These words are written by an European art historian, who has undertaken many a journey within the People’s Republic of China, having taken on the responsibility for creating of an exhibition of modern Chinese oil paintings for 1996. Of the 31 artists (and some 150 works of art) represented in the exhibition, two artists in particular caught the attention of visitors to the Kunstmuseum in Bonn: Shen Fan and Qiu Shihua. Both attracted attention because the paintings chosen to represent them corresponded to European expectations of Chinese art, while at the same time, being very close to the European sense of form and feeling. This must be explained.
The European art of this century has been shaped by the debate between Realism and Abstraction. In this controversy East Asian art has been a particular asset in favour of abstraction. It is the spritual relationship withing the artwork-‘the Spiritual in the Art’ as Kandinsky put it-which fascinates in East Asian art today, and not the formal aspects, which inspired the Impressionists; it is the meditative, the sublimated, the abstract, world of images which lie beyond what can be recognized by the eye in every day experience.
Many artists in Europe and America have Studied East Asian art. The tradition is as old as the trading relationship between Europe and Asia, between individual countries and China. The late courtly culture of the Rococo had already fallen in love with the late courtly culture of the Middle Kingdom. It compared its own products with that of the other. It produced all possible forms of Chinoiserie, though in the visual arts, this was limited to the Chinese motive. The stylistic cleft between European naturalism and art from East Asia, which was as far removed from naturalism as possible, could not yet be bridged. The first half of the 19th century was dedicated, through Eugene Delacroix for example, to the passionate splendour of Arabian cultures. The Impressionists of the second half of the century searched for the discussion in Japanese woodcuts, which they loved for their unnaturalistic character, for their pure colouring, for the bodilessness and shadowlessness of their representations. An interest in ink painting arose and sinologists introduced factual arrangements into Asian art two dimensional, linear and asymmetric compositional structures in fluenced the culture of Art Nouveau, inspired by Japan. But the Fauves, the Expressionist, the Cubists and also the Surrealists, excited by the art of the so called Primitives, were cool towards the art of the Far East.
Between the two world wars, and particularly after the Second World War, new affinities started to develop. The search for meditative reflection and rising spirituality, whose roots were to be found in the calligraphic art of East Asia, influenced the scriptural tendencies of the new art in Europe and America. In America it was Mark Tobey, in Germany Julius Bissier, who were the forerunners of this new under standing of Asian art. Both worked in black and white ink; both read sinological literature. Bissier, for example, read Ernst Gross’s Book of 1922 about East Asian ink paintings. Tobey even travelled to the Far East; many other artists followed. For these two artists: East Asia lay closer than the Surrealism of the West.
Both artists longed for the spiritual, for being at one with nature and the spirit perhaps also with God. Their romantic spirituality, laid down by German Romantics such as Caspar David Friedrich and others related not only to Medieval mysticism, but also to Eastern spirituality. They energetically searched for the Taoist philosophy of nature, the precursor of Chinese Buddhism, and sought the wisdom of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Many more artists, including those of the Cobra Group in Europe and Brice Marden and Robert Ryman in America, also followed.
Abstraction may be understood as an individual position emphasizing the inner self. It eagerly seeks the centre of the universe making the painting identical to that centre, without the need for biographically-expressive self-contortions dictating the form of expression as it did in the American Abstract Expressionism of, for example, Jackson Pollock, Meditation, understood as the giving up of one’s own individuality. Has a double objective: finding the inner self and finding the world.
This activity of doing and this passivity of accepting, frees the artist from the need to reproduce reality. He finds the pure breath of man; he remains untouched by all personal experiences and suffering; he becomes one with nature; he becomes one with the being which is free from all experiences and suffering; he becomes one with nature; he becomes one with the being which is free from all experience and suffering. His brush strokes become comparable to the taking in of pure breath.
In many biographies of Western artists, the link to East-Asia becomes apparent: the search for simplicity in scripture and its overlapping forms, the pleasure derived from the ink brush, the freedom of the pictorial script, which is bound to the written character: knowing that characters can be superimposed on one-another until their simplicity is lost, until no longer readable, while nevertheless they retain meaning in the newly won abstraction.
In Shen Fan's paintings one finds all these elements intensified. Yet it seems he underlies a greater order than the expanding, strongly gestural European and American, i.e. Western art. The artist withdraws completely (from the painting) without working mechanically. In stylistic terms, he solves problems easily; he solves the problem of the 'all over', as emphasized by Jackson Pollock, i.e. the 'loss of the centre' which is how Sedelmayer formulated his criticism of the art of our century. Shen Fan's works remain stuctured within themselves. No points are given preference over others and none are neglected. Looking at the border of his paintings, which remains intentionally on the paper, it becomes clear that the image is being shown as a picture, that the artist is painting pictures, not just spreading pattern. --this is a working principle which he shares.
To the European eye, these paintings clarify the secrets of the East, the search for the sublime, which need not reproduce reality. This taking on of traditions in order to transfer them from the present to the future accords with the thinking of the European Avant-garde. The emphasis on individuality, but also at the same time the rejection of the traditional Chinese picture-the waterfall in mist, painted in ink on paper, the defining of forms in abstract fields, produces a relevance in the image which can be understood in both the People’s Republic of China and in the West. The boundaries between both cultures have become increasingly blurred in the last 100 years. Particularly today, there are close points of contact, as Western oil painting has for a long time been taught at Chinese art academies, but also because the European eye has already been prepared for specific Chinese statements.
When I first visited Shen Fan's Studio in 1995 and saw his paintings, I was immediately gripped. I grew silent, forgot Shanghai’s noise and commotion, and recognized a type of monastic silence, which led me to ponder new questions and to reflect on myself. His art is not only a play with forms, but also a statement. His practice is not only action but also position.
I immediately identified the unfathomable in these paintings, a great depth, which was not created through painting-inheritant perspectives in a pictorial sense ( which was not created by applying techniques of perspective painting), but through layers of marks that result in a spiritual depth, which force the viewer into a highly time consuming process if he is to find the answers to his personal dialogue with these paintings.
Here was the opposite of Chinese Pop Art, or of the politically charged images, or the ironic statements, the melancholic or sad paintings. Here I found a pictorial creativity at rest with itself, a creativity able to express itself openly and precisely, backwards and forwards, linking many different times while operating completely self-sufficiently, without letting the viewer forget that behind the image there is a creator—an individual who operates as an active producer.
Behind the objectivity of the painting lies a substantial subjectivity. The reading of this subjectivity is made easier by the fact that apparently similar picture, which enter into dialogue with each other, start to differentiate themselves. The differences also accentuate the truth, which perhaps becomes clear when one examines a single work. However, the artist does not simply make variations of series, as in Western art.
He bears witness to the attempt to go beyond the limits of pictorial possibilities without depending on the visual. The process of withdrawing into oneself, the concentration, the effort, the strain on ones nerves, all of which are necessary to produce the work, are conveyed to the viewer without the impression of biographical necessities. This detachment from now the then, tomorrow and today, from mind and body, form nature and physique, from conduct and dealing, all of which still play a role in the resulting image, are persuasively and convincingly captured in Shen Fan’s work.
The lack of narrative in Shen Fan's work, the emphasis on softness which overcomes hardness, the reference back to the philosophy of East Asia, creates a new visual expression which is recognizable as a form of writing, but which refuses to be read, as each work is anchored in a transcendental space. Nonetheless, these paintings are not a religion, not an illustration of religion, but precisely self-oriented paintings as paintings.
Even if the artist does not write a theory, like many Western artists do, there lies behind the works a hidden philosophy, which influences the character of the work. The philosophy could, from a European point of view, be understood as a Western examination of East-Asian culture, consisting not only of the absorption of pure tradition, its repetition through music, theater, Peking opera or paintings: it is not allowed to involve simply copying the Mona Lisa or a Vermeer, but the transfer of intuitive, ingenious and apparently traditional techniques to modernity, whose linguistic nature allows an international reading, without the roots being negated. Shen Fan is an artist who has in the increasingly global world the responsibility for an important visual communication. He counters hectic with peace, the hubbub of traffic in his city with the tranquility of the painting, without negating the basic constraints of today’s life, the tangles, the self-rotation, the overlapping multi-layerdness of urban life. The artist accentuates, he does not portray; he sublimates, he does not narrate.
Products, which have been removed from their place of production, are no longer subject to the controls set by the producer. The purchaser or the observer, in this case of paintings by Shen Fan, can argue independently of the thoughts of the artist, and does his best with the paintings. When these paintings have the power of communicative ability not only in the artists circle of friends, not only in Shanghai, not only in the province, not only in the People's Republic of China, but also outside China-outside Asia, in America or in Europe. Then the matter concerns an international art form, whose roots we locate, but whose wisdom we can view from an international standpoint.
That is all the art, spread over riddles, --and those are all works of art:
riddles, surrounded, ornamentated, covered with love.
(Rainer Maria Rilke)
Bonn, August 1996