Gao Xingjian’s “Return to Painting”

This is a favorite book, a gift from my sister a few years ago. Gao draws astounding forms from black ink and paper, pulling image from abstraction and bleeding ink in a way that reminds me of Joseph Beuys’ early watercolors. Also, though, I return again and again to his writing about his own work process, the cultivation of a state of mind that invites wonders to emerge from the tip of the brush. Curiously, this great painter also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000.  Gao lived through ugly times in China, and he’s skeptical of art world  “revolutions” and post-historical jargon. He’s also suspicious of the conceptual tone of much of contemporary art. Gao’s paintings are proof enough that the tactile mysticism of the brush that has thousand-year-old roots in China is alive and well, even amidst a generation that strives to forget it. (Click below for more, including short quotes from the book.)

While never straying from the work that is emerging under his hand, the artist also never stops observing himself. To possess this kind of self-consciousness is to no longer be a simple artisan.

A return to painting is not a return to tradition in order to resurrect the forms and tastes that were amply expressed by the ancients. It is rather a return to discover the remaining and far from exhausted possibilities and to unearth a personal means of expression.

A return to painting means to paint where one cannot paint, to paint what one has already painted, , and to begin painting anew.

A return to painting means to return to the point where modernism began more than a century ago, and find another path.

Part of the charm of this book comes from the fact that it’s a compilation of thoughts from Gao’s notebooks, written for himself , then later shared and translated. It’s certainly not academic, either in its broad tone or in its sincerity. He’s not trying to convince an audience – he’s trying to inspire himself, and remind himself of core beliefs. In his own private notebooks, there’s no need to provide specific evidence for his attitudes, so one reads between the lines. Looking at this book again always reminds me to confound my own unexamined rules and habits, reminds me to remember that my own whole impetus here has to do with those moments of clear vision that art-making brings about, sometimes. That form and vision have some real substance,  that wisdom is still worth pursuing in a jaded world, and that depth is perhaps possible, though it may well be a laughing matter.  Gao deliberately tries to bring some of the tone, the fluid ambition, and the spiritual intent of “the ancients” into the present. For more about Gao’s paintings and biography, have a look here.

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2 replies
  1. arya azadi
    arya azadi says:

    i would love to meet gao xingjian.
    would it be possible to get his email.? i am an artist in china at the moment due to ink and paper, on my way back to the himalayas where i live and work amongst other places on this planet.
    thank you for your site and the pleasure it has brought into my life.

  2. Eric
    Eric says:

    I wish I could send you his email, but I’ve never been directly in touch. Last I heard, he was living in France, though, and you may be able to find out more through the link I posted in my post (perhaps the museum can contact him). I think he may have some opinions that conflict with positions of the Chinese government, so you may have a hard time researching him if you’re actually in China. I’d be interested to hear, and if you do get in touch, I’d love to send him a note, too, as his work has meant a lot to me. Your site, by the way, is beautiful, as is your work. Many thanks for stopping my mine…

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