AOTW #4: Gao Xingjian touches souls with haunting monochrome masterpieces rendered in ink.
Beguiling in it's simplicity, yet filled with subtle layers of meaning, Gao Xingjian blends black ink and blank space to create works of art that leave you lost for words.
As an ode to ink, we dedicate this week's 'Artist of the Week' post to Gao Xingjian, a Chinese artist, director, playwright, poet and Nobel Prize winner for literature. His ink-wash art is a mesmerizing example of the power of ink as a mode expression, and the wonderful symphony of Oriental and Western artistic traditions.
Ink drop painting is one of our favorite art activities, here at Pass the Crayon. We keep coming back to ink as a creative medium because it presents our young artists with a unique set of challenges. To bring some form of clarity to their work, they must learn to guide the ink, to harness its fluid energy.
Every child (and adult) finds an innocent enjoyment in the swirl of combining colours, the dripping and running into rainbow pools and gleaming estuaries of colour. Whilst this process is intriguing in its own right, after a few attempts at forming intentional patterns and shapes, it becomes clear that ink painting requires a precision and sensitivity that can take a lifetime to master. Our own forays into ink art make us even more admiring of Gao Xingjian, a man who explores this creative realm from a unique perspective, creating '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.'
With it's origins in calligraphy, ink wash art, also known as 'literati painting', traditionally uses black ink made from charcoal, applied to rice paper using a bamboo brush tipped with wolf hair. A meditative practice with it's roots dating back to the Tang Dynasty of 620 A.D, ink wash art seeks to capture 'chi', the essential life-force of nature.
Gao Xingjian studied literati, as well as sculpture and sketching in his native China, whilst also developing a love for the more expansive style of Western Modernism. Describing the discipline of ink wash painting as too 'codified', Xingjian began to study Western fine art and oil painting, moving away from the structure of Chinese art, whilst retaining and utilizing a lot of its techniques. Describing himself as a 'go-between', Xingjian's art bridges the 'Oriental world, which forms the basis of his identity, and the Occidental world of which he discusses the idea of modernity.'
Born in Communist China during the reign of Mao, Xingjian moved to Europe and has now lived in Paris for over twenty years. After learning of the Tiananmen Square massacres of 1989, Xingjian publicly denounced China, tore up his Chinese passport, and claimed political asylum in Europe. Although he is an extremely well renowned artistic and literary figure in the West, not least for the fact he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, his native country still refuses to acknowledge his accomplishments. When he was still living in China, Xingjian experienced a lot of censorship, and a number of his plays were banned by the authorities, who saw his modern expressionist style as 'spiritually polluting'- in stark contrast with Xingjian's own intentions of 'self-expression, self-purification'.
Describing himself as a "fragile man who has managed not to be crushed by authority and to speak to the world in his own voice", Xingjian uses words and images to express concept, emotion and memory in a way which resonates deep within ones soul. Rather like cloud-spotting, his black and white patterns reveal shapes and forms which are universal, and yet extremely intimate.
The room was a large white space, with benches placed in the centre, facing outwards. On the four walls of the room were six canvases. Each canvas was a monochrome painting- I thought it was a painting, but on further inspection it appeared to just be black ink- sometimes brushed, and sometimes dripped- which pooled onto the canvas in ostensibly organic shapes, that when viewed panoramically, revealed themselves to be images with a distinct and powerful narrative.
For the next hour, I sat on one of the benches, gazing at each painting in turn. I had never heard of Gao Xingjian before, but his paintings had made a strong impression. What struck me on that day about his art, and about ink as a medium in general, was its raw power- the atonal simplicity of black and white adding to, rather than diluting this effect- creating a Yin/Yan harmony, evoking a strong, almost primitive response.
Xingjian's fusion of the delicacy of traditional ink wash art, and the expressiveness of Occidental art, played out on big canvas, creates monochrome masterpieces which are at once simple, and yet utterly profound.
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