Web Editor: Fu Jianjun
Chen Xiaoqi’s paintings breathe bitterness, inside and outside.
Bitterness as a theme runs through his paintings, be it in form or technique. The brushes and ink are dry, the paper is rough straw, and a large area of shading is dried up, conveying a sense of longing and bitterness, which the viewer feels deeply. Instead of using fine Chinese art paper, he deliberately uses rough straw paper with its streaks and its rough texture. He uses straight and exaggerated lines to come up with irregular blocks to form his earthy pictures, which lend another dimension to the texture.
If the outer paraphernalia evokes a sense of bitterness, the content within revels in nostalgia and the hurt it often causes. In fact, all other themes are eclipsed and bitterness is favored above all.
On rainy days and other days as well, one can find Xiaoqi at this coffee shop, about 50 meters from the Qi Baishi Memorial Hall at Xiangtan. Dressed in trendy outfits, he looks young but his melancholy clearly reaches out and becomes evident through the lines on his forehead. He frowns often, without even being aware of it, an external manifestation of his internal turmoil perhaps.
I’ve noticed how numerous artists, writers and poets use homesickness as a theme in their work. “Why is homesickness in your works always full of bitterness,” I asked.
“Because I’ve seen so much suffering,” answered Chen Xiaoqi, without the least bit of hesitation.
Chen Xiaoqi has a unique family background. After graduating from the Huangpu Military Academy, his grandfather served in the military and died due to unknown reasons. Some say that he died in a battle at Zhangshu, Jiangxi during the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and some say that he died of old age in a prison after the KMT-CPC civil war. Xiaoqi’s father however made a living far away from his hometown for half of his life. He faced penury, suffered hunger and cold after coming back to Hunan and he died in misery eventually. On his deathbed, he left the family with the motto: “Don’t be afraid, because nothing is more miserable than death, and nobody is poorer than a beggar.”
At the age of 15, Xiaoqi headed to Le’an, Jiangxi alone, to make a living by learning carpentry, felling trees, and making charcoal. Before that, he worked as a young coolie in his hometown, where he began painting secretly, seeking for some peace and hope amid hard work and suffering.
Scrutinizing Chen Xiaoqi’s history as an artist, I noticed that he had made three critical shifts.
The first shift occurred between the age of 40 to 45, when he stopped using fine brushwork and moved to freehand brushwork, focusing on freehand figure painting. Before the age of 25, Chen Xiaoqi practiced oil painting, painting with charcoal pencils, watercolors, painting figures, birds and flowers and landscapes as well. After 25, he focused on Chinese paintings, and stuck to fine brushwork until the age of 40. From 1992, his fine brush flower-and-bird paintings and fine brush figure paintings began to frequently appear at national fine art exhibitions, winning awards several times. For Chen Xiaoqi, freehand figure painting was better to depict figures and their characteristics. Despite finding it very difficult, he hoped to make some breakthroughs. In April 2014, I accidentally encountered one of Chen Xiaoqi’s paintings at my friend’s home in Beijing. I learned that in the year 2000, CCTV had featured a program “Folk Songs Painted by Chen Xiaoqi” for its series programs of Top 10 National Peasant Painters. In the picture, a woman with her hair in a bun sits awkwardly with a child holding an iron hoop in his hand. Above their heads are inscribed words from a folk song: “An 18-year-old girl marries a 3-year-old baby. In the evening, the wife puts her husband to sleep. The husband can’t even go to the toilet without the help of the wife. As a child, he need not call her mommy. When the husband grows up, the wife becomes old. Flowers have blossomed and their leaves have turned yellow many times.” During this period, many of the figures in Xiaoqi’s paintings were women painted with the classical boneless painting technique, demonstrating feminine tenderness except for some aggressiveness in the inscriptions and calligraphy.
The second shift occurred when he was around the age of 50. The change in his work was marked by his joining the research group on realistic figure painting style hosted by Liu Dawei in Beijing. He gave up the boneless painting technique and shifted to line and modeling. As for the content, he no longer confined himself to the theme of “Artistic Folksongs”. Instead, he focused on self-inscribed poems. He also began to focus on men, sweeping away the previous feminine influences, and made a deliberate shift towards vitality in his paintings. At Baisha Road, Changsha, an exhibition hall for calligraphy and paintings called Meilu exhibited four of his scrolls in a group, all year around. Each painting featured a towering pole, some fragmentary fences, decadent villages, a lonely bamboo rake, a sore drunkard, a lecherous bachelor and a lonely manure collector. All these elements seem to have been combined casually, but actually they are carefully arranged. This group of scrolls represents Xiaoqi’s work perfectly after this shift.
A third shift occurred after he turned 55, marked by the Road of Eight Thousand Li with Clouds and the Moon Above. He was no longer confined to his hometown Hunan. Instead, he frequently stepped out of the country and toured Europe, the United States, as well as some Pacific island countries, such as Ecuador. His attention shifted from rural areas and their memories to a kind of bewilderment of modern people, marked by Insomniac and A Cat in Climacteric. His works in this period featured more exaggerated lines and models, and were more decorated. To some, they might appear bizarre and precipitous, but within a compact structure, all these elements support and match each other, coming together as one, and becoming indestructible. What is commendable is that with more expressive characters and environment details, the structure of his paintings became richer and flexible.
Today, Chen Xiaoqi’s works have reached the acme of form and content. It’s like two lovers who have finally become one in body and soul after going through several ups and downs. In his paintings, Chen Xiaoqi has acquired a distinctive temperament and forms his unique language by incorporating tragic, complex and violent aesthetics. In a word, the form itself has given birth to the content.
As Wang Luxiang put it, the very first glimpse of Chen Xiaoqi’s paintings, makes it evident that it was painted by a Hunan man because of the unique bleakness that is exclusive to Hunan people. It is highlighted by vertical elements, black squares and characterization that is exaggerated and extreme. Only the Hunan people could paint in such a way even though they acknowledge that it is obviously very difficult to achieve the effect. However, it is just such peremptoriness that will bring to light Xiaoqi’s great achievement. Chen Xiaoqi’s paintings contain a distinguished scholarliness, which is just the kind of temperament popular among Hunan scholars. Scholarliness demonstrated in his work differs from the style of scholars in the Jiangnan area, which is normally associated with love affairs or the Northwest wildness. Instead, it is a combination of scholarliness and wildness, revealing the real side of the Hunan people. It is the same case with their form, temperament and looks.
I have a clear sense of the period while appreciating Chen Xiaoqi’s paintings. Since we are contemporaries and neighbors, we tend to favor the same kind of nostalgia. I feel intimate and warm when I see the figures, scenes and details in his paintings. Among his paintings, Country Band is so vividly painted that I could almost fancy the man with the puffed cheeks blowing the suona as my second uncle, and the drummer as my father. How much joy had the musical sounds brought to us in those hard days? My second uncle was the last suona player in my village and passed away a year ago. When I wrote an article honoring his memory, many families shed tears in remembrance.
Chen Xiaoqi’s paintings often feature the leitmotif of a dog. It can either be found sitting before its owner, walking along a small bridge, or standing on a hill in his hometown. To me, the dog often feels like it is the painter himself! I don’t know why I feel like this, but the dog is always there, keeping watch on rivers, hills, trees, houses, as well as the suffering countrymen in his hometown. To me, it appears as though he becomes increasingly fascinated with that piece of land and it expands the scope of his activities. At the moment of writing this article, there have been numerous floods in many places, similar to those in 1998. Those scenes are fresh in my mind even today: the rivers of my hometown overrun during floods, and crops, trees and everything else is assailed by the might of water. On the bank, a dog runs and barks as if it is trying to save something. To the astonishment of the people around, it suddenly jumps into the currents and struggles to swim to the middle of the river, pushing a log onto the bank.
Who can really understand what goes on in the heart of a dog?
Who can really understand bitter nostalgia better than Chen Xiaoqi?
“Philosophy means that with the advent of nostalgia, a man goes everywhere to seek his homeland.” Chen Xiaoqi is so persistent and stubborn in this search; it is as if he was born with the mission of depicting hardship and instant joy of rural people, finding beauty and force hidden in hardship. Chen Xiaoqi’s bitterness is a bit like that of a bitter gourd. Only a man who has experienced many ups and downs in life can discern freshness and coolness from the bitter taste. Furthermore, Chen Xiaoqi’s bitterness is like the flowers that blossom on the vines of the bitter gourd under the scorching sun, glistening with brilliant yellow hues.
Destiny is like a piece of fabric, 99% of which will be used to make an outfit, while the remaining 1% will be dumped. However, Chen Xiaoqi’s brilliance knows no bounds and he can salvage the leftover material to depict instant joy of people even during their misery. In instant smiles there are tears, while in bitterness there is joy. It can produce brilliant sparks in the dark night that lights up our road back home!