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Daniel Bergez, Gao Xingjian: Painter of the Soul.

Daniel Bergez, Gao Xingjian: Painter of the Soul. London: Asia Ink, 2013. 263 pages.

Among contemporary ink brush painters, Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian (b. 1940), a Parisian since 1987, stands out. Though he won the world's top literature prize, achieving what Tolstoy, Joyce, Woolf, and Nabokov never managed to, he paints better than he writes. He may indeed be the greatest living Chinese artist, rivaled only by Zao Wou-ki (b. 1920), another haven-seeker in France. Balancing the abstract and figurative, Gao utilizes subtly graded washes of black and grey and the uncoopted white of his paper to evoke--just barely--the outline of figures and landscapes in brooding or shattered loneliness. These nocturnes are x-ray revelations of the world in its skeletal meaning. The flesh of life stripped away, we confront the existential jointure glowing in the gloom.

Daniel Bergez's Gao Xingjian: Painter of the Soul interpolates dozens of Gao's works amid five essays and an interview with the painter. Small scale, monochrome, and nontextural, Gao's art is unusually suited to reproduction of this kind. The luster and razor sharpness of these plates are the volume's chief attraction. Bed-sitting aesthetes will feel only the faintest sense of loss or compromise. As a collection of indelible images in their full nuance, the volume needs no further justification.

Gao's paintings engineer their own critical crisis. How to discuss images so finely calibrated to transcend discussion? How to assign conscious meaning to images so immured in the unconscious? The problem pertains to all art that is not reified theory--that is, to all genuine art--but Gao's art is particularly elusive, making no concession to narrative (i.e., nothing happens) or to a larger discourse (i.e., nothing refers). Gao's images are like cave paintings: primal runes (what Bergez calls "immemorial archetypes") of a world that is only sort of ours (32). We sense meaning, but have no purchase on it. The intellect is stymied; we can only ponder, wonder, feel.

Consider Earth and Heaven (2007), which depicts an earthly terrain eventuating in a rear-ground spindle that ascends into what seem spatially designate as clouds. The vision is lonely, the distance real, the earth denuded. Is this tornado? Mushroom cloud? Umbilicus? Tree of life? We sense only that earth and heaven are somehow joined and that their nexus is simultaneously hopeful and baleful, central and contingent. Like Chinese poetry, the painting is endlessly indeterminate, bound only by its palpable though elusive mood. Likewise consider Innermost Being (2005), in which a female figure stands amid a flowing, featureless dream- or land-scape. A dark, labial orifice opens above, at once beckoning, watching, interrogating, and threatening. Is it sun? Eye? Mouth? Birth canal? We sense the fraught relation between inner and outer, but otherwise we are rendered speechless by the image's silent ramifications.

The volume includes only one painting, the relatively early Flames (1991), whose symbolism and metaphysics belong to a conventional scheme. A vast female torso--sensual expanse of belly, heavy breasts, face blacked out and aflame--seems shackled by strata of rock while a prim, skirted figure stands in diminutive judgment on a promontory in the left foreground. This is the Hadean internment of the harlot, with schoolmarm as registrar of the predictable damnation. If morally conventional, the painting has enormous emotional force, with the condemned female's sexuality and torment cast against the immoveable stone in a conflict of Titanic forces. The painting errs in the direction of the denotive, but only great artists err this powerfully.

Gao's only failing is quasi-literary, underscoring the irony of his Nobel Prize: a predilection for psychologically suggestive titles. These transform the paintings into Rorschach tests and invite narrow psychoanalytic interpretation. Innermost Being would be twice the painting if it declined to direct its own interpretation; the same goes for otherwise superior paintings like Childhood (1987), Women Dreaming (1998), Death (2002), Desire (2004), Anxiety (2008), Dark Thoughts (2008), Fate (2008), and Self-Observation (2008). This explicitness sometimes enriches, however, as in the case of The Messengers (2006), which depicts five figures traversing a dune with a massive sun beating overhead. The title introduces the question of wayfarers' message; of what it means to be a messenger; of a world in which messages must cross deserts and brave burning suns. Gao himself acknowledges the difficulty of naming without circumscribing his images:
   On completing a painting, you hang it up and scrutinize it at
   length, and only if you are totally satisfied do you give the
   painting a title. A title requires much thought, and often it is
   only barely acceptable. Finding the right words is hard, and for a
   painting that satisfies a title that satisfies cannot necessarily
   be found. Such is the limitation of words. (111)

And yet Gao, writer no less than painter, never gives up on words, as so many abstractionists have done, with their numbered "studies" that refuse the traditional compromise with denotation. Gao's attempt to wed word and image is touchingly affirmative and oddly stubborn, given that he otherwise conceives literature and painting as irreconcilable (119), the one denotive, the other visionary.

Bergez's essays are stiffly translated from the French, but they are studded with intriguing notions. There is the equation of Gao's art with the music of Schoenberg and Olivier Messiaen (32); the insight that Gao's paintings lack an "identifiable focal point" and thus "destabiliz[e] the viewer's gaze" (56, 266-230); the detail that Gao paints strictly by electric light in a white-walled, black-floored room, thereby mirroring or exteriorizing the chromatics of his art (74); discussion of the "extreme care" with which Gao chooses his paper, attentive to minute differences in texture, absorptiveness, and "drying rates" (85); the suggestion that "each painting is a cosmogony in miniature" (99). Emotionally invested and unafraid to delve into the most elusive aspects of Gao's art, these essays surpass the usual art-volume boilerplate, the vacuity of words only half expecting to be read.

Bergez places Gao "at the confluence of East and West" and describes him as a purveyor of an aesthetic unity "constructed from this meeting point between two civilizations and cultures" (37). Kafka and Odilon Redon have supplanted bird and plumb branch, but there do seem vestigial Chinese elements. There are fleeting evocations of Lin Fengmian's (1900-1991) apocalyptic landscapes (see especially Mist [1987]); of Zhang Daqian's (1899-1983) later wash paintings (an attempt to negotiate dimming eyesight); of Zao Wou-ki's commanding abstractions, as Bergez notes (82). Bergez plausibly suggests that Gao inherits Shitao's (1642-1707) "predilection for epic 'landscapes'" (the quotation marks presumably recognizing the slippery distinction between landscape and mindscape) and proposes, despite Gao's denials, an affinity to Buddhism and Daoism (17, 45). The most obvious Chinese elements are of course Gao's use of ink and his improvisatory technique (74-75), which he details:
   My painting comes from a pure vision ... It is often an inner
   vision, that intervenes before I start the painting or after I have
   finished it, or that develops as the painting progresses: its form
   develops as I work. (105)

But if traditional ink painting focuses on line and the flow of qi (energy), Gao reconceives ink as a richly chromatic medium, much as French filmmakers like the early Godard, Malle, and Truffaut turned black and white film into a richly chromatic medium, founding their palette on the wet Parisian boulevard. As Bergez observes, "The 'darkness' of the ink allows Gao Xingjian to merge with the darkness of the world, to immerse himself physically in its mystery ..." (180). Largely uninterested in line, Gao uses ink to generate shadowed realities, ontological distinctions, psychological metaphors. His own boast--"I have found a way to control ink unknown in the Chinese painting tradition"--does not go too far (259).

Gao's art is difficult to assess, but his status is not. He is one of the great integrators of Chinese traditionalism and Western modernism. He is the innovator of an arguably new medium. He breaches a lineage of symbolic interiority--encompassing painters like Goya, Munch, and Redon--heretofore European. Bergez's handsome volume is a laurel placed on the correct brow.


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Author:Ross, David A.
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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