Gao Xing Jian is a man who wears many hats - painter, novelist, playwright, translator, director, and critic - and is the first China-born recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000 since inception of the prize more than a hundred years ago.
Born in Jiangxi Province of eastern China in 1940, Gao began painting as a child and at the age of ten, wrote and illustrated his first short story. He graduated from the Beijing Foreign Language Academy in 1962 with a major in French. In 1987, Gao left China to settle in Paris where he began a fruitful period of literary and artistic creation.
Gao paints in Chinese ink and has had over thirty international exhibitions in such places as Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Paris, Marseille, Berlin, London, New York, Vienna Luxembourg, and Moscow.
Gao evokes an inner vision of which the destruction of reality is a prerequisite. He also speaks of an inward gaze, "When I close my eyes I try to see things; within the darkness there are tones, glimmers, potentials of seeing, I try to capture what is barely perceptible - the seed of a picture."
Gao Xingjian: Composing a Narrative in Ink Paint
'An artist must walk his own path, and if there are rules, they should only be rules that he himself has created," Gao Xingjian writes in the catalogue for the current exhibition of his paintings at the Alisan Fine Arts gallery in Hong Kong.
Gao, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000, has had a multi-disciplinary artistic journey and is notable for being outstanding in two genres. Although he is better known around the world as a playwright and novelist, Gao, 68, is celebrated among fine art connoisseurs as one of today's giants in the ink-on-rice-paper medium. Like his writing, his paintings convey poetry, intellect and powerful narrative. At the same time, Gao, who was born in eastern China, is a master of ink technique, and his works exude a creative energy born of Chinese tradition while also being thoroughly universal and contemporary. In the last five years, Gao's main form of creative expression has been painting, which he does as a physical activity while listening to classical music, mostly Vivaldi, Kodaly and Bach. The mental and emotional anguish of writing has been blamed for his health issues, including heart problems that resulted in two rounds of open-heart surgery. Alisan, which has represented Gao as a painter since 1996, mounted the Hong Kong show as part of the Le French May cultural festival and included an academic-oriented Gao Xingjian literary conference organized by the City University of Hong Kong. The art exhibit opened on May 22 and closes Wednesday.
It is Alisan's fifth Gao show, and the opening brought the artist, who lives in Paris, to Hong Kong for the first time since his health problems in 2003. Gao created most of the 25 new paintings this year and last year specifically for this show.
"Gao said that he is continuing to explore the path he has taken," said Alice King, the director of Alisan and one of the world's leading promoters of contemporary Chinese ink painting, "that is, to produce works that are neither figurative nor abstract, paintings that are about emerging shadows from his deepest self and could not be rendered in anything else but in ink. He puts the emphasis on the subtle play of light and shadow, flat surfaces exuding a three-dimensional depth," she added." His surviving his illness has no doubt nourished a deeper sense of self, inspirational to his painting."
The works at Alisan continue in the unique style for which Gao has become known: dramatic pieces, rendered primarily in black Chinese ink, his chosen medium since the early 1980s. Gao had an intense childhood art education in mainland China focused on European-style drawing and oil painting. And now he has become a high priest of ink painting using a Western format. His pictures occupy nearly the full frame of the paper, and, echoing his life as ateller of tales, each painting is a story. One piece in the show, "Guerre" (War) stands out as a sublime and thrilling testament to Gao's genius as a painter. The bottom third of the painting depicts a slightly rolling, dark landscape with an almost glaring horizon dotted with small, sharp brushstrokes that may be interpreted as either trees or battalions of warriors. Overhead, the sky is gray with a swirl like a cluster of dangerous, brooding storm clouds. The painting, which is 82 centimeters by 93 centimeters, or 32 inches by 36 inches, was executed with the difficult combination of pouring ink wash on the paper and applying more ink with a dry brush. Another large image, "Monts et cours d'eau" (Mountainsand Streams), which measures 104 centimeters by 88 centimeters, portrays mountain ranges in the distance. It is a fine example of Gao's control of inkwash: With only black ink at his disposal, he elicits varying shades and textures that suggest a range of terrain and hues found in nature. "LeRoutard" (Backpacker) features one of his signature mysterious silhouette figures traveling into an unspecified distance.
Photographs of Gao's paintings often do not come close to capturing the sophistication and emotion of the originals. Gao has described his ink works as "more than self-expression, self-purification." His paintings are an integral part of his life as an artist and have always co-existed alongside his writing. By the time he was 10 years old, Gao had published his first novel and completed two years of formal painting lessons. Although he later considered attending art school, he opted instead to study French and started a career as a translator.When his writing began to be published, his paintings appeared as covers for the original Chinese editions of his books. Later, after fleeing China and beginning a life of exile in Europe in 1987, Gao supported himself by selling his paintings. In the context of his own life's narrative, Gao's art and his experiences are intertwined. Hard-earned dignity and integrity imbue both his writing and painting. He has suffered much, and publicly, to stay true to his ideals.
During the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s, he was forced like many other intellectuals to destroy his works. In the mid-1980s, he was a rising literary star but ended up wandering along the Yangtze River for almost a year to escape political persecution. During that time, he also believed erroneously that he was dying of cancer. The journey produced "Soul Mountain," the semi-autobiographical novel which led to the Nobel committee awarding him the literature prize. After the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, he became persona non grata to the Chinese government for staging a play critical of Beijing. Having lived in France since 1988, he became a French citizen in 1997.
While Gao's paintings are well-respected amongst connoisseurs of ink painting and the cultural elite, his subdued yet complex style had not gained attention at a time when the fashion in contemporary Chinese art was defined as bright and flashy oil paintings on canvas.
He is also barely known in his homeland. His writings remain banned in mainland China and have only been openly published and sold in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Despite being the only writer born in China to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, his name is never mentioned in the mainland media and he is never officially acknowledged.
When Gao won the Nobel Prize, the Chinese government congratulated the French government because one of its citizens had been honored with literature's most prestigious award. Up to today, most Chinese have never heard of him.
In the Alisan show's catalogue, Gao writes, "Even when faced with a market choked with trends and fashions, or an environment saturated with political utilitarianism, if the artist is able to remain unmoved, if he does not compromise, then he will be the type of artist who can create a new aesthetic value, and who will continue to write art history."
Whatever the current winds of whim and politics, Gao's place in China's cultural history appears to be indisputably set.
Alexandra A. Seno
'Recent Works of Gao Xingjian', iPRECIATION Singapore
The Inaugural Asian Film Screening of 'After the Flood', The Arts House, organized by iPreciation Singapore
'A Solo Exhibition of Gao Xingjian', iPRECIATION Hong Kong
'Depois do dilúvio', Berardo Collection of the Sintra Museum of Modern Art, Lisbon
'The End of the World', Ludwig Museum of Deutschherrenhaus, Koblenz, Germany
'Between Figurative and Abstract', Recent Paintings by Gao Xingjian,Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, U.S.A
'A Solo Exhibition of Gao Xingjian', iPRECIATION, Singapore
Art Taipei 2005, Taipei, Taiwan
Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona, Spain
Musee des Beaux-Arts, Mons, Belgium Musee des Tapisseries, Aix-en-Provence, France
Musee de la Vieille Chante, France 2001 Palais des Papes, Avignon, France
National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan