Walking with the Universe——The Ecological Aesthetics in Xu Longsen’s Giant Landscape Painting

2012-02-02 10:49

Chinese landscape paintings originated from pre-Chin Dynasty aesthetics. Confucius once said the compassionate and the wise love mountains and waters. Nature is traditionally associated with morality, as described in Mountains and Waters by Zhuangzi, another Confucian master. The mountains and waters are never disconnected from the human. Instead, they are closely related to each other. In the Three Kingdoms period and the following Jin Dynasty, paintings depicting nature became popular. However, the concept of landscape painting had not come into being. They just portrayed how landscape changed over time in a realistic manner. In the Tang Dynasty, interestingly, landscape poems started to reflect how human feel about and react to nature.

Although landscape painting appeared relatively late in the history of Chinese painting, it appeared one thousand years earlier than European landscape painting. In the Hand Dynasty, landscapes were used merely as the background of figures. In the Three Kingdoms period, Jin Dynasty and the following Southern and Northern Dynasties period, Laozi and Zhuangzi’s philosophy became widely accepted, and people came to associate their feelings with nature. In the paintings by Dai Kui, Gu Kaizhi, Zhang Sengyou and Zong Bing, we can see landscape’s ability to stand for nature as a whole. However, the painting techniques were not mature enough during that period. In the Sui Dynasty which followed the Southern and Northern Dynasties period, landscape paintings represented by Zhan Ziqian’s Strolling About in Spring became increasingly mature. In the Tang Dynasty that followed, two landscape paintings genres came into being. One was the Blue and Green landscape painting, represented by Li Sixun and his son. The other was the Ink and Wash landscape painting created by Wu Daozi and improved by Wang Wei and Zhang Zao. Chinese landscape painting saw its zenith in the Song and Yuan Dynasty. And then came the contest between the Ink and Wash landscape painting, which emphasized shape and texture, and the Blue and Green landscape painting, which stressed the importance of color.

Fan Kuan of the early Northern Song Dynasty toured the Zhongnan Mountains and recorded the bizarre landscapes there in his paintings. His painting style marked by grandeur and solidity was inspired by the experience. His masterpieces, such as Travelers among Mountains and Streams, brought the audience a great sense of magnificence with a magnificent painting style. Guo Xi of the mid Northern Song Dynasty loved to depict huge mountains in huge paintings, embedding subtleness in splendor. His masterpiece Early Spring was full of the dynamics of spring, with calligraphy-like painting skill depicting the trees and blurred lines depicting the stones. Inspired by the sheer beauty of the south, painters of the Southern Song Dynasty, such as Ma Yuan and Xia Gui, switched their style from splendor and solidity to peace and elegance. Xia Gui was good at using a special painting technique known as the heavy hack. His masterpiece Pure and Remote View of Streams and Mountains was a ten meter scroll, which was marked by vitality and comprehensiveness. The landscape paintings of the Yuan Dynasty represented by the Great Four indicated that the painter’s psychology was being changed from government official to scholar. For example, Ni Yunlin’s landscape paintings were not meant to depict the landscape itself, but to express subtleness with ink and wash. He believed in authenticity hidden in simplicity and loved to use delicate skills to draw trees, bamboos and hills to express his nostalgia and loneliness. There are three levels of landscape painting: objective level, represented by Dong, Ju, Fan and Guo of the Northern Song Dynasty; subjective level represented by Ma and Xia of the Southern Song Dynasty; and ego only level represented by Huang, Ni, Wang and Wu of the Yuan Dynasty. The evolution enabled landscape painting will become one of the most valuable categories in the history of Chinese painting.

Ancient landscape painting has its unique glamour. Some contemporary landscape paintings continue with the ancient style, whereas some borrow techniques from western landscape paintings. Xu Longsen, however, has chosen a third path and has become an important cultural phenomenon that nobody can ignore.

I. Chinese Contemporary Ecological Culture Embedded in the Landscape

Xu Longsen paints neither the appearance nor the spirit of the landscape. Instead, he paints the bone of the landscape. We can see neither the four seasons nor plants in his paintings. Instead, what he emphasizes is the bone, the essence, the soul, of the landscape.

In my opinion, Xu Longsen conceptually dissolves the reality in his paintings. We cannot sense history or time from his paintings. What the paintings depict is not from the Tang Dynasty, the Song Dynasty or the Yuan Dynasty. We cannot sense geography or space from his paintings. What the paintings depict is not from Europe, North America or South China. He intentionally dissolves the realistic appearance of the landscape so that he can render the landscape that exists only in his heart. He has transcended time and space to acquire the great landscape. He has mastered the new ontology by practicing anti-ontology. He has transcended ontology to paint the core of the universe, the essence of the world and the bone of the landscape. And that is the reason he is misunderstood, or even condemned.

Xu Longsen’s huge painting exhibitions in Stockholm and Rome were astonishing. The reason he is so popular abroad is that he has transcended the limit of Chinese painting so that he can express the spirit of mankind, the pillar of the world. What he paints is the soul of the landscape, not the appearance or spirit. He is eager to transcend not only the format of Chinese landscape painting, but also the formula of western aesthetics, to become a painter bound by nothing.

He loves to try something new and has the capability of perceiving the landscape from a new perspective. A real master must be able to manipulate painting techniques, have a strong feeling about nature, and a deep understanding of the principles. Without the techniques, the painter is disordered; without the feeling, the painter is shallow; without the principles, the painter is blind.

He has gone to great lengths to conceive the unique structure of each painting and give them the ability to symbolize China. As China rises, Chinese landscape painting is destined to rise as well. Painting is an enjoyable experience for him. Through painting, he freely travels among the past and the present, the west and the east. It is much harder to depict the entire landscape than to depict part of it. Xu Longsen has the confidence to depict the holistic landscape in a straightforward manner.

What does Xu Longsen want to tell us? He wants to tell us about the relationship between human and ecology, the poetry of nature and the profundity hidden in the landscape. He wants to convey what the landscape wants to tell us, an enchanting enigma. Each viewer may have his unique answer to it. He intentionally obscures his painting techniques and gives up trees, flowers, water and clouds in his paintings so that we may understand the philosophical meaning of the paintings themselves.

We can see in Xu Longsen’s paintings that he tries to stir up some interaction between the tradition and new concepts of landscape painting. He wants to free people from an entrenched traditional experience and have them view the landscape from a new angle. What he does has become an important phenomenon in the painting world.

And the phenomenon has become something that today’s painting world must answer.

The first question is that how the landscape painting world reacts to Xu Longsen transcending the tradition. He will surely be doubted or even misunderstood by the skeptics. He has to face the opinions of critics, art academies and collectors. Some say a painting cannot be truly appreciated until the painter is dead, which seems harsh for Xu Longsen.

The second question is about how the western audience accepts his paintings. He is facing two problems. One is what eastern aesthetic experience he wants to give to the western audience. The other is how he wants to project himself, a painter or a thinker. Does he intend to help the west penetrate the mystery of eastern culture? How does he respond to Chinese audience and critics? He has to think further and viewing the world with childlike simplicity may be a good option.

The third question is that Xu Longsen did not paint until more than a decade ago. He has a blank history, which makes him a mine full of goodness for us to extract. I notice that sometimes he lingers between large-size and small-size paintings. He should stick to the uniqueness of large-size paintings. I cannot speak for the future. But for now he is the most pioneering Chinese in the domain of large-size landscape painting.

Ink and wash embodies the highest level of Taoist philosophy because of its simplicity. Xu Longsen has chosen to use the simplest color to express the most exquisite principles of nature, which makes him unparalleled. He can be regarded as a Taoist painter. In this sense, his landscape paintings are approaching the five basic elements of nature as described in the Taoist classics.

II. Ink and Wash after Chinese Culture Being Alienated by Western Culture

Unlike other landscape painters, Xu Longsen is not confined by western painting practices. He paints with the Chinese heart and Chinese spirit, which enables him to become a world painter.

For a long time, Chinese culture has been being alienated in the world. Many neighboring countries of China have given up Chinese culture to follow American culture, which is a bad thing for China. Actually, the west felt lost after the World War II and America did not know what the future would be like. As pointed out by Husserl and Sartre, European Nihilism permeated the west. As Nihilism becomes global, the west also advocates pragmatism, political human rights and the law of the jungle. Performance art, installation art, conceptual art and political pop thus have become poplar and the diversity of the world is harmed by this. As predicted by the wise, the world would become smaller, flatter and the social system would come to a turning point. There are signs that mankind is on the eve of a great change.

On the eve of the great change, Xu Longsen acutely senses the new excitement. He is going to prove that his paintings can convey human’s faith, endurance and perseverance. His paintings stand for the most cutting-edge achievement of Chinese landscape painting.

In my opinion, many Chinese people completely lose their cultural identity, because they have been westernized too much. These people become less and less popular nowadays. China is rising as a world power and its culture is definitely going to voice out. At issue is what kind of voice Chinese culture should make. Chinese art largely has been a copycat that follows the west in everything. Contemporary western art actually is a consequence of humanity’s deterioration after the World War I and II. Why did so many Chinese painters pursue the deterioration in the 1980s? The reason was that the Cultural Revolution had just come to an end, humanity and dignity had been shattered. The painter found what they had been longing for in the western art. Now, however, a new page of Chinese history has been unfolded. Chinese cultural identity and the confidence of Chinese art have to be restored, which means Chinese artists can no longer pursue contemporary western art. But what kind of art can Chinese artists contribute? It is hard to establish the new value of contemporary Chinese art. I think Xu Longsen’s landscape paintings are a successful breakthrough. They have transcended the west and the east to become the most innovative landscape paintings.

A challenge for Xu Longsen is how to take advantage of the Chinese cultural strategy. A real thinker can maintain a balance between the identity of Chinese art and his uniqueness. Xu Longsen has developed the balance very well, which is very important.

The strategy is to convey a belief through profound eastern culture, which is to reduce the pain and anxiety of mankind. Western art routinely abstains from glorifying reality because of the harshness the west faced. Especially after the two World Wars, it is regarded insane to praise the world. Xu Longsen has transcended this limitation and helped the audience find the energy and inner peace at the bottom of their hearts. He can still see goodness in the world, especially the east. In his opinion, it is fair to praise people’s willingness to rebuild their homes. The aesthetics demonstrated in the way he characterizes the great beauty will become extremely important.

III. The Huge, Deep, High and Far of Xu Longsen’s Landscape Paintings

It is hard to innovate while inheriting the tradition. People always have a desire to transcend the previous and the time. However, it is sometimes hard to transcend the classic. Instead, we always need to pay homage and learn from the classic.

Xu Longsen’s landscape paintings are like no other. His huge landscape painting Following Nature is 26 meters in length and has taken him seven years to complete. His High Mountain has a length of ten meters and enlightens us to be gentle and nice, instead of mean and greedy. His paintings can be succinctly summarized with four words:

First, huge: Chinese painters have been used to small size, because it is easy to manipulate. Kant said, there is a big difference between being beautiful and being sublime. I think sublimity is all about hugeness. Only when facing the great mountains, waters, cloud and ocean, can mankind feel how small they are. By contrast, they tend to feel important when seeing small-scale scenes. Xu Longsen has the confidence to exhibit his huge landscape paintings in the British Museum, which reflects his integrity and the sublimity of his paintings.

Second, deep: Xu Longsen has a lot of respect for culture and art. His depth is hidden in his free will and the respect enables him to go very deep.

Third, high: It is very hard for one to elevate himself. Elevating oneself is like climbing the Everest. When you are 4,000 meters high, you begin to have a headache. At 5,000 meters, half of the people give up. When you are over 7,000 meters, you can climb only 500 meters a day and few people can make it to over 8,000 meters. Here, being high is all about your spirit. Few people can reach this level.

Fourth, far: His Inside impresses us very much and the landscape purifies our souls. His Jade of the Kunlun Mountain allows us to feel the brightness and purity of jade, which keeps the landscape’s distance from secularity.

Xu Longsen is still on his expedition to explore the landscape painting. What he pursues is pure art and the purity is very important. Purity is what distinguishes elite from the common. I approve Xu Longsen’s idea that his artworks are for a small group, instead for a large audience. It is the small audience that reflects his works’ exquisiteness.

I tend to use words like limitless, ancient and original to describe Xu Longsen’s works, because they motivate us to reflect on the universe, the environment and the ecology. Black is a very important color for the ink and wash landscape painting. I would like to see more diversity of its usage. Sometimes, the painter can use thicker black, sometimes thinner black. I call the diversity the ink spectrum. While painting, Xu Longsen is walking with the universe. Thus the five basic elements of nature permeate through his works. While innovating, he is creating a new world.


By Wang Yuechuan