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Artist emerges from seclusion after abstract exploration

Bi Nan
Updated: Nov 27,2015 10:11 AM

Ink Bird, 1980, by Xu Dongdong, collected by the Nanjing Museum.[Photo provided to]

Snowfall in Beijing brought a chilly draft to the capital, while also adding fun and beauty to the bleak winter. Artist Xu Dongdong was even more excited as the snow is a perfect material for his painting.

After 10 years of seclusion from the earthly world, Xu is coming back with his new “Four Seasons” series.

Xu believes that only by forgetting oneself can an artist produce real masterpieces.

“I want to make up for the abstract part in Chinese art”, master Xu said. “Mentioning Chinese painting, many foreigners’ impression still stays on ancient Chinese paintings in the Song Dynasty or suchlike.”

He is trying to change that while creating abstract painting is not his final goal. “What I pursue is the cosmology rooted in Chinese philosophy”, Xu said.

He thinks the new age requires painters to create new technique with new thought to reflect the society we live in.

He began painting at the age of 15, not as a result of family heredity, but against his family’s will, as he was born into a scholar’s family.

While taking the road to art, he never regretted his choice and the fact that he travels smoothly on his chosen road it seems that he is born to be an artist.

Xu had his first solo exhibition in the National Art Museum of China at the age of 28. The following year, he was given the title of national level-one artist, and later became a member of the China Artists Association.

From 1990-1991, China’s Ministry of Culture and Chinese Artists Association toured an exhibition around the nation for Xu, which was quite a distinction for an artist at that time.

Four Seasons, 2013-2014, by Xu Dongdong. [Photo provided to]

Four Seasons

“Put heart in the universe”, Xu says. Since the autumn of 2013, he started to create a series of paintings themed on the four seasons.

“Spring symbolizes the beginning of life, and it has good and evil aspects, which is also applicable to all things on earth. All of these ideas are shown in my paintings”, Xu said.

During the creation of his “winter” series, Xu put his half-finished painting in a snowfield and let the snow fall on it. Several days later, when he took back the painting, he was delighted to see a piece he had created with nature.

He also likes mixing rain water or snow water with his pigments to add more “nature” color to his pieces.

“Painting is my soul. I paint with snow in the winter, rain in the summer, sand wind in the autumn and dew in the spring”, Xu said, “This way, I can deeply feel the changes of the four seasons and sense the throbbing of the soul in the universe.”

The four seasons, in Xu’s paintings, not only reflect changes in natural scenery, but also reflect the balance and harmony between humans and nature, even the universe.

“The four seasons I paint, are actually the souls evolving in the cosmos”, Xu said. “We can’t see souls, but we can feel them through the changes.”

Picturesque Scenery, 1974, by Xu Dongdong.[Photo provided to]

Imitating the Palace Museum

“Imitating ancient painting is like making friends with ancient masters. I can not only learn their artistic technique, but also become aware of their life attitudes”, Xu said.

“I got to know their differences by standing several meters away. Some paintings become my good friends, while some are just passers-by to me.”

Even Xu himself can’t remember when he began to get addicted to painting.

He only remembers that he often hung around in the painting pavilions in the Palace Museum and always stayed late until the museum closed. Taking a lunch box with him, he went to the Palace Museum almost every day from morning to night.

There, he had the chance to see great masters’ paintings, like Ni Yunlin and Shi Tao. He not only watched these paintings, but also began imitating them. That life lasted five years.

In addition, he also went to libraries to look for articles written by the great painters as well as comments and reviews about their works.

Different from other imitators who only copy ancient masters’ technique and the outline of paintings, Xu is dedicated to learning the inner beauty of the paintings, which he calls “heart copying”, that is to imitate the internal charm of the famed artworks.

“Chinese painting stresses learning from the inner heart. It seems that I have realized this long before”, Xu said.

Village Girl, 1989, by Xu Dongdong. [Photo provided to]

Way to the art

A prodigy as Xu was, he began taking up the brush since he was very young. “I got art enlightenment since childhood, as my bedroom was hung with Xu Beihong’s painting and Shen Yinmo’s scroll.”

The earliest works from Xu were ink paintings created when he was 15 and 16 years old.

Starting from traditional paintings, Xu was also dedicated to learning western art, not purely as a hobby, but he thinks it’s the trend of cultural communication and the modern era.

From western medieval paintings, to the Florence school of painting, Neoclassical romanticism, impressionism, cubism, and modernist, western art has exerted much influence on him.

By learning western art, he began innovating Chinese paintings.

“Artists bear much pressure in China, and are supposed to inherit the tradition, and make innovations at the same time”, Xu said.

In September 1990, his national tour sponsored by China’s Ministry of Culture and Chinese Artists Association showcased his innovative paintings, which won much appraise around the nation.

Christmas, 1990, by Xu Dongdong.[Photo provided to]

From imagism to abstractionism

In the 1980s, Xu brought forward the concept of Chinese abstract painting, which is to include abstract elements in traditional Chinese culture.

He says he wants to cultivate Chinese people’s interest and inclination of abstract thinking.

Xu’s abstractionism is quite different from many other artists who just intimate. Xu, however, searches for the concept of abstractionism from ancient Chinese philosophy and fuses it with the abstract way of thinking in the western art, establishing a unique style which reflects Chinese people’s spirits.

The transition from traditional freehand brushwork to abstract art is not an easy road; Xu had gone through much hardship.

He thinks that Chinese people are good at figurative painting, but weak in abstract painting, thus they will easily ignore the deep meanings.

He hopes to introduce Chinese people to the abstract way of thinking through his brush. “To bring abstract thinking back to Chinese culture”, in Xu’s words, this also meets the demands of modern era.

Bamboo House, 1987, by Xu Dongdong.[Photo provided to]

Travelling through mountains and rivers

“Chinese landscape painting is different from Western landscape painting, and Chinese people have special favor and worship to the mountains”, Xu said.

In his view, painters not only paint the mountain they have seen, but portray a fairy land people yearn for, as the mountain is always attached to divinity.

From 1984, Xu began to create works themed on China’s mountains. He first did research of all the mountains and rivers in China and then categorized them, before finally making a list for his mountain hiking plan.

From the Great Khingan in China’s far north, to the Wuzhishan Mountain in southernmost Hainan province, he visited more than 30 mountains in a couple of years. Besides, he also researched rivers and lakes related to mountains.

“The biggest contribution Chinese artists have made to landscape painting is that they paint life into landscape paintings, and the life and paintings keep in harmony”, Xu said.

The Inner World of Xu Dongdong, a book published in 1997, recorded Xu’s dialogue with nature, which also tells us how Xu views the traditional culture and how he exchanges with the external culture.

Listen to a Spring Song amid Melting Snow, 1999, by Xu Dongdong, collected by the United Nations.[Photo provided to]

Going abroad

Inspired by Chinese rivers and mountains, Xu then began his international creation.

His large performance art activity “Dreams of Sunshine and Harmony” began in 1997, which involved thousands of libraries, museums and art galleries in Asia, Europe and America. Among them, 75 national libraries and more than 600 libraries made his works a permanent collection.

The activity, based on The Inner World of Xu Dongdong, is dedicated to promote cultural communications around the world.

It is said to be the largest-scale international folk cultural exchange since China’s Ming Dynasty, and Xu was honored as “a person bridging Chinese and Western cultures”.

In April 2001, Xu’s retrospective “From tradition to Present” was unveiled at the United Nations in Geneva. The exhibition, hosted by the UN, shows 50 pieces created by Xu in different periods. Among them the painting Listen to a Spring Song amid Melting Snow was collected by the UN permanently and was included in the UN’s book.

Vladimir Petrovsky, who was the director-general of the UN Office in Geneva, and Rubens Ricupero, secretary-general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development attended Xu’s exhibition and spoke highly of Xu’s paintings. They said Xu conducted extensive communication with foreign art organizations, which is in line with the concept of “Dialogues among Civilizations” promoted by the UN.

A hermit during his peak

In 2003, when Xu was enjoying much fame and honor, a peak time in his life, surprisingly, he didn’t actually enjoy it, and chose to live a reclusive life.

He built a private garden on the bank of the Chaobai River in the east of Beijing. Getting rid of earthly things, he relaxed and paid no attention to the outside world.

Though secluded from the outside, Xu still feels a sense of mission driving him to sail, in the art world. He calls the sense “destiny”.

People should pursue beyond satisfying their stomach, they should have a higher-level pursuit, derived from the inner heart. “I have read a great number of Chinese philosopher Lu Jiuyuan’s works, who teaches me to create artistic conception using heart,” he said.

His new book Mind Generating Universe will be published this year, from which we can see Xu’s artistic exploration and his enlightenment from the secluded life. The book will be a major piece in China’s abstract painting field.

At the end he writes: “Comply with nature, I got insight, as the life journey I am taking now, still has shadows of Confucius and Wang Yangming who are leading me.”