Sincere Realism: a Leading-edge Art Form
Exhibition Review of Xu Weixin’s “Song of Labors”
In Shanghai on the way back to Europe, I was invited by a friend to the opening of Xu Weixin’s “Song of Labors” exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum. In the gallery on the second floor hung tens of colossal portraits of miners in the style of historical paintings. The subject of each portraiture was identified by name. These exciting portraits revived my mixed feelings about the spirit of realism. My first impression was of honesty of the subjects, the artist, the idea and artistic vision. This was quickly followed by feelings of a profound sincerity and a strong sympathy for the subjects which the artist has demonstrated through his depiction of ordinary Chinese people in his primitive-realism style. A representation rarely seen on the Chinese art scene. There is no provocative exaggeration, no pretentiousness. The gigantic close-ups catch the audience’s eye, demanding attention. Against the special backdrop of the modern society, this exhibition truly demonstrates cutting edge art practice.
Art critics label the exhibition as realism. I’ve seen many forms of realistic expression, however, this is my first experience of Xu Weixin’s style of realism. It is extraordinarily sincere and unreservedly ingenuous. Xu humbly portrays his subjects and repetitively represents them. A particular miner’s close-up fully occupies the huge canvas creating a sensation of another dimension from or against an empty background. This is undeniably realistic expression, and yet it is a solid departure from realism.
I’ve lived in Europe for over twenty years and am familiar with the western artistic ethic. Initially, when I learnt about the exhibition I was quite dubious about realistic art. Firstly the artistic techniques for realism derive from ancient Greece. Secondly, the genesis of realistic thematic expression comes from mid-nineteenth-century French realism. Courbet is the leading proponent. It is the nineteenth-century Russian “Society for Traveling Art Exhibition” school that converged both realistic themes and realistic techniques that becomes the most comprehensive practitioner of realism. Realistic art nowadays is intuitively mistrusted and brushed aside in the western art scene partly due to the association with the aftermath of the ex-Soviet Union socialist realism and the Third Reich Nazi Germany realism. Frankly speaking, art in those eras was presented under the guidance and manipulation of national ideology. Art served as a mold of not only “ideal figures in an ideal environment”, but also as a “real” image of a non existent reality. Undoubtedly, this is a misuse of realism. As such, many western art critics define this art as “pseudo-realism”. Contrary to this backdrop, Xu’s “Song of Labors” series is genuine realism. To be exact, it is exceptionally sincere realism – it is realistic reportage in style and tone and is precise and simple in composition. In “Miner – Untitled I”, I intuitively sensed the miner blinking. There was unperceived movement. There is child like innocence that is implicitly revealed giving a placid, plain, ordinary and warm feeling like an easy Andante. In “Miner –Untitled II”, the subject was smiling selflessly like a blossoming flower in the dark. Suddenly, a tragic aura spreads over the canvas. “A beaming smile on the stage goes along with tears off it”. There is a successful tragedy that is shown on the face in this painting. But this is not burlesque. Looking at the frightened face in “Burnt Miner”, a note from the artist said, “a handsome young man survived a gas blast…Despite this, he still works underground in the desperate dark…Digging to make a living for himself and his family.” At this point, Xu’s paintings had slipped into a persistent Adagio. Through the series of four paintings: “Sichuan-origin Miner Liu Zhixiang” and the series of three paintings “Miner Sun Donglin”, the artist tries to interpret the individuals’ determination and creates a depth of interpretation: human heads, rationality and spirit are the symbolic representation of human values, the vivid landscape of the soul. The artist continues to probe in depth. Incidentally, the colors and shapes in the portraits have been simplified. Portraits like “Sichuan-origin Miner Liu Zhixiang”, “Young Miner” and “Miner Zhou Quanbao” attain a tragic zenith with the removal of tone from the canvas and leaving black and white shadows and emptiness in the image. The artist seems to imply that if happy and beaming life is taken away and if the bearer (the body) is gone then existence is nothing more than pale emptiness. The interpretation should be the brutal reality behind the portraits, a brutal reality that is unavoidable. Returning to “Burnt Miner”, where the subject’s head is saliently posed in the center of the canvas, I fully agree with Nietzsche’s quote “won’t the tragedy of life become the world’s comedy when the common concerns are being attended to?” Life inevitably includes hardship and deprivation. This is a price paid for the progress of society and evolution of civilization. One mission of the artist is to give eternal aesthetic value to hardship. This is an important feature of all great art, this has been manifested in Picasso’s “Guernica”, Goya’s “The Third of May, 1808”, Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” and Jiang Zhaohe’s “Wanderer’s Picture”. Although reality might be ugly, artists help us find truth and meaning from it.
Xu frankly finished his introduction. The painting style is straightforward without any artifice or hidden meaning. There are no cynical tricks, no sensational tactics, no comic reflections, which are now so embraced by artists and promoted by dealers in the West. Xu seems to be indifferent of all these. He simply keeps on painting the real life individuals, those who undertake “vulgar” labor work. Moreover, the artist respectfully presents them by adding their names on the holy canvas. This is an unprecedented recognition in Chinese history! This signifies an exceptional challenge to the conventional ideology! “This Chinese artist is daring!” said a foreign friend of mine after reading Xu’s painting catalogue. Instead of daring, I’d rather say that he is clear headed. Xu is a sober-minded artist. His realism encompasses amazing strengths. Additionally, he completely discards the subtle humanistic expression that has been adopted by traditional Chinese artists. This has enabled the audience to comprehend the artistic truth directly from the canvas without tortuous aesthetic exploration. For thousand of years, the Chinese have been trained to appreciate the true, the good and the beautiful in a unific and superficial discourse under the guidance of Confucian norms. This explains why Mr. Cai Yuanpei (the leading liberal educator of early twentieth-century China) has advocated “Aesthetic Education Saves the Country”. In fact, he claims that he artistic experience should be comprehended from direct confrontation of the real life and finding truth from facts by opening one’s eyes and using one’s senses instead of through Confucius’s sayings. This is exactly how Xu has transcended realism.
Of course, artists’ initiatives can be sourced from anything. The theme can be remote from that of society and distant from humanity. In today’s society, there are artists struggling to stand out by pursuing deviant tricks, stimuli and shock tactics. This is acceptable. In fact, according to Nietzsche, artists either cover themselves or show themselves through art, and this can reflect the emptiness of the artists’ spiritual state. People live in a modern hectic world, where fatigue is both physical and mental and where strong spiritual aspirations need to be sought. It is possible that those who are spiritually bereft may just become a fan or may mimic the fashionable trend.
If artists ignore the condition of society and do not reflect contemporary life, their aesthetic practice will be shallow. These artists’ souls will, without exception, wither if they have a disregard for our common fate. Artists’ creations are no more than a form of prostitution if they focus only on their personal interests (abstract from Tolstoy). The wise amongst mankind has warned that art should endow humanity with comprehensive meaning. Art should become a way of thinking and a kind of sentiment. Artists should be poets seeking for the truth, the good and the beautiful. When British poet Byron fought for freedom against the Turkish in the Greek War of Independence, he fought for the common value of human beings and realized an artist’s role in caring for mankind.
Returning to Xu’s purity, serenity and highly sophisticated realism, there is no fatuous or freakish styling and no attempt to mar the visual composition through excess use of color. On the contrary, the basic creative principle behind the “Song of Labors” series lies in not only the respect and recognition toward the individuals, but also the application and the affirmation of painting techniques. Discarding overt “artistic show” and monumental style of composition, courageous solemnness has become its salient characteristic. In Chinese society miners are grassroots workers and Xu’s canvases depict them in all of their heroic imagery. Apparently, they might have become labors due to destiny or living condition. Fate has never before given them such great attention. The very sincerity of Xu’s paintings throw up the brutal fact of the lack of respect throughout Chinese history for ordinary people as an integral part of the society’s common fate. Early twentieth-century painters such as Su Baihong, Li Tiefu and Jiang Zhaohe reflected the then prevailing attitudes on their canvases. Although ordinary people were depicted by the elite, their images were portrayed as abstract figures existing beyond realistic time and space. In other words, the nameless figures were typical artistic express of the conventional realistic art scene. “Typical figures in a conventional environment” that now on Xu’s canvas turn into substantial individuals. On the immense canvases, the huge miners’ portraits become tangible individuals. To the artist, this is a meaningful progress and a breakthrough for realism.
From the subject matter to the theme, Xu’s realism and his transcendence over conventional realism have not been achieved overnight. He has been consistent in his vision and unwavering in his focus. He causes me to recall great poetry of the twentieth century, “Being humble is the most noble”, “Six-million Chinese are Yao and Shun” (Chinese ancient sage emperors), “Heroes are omnipresently seen in smoke in the nightfall”. Ordinary people are Yao and Shun. Miners are noble peasants. No emphasis or glorification are found on Xu’s canvases. Yet no one would deny that these miners are heroes in China. Xu calmly narrates heroism through the sheer size of his canvases. He patiently depicts the miners in close up and repeats the depiction over and over again. Xu is convincing and admirable! This draws my attention to western realism that always highlights a new direction in thinking and a paradigm shift each time it proclaims its revival. Phidias in ancient Greece, Giotto of the Renaissance, Velasquez and Goya in modern history, Courbet, Millet, Daumier and the Russian “Society for Traveling Art Exhibition” school in the nineteenth century and photorealism in the twentieth century reiterate the apparent humanistic caring towards society. Along with the rise of realism, artists favor grassroots subjects for their paintings. Courbet’s “The Stone Breakers” and “Funeral at Ornans” once provoked a spate of uproar and disturbance in Paris. Courbet was then considered a revolutionist. From today’s perspective, this is a milestone for realistic painting. The uproar was unavoidable. When the Italian artist Caravaggio first included the beggar’s filthy barefoot in his painting, when Goya portrayed the moment of the killing of civilian heroes who had fought in an battlefield, when Daumier depicted civilian life with great compassion, and when the German artist Käthe Kollwitz portrayed countless miserable figures on her canvas, all these examples tell us that nameless heroic individuals can also be an aesthetic subject matter. The aesthetics and the aesthetic subjects are no longer a privilege enjoyed only by the elite minority.
Where materialism and indifference prevail in societies today, the adoption of realism by a middle-aged artist is considered a mindless indulgence. Pursuing public justice at the expense of one’s own interest is an unusual act. It is undeniable that Xu’s realism has composed a magnificent rhapsody for miners, although it looks simplistic at the first glance. Moreover, his originality, in a broader sense, has become a cutting edge art form. And the “Song of Labors” series is just one component in this performance art.
Xu Weixin, a renowned contemporary artist, gained public acclaim from his virtuosity in realistic painting skills representing Tibetan figures and landscape. His famous works include “The Nang Bread Kitchen”, “Tibetan Butter Tea House” and “Holy Land Lhasa”. The selection of the theme of his later works has propelled him into the realm of realism. Works include “The Acid Rain” and “Work Shed”. Through “Song of Labors” Xu has again surpassed himself. In fact, he has also surpassed conventional realism. The melody of “Song of Labors” rings out loud.
April 30, 2007, On the Eve of Labor Day
The author is originally from Sichuan, China
Bachelor in English major, 1978
MA in European Art History, 1984
MA in Art History and Comparative Literature, Europe
Austria-based Correspondent of the National Art Museum of China