My personal experience in painting dates from my childhood. Being a unique child painting has always been something of a refuge that was compensating in some way for a poor socialization. The result of immigration in Walloonia, for a Flemish child just after the second world war, was indeed drastically limiting his contacts with Walloon kids and it ensued thus that I socialized mostly with nature and with paint, with the paint material on the canvas instead of with other children. Paint allowed me to have unlimited conversations with myself.
I had the exceptional chance to have the great WATKINE(1) as master in my teens. He taught me the love of nature and also the freedom to play with colors. By the time I attended university in Brussels, as young provincial, I was attracted by SOMVILLE(2) and attended some of his classes at the Boitsfort Academy of Arts, I did not expect that a decade later I would befriend one of his colleagues TIMPER.
The decade between SOMVILLE and TIMPER(3), both culturally Latins, has been the most influential in my life. It has been a kind of jumping out or perhaps of dropout of society's conventions, seeing with Castaneda's(4) Don Juan and learning with Krishnamurti(5) to appreciate the higher plane of harmony's perpetual change. JIPI (6), the Flemish Shaman, showed me how to let lines and colors go where they want free of interference from oneself's will. It was a time of group painting with PIERROT, STEURS and others culminating with free expression at the "BRASSERIE"(7) that in the end pitifully fell in Walloon pessimism.
This is when I quit the maelstrom and tried to immerse myself in Belgian society's decision making. But this proved to be too much of an effort for me and I left a few years later, in the mid-eighties, to land in China where I stayed nearly two decades digesting the philosophical pleasures of insipidity, learning the taste of water and its natural movement down the slopes. During those years, oh irony, Xiaohong(8) taught me the roots of European classicism and helped me to appreciate technical rigor which I discovered "en masse" at the hands of Chinese painters.
Today I appreciate a work well done technically but I believe that technique and art remain two different things. You need indeed to master the technique in which you express yourself in order not to be burdened by technical matters but your technique does not automatically transform what you express into art. Without technique what you express seems unfinished and without intellectual content it is as if what you express were shallow.
While in Belgium I followed the modernist movance and played in the styles of most of its schools. In China I earned an eyesight on the deafening technical skills of Chinese academic painters. I have to recognize that initially I had difficulties with traditional Chinese painting: Gongbi and Xieji. You need first to have been exposed to Chinese traditional philosophy to grasp what is going on in Xieji painting. Its practitioners are indeed literati artists who execute expressionistic and gestural strokes to render their vision of the essence of the subject they try to represent.
I was interested in philosophy, I devoured the classics and started soon to be attracted by Xieji. Basically, in this approach the artist is a thinker who is up to date about Chinese philosophy. Understanding that reality is a process of change that is at work around all our universe, the artist makes the Tao, the way of life or the spirit of all things and living beings his subject of painting. His conscience and acceptance of how the process of change affects all things and beings let's him ultimately discover the Tao within the object of his painting.
Xieyi painting aims to capture the Xi or energetic body underlying the Tao of the represented object. Gu Kaizhi an artist of the Jin Dynasty (c. 345-406) wrote that Xieji is "making the form show the spirit". It is often presented as the aphorism "painting in poetry and poetry in painting". Xieji is also often translated as "writing one's soul" but my preferred translation is "writing the meaning down". “Writing the meaning down” reflects indeed perfectly this idea of capturing the energetic body of the Tao of the represented object. Think about a mountain, the meaning of the mountain is to be found in the energetic body of its own Tao or spirit. What does that mean? Well it means that the artist has to get a feel, inside the first degree image of the mountain that appears on his retina, of the way the mountain was formed, how the energy of Gaia molded its shape and being and where this movement is ultimately leading the shape of the mountain in the future. In other words the painter, observing as a philosopher, tries to capture the past changes that shaped his subject in its present form and the present and future changes that are already affecting the present form of his subject.
A Xieyi painting is finished in one setting capturing the spirit or the essence of the subject with masterful brush strokes and a good sense of balance in the composition. One can thus understand that a Xieji painting does not start with the act of painting, it starts with observation and painting can only start when the artist has internalized the spirit of his subject. Some painters could observe a mountain for years before starting to paint it. Wow so much for merchandization! In Xieji painting, the artist first observes his subject until he captures the essence of it's being, its spirit, in other words its Tao. Then the artist produces trial after trial of very fast representations. He will stop painting when his last trial entirely satisfies his vision of the spirit of his subject. Each trial is made of simple and bold strokes and terminated within a few minutes. Only the last trial is kept. It is the work of art. All other trials are no more than exercises and are burnt!
My personal approach toward painting and more generally toward visual arts is somehow the result of the many influences that I underwent along my life but more particularly it is the result of the gigantic shock between:
- my understanding and practice of European modernism.
- my discovery of Chinese philosophy and of Chinese visual arts.
It took me all the years between the mid-eighties and the early years of the first decade of the twenty-first century to digest that cultural shock. It's difficult to lay out in just a few words the impact of such an awakening trail. I had already experienced 2 earlier cultural shocks through immigration and than through education but nothing compares with the immersion of a young naive European in daily Chinese realities for nearly two decades.
Along that uneven road, I have experienced the need to go back to my received ideas. Those were not satisfying me any longer. Two fields then absorbed my interest and all my time:
- the formation of modernity which is one stage of societal development along the history of humanity.
- the build-up of culture and the formation of civilizations and more particularly the history of the Chinese civilization and the content and formation of its value system.
After fifteen years of extensive reading my ideas were starting to come together. The time had come for me to try my hands at painting again. I terminated some 10 gouaches in 2000-2001 and then worked on 26 tapestry/rug designs. By that time Xiaohong and I decided to experience life in the US. The chaos wrought upon China by ultra fast industrialization and the opening of the country to greed had exacted a toll on our energies. We were tired and needed a change of air.
I'm not actively participating in the working of societies. I lived in Europe the first 35 years of my life then I stayed in China for the next 15. By the year 2000 China was at the height of the side-effects of its rapid economic development and to preserve my health I decided to live in the US. The prospect to complete a journey experiencing the life conditions and ways of doing and thinking, at the dawn of the 21st century in 3 of the most active areas on earth, is a very exciting one indeed. The quietude and vast open spaces in Wisconsin and later Pennsylvania were definitely reinvigorating. A broadband connection kept us in touch with what was going on in Europe and China and then... I came in contact with blogging. I started to post in march of 2003 and gradually an idea built in my mind, why not use those posts as material to write something more substantial. Something had started to gestate that now is available as a book.
I spent all of 2004 writing. The act of writing brings about much thinking and my painting later underwent the influence of that thinking. The solitude that is imposed on you by the act of writing plunges you on the margins of society where the noise coming out of the world disintegrates and so you are left on your own to always dig deeper inside your thoughts. That's a short but good summary, I think, of the dynamic I went through: solitude, quietude, thinking, writing and painting. At the end of this peregrination my vision about painting and the visual arts had morphed into some kind of a composite(9): nor modern in the sense of whatever Western modern school nor Chinese Xieyi nor Gongbi. Somehow I guess that I took something out of all those approaches, the elements that I fell would allow me to express the Tao of our days, the spirit of our time, or the nature of our emerging future.
After 10 years in the States I grew impatient. My mind was not accepting any longer to see how Americans, who are a bunch of really decent and friendly people, are suffering from the stupidity of their empire and I decided to spend my last years, where I have felt the freest ever, in China.
All those years around the world I have been observing and thinking about what I saw. I like to understand cultural, economic, societal and environmental evolution. I feel that a clear intellectual understanding procures a high dose of esthetic pleasure and so I write and paint about my thinking hoping to preserve and, if at all possible, to increase the esthetic pleasure I experienced initially.
The radical differences between the history of Western modernity and China's present entry into it offers a useful mirror for deconstructing our Western history. I have been observing China for the last 30 years and, the least I can say is that, this has shifted my outlook on life, art, and modernity.
What I have been observing along all those years is the rapid fall of Modernity. I feel indeed in my mind and my eyes that we are living at the end of an era and that on the horizon we can start to see the grey fog line of what awaits us in the future. As you can imagine I'm passionately trying to decipher what is in that fog. My thinking and writing are thus about discovering the emerging patterns of what comes after Modernity. In my painting I try to give visual signs of such patterns that I feel are slowly shaping a new historical era that I call After-Modernity.
In Beijing I think, dream, write, paint and sometimes wander around the country. What I write I make available on my blog. I also share pictures of my paintings on my paintings web gallery. You are welcome to visit.
(1) Watkyne: Jacques Vandewattyne; Walloon folk-art painter, author of a folk-art manifesto and activist of "simple and slow life" philosophy.
(2) Roger Somville: Belgian contemporary painter, realist activist wanting to counter the influence of abstract art. He intended to put man at the center of his art. He struggled against the growing tendency of modern painting's loss of sense and its dehumanization.
(3) Paul Timper: Walloon contemporary painter and potter.
(4) Castaneda: American anthropologist studying animism. His works describe his encounter and initiation by Don Juan a Mexican Indian man of knowledge. They contain descriptions of paranormal experiences, psychological techniques, Toltec magic rituals, animism and experiences with psychoactive drugs (e.g. Peyote). Although they started out with the premise of anthropology, his works became a mixture of fiction, religion, and philosophy.
(5) Krishnamurti is regarded as one of the greatest religious teachers of all time. He did not expound any specific philosophy or religion, but spoke of the everyday matters that concern all human beings. He belonged to no religion, sect or country, nor did he subscribe to any school of political or ideological thought. Instead, he stated that these are the very factors that divide us from one another and bring about personal and social conflict and ultimately war.
(6) Jipi, Jean-Paul Dhaenens: by the end of the sixties he was professor of painting at the Academy of Ghent then he left everything to live the live of a shaman. Best friends during the seventies our roads parted when I became restless and sat foot on the road of action or was it adventure?
(7) "La Brasserie" a cultural and artistic center founded in Ellezelles/Belgium in 1980 that attracted all creatives personages living along the language-border from the North of France to well over Brussels.
(8) Xiaohong Huo: Piano professor at the "China National University of Nationalities" in Beijing till 1989 and my partner in life.
(9) Composite materials "are combinations of materials from different classes that have properties different from or better than either of their parents“, in "History of Science and Technology", edited by Bryan Bunch and Alexander Hellemans. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.