature as a means of freeing the human spirit. This Xu Xi's work may be seen as part of an ancient and honored tradition, and his ability to harmonize complementary opposites as fitting within the metaphysical framework of Chinese art. His masterly use of soft, varied shading, his powerful calligraphic line, and his sensitive balance of atmosphere with dramatic detail and of light with dark are all very much in the Chinese historic tradition. His fascination with mountains has a philosophic dimension that grows naturally out of the Taoist celebration of the grandeur of nature in contrast to the insignificance of man and the product of his activity. Xu Xi stands firmly in the history of Chinese art in his objectives as well as in his fundamental technique.

But if his masterful handling of form and his search for the underlying principle of a cosmic order in nature-a Confucian idea that runs through much of Chinese art-are characteristic of his country, Xu Xi brings to this search both a contemporary technique and a universal vision. His style is at once so pure and so intensely powerful that it achieves both formal control and a profound expression of the personal experience, conveying in its almost abstract selection of detail the inner feeling of the artist for his own emotion and the reality of the world in which he lives. His work has enormous strength; and yet he handles his material with the delicacy and sensitivity of the poet.

Most of these paintings are unmistakably of China, the land which inspired him and which gave the artist his start. "Snow in the Old City" (4) and "Market in Jiangnan" (29) reveal their settings clearly enough by their pagodas. But such paintings as "Near the Jia Ling River (3), and "City in the Sky" (21), although clearly derived from specific local sites, contain nothing which binds them to their country; the compositions bear the stamp of the individual, untrammeled by nation or culture or painterly tradition, and speak as clearly to the western viewer as to the resident of the place depicted. These paintings, like all in the volume, are remarkable not only, and not most importantly, in their unusual subject matter, but in the unique graphic line with which it is conveyed. The impact of Xu Xi's art is a function of manner rather than of matter.

In keeping with the vast scale of the nation he paints, most of the more recent pieces in this collection are large in dimension, reflecting the increased boldness of the artist's attack. In this regard too he has thrown off the constraints of a national heritage and a historical period and stepped onto the word stage. Xu Xi does not paint for either his people or his period in history, but for all mankind and all time.

The "Internationalism" which has earned Xu Xi so wide a following in Europe and the united states has apparently neither retarded nor diminished his recognition in his own country. Although named Man of the Year in 1993 by the American Biographical Institute, included in the British International Who's who of Intellectuals, The International Directory of Distinguished Leadership, and The Dictionary of International Biography, and given solo shows in Europe, the United States, Singapore, and Japan, he has also been signally honored in China. He has received many awards, his work is represented in the Beijing Art Museum, and he has been the subject of volumes published in Beijing, Gao Xiong, Sichuan, Taipei, and Hong Kong.

The breadth of Xu Xi's worldwide reputation is significant, reflecting not only his technical achievement but the universality of his voice. This volume of pictures of China, painted by a Chinese, is no less an album of world art, created with a craft nurtured in the Celestial Kingdom but presented in form available to all. As the earth becomes a global village, the shared needs and hopes of mankind demand a common language for expression, and it is the artist who first acquires that tongue. True art, whatever the medium, is instantly recognized and welcomed everywhere. Just as African and South American music is played and loved in New York and Paris, Xu Xi's paintings, whether of flowers or the Manhattan skyline, night time in Vienna or temples in Tibet, find a response throughout the world.

In this sense, it may be said that Xu Xi's paintings represent the art of the future, not limited by the preoccupations or traditions or tastes of national or cultural communities but rather growing out of the universal human condition and expressing universal aesthetic experience and philosophic concerns. If a village or a mountain in China can evoke emotion or awe in America (and the evidence is that the paintings of Xu Xi succeed sensationally in doing so), there may be hope that we are on the threshold of a truly universal society.

American art critic Dennis Wepman is former Cultural Affairs Editor of the New York Daily News and the author of 14 volumes of criticism, biography and history.

About Xu Xi Home