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Arts & Culture
Arts & Culture
UPDATED: June 23, 2015 NO. 26 JUNE 25, 2015
In the Abstract
There is more to Xu Dongdong's compositions than first meets the eye
By Ji Jing

Xu Dongdong's Four Seasons series (COURTESY OF XU DONGDONG)

Xu Dongdong's daily routine is little different from that of his cohorts. He said that he enjoys tending his garden, cooking and reading. However, whenever he is hit by a bolt of inspiration, he will start to draw and paint like a man possessed for several days, or even weeks, on end.

It is perhaps this zeal for his chosen craft that has most contributed to the 56-year-old abstract artist's success.

"I pursue a kind of abstract painting that reflects the harmonious balance between man and nature, a concept rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy," Xu said.

Xu's works represent a blend of Eastern and Western influences, given that he uses Chinese brushes and Western paints to draw on Chinese rice paper. Although he adopts the techniques of Western abstract painting, the sentiments he expresses and the ideas he explores are quintessentially Chinese.

The call of nature

The most representative of Xu's recent works may be the Four Seasons series, four pictures that strive to capture the essence of spring, summer, autumn and winter. At first glance, one may not be able to figure out what exactly the pictures portray. However, closer examination of the works reveals mountains, rivers, grasslands, lakes, stones, forests and deserts. The four pictures explore the cycle of life and human nature.

"Spring signifies the beginning of new life. It's full of vitality as plants start to grow. These aspects of the season have all found their presence Spring," Xu said.

When painting Winter, Xu had put his half-finished painting in his yard while it was snowing. When the snow stopped several days later, Xu took back the paper and laughed out loud, as he saw a picture formed by nature itself. While composing the Four Seasons series, he used rainwater or melted snow of a particular season to dilute his paints to add to the natural feel of his drawings.

The four seasons depicted in Xu's paintings transcend the form of natural sceneries or landscapes, as they possess profound underlying meanings. They reflect the balance of qi—the basic element of all physical beings—between man and nature.

Imbalance between the two, according to Xu, causes problems such as severe environmental pollution.

For instance, in his Tai Chi series, Xu explores the crisis caused by human beings' excessive exploitation of nature.

"People are increasingly basing pleasure and happiness on material possessions. They are conquering and exploiting nature in order to acquire happiness. As a result, trees have been cut down, rivers have dried up and a number of animals and plants have become extinct," said Xu, his voice carrying a measure of sadness.

In his Lost Pleasure of the Tai Chi series, Xu painted several circles filled with striking colors. According to the artist, they mean to illustrate the loss of happiness in an era of consumerism.

"The Chinese philosophy of seeking the right balance between man and nature may well serve to remedy the loss," Xu said.

Xu Dongdong

Stylistic evolution

Xu started to develop an interest in painting at an early age. He learned Chinese ink-and-wash painting by imitating the works of ancient masters. He would go to the Palace Museum and copy the paintings of ancient Chinese painters on display. The museum, located within the confines of Beijing's famous Forbidden City, was home to 24 emperors from 1420 to 1911.

"It is as if I were making friends with ancient painters because paintings always reflect the mind of their creators," Xu said. "It's not simply a matter of imitating their techniques but also assimilating their attitudes toward life."

Xu also took an interest in Western painters. He started by first studying the works of Giotto di Bondone, one of the progenitors of the Italian Renaissance. Later, he moved on to Renaissance painters such as Masaccio, Da Vinci and Raphael, painters of the Venetian school like Titian, impressionist painters such as Manet and Monet and cubist artists such as Picasso, all of whom have all exerted an influence upon his style.

Xu Dongdong is also inspired by his more recent Chinese predecessors such as Xu Beihong (1895-1953) and Lin Fengmian (1900-91), both of whom traveled abroad to learn Western painting in the 1920s before returning to China to form their own distinctive styles.

Abstracting the issue

Xu Dongdong's interest in Western painting has prompted him to switch over to abstract painting in the late 1980s. He later explained that he hopes through his paintings to cultivate his Chinese audience's liking and aptitude for abstract thinking.

Abstract painting, the confounding "evil twin" of traditional representational painting, first took shape in the West from about 1910 onwards. It does not refer to any one specific school of painting but rather encompasses all works that portray non-concrete subject matters. Chinese painters started to embrace the art form in the late 1970s.

These painters are divided into two groups: those who paint abstract paintings using Western oil painting techniques and those using Chinese ink-and-wash painting techniques. The former group has few successful representatives as most of them are arguably mimicking Western masters while failing to make their own idiosyncratic mark on the genre.

Conversely, painters belonging to the latter group, such as Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) and Zhu Ming, have made remarkable contributions to revolutionizing Chinese ink-and-wash painting through the employment of abstract thinking. Contemporary critics have placed Xu Dongdong firmly in this category.

Xu Dongdong maintains that many Chinese cannot understand the inherent meaning in abstract paintings drawn by Westerners because the life and philosophy reflected in such works are too distant from their own.

As opposed to some Chinese painters who have assimilated methods such as the use of colors from Western painters but failed to represent scenes of Chinese life, Xu Dongdong seeks to use abstract thinking in Chinese philosophy to reflect upon that very subject matter.

"Ancient philosophical treatises, such as the Classic of the Way and Virtue by Lao Tzu, abound with abstract thinking. However, it's regretful that there has been a failure to pass down and develop such thought over the course of history," he said.

It's undeniable that Chinese ink-and-wash masterpieces from ancient times embody consummate skills and deep thinking, examples of such being paintings in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). However, times have changed. According to Xu Dongdong, the modern era requires painters to come up with fresh techniques to reflect contemporary circumstances.

Renaissance man

Xu Dongdong is not satisfied with confining his talent to one art form. In the late 1990s, he began to practice performance art, sending his album The Inner World of Xu Dongdong to foreign museums and libraries as a gift in a bid to disseminate Chinese culture and promote cultural exchanges between China and other countries. All the expenses involved in the process were covered by Xu Dongdong himself. His new album, Mind Generating Universe, is expected to come out later this year.

Over the past 10 years or so, Xu Dongdong has followed the lead of his Chinese predecessors by visiting cities such as London, Paris, New York and Washington, where he has been able to view in person an impressive array of the works of Western masters.

His travels aside, over the past decade, Xu Dongdong has chosen to live a secluded life in a northeastern suburb of Beijing, during which time he has honed his understanding of Chinese philosophy through reading and applied it to his paintings. Thanks to his dedication to his craft, the prolific painter has produced a body of work that stands as testament to his skills in the abstract form, his deep understanding of Chinese philosophy and time spent reflecting upon contemporary life. Forty years into his artistic career, his artistic fervor shows no sign of abating.


Xu Dongdong was born in Beijing in 1959. Since the late 1980s, he has endorsed Western painting techniques of the impressionist and abstract painting schools and experimented with installation art and performance art.

He advocates a harmonious balance between man and nature through his paintings and advocates for the philosophical concept of mind generating universe.

Copyedited by Eric Daly 

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