Angelo Capasso Xu Longsen - On Top of Two Empires

2011-07-06 14:32

Angelo Capasso

“Brush and ink move with the times.”
- Shi Tao

“Sculpture is the best comment that a painter can make on painting.”
- Pablo Picasso

Chinese Art has a special historical relationship with the Western Art. It is a culture of synthesis, spirituality and contemplation. When photography threatened painting’s cultural centrality, the first major rift between painting and tradition was produced, which is marked by Impressionism. The rift is based on seduction produced by “Orientalism”, which prevailed at the end of the nineteenth century, before the great Vanguards. The prevalence of “Orientalism” is attributed to the creation of small places of worship for the eastern culture. A historical source in the culture of modern painting is certainly in 1862 when “La Porte Chinoise” opened in Rue de Rivoli, Paris, a store of oriental objects, frequented by Whistler, Manet, Fantin-Latour, Baudelaire and the Goncourt brothers. The “Porte Chinoise” was soon accompanied by other small temples of the eastern culture, such as “L'Empire Chinoise”. It was a source of generic “Orientalism”, which mixed Japanese and Chinese traditions. Among the many mysteries of east, the landscape painting presents itself as a prospect for new concepts featuring impressionist painting: an unconventional angle, the absence of monofocal perspective, combination with the Renaissance style, the use of figures to escape from the edge the canvas, the subordination of particular parts to the whole and the free use of color spots. All these are Impressionist elements. The great revolution brought by the Impressionist painters, then, started from the release of the viewpoints, to the reaction against the rigidity of Renaissance dogma. Moreover, the revolution encouraged the spirits that came from a distant culture and embraced the ideas of foreign artists.

Xu Longsen’s works are rooted in a long tradition, which is marked by the amalgamation of spirit and the surrounding environment. The size of his paintings is so large that he needs a ladder to climb up the paintings to paint. This is what sublimes the artist’s soul. The painter paints, and is absorbed in his work and involved in the nature thanks to the painting, as in a ritual of regeneration. It’s a ritual of identification that’s similar to different coordinates: between old and new, between tradition and present, between the long march of China and its present both in action. The artist records the secular making of the history through art, absorbing the transformation through his own sensibility. The work on the landscape is a work of understanding of its physical and symbolic nature, the possibility of mastering takes place instead through the generation of a privileged angle that allows detachment from the winding sense, yet at the same time its identification with a symbolic field as generous spirit.

One of the reasons why Xu Longsen’s paintings attract so much attention is that they are proof of a Chinese painting’s attribute, the inherent relationship between painting and calligraphy. Calligraphy and painting have in common an archetypal gesture. Both are divided on the fluctuating movement of the hand that flows in the balance on an oblique plan, which leaves fluid that gradually dries. Upon that initial gesture, others strokes will follow the first movements and trace the figure that breaks boundaries. The painting of Xu Longsen pursues an objective other than the formal representation of the landscape, as the realization of the "true", which belongs to the perception that is rightly the spirit, then "the truth is in the doing itself," according to the formula used by Giambattista Vico to indicate the guidelines of the "new science". The artist knows only what he has produced and done, as a witness of the exact genesis. The large paintings, large landscapes worked at length on the black and white two-tone on the rice paper, are the textures that maintain the principle of volumetric growth, of the construction that brings Xu Longsen in its privileged territory: the sculpture. It is in this titanic operation that his work has produced an articulated interpretation of the painting. The large paintings by Xu Longsen therefore belong to the art of landscape, but are, at the same time, the trace of a passage, daughters of the design process and construction of art itself, and of a cosmology that involves nature, man and its capacity for creativity.

The personal experience of Xu Longsen can help us better understand his large-size works. Xu Longsen has studied sculpture, calligraphy and painting, and has virtually initialized a revolution. The revolution began in 2001 when he began to concentrate on landscape painting against the other two kinds of arts, and then in 2004, when the landscape painting became his main and unique interest. A return to the tradition and rebirth in the tradition were seen after that. Xu Longsen studied paintings from the period of the Five Dynasties to the Qing Dynasty, which spans over 1,200 years. He is interested in fields concerned with the methods of representation and conversion of the Northern Song Dynasty and Yuan Dynasty. In his landscapes the majesty of the mountain landscape of China lives again. The mountains are among the highest in China and Asia in the world, and that is where the main rivers of the country derive their source. The ancient Chinese believed that the material and energy (chi) were basically the same thing. With their push toward the sky the mountains were the most obvious example of energy converted into material. Even so the mountains have always played an important role in Chinese Art. The center in the worship of mountains was the belief that there were five sacred mountains in the North, South, East, West and center of China, linked directly to heaven. Thanks to their special energy was thought to nourish the mountains used for magic mushrooms and herbal for elixir of immortality. Their size is comparable to the soul of the world, also served as a home for gods and immortals, and presents a place for retreat and meditation.

Among all the mountains, Xu Longsen likes Huashan Mountain particularly. It is one of the five sacred mountains in China, with which his painting is looking for a constant comparison in terms of size. Located about 120 km away from the city of Xi'an, in Shaanxi province, Huashan Mountain offers a wonderful show. It represents the pinnacle Western China’s cultural worship. There are untouched nature and centuries-old Taoist temples. The splendidness in the Western China’s tradition mixes the thrill of beauty to the thrill of terror for being unreachable. This explains the great attraction of Huashan Mountain which is is known as the dangerous path that leads hikers to the top of the mountain, one of the most dangerous to cross. And even Taihang Mountains, which stretch over 400 km from South to North in the provinces of Henan, Shanxi and Hebei, with an average altitude of 1,500 to 2,000 meters. The mystery of the sculpture is from nature. The large paintings by Xu Longsen, like those natural creations, are the result of work of time, sedimentation, and the transition of the spirit through the work of the artist.

On our planet, mountains are so huge that they can rival the sky for its dominance. Reflection that Xu Longsen suggests through his painting is just the dual path, on which the two-colored painting of the filling and emptying, or rather on the assumption to make in the "don’t do", of the "emptying" or "making empty "which comes to the essence of being. The void, as we usually think in the West, has nihilism as one to one correspondence: the source of vacuous horror that in art led to the culture of decoration and to the superfluous of the images. The opposite condition to this sense of loss in a vacuum is to consider the vacuum as the condition of possibility of all events, of all things. The void in this sense is the most full. This is the great insight that the Buddhism has had. It's the point that he makes meet with Taoism in China and produce the Zen. The "anatta" (the insubstantiality) is a concept with which Buddhism develops his idea of ​​emptiness, whose power can be seen especially in the art. The reference to Zen and to the Chinese religion is, in the case of painting by Xu Longsen, an indispensable reference. Its complexity can be summarized as a plot in these large canvases that sews the spirituality of the soul of China.

The Chinese religion system is an amalgamation of three religions. Xu Longsen opens its exhibition in Rome with three symbolic figures: “Bodhi tree” is the tree of Buddhism, "Phoenix Tree" is the tree of Taoism, and "Cypress" is the tree of Confucianism. The tree is traditionally the symbol of life: the self meets the microcosm and the macrocosm, the One and All, is the link between Earth and Heaven, from the roots into the earth to the top of the shoots tended towards the sun, the tree becomes an imaginary bridge between physical and metaphysical. Among the three, The Bodhi tree is a tree that tells a great story: the first "Bodhi tree" was a great and very ancient sacred fig tree, located within the area where today stands the Mahabodhi Temple, at Bodh Gaya (near Patna in the Indian state of Bihar) under which Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism religious teacher, later known as Buddha, came to the bodhi (enlightenment). The three trees Xu Longsen symbolically placed at the beginning of this exhibition remind us that from the Song Dynasty, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism interacted deeply and have become a spiritual line of orthodoxy of China. That first precise identification of the spiritual being naturally prepares the exhibition to understand how landscape painting is a way to trace an ancient tradition to its start. A revival of tradition and of a long root of the painting and on the three schools of life: Confucianism, with its rules of governance and social behavior, Buddhism, and its rich and comprehensive cosmology, and the precise structure of the afterlife; the Taoism, with its methods, proposed methods of physical and spiritual care, is a means of communication with the spirit, gives blessing and protection. Historically, Taoism and Confucianism are the backdrop to one another and exemplify the complementarity of yin-yang. The Confucian can be mundane, while the Taoist hermit. The Confucian follows ceremonial and the rules. The Taoist rejects everything that is social convention. The soul of the painting is based on three trees that find common roots.

To understand the essence of a painting, we need to understand that what an artist devotes to a painting is mainly a possibility that the work can be related to the audience. The Western viewpoint therefore should instead recover a peculiarity of the spirit which comes in an expanded mental activity, intense and profound that we call contemplate. The term “contemplate” contains in its etymology of specific references to these heavens. From the Latin “templum” delimited celestial space (with the prefix con-) the verb includes in itself the idea of ​​the sky horizon where the blue skies belong. Contemplate, in other words, means producing a delimited celestial space, in which thought is at once the representation and the representation of that delimited space. In Western culture, contemplation is an activity of mind which is the origin of philosophy: the “theorein” of the great Greek philosophers, substantial for Plato, even in Plotinus becomes disruptive, since it is a power even “ontogonica” given to the theorein. “Everything is contemplation” says Plotinus. And Aristotle moves on this same line, indicating the happiness of gods and men in contemplating. And, by the thought of Aristotle, Massimo Cacciari writes: “in theorein (...) indicates in Aristotle not an another abstract from doing, but its own intrinsic size, one his principle, for which in the being of brotós happens the tragedy of do-not-do, and not-do does not liberate from the do, so much that it can not eliminate or forget the not-do.” And yet the ark of do is “theoria”, of the restlessness of the soul is peace - and expression of the theory and peace are “asthéneia” and anxiety. Together, they simultaneously hold both sizes - and in this their value, it shows the indifference of their own differ. The boundary between doing and the asthenia from doing is the connotation stronger than the “contemplate” that requires an active look whose characteristic is in the filling while emptying itself. Contemplating an object is to become full of it. Filling of these heavens means within themselves assumes their full genesis, starting from the artist's work to reach over, within a broader question which speaks of their archetypal origin, or to that “do” that disengages from the experience of everyday life and encourages us to metaphysical questions.

Since the Tang Dynasty (618-907) landscapes have been the theme of Chinese painting. Most landscape paintings are single colored and are not intended to represent nature as it is. Their purpose is to evoke the feelings of the audience, especially their feeling for the harmony of nature. It is generally used in this case the same technique of calligraphy and painted on silk or paper with a brush dipped in black or colored ink of China; the use of oil colors was unknown. The paintings were generally not so hung on the wall, but placed in rolls in the cabinet and pulled out only when needed, for example to show to guests that are particularly able to appreciate art.

Xu Longsen has found a counterpart of his spiritualism in Europe in the warmest season. In different ways, Xu Longsen looks carefully at the paintings of Mark Rothko and of Georges Rouault. They are two very different artists, but with a common root firmly planted in spirituality. Rothko, in the context of Abstract Expressionism, has worked on basic emotions, filling large canvases with vibrant color and only a few small details are immediately understood. As a precursor of the "color field painting," his most characteristic paintings, usually in a vertical format, are characterized by large rectangular areas of color, arranged parallel to each other. The edges of these shapes are slightly irregular, and this gives them a character and suffused button, so that seems to hover or float gently over the canvas. The concentration of color is somehow religious: “I am not an abstract artist. I do not care the relationships of color or form or anything like that. I only express the basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, damnation. And the fact that many people let themselves go and cry when they are in front of my paintings shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions. Those who cry in front of my paintings go through the same religious experience I went through when I painted” (Mark Rothko). The spirituality of Rothko sinks into West tragedy of the existential void. Similarly, with the necessary historical differences, we find the essence of existence in the painting by Georges Rouault whose paintings embody spiritualism expressed in the form of a dramatic existentialism to be connected to the philosopher Jacques Maritain, his friend and spiritual advisor for life; this spiritualism made Rouault's one of the greatest painters of religious art of the twentieth century. 
Moral and social issues of the early years of religious subjects Rouault added quickly, sometimes dramatic and painful, brightening by a feeling of inner peace: the artist portrays mercilessly the characters who live on the margins of society and to make them crudely represents “a journey into hell, but with faith in redemption.” Going back to basics, in 1910, Rouault's journey is enriched with natural elements, creating works of intense and profound poetry, saying, “a tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression of the human figure.” Landscapes, outlined with rigor ordered of plans, lines and colors, are seen as the sacred place par excellence where people can find traces of the divine and spiritual search for peace and harmony, away from the evils and material and moral miseries of modern society.

The comparison between the two hemispheres of spirituality, Eastern and Western, is found in the works of Xu Longsen, where the exceptional size of the supports and their performance of “true equal to the true” stands as an update of the ancient painting landscape in a new form of art for the contemporary art scene. In this sense, it is even closer the reference to the works of Xu Longsen with the most advanced port in the Western Art of landscape in Land Art. Land Art, as direct action in the landscape, is found in these works just like action in the landscape in the most ancient in which it was made by the artist, in symbolic terms. If the Land Art has worked in that section of Western thought that was concerned about the obsolescence of the artwork (designed to entropy or otherwise intended as a commercial product), here the power of the spirit shall replace any purely mental as regenerative element: the indomitable vitality of natural agents is crystallized through the work of the artist and the artistic language. In other words, the landscape of Xu Longsen is opposed to the degradation of the physical world, the entropy of natural forms and its phenomenological study implemented by the Land Art, a vital and definitive recovery through the symbolic and spiritual imagination: the world of great art, which from sculptor has sought in Michelangelo.

And here we find the boundaries between the two empires. One is the art that creates realities. The other is the creation that symbolizes the world of the artist. The latter is the art with a long history, even one that rises in Western civilization since modern Western civilization: on one side, that Greek, Athenian, on the other side, that Roman. The Roman civilization, for us, is the source of the Western world that is recognized in all aspects of Indo-European people called the Romans (initially allocated to Rome and spread throughout the Mediterranean): a population that shared social, religious, cultural, literary, artistic, military aspects. It is traced back to April 21, 753 BC, when some villages on the banks of the Tiber River and decided to join together to form a single city, Rome, ruled by one king. Over time, the city has grown and gained progressively Lazio, Italy, the trade in the Mediterranean, Greece, then Europe. At the time of its greatest expansion of the Roman Empire included: to the North one part of England, to the South all North Africa, to the West of Spain and Portugal, to the east one part of Germany, of Hungary and of Romania, to the South-East Mesopotamia, Palestine and Phoenicia. In terms of visual culture behind the art of Rome hid a political, social, and practical purpose. Even in the cases of the best finest craftsmanship, of luxury (vases of precious metals and Caram, cameos, gems, statues, glassware, architectural friezes plant, etc.) the beauty was closely linked to the power and glitz, seen as self-congratulation of buyer of his own economic and social power. The official sculptures, however good looking, had always celebratory intentions that in a way weighed more than abstract formal interest.

The works of Xu Longsen, in today’s global context, witness to the origins of civilized life, generating a comparison between different periods, and interpret the humanity in its two opposite sides: the principle, the “mental fact” or the “conceptual” and the spirit, a sensitive natural soul. Both of them are sources of creativity and can help us realize universal harmony.

1 Angelo Capasso, “Places of affection. Landscape-passage”, Snoek, Brussels (Belgium), 2003.
2 Massimo Cacciari, “On the Beginning”, Adelphi, Milan 1990, page 25.
3 Massimo Cacciari, ibid., page. 25