Nobel author scores with painting exhibit
By Jonathan Lynn
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Chinese author Gao Xingjian, winner
of the Nobel prize for literature, is also a highly original
painter, and a new exhibition in Singapore shows the same
struggle for expression and meaning found in his writing.
Gao won the Nobel for literature in 2000, the first Chinese
to be so honored, when he was already living in exile in
Both the paintings and his writing have their own
distinctive style — hardly surprising in an artist who refuses
to be labeled as part of any school or “-ism” and rejects any
connection between art and politics.
“I believe that the most important thing for an artist is
to stay as far away from others as possible in order to avoid
getting mixed up in some trend,” he said in 1995. “If one is
able to find one’s own distinctive artistic expression, there
can be no greater reward or joy.”
That stance cuts both ways. Gao’s work was banned in China
after the publication of “Fugitives,” a play set against the
background of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But Gao also
refused to make changes sought by pro-democracy supporters.
As a painter, Gao works exclusively in the traditional
Chinese medium of black ink brushed on to rice paper. But he
has been influenced by the techniques of photography and the
ideas of depth and perspective in Western art.
And painting and writing are connected.
“In the grand tradition, both Chinese and Western painting
have a close link with literature,” Gao told Reuters.
“In paintings there is something very spiritual, even
literary,” he said by telephone from Paris where he now lives.
Both art forms are equally important for him. He started
painting in oils at the age of 11 or 12 and wrote his first
fiction aged 10. But the activities are mutually exclusive.
“If I paint I can’t do anything else… but when I write I
can’t paint at the same time,” he said.
The difference is the medium. In painting there are no
words, just the brushstrokes in ink, expressing an inner
The exhibition in Singapore, which is trying to turn itself
into a regional arts center, is the first retrospective of
Gao’s work in Asia. It comprises 60 paintings, including 10
shown for the first time.
The dominant impression for the visitor entering the
galleries of stark monochrome paintings is a sense of
LIFETIME OF SUFFERING
That may reflect Gao’s own lifetime of suffering — born in
1940 during the Japanese invasion, sent to a re-education camp
in 1970-75 during the Cultural Revolution, when he burned a
suitcase of literary manuscripts, assailed by official critics
for his writings, wrongly diagnosed with cancer and later a
political refugee whose works are banned at home.
But in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution Gao
also began to experiment with black and white photography.
At first glance, some of his ink paintings resemble
abstract modern photos.
Looking closer you realize that what appears to be a
landscape of snowdrifts seen from above, or a sheet of creased
and rumpled paper, in fact results from his mastery of
brushwork that yields extraordinary textural effects.
Paintings that first come across as abstract turn out to be
landscapes, with a few strokes of black representing a house in
the mountains, a bird, or a solitary figure.
And while some see his paintings as an austere inner
vision, others find them full of sensuality and sexual energy.
Gao was unable to attend the opening of the show, which
runs to February 7, because of ill health. He is suffering from
hardening of the arteries and recently underwent two
Sickness has played an important part in his life.
In 1983 Gao was diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease
that killed his father, but six weeks later a second
examination revealed there was no cancer.
Faced with official harassment and the threat of a spell on
a prison farm, he fled Beijing later that year and began a
15,000-km (9,000-mile) walking tour in the remote mountains and
ancient forests of Sichuan in southwestern China.
The result of this voyage was the novel “Soul Mountain,” a
complex masterpiece that explores Chinese history, folklore and
landscape combined with an individual’s search for meaning.
Partly humorous, partly full of despair, the novel ranges
from childhood memories to tales within tales to subtle
dialogue highlighting the relationship between the sexes.
The narrator has no name, appearing as “I” or “you” in an
experimentation with form recalling the way he works in
Both paintings and writing revolve around a quest for free
expression, but Gao is not taking a political stance.
“He’s not trying to challenge anyone — he is challenging
himself,” said Helina Chan of Ipreciation, which represents Gao
in Southeast Asia.
In today’s consumer society, with mass media delivering
constant images, sounds and novelty to people with ever shorter
attention spans, some would question whether there is still a
place for serious literature or pure painting. Gao disagrees.
“In every age there will always be artists who work for
themselves to express what they feel,” he said.