I’ve known Gao Yun for a long time, and his name has always interested me. It reminds me a phrase made of four charters which are used when describing lines in painting, ‘Gao Gu You Si’(‘gossamer lines of the elegance and simplicity of the antiquity’) — a poetic imagination of a distant gaze for the wispy streaks of clouds in a high autumn sky.
In 1984, Luo Lun to Take the Imperial Exam earned the Gold Prize of the 6th National Art Exhibition. Young Gao Yun surprised the world by virtue of a linear drawing like water and clouds. He demonstrated the expressive and affective power of the plain lines in Chinese painting. He proved himself worthy of the name given by his parents, and was since then recognised by the Chinese art field as a highly talented young painter.
Widely acclaimed were two scenes from Luo Lun to Take the Imperial Exam.
One depicts Luo Lun, after finding a gold bracelet, heading back. The memorable picture of Luo Lun galloping away viewed from behind, though without anxious facial expressions, perfectly delivers Luo Lun’s emotion through the few lines of his cloak.
The other depicts a young woman, the owner of the lost gold bracelet, wearing her hair in a bedroom as seen from a side back view. Without displaying her face, the raised arms, the sleeves gliding down resembling two waterfalls wilfully rushing down to the floor, the depiction of her is thought-provoking.
This is Gao Yun’s skill. It seems to have originated from Peking opera. Skilful performers seem to always express their inner emotions through the jerks of sleeves, beards and pheasant tails wore on headgears. Furthermore, the movement of the clothes, beards, tails creates baffling forms and lines, melodies and rhythms that gratify the audience’s senses and excite their nerves. The audience exclaims the contentment, ‘This is art!’ Because the formal language transforms and sublimates the audiences’ attention. The lines painted by Gao Yun also have such magnetism.
This magnetism repeatedly flashes through his paintings.
And No Trace of the Worldly is one of them.
Gao Yun must have read Cai Shen’s poem Ta Suo Xing from the Song dynasty, ‘jade-like attributes solitary and lofty, a natural brightness. No traces of the worldly. White lotus’ deep fragrance, tranquil as that in an empty palace, elegantly ruling the autumn scenery on its own’. The poem writes both the white lotus and a person, a serene and aromatic woman, bright and solitary. Gao Yun wanted to paint such a woman, abstracted, transcendental, not belonging to any epoch, almost a miraculous goddess.
Gao Yun once again puts forward his finisher — a leaving back view, and only half of it. As the woman is about to leave the frame, she turns around, revealing to viewers her lowered face and gentle brows in profile. The drapery lightly flows down from right to bottom left, like willow branches flowing in the wind. A white dress, half-revealing half-showing a body sweet and charming. The lines, every one of them and each group of them, exhibit graceful postures and interact affectionately for one another.‘Her body soars lightly like a startled swan, / Gracefully, like a dragon in flight’,‘Dim as the moon mantled in filmy clouds, / Restless as snow whirled by the driving wind’. The poetic lines from Rhapsody on Goddess of Luo written by Cao Zhi, Prince Si of Chen are also literary references for Gao Yun’s depiction of the goddess. Through No Trace of the Worldly, Gao Yun once again demonstrates the elegant and refined aesthetic traits of the lines in plain drawing. In effect, the translucent, jade-like pale ink lines might have expressed the lines of Cai Shen’s much accurately than the finely depicted countenance and the considerably realistic features of the face.
Personally, Beautifully Jiangnan also endears itself to me. It is a large-scale figurative painting. The three women have the thin and tall physique, like real-life people. They are three modern women, in white full-length dresses, holding instruments from Jiangnan. Judging from their fully absorbed gaze, they are watching the performance on stage, waiting for their turn. Such concentrated gaze reminds me of Confucius’ words, ‘Having no depraved thoughts’. In my opinion, this is what Gao Yun indeed wants to express. ‘Beautiful Jiangnan, / for long ago its scenes, / acquainted I’ve become with’. It could also be the mountains of Jiangnan dappled by drizzle, pavilions surrounded in rain and mist; stringed and wind instruments, beauties of Qinhuai. But Gao Yun goes beyond the old cliché and gives Jiangnan a new interpretation. With Gao Yun’s paint brush, this is an ink Jiangnan, humid and misty, hence washed ink applied layer by layer and textures made of intended water mark forming the impression of the entire painting. This is Jiangnan’s humanistic key. By this impression of water and ink are set off three female musicians, slim and graceful, pure and radiating. The drapery of their dresses is like spring drizzle, rustling tenderly, bringing people into the humid alleys in Jiangnan, meeting girls selling apricot blossoms. This is Jiangnan’s manners. Pure, tender, elegant, gentle — this is Jiangnan’s pursuits, which have no depraved thoughts because of this spiritual concentration.
Overall realistically painted with concrete and refined details to express the characters’ spiritual temperaments are the fundamental characteristics of Gao Yun’s paintings. But he has genius for expressing emotions and feelings through line drawings, transmitting secretive messages through the characteristics of lines, creating atmospheres, crafting conceptions, expressing the tender temperament of literati and exhibiting a good attainment of order, balance, perfection, neutralisation and the other aesthetic qualities. Gao Yun’s paintings have kind themes, balanced and fair compositions, refined and clean colours, tender lines, elegant conceptions, calm tempers, and a humble temperament. In and out they embodied an inherent demeanour of a gentleman, always maintaining a friendly attitude towards nature and society as well as a sensitive heart for wonders in life. Gao Yun is not harmful to human and animals, kind with people, acting in a gentleman’s way, therefore befriended by many.
A man of such morals and artistic attainments will naturally be adored by people from the field of stamp design, which is the country’s cultural name card and a representation of art in the public realm.
In 1987, he designed the stamp‘Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of Xu Xiake’s Birth’and won the National Stamp Awards for Best Stamp Design.
In 2003, he designed a second series of 5 stamps‘Butterfly Lovers’, as well as a first day cover and a stamp booklet that won the Best Innovation Design of the 10th Government Postage Stamp Printers’Association Conference (Poland).
In 2007, a series of 6 stamps‘Sheng Roles in Peking Opera’ was created and distributed.
In 2011, the fourth set of stamps,‘Unofficial History of the Scholars’ (cooperated with Shen Ning), made of a total of six pieces, was created and distributed.
In 2012, the fifth set of stamps‘Song Lyrics’, a total of six pieces, was created and distributed and won the Excellent Stamp Award in the 33rd National Stamp Awards.
In 2013, the sixth set of stamps ‘Litterateurs of Ancient China III’, a total of four pieces, was created and distributed.
In 2015, the seventh set of stamps ‘Litterateurs of Ancient China IV’, a total of six pieces, was created and distributed.
Also in 2015, commissioned by State Taxation Administration, Gao Yun created a series of 9 revenue stamps‘Taxation Thinkers in the History of China.’
In 2017, responding to the Belt and Road Initiative, ‘Zhang Qian’was created and distributed, which includes a set of two stamps and a miniature sheet.
In 2018, a set of six special stamps ‘The Book of Songs’ was created and distributed.
An overview of Gao Yun’s creation of stamps and revenue stamps reveals a majority of ancient characters as the themes, which are also what Gao Yun is best at. For someone scholarly and cultivated like him, deep investigation of historical records and classic literatures,as well as the spirits of these characters — gauging their demeanour and temperament — are surely a challenging but interesting task. How to present the characters and their surroundings in a space of square centimetres to reach a level of subtle but broad implications, to bring into play his line drawing and elegant colour application skills, to maintain painterliness as well as an ornamental quality and a technicality, to meet the experts’ standards, to win the people’s applause, to enrapture the stamp collectors all at the same is indeed uneasy. Different from painting on one’s own, stamp design is a Party B work. One has to satisfy Party A’s design requirements, to accept Party A’s suggestion and make subsequent changes, to be comfortable with negotiating with the administrators, to collaborate with the technical side, to respect the advice made by the craftsman of stamp design. Together, the multiple sides produce a perfect stamp that would travel the world. This process demands good negotiation and collaboration capabilities. In all these aspects, Gao Yun is the best candidate. Naturally, the stamp design department, upon discovering Gao Yun, found themselves a gold mine. They established a friendly and productive long-term collaboration with Gao Yun, who has become the most beloved talent in Chinese stamp design.
In Gao Yun’s stamp creation, the free-flowing lines form a major support of the overall image construction, which is sometimes solely made of plain drawing, delivering an elegant simplicity. An example is the set of nine stamps ‘Taxation Thinkers in the History of China.’
Stamp, after all, is an art form circulated in the public. The colour drafts of the stamps have to appeal to a popular taste without sacrificing the elegant literary qualities. In this respect, the set of 6 stamps ‘Song Lyrics’ best exemplifies the balance. The characters are painted in a delicate gongbi style while the surroundings are rendered in a slightly interpretive style. The overall colours are in a light, greyish and graceful tone. The picture fuses together, harmoniously without any traces of arbitrariness, gongbi, court, and literati qualities and styles of painting. Combined with verses from Song lyrics, vertically arranged as if in a thread bound book, the stamp presents itself in an elegant taste, cultured and beautiful, having both painterliness and a literary quality. The content and the form support and elevate one another and are delivered by Gao Yun in an incisive way. Compared with the elegant beauty of‘Song Lyrics’, the set of 6 stamps ‘Unofficial History of the Scholars’(in collaboration with Shen Ning) was designed to suit a more popular taste.
Because‘Unofficial History of the Scholars’is a novel, hence a stronger storytelling, this set of stamps selected the six most dramatic plots in composing the images. With his rich experience in picture storybooks, Gao Yun is very good at storytelling in a visual language. As a result, the most gripping narratives emerged in Chinese stamp history, for example, Fan Jin Passing the Civil Exam and Two Candle Wicks. The colour application is also florid, borrowing from the red and green colour schemes from New Year’s pictures and prints. Although the outlines are painted in a gongbi style, the colours aren’t applied in the corresponding plain style. Instead, he uses the method of darker and lighter staining by smearing, the effect of which is more popular among the general public, bringing out the spatial layerings that appear more realistic, thus appealing to the popular taste.
Gao Yun’s first stamp creation was‘Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of Xu Xiake’s Birth’. He treated the three stamps as a complete composition, giving each the independence while making the three interrelate. The aim is to present different stages of Xu Xiake journeying through the mountains. From left to right, a trapezoid composition is formed by a standing posture, a sitting posture and a view of Xu moving away. Red, white and blue colours of the clothes mark the seasons. Environment wise, depictions of Xu Xiake are in a forest, a cave and on top of a mountain, showing the multifarious and complex geographies along the route. For the painting language, brisk and powerful lines imply the character’s persistence and determination, which also form a very good artistic expression of Xu’s personal quality. The extremely elegant but simple colour applications, carried out in both the plain method and the staining by smearing method, could
be compared with the attainments of the two Li from Tang dynasty. It is at the same time full of ornamental overtones and imbued with artistic savour. It is a set of stamps appreciated by both the refined and popular tastes. No wonder it won the National Stamp Awards for Best Stamp Design immediately after its release.
Personally, I think each of the three sets of stamps ‘Song Lyrics’, ‘Unofficial History of the Scholars’ and ‘Xu Xiake’ represents Gao’s three pursuits in stamp creations respectively – refined, popular, refined and popular. The different pursuits are decided upon the characteristics of the subjects. It could be inferred that when engaging in art making for the public, such as stamps, Gao Yun carefully considers the subjects’inner qualities and chooses the most suited artistic expressions to bring about the creation. He is well equipped with the all-round abilities and the expressive creativity.
With‘yun’(cloud) as the rhyming word, ancient Chinese poets have created many wonderful verses. For example, ‘there is not one cloud in the whole blue sky’(Li Bai, Tang dynasty);‘clouds billowing in my chest’(Du Fu, Tang dynasty);‘square pond half-filled with clouds’(Jie Xisi, Yuan dynasty);‘The green mountain and half house of clouds’(Lin Jingxi, Song dynasty); ‘lotus rolls with a full lake of clouds’(Wang Boxin, Qing dynasty);‘wild geese far-off fly into chilly clouds’(Lang Shiyuan, Tang dynasty);‘flowers recline on reflected clouds
over the night river’(Lin Hong, Ming dynasty);‘red trees on hundreds of mountains, thousands are encircled in clouds’(Fang Gan, Tang dynasty);‘monk retreats into waves of clouds’(Lu You, Song dynasty);‘spirit higher than the clouds billows in the chest’(You Mao, Song dynasty). I want to present one of these verses to Gao Yun. They are all good, yet none suits. Finally, I found a verse from Li Shangyin’s Peony, ‘Wishing to write on a petal to the morning cloud’, as it is preceded by, ‘I was given the celestial pen in the dream.’
‘I was given the celestial pen in the dream, wishing to write on a petal to the morning cloud’is what I wish for Gao Yun.
27 April 2019 in South of Beijing