Pursuit of the Classic: Xu Longsen’s Profound Landscape Paintings By Yang Lian

2011-12-10 10:56

Xu Longsen always says in a very explicit way that what Chinese art pursues is the classic, not fashion. It is the most succinct summary of Chinese tradition I have ever heard of. What’s interesting about it is that such a comment is not from an art critic, but from an artist who spends all the time indulging in the execution of art. In order to survive, the artist has to think about some urgent and important questions about culture. Xu Longsen’s giant landscape paintings have impact on the audience more than plain paintings do, because he embeds in the paintings his thoughts, profound and ambitious thoughts. Looking at the giant paintings, the audience may get a sense of uneasiness. It feels like they are pushed into a corner and forced to answer tough questions. In the 21st century, it is still important for us to reflect on Chinese tradition and the global context has provided us with a much broader vision. I feel extremely excited about Xu Longsen’s works, because they have proven my belief that a great contemporary Chinese artist must also be a great thinker at the same time. In his works, I have found the answer I have been longing for.

When Xu Longsen uses the word “classic”, he means the classic sense of the word. Being classic is much more than antiquity. Rather, it is mental and aesthetic profundity that can stand the test of time. It is very important to distinguish between “classic” and “classical”. All works created in the past may become classical one day. The classic, however, are those that really stand out. The classic set a high bar for other works, without which the tradition would have a missing link. In the domain of philosophy, we have Confucius, Mencius and Laozi; in art, we have Gu Kaizhi, Fan Kuan, Mi Fu and Huang Gongwang; in poem, we have Qu Yuan and Du Fu; in history, we have Sima Qian; in drama, we have Tang Xianzu; in novel, we have Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng and Cao Xueqin. Although their works are very different in form, the essences share a lot in common. The thoughts and structures shared by the classic are important, because these are the quality that enables the works to transcend time, space and culture. The classic nature of the works is what connects them, integrates them and makes them universally welcomed. If tradition is a mountain, the classic are the peak. Our tradition enables us to spiritually interact with foreign cultures. In the art world, Xu Longsen is not far from Mark Rothko or Huang Gongwang. We are desperate for the genuine classic. It seems that Xu Longsen wants to give us an answer by defining the word classic. Before we know it, however, he scares away the classical masters with his giant landscape paintings. What is he trying to tell us and what is he looking for?

To have a profound answer, it is very important to ask profound a question. Xu Longsen asks himself, “What is the true value of my works?” It is not an easy question. Rather the question is based on his decades of study of ink and wash paintings. What he has learned gives him the capability of perceiving the philosophy and aesthetics embedded in the traditional paintings. Following Nature, which took him seven years to complete, is a vivid display of such capability. 26 meters long and four meters wide, the gigantic painting is a very comprehensive recap of the history of ink and wash paintings, literally. The cliffs, clouds, pine trees and waterfalls are overwhelming. When it comes to the details, it feels like we are browsing a dictionary of ink and wash painting techniques. We can sense a wide spectrum of exquisite skills directly inherited from the ancient masters, such as Fan Kuan and Mi Fu. Each part of the painting is an independent structure. When all the parts are combined, a holistic view is formed. Xu Longsen once said, the tradition is hidden in the techniques. What he meant was that to fully appreciate the essence of the tradition, a painter has to practice exquisite painting skills. That’s the whole point of a painter’s professionalism. Xu Longsen’s paintings are innovations on the basis of the painting masterpieces from the Song and Yuan Dynasty and on the basis of the vitality of pre-Qin-Dynasty saints. The painting that took him seven years to complete and several other works that were finished around 2007 embody the tradition of Chinese painting. His way with tradition is much more delicate and in-depth than the “revolutionary” approaches. He said, “I put in seven years of effort just to ask the question: How can I be myself?”

Xu Longsen’s innovation is not just about being big. Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are unparalleled masterpieces. As Michelangelo and the Renaissance revived Europe, Xu Longsen’s paintings have revived Chinese landscape paintings. Xu Longsen challenges himself and the tradition simultaneously. In doing so, he has created a unique art concept. The challenges can be divided into three levels. On the first level, all existing paintings techniques seem to have been revoked. All the techniques pale against the paintings’ gigantic size. The mountains are not like anything the previous masters painted. The second level is even more challenging. It can be called the level of landscape concept, if you will. On this level, there is a hidden concept that has never been revealed before. The concept has just got revealed by Xu Longsen’s paintings. The basis of the revelation is the ingenious invention of Chinese people, the magical combination of ink, writing brush and rice paper. Xu Longsen has traced back to the root of the combination and started over from there. There he has the ability to render the images from the bottom of his heart. He has taken a very important step after 2007. His Tai’e, Great Mountain, Inside, Huashan Mountain and Goddess Peak are a remarkable breakaway from Following Nature. It seems that the mountains exist only in his abstract art world. The mountains have been conceptualized in the world. Many elements that seem indispensible in traditional Chinese paintings have been eliminated in his works. This way he can better reflect the rigidity, color and shape of the stones. The landscapes have paved a way for our mind to go deep into a spiritual world marked by Chinese tradition. The landscapes have become a carrier of the past, the present and the future. Xu Longsen once said, “I have always been looking for our souls. My paintings are the way for me to do it.” He has to fully master the ancient principles and fully unleash his inner energy to find the answer. The magnificence of the landscapes is actually the magnificence of the artist’s spiritual world. We, the audience, therefore can witness a magnificent and lively tradition. The third level of challenge is the most subtle one. If Xu Longsen’s were pure abstract paintings, I would have to say his gigantic paintings are not gigantic enough. Abstract is a concept ubiquitous in the world of Chinese calligraphy and painting. Xu Longsen has to go beyond abstract. What makes Xu Longsen unique is that he has the ability to reinvent the aesthetics of traditional Chinese painting and the reinvention can stand the test of time. Traditional Chinese painting techniques are not thoroughly used in Xu Longsen’s giant paintings, but we can sense their trails everywhere in the paintings. Are we appreciating the paintings or our own illusions? Did Xu Longsen just reinvent the way of traditional Chinese painting? Or did he also reinvent our taste of art? From landscape concept to conceptual landscape, his landscapes have come to possess profound meanings. The profundity is a high mountain for our minds to climb. Xu Longsen’s landscape paintings are an epic of a Chinese artist’s self-challenge.

Each time I step into Xu Longsen’s gigantic studio, the first word that comes into my mind is not art, but thought. The gigantic works there transcend any techniques, styles and forms in that they are a holistic overview of Chinese art history. He does not think of the past as opposed to the present. Instead, he enrich the present by embedding the past into it. In the landscape paintings he reinvented, tradition is the basis of innovation. In the paintings, the past and the present interact with each other and grow together, which is rarely seen in China. It requires an artist’s prudence, audacity and profundity. The people who innovate are typically the ones who master the tradition. Previously, Chinese were known for being either too radical, or too conservative. The volatile moods of Chinese people resulted from its inability to stand up to the challenge of foreign culture in the past. I have tried to distinguish between mood and passion. I think mood is typically collective and impetuous. Though intensive, it tends to be naïve. In contrast, passion that comes from thought and art is typically derived from vigorous self-question. The question is not whether or not to inherit the tradition, but how to inherit it. What resist innovation are anything but the tradition. They are nothing but part of the past. What Xu Longsen looks for is in his very pursuit of the classic. An artist should not be appended to the tradition. Instead, a talented artist should be rooted in and continuously enriched by the tradition. A human’s way of thinking is associated to the culture the one is from. Therefore we can see a holistic tradition in Xu Longsen. He continuously mines the tradition for what he needs, so that he can enrich his personal tradition. Marked by profundity and appearing in a variety of shapes, his mountains vibrantly show us his progress on art: At first, he learned from the classic works. He did it so well that we could not distinguish between his and the classic paintings. After that, he mastered the classic techniques and approached the spiritual world of the classic painters. Finally, he asked himself, “Where am I?” With the question, his mountains became lively and unique. His mountains are not associated to the ones in the real world or those painted by the ancient masters. The mountains are purely from his contemplation. And they are more than the theme of his paintings. They are the soul of his paintings. Are the mountains from China or from other parts of the world? It is fair to think that the mountains he paints are the Taihang Mountains or Mount Hua. But who is not to say that the mountains are not the Himalayas or the Alps? Xu Longsen has created a unique tradition for the mountains and the tradition is rising.

The essence of being classic is reflection on time and unique understanding of existence. And being unique does not mean being typically eastern or western. That is not a profound enough distinction. Anything unique must be personal and be the result of independent thinking. Xu Longsen has an acute sense to distinguish between fashion and the classic, or in more philosophical terms, between diachronic and synchronic. All diachronic things are linear and evolve over time. A history is a series of logical evolution from the past to the future. In the timeline, many people struggle for the moment when they prevail. By contrast, synchronic is not about evolution. Instead, it is about eternity. It is the accumulation of experiences and the weight of destiny. Therefore, it is not dependent on time and all the creativity that once existed can be absorbed right here, right now. Being classic entails the capability of transcending time. It is one’s own choice to be diachronic or synchronic. Xu Longsen has made his choice. He wants his works to include all the time, which is very hard. To be classic, to be synchronic, he has to do more than imitating ancient masters. He has to elevate himself so that he is on the same level with the masters. He once said, “Their excellence is not my excellence. It is when all the historical excellence is overthrown that I am qualified to compete with them.” Being synchronic is something we want to pursue and we have to start from being diachronic and being able to connect the dots. What being classic means to life is that it provides us with an angle to observe our status quo; what it means to aesthetics is that it sets a standard for one’s works; what it means to philosophy is that it helps us understand that existence does not depend on a linear timeline and that we actually develop along different paths headed in different directions. The three points are all represented in Xu Longsen’s works. He has maximized the perspective of landscape paintings. For his works, each part of a painting is integral to the whole, and the parts and the whole interact closely with each other. Although the critics have not commented on his thinking mode and language system, I have identified an ancient Chinese thinking mode, where unlimited time is encapsulated in limited space. I have recounted the thinking mode in my Intellectual Space and Space Poetry. It is the very thinking mode described in the Book of Change. The 64 hexagrams allow time to break away from linear order and be intertwined in a three-dimensional space. Laozi and Qu Yuan both commented on the thinking mode and marveled at its ingenuity. With the Book of Change, Laozi and Qu Yuan as companions, Xu Longsen is not alone.

The basis of Chinese culture is Chinese thinking, the basis of Chinese thinking, in turn, is Chinese characters. As an ancient Chinese saying goes, calligraphy and painting have the same origin. Both calligraphy and painting are rooted in Chinese characters, or more precisely, the lingual nature of Chinese characters. For me, the most unique aspect of Chinese characters is the stability of its verbs. Chinese verbs always remain unchanged, no matter what tense, person and number are. Its verbs are not subject to conjugation. Chinese characters tend to be abstract, instead of being concrete. Upon being written down, transience becomes eternity. Life and death, two Chinese characters, symbolize all that are alive and all that are dead. Time and space, another two Chinese characters, cover all possibilities of combinations of time and space. In Chinese calligraphy, painting and poetry, the thinking enables people to overlook the reality from above, from the transcendental level. Many great painters are also great poets. Since the very beginning, the great poets have been rewriting the tradition. The visibility, audibility and sensibility embedded in poems allow the authors to live in a moment that lasts forever. It is important to understand that Chinese art is not equivalent to nature. Although nature is the typical contents of paintings and poems, the nature that appears in them is actually man-made. The key to their success is that they look so real and so natural. The core of all Chinese classic is extreme beauty created via forms. Form is very important to Chinese poems. Over time, the formalist tradition has become so mature that it allows the artworks to be extremely personalized, simultaneously, extremely internationalized. I used to summarize Chinese art with two words, conceptual and experimental. Thinking negatively, we do not have any existing cultural pattern to inherit in today’s complicated environment, so we have to create new concepts and experiment on them. Thinking positively, we have so much cultural resource plus our understanding of the western world, why don’t we recreate ourselves on an entirely new level? We need to not only open up our minds to humans, but also open up humans’ minds. The transformation of ancient Chinese culture is huge. In other words, it is marked by extremeness, such as extreme conception and extreme innovation. A work is marked by extremeness, as long as it possesses thorough thoughts. What I like about Xu Longsen’s paintings is their extremeness. Cultural creativity is represented in his works. He is very good at organically integrating foreign elements with Chinese tradition. And he is, finally, able to transcend the east and the west to form a new culture. You can call it Xu Longsen culture if you will. His recent exhibitions in Europe have proven this. The exhibitions are an art space co-built by different cultures. Eight meters high and combining painting and installation, his Landscape Totem Pole created for the London Exhibition and Forum brings me a great sense of relaxation and leisure. His painting series, Wind, Rain, Thunder and Lightning achieve unbelievable result that ordinary paper and ink cannot achieve by tearing pieces of paper apart and rejoining them again. Is this an experiment or creation? How do you tell them apart? The reason why different cultures are essentially consistent is that people are essentially the same. German philosopher Martin Heidegger said, all the great thinkers are great because they put forth a thought. As long as an artist put in the hard work it takes to succeed, the one can understand what Martin Heidegger meant.

Contemporary Chinese culture has both great difficulties and vast energy. The extremeness Xu Longsen pursues is exactly what I put in my poems. His gigantic paintings are much like my long poems. They are big because they have to. They have to be big enough to be able to summarize thousands years of Chinese history, to depict people’s status quo, and to express philosophical aesthetics. Being big is not just about size. It is actually more about depth. The transformation of Chinese culture is a serious cause. We must have the humility to admit that we have weaknesses, from social environment, to knowledge structure to cultural ecology; meanwhile we must also have the confidence to believe that five thousand years of history is our great strength. Xu Longsen and I have three things in common. First, both of us have traced back to the root of tradition; second, both of us fully extend the traditional elements and make them applicable to the entire human race, third, both of us have fundamentally returned to “self” and convert all energy, be it ancient, modern, eastern or western, to our personalized energy. Our visions require great resilience and unstoppable momentum, because there is a long way to go towards perfection. It took Xu Longsen seven years to complete Following Nature, and it took me five years to finish my long poem YI, three years to finish Concentric Circles, and four years to finish Rhapsody. I see the same space awareness in our works. His mountains are like my lines, which are both of great richness and great simplicity. All the mountains and the lines are indispensable to the work they belong to. And you can simultaneously feel the heaviness and lightness of his mountains and my lines. What plays a decisive role here is people’s musical sense, which seems not related to either painting or poem. However, we do write symphonies in our minds, render them in our works, and play them in the audience’s hearts. Music is what dominates our imagined worlds and makes them stable. And the audience will finally immerse themselves in the music. If you listen very carefully, you will see the heaviness and lightness finally combined. Xu Longsen’s paintings can be regarded as visual and conceptual installations, which are essentially the same as my poems. What makes me proud is that my poems are even more extreme than paintings, because language is relatively closed. I intentionally write my long poems in such a way that they cannot be easily translated into other languages, because I believe that I have to challenge the extremeness of the translator and the translation with the extremeness of my original Chinese version. Only by doing so can I have in-depth international exchange with other cultures. In my long poem YI, there is a line, “Only birth in the form of death is real birth”. In my Rhapsody, there is a line, “Beauty is all about falling in love with impossibility”.  Xu Longsen’s paintings say something pretty much the same. Ecstasy, sorrow and pain permeate among his mountains. Have we found the structure of art or the structure of life? Do art and life always convert to each other? Are we part of the conversion process? Yes. And extreme pain can bring about extreme beauty.

In 2011, I once again wandered in Du Fu Thatched Cottage in Chengdu, after 30 years. When I read his poems, I found out that the young man 30 years ago had not understood Du Fu at all. The most profound thing of Chinese culture was waiting for the young man to discover 30 years ago. And the young man was going to experience the same tradition Du Fu had experienced. It is not necessarily Chinese tradition, because the classic transcend any countries, cultures and languages. The classic are only associated to the great individuals, such as Qu Yuan, Du Fu, Ovid and Dante. I once used a phrase in my poem, “death metaphysics”. Death is hidden in life and grows up together with life, watching life go away and come back. Death is the tradition of traditions. It does not need to be globalized, because it has globalized the human race and made it synchronic long ago. Art can convert life to spirit with the help of death. The classic are hidden deeply in our hearts, weighing the value of each artist. When artists and their artworks are juxtaposed without the limit of time, their value can be weighed. The authors of the classic have the confidence to be weighed. Xu Longsen said, “When you reach a certain level, you will come to understand that there is something that other people will never understand.” Here, I see no frustration, I see confidence. Qu Yuan’s Questions to Heaven has been waiting for thousands of years until I come to perceive its original meaning. The long poem symbolizes the tradition pursued by artists of all time. Xu Longsen’s gigantic mountains overlook the world full of crisis from above. He resists hypocrisy by questioning the value of his own life; he withstands fake art by asking the reason of creating artworks; and he tries to prove the true meaning of art by continuously challenging himself. When I left China in 1988, I did not know what my destiny was. But my long poem YI had already predicted it by saying that “One always go home when the one has nowhere to go”. After that, I experienced an unexpected and colorful stage of my life. Looking back, I’m amazed by how much energy and creativity the stage was filled with. It is a home shared by Xu Longsen, me, Du Fu and Huang Gongwang. We do not need to go back there, because we never leave. When I try to give it a more elegant name, I find that there is nothing more appropriate than “poetic ideal”, a concept put forth by Confucius. It is a kind of spirit that never stops the pursuit of the classic. It is the highest mountain.