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Publication Date : 16-09-2013
Artist imbues modern cityscapes with ancient flavour
Landscapes, mountains and rivers are classical themes of traditional Chinese paintings, but Xu Xi, 73, has spent the latter half of his career painting urban scenes, inspired by the ink paintings of the East and colour from the West.
After living in New York for 10 years, the energetic painter recently held a retrospective exhibition of his works at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. On display are 150 pieces of his work created over the past 40 years, mainly featuring his ink paintings.
Xu has painted landscapes of cities at home and abroad. The cities in China include ancient cities in Hunan province, the busy market in Lhasa, the mountainous city of Chongqing and water towns in Zhejiang province. He also painted a series of New York City and another series depicting other parts of the US, including Alaska and San Francisco, and later a series of European cities.
"Instead of natural landscapes, Xu's works combine our city lives with the spirit of natural landscapes. That's where his art value is and also where the new direction of Chinese ink painting is,"says Fan Di'an, director of the National Art Museum of China.
Before moving to the US, Xu was well-known for his ink paintings of ancient riverside towns in southern China. He was praised by Chinese art critics for his images of water towns in rain, in snow and in the dim light of night.
In 1989, then 49-year-old Xu decided to move to the US to broaden his horizons and to learn things from the West that he could incorporate into his traditional ink painting.
"What impressed me most from Western art is the use of colours. So I explored a way to combine the colours and the black-and-white ink paintings," Xu says.
American art critic Dennis Wepman said Xu Xi has arrived at his remarkable synthesis of traditional and modern, Eastern and Western, through life experiences different from those of most contemporary Oriental artists.
In his first year in New York, Xu says he spent every day walking around the city and visiting the countless galleries and museums around the vast metropolis. He made up his mind to paint something different when he put New York on his canvas.
Under Xu's brush, Fifth Avenue, Central Park and uptown Manhattan all became cloaked in mystery.
"Depicting New York was hard. I painted more than 200 pieces and only kept about 40 of them," recalls Xu.
The series proved to be a big success. In Xu's words, his New York series opened the door to the Western world. Back then, Chinese painting was far from the mainstream art world in the US.
"My life in the US was simple and quiet. I could fully concentrate on painting. Meanwhile, I had the chance to appreciate all the masterpieces in the West,"says Xu.
Xu moved to Beijing after the city successfully held the 2008 Olympic Games. Although he is 73 years old, the artist is thinking about drawing a series on Beijing — a challenge he says will be more complicated than New York series.
"Painting Beijing is more difficult. But I will still have a try," says the grey-haired artist, surrounded by his works in his Beijing studio.