When Gao Yun, the director of the Provincial Department of Culture and I encountered each other early on, he was only known to me as his title suggested. It is because, first of all, that I wasn’t terribly keen on socialising and thus less informed. Secondly, due to the differences between professions; although writers and painters collectively known as literati belong to the same so-called “literary and art circles”, there is an unexplained gap in between.
Fortunately, since I met Director Gao, I started to know him gradually and naturally. Neither did I rush nor deliberate, he began to reveal himself beyond his executive position, in other words, as a distinguished painter.
This was how Gao Yun evoked my willingness to write. It is painter Gao Yun that I am going to write about.
What a challenge to my energy, insight, intellect and profession!
The fate by which people are brought together is always unpredictable and not contrived – this was accurate for Gao Yun and me. Our encounter did not seem to be destined, but sometimes fate would reveal itself without warning. In 2013, both of us attended the 28th group of the literary and art circles of the CPPCC National Committee. For the next five years in a row, we had the chance to meet and talk for a dozen of days each year, especially in the group meeting where we often sat together. At a national meeting, fellow Jiangsu people would be much closer. Even if there were only two or three fellows, they would look like a cluster.
Therefore, we gradually opened to each other when we met at the meetings. I wasn’t very sure if Gao Yun had known more about me during these encounters. But my understanding towards him had grown more and more comprehensive, vivid and touching to my inner world.
Gao Yun was an early bird.He learned to draw on his own at the age of 17, as a sent-down youth undertaking farm work in the rural.When I was at the same age, on the contrary, went to a rural school, dreamt no lofty dream. Life for me was like a ship run aground in the mist, not to mention the dream of literature.
The 17 years old Gao Yun, on the other hand, had the brush in his hand and a big dream in mind. I think, the reason why he had a clear vision of his artistic career so early in his life, is undoubtedly inseparable from the influence by his own family – especially his father with his own collection of masterpieces. His father’s devotion to art and great aesthetics had laid the foundation of his career, but after all, that was an external factor. More importantly, Gao Yun must have heard an inner voice.
What was in his mind when Gao Yun drew the first line at 17, I never asked. Did he ever think of the fact that this line and this line alone, opened up everything in his life? All his life, whatever he does or wherever he is, he has not changed and will never change.
I’m uncertain of all these answers, except for one thing, that is, when he was 17 the inner voice once said: “Let’s paint.” This was the beginner’s mind, the start.Gao Yun’s early start and his endeavour secured him an early fame.
Gao Yun took the brush to paint at 17 and finished his first art work The Little Sharpshooter at 18. This painting, inspired by life but went beyond life, was widely recognised instantly and officially published. Because of the spectacular success of this piece of work, Gao Yun was seconded to Suqian County Cultural Center Art Unit. If his painting at 17 was still a way of timid temptation towards life, his career transfer by the aid of the success of The Little Sharpshooter had led Gao Yun into a much stronger and steadier career of art.
In his own words, it was a turning point in his life.It follows naturally, that Gao Yun made continuous achievements in the field of art ever after;In 1975, at the age of 19, his Chinese painting Time and Moment was selected into Youth Art Exhibition of Jiangsu Province; In 1978, at the age of 22, he was admitted into Nanjing University of the Arts as one of the first batch of students after the reinstatement of higher education entrance examination and majored in traditional Chinese painting;In 1981, at the age of 25, 200, 000 copies of his first offprint picture storybook, The Girl and the Lanterns, were issued;In 1982, at the age of 26, he graduated from Nanjing University of the Arts. His final project, the long-scroll painting Plant Festival was collected by Nanjing University of the Arts. After graduation, he commenced his career as an art editor in Jiangsu People’s Publishing House;In 1983, at the age of 27, he finished and published the painting series, Luo Lun to Take the Imperial Exam, for the Picture Stories magazine.In 1984, at the age of 28, his works were exhibited overseas (Switzerland) for the first time, and won him the Special Merit Award.In 1985, at the age of 29, he became a member of Chinese Artists Association.In 1986, at the age of 30, his art work was exhibited in England after winning the first prize in the 3rd National Picture Storybook Awards.
As time went by, his achievements and awards continued.Gao Yun did make his name at an early stage in life! My thoughts came to my own experience again. When I was the same age, the door to literature and writing was open to me. Yet I simply soaked in writing and had barely any grasp of a direction. Professional awards, though shimmering in my imagination, casted no light in real life. So the encounter between Gao Yun and me, between an early starter and a slow comer, reached a complementing and subtle balance.
Let’s get back to the story of Gao Yun.
In a span of 13 years from 17 to 30, the broadness and height of Gao Yun’s achievement beyond the for most of the people in their life.It’s not difficult to imagine how energetic and ambitious Gao Yun was with all his merits at hand.
And it’s true indeed that Gao Yun already became famous when he was still young.
Undoubtedly, it is a great fortune and a common wish to become famous early in life. However, it could be an implausible burden and stress at the same time. To the 30-year-old Gao Yun, that came along with fame and honor was the uncertainty of the future path: How and to which direction should he move forward?
If one makes his fame at an early age, he might be seized by self- satisfaction and aesthetic immunity of his countless creations and awards. Excessive consumption of talent and energy may also be the soil to breed self-tiring. Worst of all, the starting point could switch to the end point, besieged by the lack of innovation.
Let’s find out how Gao Yun dealt with his early fame.
He took a calm and steady manner.
Maybe the metaphor was set in his name — “Yun” for clouds — he treated the fame in a way as the light clouds floating across the clear sky. It is so that the same person who stepped aboard at an early age has now “fallen behind.” Gao Yun has been “late” in several ways.
After more than 40 years of painting, Gao Yun was well deserved of high standard personal exhibitions out of his huge amount of work pieces. However, his one and only exhibition, opened directly to the public, was held in a community art museum, as a vivid practice of his idea to offer people qualified works. His professional exhibition in the art industry is yet to be realised.
After more than 40 years of painting and among numerous award- winning works, it wouldn’t be a hard task to publish a personal collection. Gao Yun, on the contrary, postponed the project time after time. Until in the year of 2014, 41 years since he entered the world of painting, he published his first artist monograph. 40 years of rich experience gathered in full power only to create a time-proof memory for himself.
Also after more than 40 years of painting, despite the widespread respect and compliment, Gao Yun maintained his habit to be discreet and stay “unsatisfactory” while creating. It has always been the quality instead of the quantity that he pursues.
So if we look at Gao Yun from another perspective, the early bird with early fame is on the other hand, calm and torpid. Such a pace, I’d imagine, comes from his self-confidence. He never ceases to make progress, never gives up his exploration. He constantly endeavours to bring forth new ideas. Therefore, for Gao Yun, there’s no weariness but full of vigour, the unceasing changes and the unchanging heart.
In the end, I could not leave out Gao Yun’s paintings, the un-evadable topic, even if I wanted to.
I can’t say I understand painting. I feel unqualified to make any indiscreet comments on his artistic works. Yet I could not evade it because Gao Yun’s paintings reach the depths of the mind and soul of a layman like me, who has no substantial knowledge about paintings.
Gao Yun often takes characters as the theme of his paintings. These characters can be roughly divided into two categories, the ancient and the modern. In both the ancient and the modern characters, I found a recurring trait – the exquisiteness.
Exquisiteness is in one’s style, in one’s custom, and ultimately, in one’s soul.
Gao Yun is an exquisite man: always decently dressed, with an unassuming smile on his face. As for coffee, he enjoys coffee beans ground by himself; as for wine, he has his particular taste for wineries and vintages; he has also established his own standards of baijiu…
It is usually said that art imitates life, but my impression of Gao Yun tells rather the contrary. I think his exquisite taste derives from the delicacy of his art. His pursuit of the delicacy of art pervades into his daily life.
Gao Yun’s work Broken Soul at Mawei is a classic tragedy addressing the female subject. But in Gao Yun’s painting this classic tragedy is communicated through silence and tranquility: the rage of the imperial guards in red repressed in the silence, the grief of Yang Guifei in white lurking in the tranquility. The grief, which could be expressed thoroughly and directly, is expressed in a meandering manner. Its profound internal tension is a strong undercurrent, invisible yet perceptible. Therefore, its power is more striking than the apparent expression of extreme emotions. The use of colour in this work reflects the artist’s elaborate consideration, incorporating the contemplation of the subject matter, the story and the history into the miraculous colours.
Beautiful Jiangnan, No Trace of the Worldly, In and Outside Door and etc., are all great works without exception. Through the artist’s delicate depiction and excellent skills, the ladies from Jiangnan in his paintings come to life. Their temperament is so vivid you could feel them breathing, hear them whispering their own stories and even read their smiles.
The Urban Stroller series is more down-to-earth, depicting the daily life of normal people. With superb painting techniques and sincere love for the ordinary urban people, the artist reveals the vitality of the worldly life. This is not a matter of exquisiteness per se, but a higher realm of it. This exquisiteness is enriched by original thinking that are nourished by everday observation and driven by an attempt to understand the very essence.
This brush, which had grown out of the deep soil, always addresses the earth and serves the people. After the success of the picture storybooks, Gao Yun began designing stamps. Those stamps, embedded with artistic aesthetics are sent directly to the people.His exquisite art does not only serve the people, but also guide their spiritual and cultural life. A small, ordinary stamp has become the bond between the artist and the people.
Someone has commented on Gao Yun’s paintings: “Noble but unobtrusive, light but perpetual.” It’s indeed the most appropriate description.
The ideal is incorporated into the composition, and the mind is integrated into the colour; let the emotions weave the lines, and the aesthetics permeate the image. This is the exquisiteness of Gao Yun’s art.
Exquisiteness implies the spirit of craftsmanship. In a fast-paced contemporary world, the spirit of craftsmanship appears to be more invaluable and meaningful.
It is not difficult to uphold the value of one thing, but it is difficult to hold onto such attitude about that thing throughout one’s life. To devote himself to the perfection of art, one must be persistent and obstinate. That is the case with Gao Yun. Once he has set his mind on the goal, he will not be interfered by anything but keep steering towards it. Therefore, as early as when he was in college, his classmates called him “the exception.”
For many years, he has been working on various tasks and dealing with various people. On the other hand, he has always been “the exception” because in order to be committed to art he has to give up as much as possible — people, things and social engagement that have nothing to do with art.
Being gregarious as he is but isolated within is not hypocrisy, but a positive attitude towards life — to be tolerant to others but strict to himself. For Gao Yun, it is to keep a broad inner peace, to sink into the nourishment of daily life, and to embody his understandings in the form of painting.
I empathise with this sense of “exception.” It is always hard to understand the mind of an artist as it appears to be complicated, or weird and obscure. It coincides with my friends’ comment on me, that I have an easygoing appearance and a lonely heart. I never object these comments.
It’s no double-dealing, no hypocrisy, but sincerity.To be gentle to others and to be solitary on your own.Gao Yun is sensitive. As a good-looking man, his smile can be very captivating. I dare not say how lonely he feels deep down behind the smile, but I do know his inner world is independent, unique and difficult to enter.
As a sensible kind of person, I might have described Gao Yun based on what my intuitions led me to. I do not know how much it may resemble or deviate from the real Gao Yun. I simply recorded my feelings of respect and admiration towards him as a painter.
As for his other identities like the director, the president or any other titles, let them be the vast background or a powerful foundation for the painter Gao Yun thus enabling the latter to keep pursuing his artistic career.
April 2019 in Nanjing