‘Dazzling sky to the far cirrus clouds. / I gaze at wild geese vanishing into the south.’ (tiangao yundan, / wangduan nanfei yan.) The line comes from a poem by Mao Zedong. It rang with a revolutionary romance for the ears of those from the 1950s and 1960s. It became an unsurpassed emblem of the idealistic era. Could the name ‘Gao Yun’ (gao literally means‘high’and yun means ‘cloud’; the two characters are shared by the poem) imply a similar poetic ideal? The age Gao Yun was born in had a vivid epochal tint, which not only determined his artistic path, but also his approach to art and the extent of his achievement.
For people born in the 1950s and 1960s, teenage years were mostly spent in the strangeness and drudgery of rural villages, summoned by the nation’s policy ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside’. Long days went by in bleak hopes. Gao Yun was no exception. He was sent to a village in northern Jiangsu province where he began painting. His sketching ability was trained in fields, and his drawings were honed under oil lamps. His first work, Little Sharpshooter, was created while participating in the provincial art class. This kind of learning experience is conspicuously branded with the unique culture mark of that special era; self-study plus short-term training. Basic skills were practiced together with creative composition. This was also why Gao Yun, at the age of 18, was capable of producing Little Sharpshooter, a gongbi (delineative painting) New Year painting. It wasn’t uncommon among his generation, but seen from today’s education model, it would be deemed incomprehensible.
The trials he went through in the village not only shaped him as a diligent self-learner, hardworking and modestly learning from everything, the multifarious facets of life he witnessed also became his material for future art practice. The experience may also explain why Gao Yun quickly attracted the painting circle’s attention shortly after commencing his study at Nanjing University of the Arts. With a series of Chinese paintings and picture storybooks, he was recognised as one of the most talented young artists in China. During the second year of the undergraduate studies, his Noon Break and Appreciation of Oxen were selected for the Second Jiangsu Province Youth Art Exhibition. In the third year, he created and published his first single-volume picture storybook The Girl and the Lanterns. His graduation work Plant Festival was collected by the university. Shortly after graduation, picture storybook Luo Lun to Take the Imperial Exam brought him Gold Prize in the 6th National Art Exhibition and skyrocketed him to be one of China’s best ten picture storybook artists. A light touch in the sky (tiangao yundan), his art wings flew above clouds all at once.
In the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the seventies and eighties of the last century, picture storybook as an art form was celebrated much more excitingly compared to its prospect today. One of the reasons for its popularity was a high illiteracy rate. Therefore, picture storybooks became a major medium for introducing literary works. Reading picture storybooks was also one of the very few options for leisure activities. Both adults and children loved to read these books at the stalls when they were free, and picture storybook stalls were as widespread as today’s game centres and Internet cafes. At the beginning of New China, many great artists were involved in the creation of picture storybooks. Many educated youths in the 1970s and 1980s also trained their formal precision and sensitivity by making picture storybooks, which enriched their life drawing experiences and led them into professional creative art careers. It could be said that it was also picture storybooks that strengthened Gao Yun’s artistic status in the art circle.
From the first picture storybook The Girl and the Lanterns to a cartoon version of Three Kingdoms in colour, Gao Yun had created Sunset Clouds (collaborated with Hu Bozong), Luo Lun to Take the Imperial Exams, The Palace of Eternal Life, The Battle of Huangtiandang, Shenzhou Fighting Arena (collaborated with Hu Bozong), Master Haideng (collaborated with Hu Bozong), Huo Xiaoyu (collaborated with Yu Shui) and other picture storybooks as well as book illustrations for Wu Song, Shi Xiu, Lu Junyi and others. If compared with picture storybook artists of the same era, Gao Yun’s works didn’t stand out by its quantity. Instead, the technical and thoughtful scrupulosity pushed the art form to a new height. Readers were left with strong impressions from classical subject themes rendered in baimiao (‘monochrome- outline’) such as Luo Lun to Take the Imperial Exam, The Palace of Eternal Life, and Huo Xiaoyu. In these pictures, although a continuous narrative construction and the characters’ expressions are ‘telling the stories’, the masterly ingenuity grounds itself not just in the plots but an overall atmosphere (yijing) through which narratives are turned into poetic expression. The latter can be found especially in the baimiao lines which reinforce a bone method (gufa) in Chinese painting. The way of using the brush is communicated through the painted lines, demonstrating a level of fluidity and power. As Luo Lun galloping through the night for the imperial exam, a large portion of the picture is left blank, communicating artistically a night bathed in moonlight without ‘the tinge of the moon’; also, as the young woman does her make-up, her forearm without the bracelet and the maid lifting the curtain and entering with a washing bowl under her arm are two moments that together point to the moment of ‘drama’; not only is this scene extremely telling, but the details, namely the painted orioles on the screen and fluttering willows shadowing through the window, create the sense of drama by an interaction between the interior and the exterior.
With a solid sketching skill, Gao Yun doesn’t fiddle with the ‘cool-look’ found in western figure drawings. Instead, he looks to the illustrative portraits in Ming and Qing novels. As slender lines were transferred onto papers by wood block printing, a special texture was formed. The calligraphic marks are combined with textures produced by the carving. Though a three-dimensional perspective is used, the artistic expression is centred around the organisation of planed space constructed by lines. The characters and their surroundings are rearranged by varying the density of lines. As a result, the density relations weigh heavier than relations indicated by spatial distances. Or it could be said, the variation in line densities produces visual effects of the far and near, the virtual and actual, and a rhythm exclusive to Gao Yun’s works. The loose and tight, became the most important traits in his paintings for accomplishing the artistic form. His portrayal of the characters also blends organically the realistic and the expressiveness of lines. Loose or dense lines are also his most effective tools in shaping the characters’ images. Every individual picture in his picture storybooks contains one or several groups of neatly drawn lines exquisitely designed and realised. It is that one or several groups of lines that buttress the outstanding artistic form delivered through his pictures. The learned lineage exemplified in the forms and lines encompasses Chen Hongshou’s ‘antique burlesque elegance’ (guzhuo) without his eccentricity and Ren Bonian’s unimpeded fluency without inflection. The lines and forms are bony and assertive, nimbly executed, tender at the same time secretly rough, carrying within a simplicity and an elegance in the style of ancient masters.
Above all, Gao Yun’s picture storybooks aren’t only about the ‘drama’ in the narratives or a ‘liveliness’of the ‘roles’. His attainment lie in blending a realistic figure drawing into a traditional baimiao one as well as the systems of figure drawings found in Chinese stone carvings, pottery figurines, and mural paintings. He has effectively taken the form of line drawings from the past and brought them into the present, presenting the skill and style of line drawings in traditional Chinese literati paintings. To an extent, he has achieved yet another peak in bridging traditional baimiao with figures in picture storybooks, following the paths of Liu Jiyou, Wang Shuhui, and He Youzhi, as well as a pioneer in imbuing a popular art form with the achievement of literati paintings.
Were it not the richly cultured experience in the practice and the study of Chinese painting, Gao Yun’s picture storybook would never be as accomplished. Gao Yun’s major was Chinese painting when he was admitted to Nanjing University of the Arts. It follows that baimiao – bridging picture storybooks and Chinese paintings – is essential to his painting practice. Noon Break, Appreciation of Oxen, Plant Festival and other works created during his study at NUA all demonstrate an extraordinary talent in line drawings, which had later evolved into part of his artistic style. Winning him a great fame, Broken Soul at Mawei (collaborated with He Jiaying) is also the most dramatic scene in his picture storybook The Palace of Eternal Life. However, the work is no longer just a depiction of an individual scene of ‘the hegemon king bidding his concubine farewell’in a storybook, but portrays the powerlessness of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang and the officials’ indignance towards Yang Yuhuan in a more dramatic and conflicting manner, endowing the work with a deeper historical, allegorical meaning.
Among history paintings depicting ‘the hegemon king bidding his concubine farewell’, this painting is the most remarkable one. The painting not only emphasizes varying indignant expressions of the officials but also accentuates the inner activities of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang – a strong attachment besieged by powerlessness. It is also worth to pay attention to where the dramatic conflict lies in the painting. Instead of the center, the point happens at the lower left corner while the majority of the picture is occupied by officials, an imperial procession, and forbidding imperial guards. The painting foregrounds a classic color contrast made of dark red attires of the officials and black gauze caps, rendering vigorously a dignified, solemn and grave historical moment. In respect to the artistic language of gongbi paintings, this work artfully fuses together heavy-coloring and light-coloring (two styles of coloring). The choice of a heavy-coloring stresses a solemnity and simplicity in the manner of the ancients.
The multi-layering of yunran (a coloring technique that applies layers of paint by using a color brush and a water brush alternatively; the latter blends out the former) for the officials’ countenances standing long hours of observation bring together in one place western figure paintings and Ming portraits which are characteristic of highlighting the structure. The yunran of the red official attire doesn’t take away from the smooth outlines. Between a heavy coloring and the gongbi outlines, Gao Yun accomplishes an artistic effect in which the entirety stands out by its use of color, and the details built by the lines reach a profundity. Doubtless, the work had learned from Dunhuang murals and Tang tomb murals; the murals’ humble nobility has also carried over into Gao Yun’s artistic approach.
From the perspective of traditional Chinese figure drawings, Gao Yun seems to have pursued a kind of nobility on the level of aesthetics for his art practice. This is manifested in an untouched line drawing, a perfection of forms, a reclusive atmosphere. This might indicate an inclination for classicism when he made the classical picture storybooks. Indeed, to pursue a classicistic intricateness, solemnness and nobility, he explored in his work Dialogue with Ingres the possibilities in transforming Ingres’iconic figures through gongbi with light-coloring. Through it, the interconnections between the aesthetics of European classicism and Chinese gongbi paintings were explored. His painting The Beauty is also such an exploration, breathing traditional figure drawing into a contemporary urban female figure. Fashionably dressed, the female figure isn’t painted to reinforce her good-looking fashion, but is endowed by the artist with a classicistic tenderness and reservedness – an Ingresian posture of a chin resting in palm, slender Botticellian fingers, and a color scheme of Raphael all confirm the artist’s flexible application of anatomical ratios and representative postures in European classicism. But all of these are unified in the lines and yunran in gongbi light-coloring. The effortless, bony, vigorous, smooth and tender lines are artfully and unobtrusively fused with the plane and volume constitutive of forms in western painting. This is without a doubt a memorable turn for Gao Yun, changing from traditional figure drawings to modern figure drawings. What it encompasses, a language of line drawing and an aesthetic inwardness manifested in transforming traditional gongbi figure drawings through European classical oil paintings, stretches over centuries of time and a great distance across space.
In fact, such striding over can be taken as an important feature of Gao Yun’s artistic expression. It’s very difficult to differentiate what’s historical or contemporary, classical or modern on the level of aesthetics. His painting Remember Us? depicts female soldiers of the New Fourth Army. The gaze that turns back on viewers seems to be a flashback of the present. In addition to the naivety of the depicted female figures, the painting demonstrates the painter’s ability to capture a time-transcending female inwardness. His painting In and Outside Door depicts a contemporary urban female figure. However, standing in-between an interior and an exterior highlights an inward and tender beauty of traditional Chinese female figures.
Can it be said that the female figures painted by Gao Yun all demonstrate a bridging aesthetic bringing together fashion and reservedness, simplicity and delicacy, free spirit and elegance? Such is how his paintings No Trace of the Worldly, Rock, The Youth, and Beautiful Jiangnan depicting modern female figures in a mixture of gongbi and xieyi (‘freely-sketched’) and Approaching Xinjiang in which the many Xinjiang female figures in actuality are captured completely in the ink and brush of xieyi paintings present the essence of classicistic aesthetic by modern figures. In other words, his paintings of females, regardless of the time and place they belong to, are never about any specific figure and even less about telling an event through the figure but expressing his exploration of beauty. At least, in his subconscious, classicism can and should travel across history and modernity. This has always been his foothold that he has insisted when investigating the modernity in beauty through fusing together line drawing of Chinese painting and yunran.
Jiangsu is a place with a lingering lineage of literati paintings. The cultural atmosphere is also especially dense. And landscape paintings are where most of the literati aesthetic presentation is reflected in. Among them, ink paintings are more admired. In Gao Yun’s many paintings representing gaoshi (scholars), he pays tribute to the Chinese landscape spirit through images of these ancient men of letters. Therefore, he also began to study Ming and Qing landscape paintings, to be inspired by the higher thinking in landscape paintings. His paintings Mountain Viewing in A Strong Wind, Fife Echoing in the Garden, Playing Qin in the Remoteness and other artworks having scholars as subjects have compositions that contain an equal weight of the sceneries and the figures, expressing, without an exception, a state of being ‘deep and remote’, ‘free’, and ‘distant’. This also led Gao Yun to put more efforts in landscape paintings.
Different from the approach of New Jinling Painting School (founded by Fu Baoshi) that advocated for preliminarily life drawings for the purpose of bringing new life into the landscape painting tradition, Gao Yun’s landscape paintings bear a lineage going back to Ming and Qing, which could be delved farther back to Song and Yuan. The deep and remote atmosphere, the antique simplicity, are results of an endeavor that aims to distance itself from the reality. In fact, the landscapes presented in Gao Yun’s paintings are certainly not the tattered ecology of the current day but the natural creation in a civilization built on agriculture. They are Gao Yun’s nostalgia and reconstruction of a nature that had died away according to a classicistic perspective. Apparently, his are different from ones expressing the actual landscapes, but are attempts of providing certain spiritual grazing and slow-releases for people living in the current situations. From this perspective, what he paints are spiritual landscapes. Landscapes whose resemblance with the ancient time is not to be found in our day become an aesthetic channel through which a spiritual home for people is built. He uses ‘ox- hair’, ‘hemp-fiber’, or ‘raveled-rope’texture strokes (cun) as the bones which are then broken or blended by a moisture brush. The structures of the rocks and mountains in his paintings are derived from the mountains of the four Wang which are in a ‘high-distance’ (gaoyuan) perspective. Layers are added to the mountains, piling up ‘alum heads; intricate layers of mountains stretch into the distant. Because Gao Yun has a strong gongbi base, his blue-and-green landscape techniques are also chiseled and delicate; the body of the mountains are first outlined followed by ax-cut texture strokes in comparatively heavy ink. The green-and-blue landscape is then given a touch-up (diandu) of ink mosses which implies a decorative interest.
Gao Yun’s exploration of landscape painting is influenced by both the Post-Jinling Painting School’s revival of Ming and Qing literati landscape painting tradition and an inner spiritual need. As a spiritual rebel of the postmodern life, his landscapes represent a spirituality that is light and distant, natural and unrestraint, free and comfortable. Such landscapes, although born out of elegant brush works, are deeply rooted in the artist’s inner cultural cultivation and a psychological and spiritual reflection. Far from representing the reality, the landscapes embody the artist’s spiritual character. Although Gao Yun is good at figure painting, and the public recognition of him began with the picture storybooks followed by extremely delicate stamps produced midway his career, his artistic practice has never steered away from classical subject matters. This, naturally, could be traced back to how picture storybooks with classical themes led him to resonate with the ancients’spiritual experience. But what’s more important, or in other words, hidden behind these figures and events, is his pursuit of aesthetic spirit embodied in classicistic paintings. Here lingers a nobility away from the worldly, a peace that had abandoned hustle and bustle, a simplicity that had shed cumbersomeness, a perfection mending lacks and regrets. The pillar of his artistic practice is an idealism that is specific to and persistently upheld by men of Gao Yun’s time.
The expression ‘a light touch in the sky’, to some extent, summarizes his life-long pursuit in art. Only through a ‘high-distance’ perspective held within oneself, may a genuine feeling of ‘light cloud and gentle breezes’ arise.
Beijing 22 International Art Plaza 26 May, 2019