Orientations to the Times, Society, Multiplicity and Spirit——About Zhu Xuanxian's Traditional Chines
Orientations to the Times, Society, Multiplicity and Spirit
——About Zhu Xuanxian's Traditional Chinese Painting Art and Miscellaneous
By Zhu Cheng
Art works are a kind of spiritual product. The thoughts, feelings, knowledge, resorts, exploration and appealing of an artist, and his works and achievements therefrom are usually closely related to certain times, social circumstance, cultural background, national background and geographical location where he lives. In The Philosophy of Art by Taine, a famous French historian, philosopher and literary theorist in the 19th century, he has made detailed analysis on this, and he even mentioned further on the factors including religion and climate etc.
When we are studying the works of Zhu Xuanxian (朱宣咸), we cannot neglect the certain times, social background, cultural environment and artistic language he once experienced.
From the first half of the 20th century till the beginning of the 21st century, experiencing the different times from old to new for more than half a century, from Zhejiang to Shanghai and then to Chongqing (Chungking), Zhu Xuanxian has created plenty of art works full of the sense of society and times and incorporating feelings and momentum.
Before the liberation in 1949, he made some stagger-like shocking works based on his experiences of dropping out of school, being without employment and being imprisoned, which revealed from various angles the dark society, the people's misery and the fighting against the society at that time. After the establishment of the P.R.C and the opening-up, the political, economic and mental activities of the society have also left clear and vivid traces in his works, which are like grand symphony and stream-like lyrics and in which he praised the new China and new society as well as the pure and beautiful nature, with his wholehearted enthusiasm. From these vivid historical paintings, we can clearly understand the emotional experiences of Zhu Xuanxian in artistic work, and his persistent pursuit of truth, brightness and artistic and natural beauty in more than half a century.
With the reputation of “a poet good at using brushes and tint tools”, the works of Zhu Xuanxian are featured with obvious multiplicity, which is reflected from his long-term involvement in the works combing the Chinese and western paintings including traditional Chinese painting, woodcut, political caricatures, illustration, gouache, watercolor and comic strips(serial pictures), his skillful complementation in the subjects of flower, bird, people and scenery etc., and his abundance in artistic talents and connotations. Besides, such a multiplicity is also reflected from his contribution to the advancement and development of the art cause of our society as a social artistic activist in more than half a century that cover the old and new ages.
As an artist of traditional Chinese painting, woodcut and caricature as well as a fne arts activist with lofty morality and exquisite art skills, Zhu Xuanxian and his fruitful achievements in various disciplines have been deservedly written into the annals of Chinese fine arts history.
Zhu Xuanxian's traditional Chinese painting career began from the painting of plum flower. In his career of almost a century, he has always been fond of the painting of plum flower, which is basically due to his admiration of its natural elegance, and yet also his way of expressing his feelings and ideas.
In 1943, Zhu Xuanxian finished the traditional Chinese painting Wintersweet, which is inscribed with two lines, “Although living in a miserable house in this cold winter, I wait to see the world show its prosperity”, which seemed to have professed his life tone, personality and theme of art, that is, never to fear the hardship and tribulations, and to try every means to pursue the truth, the goodness and the beauty.
Zhu Xuanxian was born in Taizhou, Zhejiang in 1927. In his early years, he was active in promoting student movements, and later was dismissed by the school administration. With confusion, he recorded that experience in his woodcut An Unforgettable Night. In 1946, he entered “National Woodcut Association of China” and devoted himself to the new woodcut movement sponsored by Lu Xun, which catered for the new woodcut art of China. At the beginning of 1948, he entered the Observation magazine of Shanghai, and then at the end of that year, he was imprisoned due to the famous “Observation Event” in modern history, and later he was bailed out by Mr. Wang Zaoshi, an outstanding democratic figure in modern China and one of the renowned “Seven Gentlemen”. After his release, based on his experience in prison, he finished the woodcut works including People Who Lost Their Freedom, Furious Flame at Prison Bars and Body Search before Imprisonment, which were the only graphic literature recording that event truthfully.
At that time, living in Shanghai, the birthplace and frontier of the new woodcut art of China as sponsored by Lu Xun, Zhu Xuanxian played an active role. He finished a lot of woodcut works including Pasturing, Flames of War, Anxious For His Home-Coming, Mother and Son, Return from Rice Market, Today Is Children's Day?!, Depend on Each Other for Survival, Drops of Blood and Tear, Supper, A Half Day's Work Isn't Worth a Cigarette, The Fighting of Woodcut Painters and A Shoeshine Man, which were like daggers thrust toward the enemies. A number of these works were frequently printed on local newspapers at the time and displayed on a series of exhibitions including China National Woodcuts Exhibition and China National Fine Arts Exhibition held in 1946, 1947 and 1948.
On Plum Paintings
The Stage of Ink Plum
From 1943 to 1949, when he was in Zhejiang and Shanghai, Zhu Xuanxian's painting of plum in the field of impressionistic traditional Chinese painting focused on the use of ink, which marked the first stage of his career of plum painting—the stage of ink plum.
At that stage, his paintings focused on the plum branches, featuring simple content, rarely seen flowers with little color setoff, distorted and randomly placed branches, which make a sense of conflict. Large blank space was reserved in the paintings, looking like lonely branches striving in cold winter. The fighting of the slight fresh air contained in the flowers against the cold air in harsh winter, duly demonstrated the strong vitality of the plum branches, which was just a reflection of his then living condition.
On May 28, 1949, on behalf of the fine arts community of Shanghai, Liu Kaiqu, Zhang Leping, Yang Keyang, Pang Xunqin, Ye Fu, Zhao Yannian and Zhu Xuanxian publicized the “Joint Announcement” on Ta Kung Pao (Ta Kung Newspaper) to support the liberation of Shanghai, and advocated that the fine artists of Shanghai be determined to “serve the people and create the new fine arts of the people according to the new democratic goals”, which marked a new page of the modern fine arts history of Shanghai. Shortly after the liberation of Shanghai, he participated in the initial establishment of the Joint Office of National Fine Arts Association of China, National Woodcut Association of China and National Caricature Association of China (the three associations are all located at Shanghai then, and a Joint Office was established at the former site of Jewish Federation Office to meet the needs after liberation). Later he joined the Southwest Service Regiment of the Second Field Corp of the PLA and marched to Chongqing with the army at the end of 1949. Since then he had been staying, working and living in Chongqing. In 1951, Zhu Xuanxian assumed the post of the executive committee member of China National Artists Association (the predecessor of China Artists Association) Chongqing Branch. The now existing paintings by Zhu Xuanxian were mostly finished at that period when he was living in Chongqing.
The Stage of White Plum
From the end of 1949 to 1989, after Zhu Xuanxian began to work in Chongqing, his painting of plum flower entered the second stage characterized with white plum—the stage of white plum.
Compared with the stage of ink plum, at the stage of white plum, the plum flowers in his paintings seemed to have much less harshness, but rather showed the combination of rigidity and tenderness, with fresh and beautiful white plums announcing the coming of spring.
In view of Zhu Xuanxian's lots of works on plum, the most delicate part is reflected from his paintings of white plum at this stage, for example, the paintings Jade Plum and Pure Fragrance express the ideal spiritual level of “no need for the praise of good looking, just leaving the pure fragrance to the world”; the painting series titled Fragrant Snow shows a kind of easiness and elegance by just a few sketches, and in the mean time of achieving amazing effect for its elaborate skills, it also has a touch of “vague shadow in clear and shallow water, a dusk full of subtle fragrance”; the momentum demonstrated by the painting Soul of Coldness is like the raging flames in a chilly winter; the paintings titled Wintersweet and Banana Leaves and Herald of Spring in South also express some sort of homesickness implicitly through the artistic background of “the green sea water like a natural curtain in the sky”; In the painting Twisted Black Dragons, the plum branches are full of toughness and strength, the two trunks are like two legs of a person jumping high. In the painting Wintersweet and Snow Greeting the Spring, the unequal strength between the plum and the snow as shown at the stage of ink plum disappeared, and with the inscription of “Although less white than the snow, the plum wins in its fragrance”, the plum and the snow are just jointly decorating the winter.
The white plum in severe winter is often endowed by the poets and writers of generations as being able to resist the cold of snow. Similarly, the series of works by Zhu Xuanxian, such as Wintersweet in Snow, Secret Fragrance, Wintersweet and Stones, Fragrant Snow, Memory of Wintersweet, Old Wintersweet and White Wintersweet, reflected the strength and vitality originated from the tenderness. Facing the severe wind, the plum flowers were like blazing flames to melt the entire snow world.
The Stage of Red Plum
From 1989 to 2002, after Zhu Xuanxian had retired in Chongqing, his works on plum flowers entered the third stage featuring plenty of paintings about red plum—the stage of red plum.
In the stage of red plum, Zhu Xuanxian abandoned the artistic style of the stage of white plum, which described the purity, nobility and tenderness, but replaced it with the extremely enthusiastic, free, sophisticated, inclusive and grand style.
In the painting Swirling Snowflakes Greeting the Spring, the landscape painted in red looks more charming and enchanting in the thick snow; in the painting Red Plum, the layout is composed of challenging red, and the arrow-like old and new branches and the flower buds token the thriving of newly acquired strength; in the painting Drunk Beauty, the snow flakes and the red plum melt together, showing a sense of enchantment and contentment; in the painting Red in Snow, the distorted branches are not expressing conflict, but rather a kind of amusement and relaxation, like children playing and fighting in the snow; in the joyful painting Red Plum in Winter Snow, the strong trunks stretch horizontally on the picture, combined with the vertically growing tender branches and the red flowers here and there. The painting adopts red as the theme, and with the thick-ink branches, the blanks between trunks, the snow flakes and the small patch of blank on upper left, the choking arrangement of red plums acquires a sense of vitality; through a hole beneath the curved strong plum tree, some plum branches and flowers can be seen from distance, which depicts much sense of layer, and makes the picture more vivid. Besides, to welcome the 21st century, Zhu Xuanxian finished the large painting Red Plum Greeting the Sun, in which the vermilion and oriental red are used in large space on the sun and the plum, and large thick ink and blunt painting are used on plum branches and trunks, so that the entire picture looks splendid and bright with the contrast between red and black colors, looking like a tree stretching to the sky, and expressing the grand meaning of “thousands of flowers blossom in snow, and the awaking of a single tree forecasts a fragrant spring”.
Besides, he also finished a group of red plum paintings of significance, including Green Bamboo and Red Plum, Red Plum in Snow, Red Plum Greeting Spring, Red Dressing, Drunk in Spring, Blossoms on Cold Branches and Herald of Spring.
In that period, in his paintings Wintersweet in Moonlight, Wintersweet and Banana Leaves in Moonlight, Wintersweet in Cold Moonlight and Idyllic Scene in Lu You's Poetry, the plum blossoms are in white color, and at first sight, you may really mistake them as white plums, but after careful consideration, you may suddenly understand that they are actually the plums under moonlight. As we all know, in that circumstance, one cannot discriminate the actual colors of the objects, therefore, when Zhu Xuanxian was painting the plums in white color, he was in fact showing the unique brightness of plums in the moonlight, from which we know his careful observation of life and the respect toward the nature. Here, the paintings Wintersweet in Moonlight and Wintersweet and Banana Leaves in Moonlight convey the colorful and graceful artistic conception of “a beauty walks near from the woods in the moonlight”; the painting Wintersweet in Cold Moonlight, a unique traditional Chinese painting in Japanese style with inscription, once more adds to such an artistic conception; the painting Idyllic Scene in Lu You's Poetry expresses a poetic night scene with the withering bushes and old trees through his sophisticated painting methods.
The paintings of Stones and Wintersweet and the Wintersweet Series, finished in 2001, which are full of strength and vitality, are his representative works of white plum in that period.
Ni Zan, a great painter in Yuan Dynasty, suggested to “express the natural sense in heart”, and other ancient ideas on painting also mentioned repeatedly that “painting reflects personality”, “the style of painting varies from high or low personality”, and “the progress of time is the mirror of life”. Although Zhu Xuanxian was influenced by the plum flower paintings of Wu Changshuo, an artist in earlier times, completely differently from Wu, whose plum paintings maintained his moral principles through “evading from the world”, the plum flowers in Zhu Xuanxian's paintings express the “attitude of contacting the world”, that is, to enter the world while maintaining the freedom and the moral integrity.
As inscribed by Zhu Xuanxian in his plum flower works, “the plum painting shall adopt trunks and branches as the bone, the flowers as the skin, and both are difficult to fulfill; I have been engaged in plum painting for dozens of years, but despite my intense efforts, I only know a little about the tricks……”
From 1943 to 2002, after almost 60 years of unremitting pursuit of plum paintings through the stages of ink plum, white plum and red plum, the plum paintings of Zhu Xuanxian has reached their utmost level. Besides, plum flower, as a carrier of aesthetic conception, also carries on the different concerns of Zhu Xuanxian in different periods and his firm and unshakable beliefs.
On Pine and Eagle Paintings
Through appreciating the paintings, one may know the mind breadth of the painter. Apart from favoring the plums, Zhu Xuanxian also liked to paint some cold-resisting trees and birds, so as to incorporate his living conceptions, demonstrate his resolute and firm will and express the thoughts and virtues he admired. This is particularly true for his love of the themes related to pine tree and eagle.
In Zhu Xuanxian's paintings, the pine trees stand upright majestically, determinedly and toughly, resisting the wind and cold, with their strong trunks and iron-like pine needles, characterized by high-mindedness, vigorousness, firmness and stability.
In the painting Verdant Pine and Red Sun, thick lines are made by large brush, with a sense of breadth, gravity and momentum. The use of brush gives a feeling of strong vividness, and also the firmness without hesitation, and through the flexibility in pressing and releasing of brush top, the painting is accomplished in a breath; in the painting Hardy and Verdant Pine, the ink maintains a critical distance with the objects, giving a sense of beautiful roundness and vivid quietness. Zhu Xuanxian was fond of and good at using thick ink and coal ink, and usually constructed the frame through heavy lines, for instance, the painting Vigorous Pine is almost completely composed of thick ink, and to deliver the toughness of pine trees on steep stiffs the thick and sophisticated ink plays a significant role, which fully demonstrates the “strength in ink” in his works. The painting Pine in Red is of even more unique style. It is composed of pure-color heavy brush skill, with energetic lines, and with a Chinese character “Red”, more profound meaning is endowed to the pine that stands like a soldier. The picture includes simple items, which leads to higher difficulty in realizing the painter's intention to make the scene pure but not monotonous, and worth appreciating with the meaning understandable, thus the painter must have good skills as well as courage; the painting Evergreen describes a pine tree with winding branches pointing high to the sky, while the painting Grotesque Pine on Yellow Mountain demonstrates the painter's delicate skill in controlling the brushes. Besides, the paintings Verdant Pine Towering into Sky and Dark Pine etc show rich understanding of the ancestor's essential skills in painting and the incorporation of the painter's own character, especially in the momentum and strength.
In the traditional Chinese culture, pine, bamboo and plum are called the “three friends in winter” because of their steadfast existence in cold winter, and their character of resisting the snow and storm is regarded as a token of persistence. Zhu Xuanxian's painting Three Friends in Wintry Cold is inscribed with “Fresh and thin plum, pure and noble pine, straight and beautiful bamboo”, and is almost perfect in arranging skillfully its layout, dynamic, structure, lines, texture, color, surface, quality, layers, rhythm and momentum; while his another painting Three Friends in Winter (of the same theme) gives a feeling of relaxation and skillfulness, compatible to the theme “a dragon high in the sky (pine), red reflected by thousands of vermilion (plum), and beautiful bamboo dancing (bamboo), jointly welcome the breeze of spring”.
In the painting of eagle, Zhu Xuanxian liked to indicate the dynamic through a critical state of standstill, so that the works are full of the tension of strength that leads to the birth of vital life.
In the large-sized painting Eagles, the eagles are flying on the top of pines, the lines show the combination of strength and boldness, and you feel a magnificence immediately; the breath-taking straightness in the painting Soaring above the Sky, the posture in the painting Like a Crouching Tiger and a Hidden Dragon, the inner magnificence and strength in the painting Eagle Posing on Pine, plus the painting Eagle and Stone, Reluctant to Fly Low, Freedom in the Sky, Eagle, and the elaborate-style thick-line painting Three Gorges, Sunrise, Eagle, and a series of impressionistic-style paintings about pine and eagle, are featured with free use of ink and brush, or skillful affixation of color, or the critical posture, or the emotion of feeling lost, so that when looking at the paint in front of you, you always feel some sort of magnificence immediately.
If we say the plum is a major reflection of Zhu Xuanxian's spiritual world, his works in pine and eagle are consistent with his own reflection of life.
On Zhu's Sparrow
In studying the impressionistic-style works of Zhu Xuanxian on flowers and birds, in addition to the plum, the pine and the eagle, we should not neglect another item called Zhu's Sparrow, which is an important part of Zhu Xuanxian's works in that respect.
Through year's of observation on the nature and a great deal of study on the seal character in Stone Drum Inscriptions, consciously or unconsciously, Zhu Xuanxian had added these elements into the round, energetic and virile spirit and feature of seal character, and then into his paintings, and finally created his unique painting style—Zhu's sparrow in the impressionistic-style field.
Zhu's Sparrow adopts the skill of seal character, and based on life experience and transverse lines, and then the manner and vividness of a sparrow comes into being through some simple construction; it has exaggerated facial expression without losing its nature and accurate understanding of its manner without losing the vividness. Aren't the naïve birds the energetic seal characters endowed with vitality?
The most touching beauty of birds is their strength and vigor in flying through the sky. No one can ever breed a sparrow, because these seemingly ordinary and ugly small creatures in the world of birds have chosen to die in the instance of losing their freedom when being captured by the human beings.
Zhu Xuanxian likes to paint the sparrow, and admires its nature of justifying the freedom with its life. In the paintings Flying Windward, Early Morning, and Wind, Zhu's Sparrows are flying like arrows, holding their heads high, with pride, jumping up to sky like a sword.
In the painting Sparrows in the Depths of Winter, two Zhu's Sparrows are playing freely, duly reflecting the understanding on the vitality and freshness of life, leaving you to meditate the meaning; the painting Birdie and Rosebay shows the frank manner and the peaceful land; the painting Suspected Golden Eggs is from the poem “Thinking it is a gold egg, the sparrow dares not peck it but continue its flying despite feeling hungry”, and in the painting, the sparrow proceeding without hesitation toward the upper left and the loquat stretching toward the lower left have represented all the factors on the picture.
The painting Reed End Teasing the Sparrow represents the highest level of Zhu Xuanxian in small scene painting. In the picture, on the reed ends wavering in the breeze comes a small sparrow, but the reed ends are always wavering; seeming to play with the sparrow, yet the sparrow lingers there and feels embarrassed. This painting describes vividly the superior skills of Zhu's Sparrow.
The childish character of Zhu Xuanxian is demonstrated in the lovely scenes of his Zhu's Sparrow through these ways: singing, flying, falling, drinking etc. After you appreciate the scenes, you will have endless meaningful thoughts, and the vivid artistic character and ink skills have freshly reflected the romantic mind and unique artistic feelings of Zhu Xuanxian.
On Birthday Peach
Peach has the good token of long life in the traditional Chinese culture, and is also called longevity peach or fairy peach.
Zhu Xuanxian is fond of painting the Birthday Peach, which is usually in large sizes. The Birthday Peaches in his paintings adopt hidden trunks and large impressionistic-style skill, which is set off by the pigment added with carmine and eosin and a little gamboge, giving a sense of stability in the picture, and there are extremely small leaves painted with ocher, citrine and other elements, and then the leave veins painted with thick ink, making the Birthday Peach sufficiently prominent.
There are few large trunks or branches in the Birthday Peach works of Zhu Xuanxian, and the Birthday Peaches are always in even number, meaning that good things always come in double. The painting Wish of Longevity gives a visual feeling, and it seems that the Birthday Peach is at the side of mouth, and one can bite it by simply opening the mouth; in another painting Peaches of Longevity, the peach leaves stretch out abruptly, seeming to rush for a birthday party. These two paintings were made by Zhu Xuanxian when he was sixty in 1987, which probably have the intention to celebrate his own birthday. In even another painting also named Wish of Longevity, the birthday peach is placed on a dish, waiting for the man on his birthday, and the picture delivers good luck to the audience through the montage skill; the painting Wish of Longevity – Peaches and Wine is inscribed with Wu Changshuo's poem “The jade peach as large as a dipper is picked to make wine, and if you sip the wine once, you have a good chance to live a long life”. The painting also includes the stone kettle, and the peach is in red and yellow color. The heavy brush lines reflect his skillfulness in traditional Chinese painting. His series of works including Wish of Longevity and Peaches of Longevity are in thick and gorgeous colors, with red, white and green as the tone, and black and brown as the background.
The Birthday Peaches of Zhu Xuanxian cater for both the intellectualists and ordinary people. These works, with their own characteristics and spiritual intonation, reflect his pursuit on artistic beauty, and besides, conveys the fulfillment and good luck in traditional Chinese culture, and expresses his endless fancy on “blossom for 3000 years, and bear fruits for another 3000 years”.
On Painting Composition
Zhu Xuanxian's works attach great importance to painting composition, and are constantly improving. In the years of fine arts creation, Zhu Xuanxian acquired the artistic conception that “when painting, one should pay attention not only to the parts that are in progress, but also to the blank space, as a painting is composed of large or small patches that are painted, but also of large and small blank spaces”, and “Nobility lies in the depth of artistic conception” etc., which has gone beyond the rule in traditional Chinese painting that the blank spaces are only for leaving spaces. In fact, Zhu Xuanxian's conception has some sort of modern composition ideas to much degree.
I. The painting composition in Zhu Xuanxian's works is featured that, first of all, it pays great attention to giving a sense of momentum. Momentum in Zhu Xuanxian's painting composition is noticeably demonstrated, and is an obvious characteristic of his entire artistic style.
The dynamics and rhythm from the momentum is fully reflected from his plum paintings and other works in all the stages. The momentum in his works is usually based on the tangible or intangible main lines, which are sloping but with a sense of gravity, or the S shape in rotation is used to give one or two fits of strong tension and separate or squeeze or contrast with the blank space boldly, so as to acquire the strong and even threatening atmosphere.
In the painting White Wintersweet, the main trunk grows upward while the branches oversee the ground randomly and abruptly; in the painting Wintersweet and Stones, the plum trunk grows on the stiff, with the branches stretching from the backside and the mightily standing megalith; the painting Soul of Coldness gives an amazing dynamics. These painting compositions are full of momentum.
II. Another characteristic of Zhu Xuanxian's painting composition is the satiety of the picture.
Particularly in the later period, the objects in Zhu Xuanxian's paintings began to show more satiety, abundance and richness, which make the modern aesthetic spirit he expressed distinct from the desolation and simple life advocated by the traditional Chinese paintings. In the painting Red Plum in Winter Snow, the old trunks hold each other, and the thick flowers is everywhere, leaving little blank spaces, giving a sense of “air-tightness”, while a strong message of spring is seeping from that efflorescence. Such satiety is also found in his works on loquat and litchi.
The characteristic four-strip works of Zhu Xuanxian are the paintings made on particularly narrow and long paper, which demonstrates his skills in layout. The series of four-strip works include Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter and Plum, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum, which bear the significance of either nobility or grace. Each series consists of four pictures which form a combined scene but may be separated. This particularly narrow and long space, plus the customary straight long drawing of Zhu Xuanxian, is unique for the formal beauty in satiety.
In the realm of traditional Chinese paintings, besides the beauty of the four seasons, the themes covering the plum, cymbidium, bamboo and chrysanthemum are also of profound background of Chinese national culture; these four plants are called “Four Gentlemen”, which represent respectively the purity and nobility of plum, the grace and freedom of cymbidium, the humbleness and conservation of bamboo, and the simplicity and chastity of chrysanthemum, which contain the attitude of achieving more, asking for little, leading a simple life and avoiding insinuation, which is a token of drawing ideals from the daily life and also a superior personality. And these plants also mark the four seasons, so that they can represent an understanding on time order and life significance.
Laozi once advocated understanding the white while agreeing with the black, and in China's ancient thoughts on painting, there was “calculating the white as the black”. Those “whites” and “blacks” were a synthesis expression of different colors and sedimentations. The contrast and dependence between the white and the black is in accordance with the Yin and Yang rules in the round Traditional Chinese Tai Chi Kung Fu (Taiji Gongfu) symbol. Zhu Xuanxian has been long engaged in the practices and exercises of Traditional Chinese Tai Chi (Taiji) Kung Fu (Gongfu) – shadowboxing (tai chi quan) and swordsmanhip (tai chi sword) in his spare time, and has acquired certain Tai Chi martial arts. His quality in this respect influenced his artistic works, including the incorporation of S dynamics in satiety, densely distributed air holes and large blank spaces, which make the picture plump but not swollen, giving a kind of rhythm for inner life.
III. Another characteristic of Zhu Xuanxian's works is its concern and exploration on the formal beauty of the picture.
Because Zhu Xuanxian would not follow the accepted routine, he absorbed the nutrition of the Western painting and modern composition in the form of painting, and broke the beauty of neutralization to explore the factor of pure formal beauty. In this respect, his works have a clear track: The painting Lotus Flower Bud and Her Visitor, according to the poetic theme in the title, tried to bring the visual effect of “large scene from small objects”. The painting composition is extremely simple, the single lines of small fluctuation give a sense of small wave flowing and form the horizontal lines, while the lotus flowers with a dragonfly on them form the vertical lines, and the footing of dragonfly is almost at the center of the picture, so that the long lines on upper left change the large spaces into lively space with ease; In the painting Palm Tree, the two soaring palm trees directly cover the whole picture from the bottom to the top; in the painting Sisal Hemp, the branches, starting from the corners, cover the lower half of the painting from the right to the left, and the sloping and lateral attitude gives the picture an up-and-down feeling. This kind of skill, adopting cater-corner and 1/2 division of picture, is common in many of his paintings. In Green Bamboo and Red Plum, Zhu Xuanxian integrated the outside configuration of the objects, and the bamboo, stone and plum are also divided into two parts through cater-corner. Besides, the blank spaces of plum is divided by blue cloud to enhance its gradation, and what is interesting is that he had began to achieve the effect of silhouette; In the painting Verdant Pine and Red Leaves, there are the branches and the inverted images. The pine tree, with the prominent truck, plus the strong and stretching red leaves, divides the picture based on the uniform configuration of the main and secondary objects. The pine tree goes from the lower left to the upper right, and the squeezing between the rocks and pine needles forms the blank space from the lower right to the upper left, which shows a bold X-shaped crossing of uniqueness and momentum. What is worth mentioning separately is his painting Golden Loquats. The work of elaborate formal beauty has in fact acquired strong sense of modern composition; the straight and energetic upward trunks and branches form a series of vertical lines, and plus the color loquat on saturated orange background and the in leaves of strong 3D, such a unordinary plane division produces a irregular scene; such a consciousness and expression are quite original and of modern significance, and this is also a successful case of Zhu Xuanxian's exploration in this respect.
Nevertheless, Zhu Xuanxian had not made such modern pictures more clarified or optimized. Yet his concern and research on the factors including the composition of points, lines and graphs and the integrity and visual impact, his breakaway from the routine and his pursuit for breakthrough, based on the complementation and dependence among the poem, calligraphy, painting and stamp in traditional Chinese painting, are good reflection of his excellent ability in painting composition and layout and his courage and bearing in exploration.
On the Use of Brushes, Lines and Models
The use of brushes means the use of lines, as the art of traditional Chinese paintings is actually the art of lines, and Chinese painters all try to “express the feelings and make the impression” and form the shape through the use of lines. Consequently, “the acquisition of form and factuality is based on the intention and demonstrated by the use of brushes” (words of Zhang Yanyuan).
The basis of traditional Chinese paintings in the use of brushes and lines is the calligraphy, while the learning of calligraphy can be divided into the way following the stone tablet and the way following the book, the difference between which lies in that the stone tablet represents the calligraphy inscribed in the stones, while the book represents the calligraphy written on the paper with brushes, and the one inscribed in the stones requires more strength than the one written on the paper, and thus shows more dignity and stillness. Zhu Xuanxian's calligraphy mainly comes from the category of stone tablet. He had imitated the seal characters in Stone Drum Inscriptions for years, and because he was also a woodcut painter who had been using gravers for dozens of years, these two advantages enabled him to use the gravers as the brushes, and the brushes as the gravers, full of strength and mutually complement, leading to smooth and dignified artistic model.
This is the characteristic of Zhu Xuanxian in combining the skills of seal-character brush and tint-tool painting to deliver a sense of strength, which is fully reflected in his plum, eagle, Zhu's Sparrow and Birthday Peach works.
In Zhu Xuanxian's paintings, Narcissus has no superficiality, but shows more quietness, plumpness and purity; Orchid and Bamboo sets off the peace-loving cymbidium through the malleable lines; Clean Breeze from Bamboo expresses the persistence despite the blow and strike of wind and rain; the Cold Beauty demonstrates the tension of branches and the solidity of flowers and leaves through the contexture of lines and the movement of brushes; Singing for Spring shows the space of objects and the endless artistic conception through the gravity of brushes, the arrangement of strength and the direction of color and ink. Besides, Swallows and Wistaria and Wistaria give the complexity and variation of lines and the musical rhythm through the complicated but smooth and skillful arrangement of curls and sketches, expressing the feeling of “too confused to be settled” but maintaining the entire integrity.
The use of lines must be naturally connected to the emotional factors of the painter. During the process, with the changes, the lines get their ever-changing posture, which provides more possibilities for the painter to express his feelings, and further to express his aesthetic ideals, temperament, soul and personality, which is a clear proof of “paintings are the painters”. From the works of Zhu Xuanxian, we can see the strength of lines in his early years, the smoothness of brushes in his middle ages and the free style in his later life.
The essence of traditional Chinese paintings is that “the conceptions are demonstrated by the objects”. In this respect, every artist has his own artistic feelings and attitude, and every graphic artist has his own artistic measurement for his graphic works. Zhu Xuanxian has never done such things as catering to the vulgar needs by producing noncreative and visually mimic works, or deceiving the world with some seemingly mystifying paintings while claiming that “artistic works do not follow the mimic way but are made freely”.
A typical representation of Zhu Xuanxian on graphic art is his Zhu's Sparrow, a unique model in the realm of Chinese impressionistic flower and bird paintings. Other items include his plum branches and flowers of various structures, upright pine trees, lively eagles and perfectly beautiful birthday peaches, and the graphic art of these works has been introduced beyond. Spring Breeze is a skillful product of inspiration, and describes the contentedness of ducks through extremely flexible lines, simple graphic arrangement and smooth brush movement; in Canna, Zhu Xuanxian describes the musa coccinea from the attitude of appreciating, and the plant is like a red beauty with bright eyes and white teeth and in ermine coat, smiling slightly when lowering her head. Red Maple in After Glow is a painting like a scripture made by pressing; Dragonfly and Maple Leaves has a flavor of Qi Baishi in the whole layout, lines and colors; in Pond Full of Fish, the fishes swim in the water leisurely. In Wintersweet and Stones, the original picture of stone was a western-style sketch of Zhu Xuanxian through a pen; the product incorporates the western graphic art based on the methods of traditional Chinese paintings, and with the thick or light lines, the upstanding megalith is full of the sense of space, texture and gloss. This is also one of his representative traditional Chinese painting works in describing stones.
In spite of his own understanding and true feeling, and based on the natural as the source of inspiration, Zhu Xuanxian also carefully studied the works of the predecessors and read widely to draw the advantages. For instance, the lightness and simplicity of the famous Eight Painters, the freedom of Shi Tao, the thickness of Huang Binhong, the resembling and discrimination of Qi Baishi, and even more of the purity and frankness of Wu Changshuo, all of these are seen from Zhu Xuanxian's paintings, so that the pictures under the brush of him become more plump and perfect.
Zhu Xuanxian's works cater to both the cultured and the ordinary people, with perfect expression of the surface and inner beauty, but without the sickness of traditional Chinese painters in despise the vision subjectively. Just an example, his Zhu's Sparrow, ducks, chickens, dragonflies, fishes, spiders, shrimps and various flowers, grasses, branches and leaves etc, give a feeling of immediate dynamics, and his plums, pines, eagles, birthday peaches and stones, are full of spirit and vitality. All these are not what can be achieved simply through imitation.
On the Use of Colors
After Yuan Dynasty, due to the negative thoughts of the literati and officialdom painters, the vivid colors in traditional Chinese painting were evading day by day, and the gloomy and decadent emotion on the pictures was always growing.
In Zhu Xuanxian's traditional Chinese paintings, which are often composed of plenty of red plum, sun, birthday peach, litchi and loquat, the red and golden colors are utilized to the extreme, so that the objects in his paintings seem to have been refreshed by the morning dews, facing the sun, flourishing and exhilarating.
Zhu Xuanxian is good at the use of ink and color, and he tried continuously to strengthen the expressiveness of the colors in his works. In the works before 1949, the colors were much monotonous, such as his representative painting series Ink as the Color, and the woodcut works were also mostly in black and white colors. Living in that society of poor livelihood, he had not much interest in considering the complicated painting forms and skills. On the technical aspects, Zhu Xuanxian was also influenced by the thoughts of traditional Chinese literacy paintings in the use of ink. Based on the conception that the “color affixation should be done after the ink is laid out”, Zhu Xuanxian's skills in the use of ink reached a high level at his early years, which also laid a solid foundation for his performance in color.
Since Zhu Xuanxian came to live and work in Chongqing in 1949, great changes have taken place in China, people's life has been improved, and the society is prospering. Therefore, he then had more interest to understand and ponder on the overlapping, crossing and hiding of “five in colors in painting”. His grand impressionistic work Hen, which was finished in extremely hot summer, is bold in the use of ink, and demonstrates his skill of ink and ink layering. Except the colorful ink, we can also read a lot of grey layers in many of Zhu Xuanxian's works. If we analyze them with modern technologies, the layers acquired by the methods in traditional Chinese paintings are consistent perfectly with the 256 grey scaling in the computer software Photoshop.
However, the laboring on the ink and grey scaling seemed unable to express Zhu Xuanxian's feeling, and unable to adapt to the development of modern aesthetic thoughts, and also to people's hope for life and the world's change toward prosperity. At this stage, except the series works represented by white plum and the light-color works including Narcissus, Green Shade and Cool Beauty, he also finished series of colored paintings.
Due to his stay in Zhejiang and Shanghai in early years, Zhu Xuanxian's traditional Chinese paintings were also influenced by the Shanghai style of modern Chinese painting, which is reflected from the enhancement of colors. Zhu Xuanxian usually reserves the dark color as the major one, and compares it distinctively with other colors, so as to make the main color prominent, and the colors of flowers, fruits, birds and worms are made bright, so that the bold use of saturated colors does not compromise the ink essence of traditional Chinese paintings.
In the Shiny Pinky Lotus in the Sunshine, the red lotus flower and green lotus leaves is almost equal proportion in the whole picture, such an extremely bold comparison of colors delivers a visual excitement, which truly express the visual effect of “particularly red lotus flower in the sunshine”. Maybe such a visual excitement had brought Zhu Xuanxian a lot of inspiration and courage, he finished the characteristic works including Peony, Azalea, Cotton Rose and Goldfish, Cock and Coreopsis, Color of Autumn, Spring Coldness and Barbados Lily. Besides, from the angle of a man from other regions, he finished the painting Red Pepper showing Chongqing people's favor to delicious foods and Rosebay that was popular in Chongqing's streets and lanes.
In the works including Mature Loquats in the South and Loquats, the rich fruits are in the colors of yellow, red and cyan, and the loquats are radiant and bright, the leaves in dark or light colors are plump for much moisture in them, which mirrors the yellow and transparent fruits. This tone of warm colors on the whole picture expresses his whole-hearted love of life.
In the stage represented by red plum works, Zhu Xuanxian became even bolder and free than before in the use of color. In his large traditional Chinese painting – All Flowers in Full Blossom (Let A Hundred Flowers Blossom), the painting composition is still in satiety, the colors are bright, and the use of brush is round and smooth, full of skills; the strongly reversal direction between the pine tree and the flowers represents two high strength in different directions and a dynamics, so that the picture is more lively, which demonstrates his skill in controlling large space and complicated colors. The beautiful but unordinary colors, contrasted by dark color, are distributed on the pine needles, the bamboo and the crown flowers and leaves, and this sets off the flowers and on the other hand sustains the vivid colors, settling the conflict between vision and dark color. This painting, which is carefully schemed, with boundless momentum and full of harmonious atmosphere, duly represents the large scene and meaning of “spring should not be the blossoming of one flower but all the flowers”. Since Chongqing became a municipality directly under the Central Government in 1997, this product has been hung on the wall of the lobby of Chongqing Culture Bureau (now Chongqing Municipal Bureau of Culture, Radio and TV) for years, so as to let it represent the cultural image of Chongqing and the spirit of Chongqing's blossoming culture.
Besides, Zhu Xuanxian, who was addicted to the use of colors, also absorbed much nutrition from the western paintings. In his painting Towel Gourd and Chicks, the red stamp, the yellow sponge flower and blue sponge are the direct configuration of red, yellow and blue in western paintings, and then with the Chinese painting colors on chicken, sponge leaves and inscription, the colors are harmonized to acquire a unique Oriental beauty; in the painting Jade Green in Flowers, the bright and beautiful colors are seen from the leaves in coal dark, the flowers in dark red, the feathers in blue and the bird mouth in red; in the painting Dancing Snowflakes Greeting the Spring, the cold dark cyan sets off the atmosphere. Besides, Zhu Xuanxian also pioneered the exploration on non-objective colors. For instance, in the painting Pine in Red, he departed from the traditional colors, but directly used the eosin on the entire pine tree; in the painting Bright Pearls, the colored blue is used to describe the blue grape; these colors are different from the real color of the objects, therefore he was expressing the theme with the colors he “created”, from which we can see Zhu Xuanxian has endowed his understanding to the thought of “color affixation should be done after the ink is laid out” in the traditional Chinese paintings.
The transition from “Ink as the Color” to “Red and Blue as the Theme” is also process in which Zhu Xuanxian's understanding and use of color progresses. His use of ink and color is originated from the living environment, time background and emotion, and is a reflection of his love of life and pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty.
On Poetic Meaning
Another characteristic of Zhu Xuanxian's traditional Chinese paintings is the poetic meaning, which demonstrates his idea of “seeking for the orientation on large painting, and reserve the interest on small painting”. These works of vivid graphic image on the objects has wonderful layout and lively rhythm, and usually delivers the poetic meaning outside the painting with his poetic thought and reflection and prose-like picture as well as a sense of music, which maybe cannot be separated from his innate poetic character, his enduring love of Chinese folk music and his soaking in old Chinese learning in early years.
The painting Warm River in Spring adopts the meaning in Su Shi's poem “the ducks know first when the river water becomes warm in spring”, and describes the poetic scene through magically combining the “warm water” and “the ducks” by “two ducks playing in the water”. The inscription “warm river water in spring” integrates meaningfully the visual art and the language art, and the two ducks accompany each other, with one of them feeling the message of spring quietly, and the other delivering that message through singing. This contrast gives the imagination and delight as if one is on the site. In another painting The Coming of Autumn, also adopting the meaning of that poem, Zhu Xuanxian seemed to have used it toward the opposite direction, and when expressing the melancholy of “the ducks know when the water in autumn river becomes cool”, there are withered lotus leaves and flowers, and a duck is looking back lonely, seeming to see goodbye, which duly carries the painter's intention. These two paintings, describing the warm water and cool water respectively, are from the same poem, but the adoption of the poem is not graphic, but Zhu Xuanxian expressed the true meaning according to his own feeling and attitude and by abundant imagination.
In the painting After Summer Rain, which was produced by Zhu Xuanxian on the theme of palm tree, the palm tree looks even more green after the rain, and the small joints of the palm tree are growing. The key point of the picture is a spider's net destroyed by the rain, which wittily gives the meaning “after the rain”. The destroyed spider's net and the small spider have not brought a sense of decay, but make the picture more vivid, more profound and more exquisite, carrying a unique tone of life.
Another painting Red Cherry with Green Banana Leaves, also adopt palm tree as the theme, directly expresses the flying time and his endless helplessness for having stayed in Chongqing for 42 years in his sixties.
Here we must mention particularly that after Zhu Xuanxian lived in Chongqing, he had signed on almost all his Chinese paintings the name “Zhe Ren” (a man of Zhejiang origin) or “Zhe Ren, Zhu Xuanxian” (Zhu Xuanxian, a man of Zhejiang origin), which is a fixed title on most of his works. The word “Zhe Ren” means he was born in Zhejiang, which shows that he was conscious of where he came from at any time, and that he missed his hometown in his whole life, which is the implication we can read clearly from his inscriptions on most of his traditional Chinese paintings.
“Bi Tian” (Blue Sky), “Xiao Feng” (Like Mad), “Xue An” (Snow Temple), “Yi Ge” (A Spear) were the pen names used by Zhu Xuanxian in 1940s when he was in Zhejiang and Shanghai. “Yi Ge” (A Spear) was the pen names used by Zhu Xuanxian sometimes in 1950s and 1960s. The name “Xue An” (Snow Temple) was used by Zhu Xuanxian sometimes after 1949.
Except the inscription of “Zhu Xuanxian, a man of Zhejiang origin” which clearly shows his attitude, in almost all his traditional Chinese paintings, we can just find little hint of such a thick homesickness. An exception is the painting Red Cherry with Green Banana Leaves, which expresses his yearning for the hometown to the extreme. The work quoted the Jiang Jie's poem Yi Jian Mei • Boat Going by Wujiang, and adopted red cherry and green palm of the strongest visual feeling. The picture is simple and direct, without any mess or hesitation, the two palm leaves run from the upper left to the lower right, which expresses the feeling through a certain aesthetic distance rather than adding colors to all the objects directly, and such a “slight” and steady tenderness describes his disappointment on the fading of beautiful spring unconsciously; In the painting, the red and green colors show the movement of time: the time let the cherry become red and the palm green, so that his years of homesickness is perfectly contained in this ambiguous conception, from the intangible to the tangible, and the intangible time is converted into tangible image, which expresses the sigh for flying time, thick homesickness and quick aging.
The painting Idyllic Scene in Lu You's Poetry describes a plum woods under a scene of clam and quiet deep night plus an overturned large wine jar. With the night scene effect through the basic tone of black and dark green, reflected by the white snow, the dark or light clouds disperses the black air, so that the movement and setoff is demonstrated vividly. The moving clouds in the far side, the plum tree painted with dark ink in the middle distance, and the wine jar and snow traces, plus the vague sight of human beings, are configured harmoniously with respective spaces, smooth and poetic, which composes the artistic scene of “when riding horses to the west of Chengdu, I got drunken for the scenery of plums”.
The paintings including South Wind, Litchi, Fresh Litchis and Fresh Litchis on Old Tree describe the litchi either on the trees or placed in the plates, and with the inscription of “the boats and wagons have made the journey enjoyable, without the need of sending off a messenger”, which compares vividly with the old poem “with the laughter of the emperor's wife, no one knows it was for the arrival of litchi”. Fresh litchi was once only what Yang Guifei, the emperor's wife, can have a chance to eat, but with the progress of today's Chinese society, it has reached the homes of ordinary people, which expresses his pleasure on seeing the quick development of China.
In Zhu Xuanxian's works, there is neither coldness as in the former master Qing Teng and Hong Ren, nor the simplicity of the Famous Eight Painters and Shi Xi, nor the softness of the Four Wangs. His works cover a wide range of themes and are made elaborately; in the choice of poetic inscription, he liked to choose some popular verses rather than those rarely remembered ones. In the works, the grasses, worms, flowers and plants are endowed with liveliness and emotion, the reality is romanticized; there are poems in paintings, and paintings in poems, enabling the obvious harmony between poem and painting.
From today's view, although Zhu Xuanxian's works are limited by the time and society he lived in the respects of idea, expression and theme etc, they have some simple and plain thoughts and feelings, common aesthetic interests, pleasing and healthy poetic meaning and profound traditional skills, which is one of the reasons why Zhu Xuanxian's works are always popular with the ordinary people.
The multiplicity of Zhu Xuanxian's artistic achievements is reflected from the following three aspects:
I. The study of Zhu Xuanxian's Chinese paintings shall not be limited to his traditional Chinese paintings. As a Chinese painter who had been engaged in in-depth study and creation of traditional Chinese painting art in dozens of years and two ages, Zhu Xuanxian started his career of traditional Chinese paintings from the then Chinese new woodcuts of total western style. In fact, the source of Zhu Xuanxian's arts has originated and been established from both the western and traditional Chinese paintings, and has always been so.
The traditional Chinese woodcuts, including the representative woodcuts in Ming and Qing Dynasty, and the works of Ren Weichang and Chen Laolian, all contain the characteristic elements of traditional Chinese paintings in the use of graver, color, line, plane and perspective skills; while the Chinese contemporary woodcuts are totally different from the traditional Chinese woodcuts, but has accepted and incorporated the styles of western paintings of Kollwitz and Munch etc., which pay much attention to the structure, 3D effect, patches, anatomy, light shadow and 3D space. As is said in Lu Xun's The History of Woodcut, “From Tang Dynasty to Ming Dynasty, Chinese woodcut once had a decent history. However, the new woodcut has nothing to do with that history.”
With his artistic talents starting naturally from the western and traditional Chinese paintings and later developed into various aspects, Zhu Xuanxian's arts has an innate multiplicity, which is different from the talent or quality in a single aspect. In fact, he is not only an excellent painter of traditional Chinese painting styles, but also a superior master of woodcut in western painting styles. In his whole life, he finished lots of excellent works in the traditional Chinese styles, and also many excellent woodcut paintings of western style.
His experience in western and traditional Chinese paintings for almost a century has completely entered the blood of his artistic life, so that it is difficult to say whether his Chinese paintings influenced his woodcuts, or vice versa. In his works, we can often see the combination, complementation and enhancement between the spirit and skills of western and traditional Chinese paintings.
The contrast between Zhu Xuanxian's traditional Chinese painting Flying Windward and his last woodcut Birds Flocking Back to the Woods reflected his different attitudes in different periods. In Flying Windward, the white points formed by the wavering reeds, the line formed by the birds flying toward the wind, the dark reeds in 1/2 proportion of the picture and the blank space of the sky, composes a picture of strong contrast, which contains obviously the geometric elements of patches and planes in western woodcuts; however, in Birds Returning to the Woods, the graphic attitude and dynamics of woods and birds, the hollow spaces of the woods, the pieces of the setting sun, together with the slight melancholy of seeing the birds to leave, and the seemingly real chirping of birds by the side of your ears, farer and farer, unexhausted……, such an extremely beautiful scene duly reflected his cultivated skills in traditional Chinese paintings. The “breathing holes” of the two paintings are selected carefully, showing exactly the same elaborate consideration.
Some other works, such as the traditional Chinese painting Harvest, through the method of wide-angle close-up shot, describes the durra hung with heavy red strips in golden autumn field; the After the Rain and Bamboo Shoots, which describe the bamboo shoots growing out of the soil, demonstrated the capture and 3D effect of light shadow.
The Chinese landscape sketches of Zhu Xuanxian, including Early Spring, Dawn, River Bank, Countryside and Streetscape, are his explanation of the mountains and rivers directly based on his understanding and the visual effect of western paintings as well as the spirit and methods of traditional Chinese paintings, and the works absorbed the foreign culture without losing their charm of traditional Chinese paintings, with a touch of modern time.
Similarly, there is also noticeable odor of traditional Chinese paintings in his woodcuts Spring Sowing, On the Jialing River and Fair Spreading the Flowers.
Zhu Xuanxian has made great achievements not only in traditional Chinese painting, but also in woodcuts. In 1996, Chongqing Publishing House published Collection of Woodcuts by Zhu Xuanxian, for which Mr. Wang Qi, who was then the executive vice president of China Artists Association and the president of China Graphic Artists Association, wrote the title, and Mr. Yang Keyang, a famous woodcut painter, wrote the Preface (foreword). In 1998, Southwest China Normal Universit