Asian art

Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000 but he has also revived abstract painting though his Eastern sensibility and technique

“We exist in a state of barbarity, where art is on the point of not loving art”


Winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 2000, Gao Xingjian, the author of Soul Mountain, is also a virtuoso painter in ink against the trend of contemporary conceptual art. This voluntary exile who chose to live in Paris to escape the constraints of the Chinese Cultural Revolution believes that art cannot be dissociated from poetry. Gao (his surname), wrote his first novel and exhibited his first drawings at the age of 12. A painter, man of letters and the stage, he explained, “Painting is my real profession, my livelihood, while literature is my luxury, my hobby”.

This aesthete who champions the poetic vision of the world was a star in his own country at the age of 30 but after suffering "censorship and self-censorship and extreme personal tragedy" under the communist regime, he decided to move to the West and chose Paris which he professes to love for being “'very humane and universal”. “Here,” he says, “one does not feel a foreigner”.

His pictorial revolution consists in having turned the ancient tradition of Chinese ink into something utterly modern. To break the deadlock of the centuries, he has introduced to it vital elements of Western art: light and colour; depth, creating what he calls “false perspective”, as well as the dynamics and innovation of contemporary art techniques.

Light and depth have turned into the subjects of his work, which under the influence of Zen philosophy becomes a series of visions or inner landscapes between abstract and figurative.

Gao Xingjian, who insists that the difference between West and East does not interest him, paints using wholly traditional materials—rice paper, Chinese brushes and ink—but his technique, colour and light are utterly modern. He gave an interview to The Art Newspaper as his retrospective, now at the Museo de Bella Arte of La Coruña (23 May-20 July, Tel: +34 981 923 7239), opened recently at the the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid,

The Art Newspaper: For you, being an artist is associated with pleasure. What is your conception of painting?

Gao Xingjian: Painting is more a purification than an expression of self. The inner self is very small, a black hole. I do not believe in inspiration nor in the “I”', because man is chaos, not to say hell. It needs courage, taste, vitality and ingenuity to succeed in seeing further than oneself (and this world full of shit); that is how to achieve lucidity and a vision that projects luminosity.

TAN: Your painting is done with the most traditional materials—rice paper, Chinese brushes and ink—yet this was a late adoption. Why ?

GX: I started painting very young in the Western traditions, watercolour and oil. The first time I came to the West, in 1978, at the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as an interpreter, part of an international delegation, we travelled to Paris, Rome and Florence. When I saw with my own eyes the real quality of the masterpieces of Western painters and the colour, I realised that what I was doing with oil paint in China was worthless. I compared all the sensibility, that knowledge, that taste, those materials, those tones, and asked myself, is it worth my continuing? The answer was, certainly not. Oil never had a tradition in China so I lacked everything, from knowledge to finesse.

At the same time, in Nice, at the Maeght Foundation, I saw the ink drawings of Picasso, of Henri Michaux, and the same thing was happening to them as to me with oil; they lacked richness, nuance, the creativity that ink can stimulate, because there is no long tradition in that medium here. Everything looked black and white, of a brutal simplicity. This is the great lacuna of the Westerners. I realised that there was no sense in breaking with the ink tradition, but decided to rework it.

TAN: How?

GX: For me, it has never been enough to accept all the traditional codes and conventions. They have to be reworked and that is my talent. My idea was to make something modern of the Chinese ink tradition, with a Western dynamic. In truth I do not like the old tradition of Chinese painting because it repeats itself and the inks have been static since the days of the Tang dynasty when the technique was highly evolved; later in the Ming and Song eras there was a small innovation and ink became a little more expressive but the technique was the same. The problem in China is that there is a huge burden of tradition and because of this, development is minimal. Meanwhile Western contemporary art has not ceased to innovate. My point of departure was to combine the traditional medium of ink and the advantages of my experience of working in oil. Light is too important to be left out.

TAN: Because of that you have turned light into a medium of your painting.

GX: By using light as a medium I avoid a possible crude reduction of my painting to black and white. Light, for its part, works the tones of the picture. In my inks, the white is never empty space nor the black a hole, because light gives them substance. My work has a palette of over 30 grey, black and white tonalities.

TAN: In addition to light, the other great subject of your investigations is depth. You have created false perspective. What is it exactly ?

GX: Flat painting ended in the Renaissance with perspective finding a third dimension, but this depth has been sacrificed again in modern painting. Why? Perhaps the perspective of the Renaissance with its vanishing points is not valid. I thought that a new perspective needed to be invented, which I call “false perspective”. It is not the perspective of the Renaissance nor the geometric perspective of Euclid; nor is it akin to the Cubist decomposition of space or to flat or deconstructivist geometry. I refer to a depth based in the visual gaze, to a depth like a vision, like an impossible dream, for a picture should be worth the trouble of being looked at to infinity. It is an indefinite depth; it can be compared to the zoom of a camera.

It is a depth like a journey to the interior of the picture which shapes an inner vision and evokes emotion, energy, vitality. And it is the same for the artist as for the viewer of the picture. One needs to look in the same way as one paints: it demands the same attention and imagination. When I paint or write I use language to create an inner vision not a description.

TAN: In what way are you influenced by Zen philosophy ?

GX: Already as a young man I started following my father’s interests; then, after the Cultural Revolution I completed my inquiry into Zen philosophy. I have always looked within. I have never made copies. Zen is my support because it is a way of life in which no obsessions exist, in which the “I” is forgotten. It is a way of creation for the artist, inexplicable, beyond words. Emptiness in art does not mean the absence of everything; it is rather a spirit that illuminates the works of art revealing an inner state that the artist feels. The Zen spirit is very beneficial to artists because it frees the individual’s hidden creativity. It lets go all kinds of prejudices. However, my painting does not seek to give form to philosophy but to find its own way, in other works to succeed in feeling the great inner void that everyone in the world possesses.

TAN: With Zen you have found your personal language, a world “between”. Between what exactly?

GX: Everything that is defined, clear, is of no interest here. “Between” refers to a vast field of exploration between the abstract and the figurative, between dream and reality. That intermediate area is what interests me. My initial idea was to break the absolute division between the figurative and the abstract, which means, in its turn, doing away with the division of the history of art into successive layers. The categorisation of art obliges a label to be pinned on an artist to identify him at first sight. Artists should reject this type of classification; when concepts and definitions of painting are abolished, one gets concrete forms, naturally born forms, forms full of feeling.

TAN: There is a great sensual force in your work. Is this linked to your love of women?

GX: I love women; if life is worth the trouble of living it is thanks to love. Otherwise life is a bitch. Art and love, art and women are for a man the essence, the marvel.

TAN: You were speaking of the great inner void as if we had to run away from everything. What are you running away from?

GX: We have to run away from many things, nearly everything. Not only oppression but conventionality. Consumption. Fashion. Simplification. The masses. The Other. To write, to paint is an act of defiance. It is a flight from what impoverishes and diminishes the human being. One has to run away from everything except oneself even though the chaos reigns within oneself.

TAN: You were saying that Western art has not ceased to innovate but despite all the innovations, people complain that contemporary art has stayed on the surface.

GX: That’s where the tragedy lies; it has been reduced to the investigation of matter. The art of today is profoundly materialistic! Only matter talks and the materials are regarded as the language of creation; it is a sickness of our time. The tragedy of the art of our age is that so much art is the search for pure form, which turns it into mere decoration.

TAN: You had an education that was both Western and Eastern. How did this happen?

GX: The Western education was from my mother. She died young and because of this I always remember her as beautiful. She came from a great family and perhaps because of this never suffered or had psychological problems; she was always happy even during the war.

She had a very Western education with American missionaries although she was not a believer. She was an actress and started to work in the theatre with a Mormon group. It was a great milieu through which to be introduced to Western culture. But the theatre was modern and also opposed to the Sino-Japanese war.

I went on stage with my mother at the age of five. She was a very liberal woman with many friends in Hong Kong. In my house there were no taboos of any kind. My house had Western paintings, photographs of American actresses. But I was lucky to be educated also on the traditional front.

TAN: By your father, wasn’t it?

GX: Yes. He was a man who knew much about traditional Chinese painting and had a fabulous library of old books. When the Communists came into power, everything was controlled but in my house we already had everything. I was really very lucky.

TAN: The Cultural Revolution took away your parents, made you burn your writing, confiscated your painting. Are you able to forgive?

GX: What does rancour achieve? Rancour kills life. I have suffered a great deal but had I remained in a state of hatred and rancour I would have misspent the rest of my life.

TAN: You say you are an aesthete; your book Soul Mountain is a search for beauty. How does this influence your painting?

GX: The essence of art lies in aesthetics. The artist is above all an aesthete and the genesis of his or her thinking cannot be dissociated from the activities of artistic judgement and creation. The criticism he or she makes of society and the challenge issued is an aesthetic and ethical judgement rather than an ideological act. If the artist substitutes for his or her aesthetic judgement any other value judgement, be it social, political or ethical, that person is dead as an artist. No artist has ever saved the world.

Beauty is the object of all my work and I look for perfection. However, beauty is not what is pretty but what is worth looking at. Nor is it something minutely worked but the search for harmony, something that should spring forth immediately, by chance. Beauty is intuitive, objective and subjective at the same time. The beautiful is not abstract but something very concrete and not only spiritual. Beauty has a very sensual side and sensuality is something of substance, like the body of a woman or a smile as subtle as Mona Lisa’s. Beauty is always an ephemeral state. Everything that is impossible to fix is beauty.

Gao Xingjian, Pour une autre aesthetique (Flammarion, Paris, 2001)

For more information contact Marie Paule Barbut, La Tour des Cardinaux, Marseille, France, Tel: +33 4 91 54 71 57


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