In the early 20th century, modernism emerged in China and flourished under Xu Beihong from the 1950s. Three decades after the founding of the People’s Republic, forms of artistic expression were distinguished only by their uniformity. Finally, in 1979, artists were freed from the shackles of aesthetic standards and started to pursue spiritual enrichment while realism steadily returned to authenticity.
During the 1970s, intellectuals had been sent to the countryside to learn from workers. Ai Xuan, Chen Yifei, Chen Danqing and other “educated young painters” amassed a collection of work about Tibet. From 1973 to 1982, Ai Xuan visited the Tibetan Plateau repeatedly and witnessed life in an unforgiving environment, ultimately opening his heart to Tibetan society and nature.
“In Tibet, it wasn’t the vastness and beauty of the landscape that I felt,” Ai said. “Instead, it was the sense my own loneliness and insignificance. In the face of nature, we are all frail, fragile, and helpless. Against such a vast horizon, man is so small as to be easily swallowed up and vanished.”
Influenced by the American painter Andrew Wyeth in early 1980s, Ai incorporated reflections from everyday life into his work. This caught Wyeth’s attention and brought Ai an invitation to his studio, which shaped Ai’s unique lyrical style. Sudden Departure (Lot 1038) was awarded an honorable mention at the 18th International Festival of Painting at Cagnes-Sur-Mer, France. This milestone in Ai’s career has emboldened fellow Chinese artists in their own pursuits.
Remembrance of an era past
In this painting, a boy sits alone in the meadow, his collar covering his face as strong winds blow at his hair. The boy gazes off afar, perhaps thinking of someone who is absent from the painting. The greyish-blue monotone brings to mind the unyielding solitude of Ni Yunlin’s works. The vast meadow juxtaposes with the insignificant size of the boy –an allegory for the infinite universe and the speck of human life. Desolation, loneliness, and helplessness permeate the work.
Ai Xuan did not follow his dad Ai Qing’s footsteps as a poet but expressed poetry through his art. The sense of loss in this work is reinforced by its title translated from Chinese, “She Left Without Saying a Word”. Born in an era of instability, Ai faced obstacles with a serene sadness and demonstrated his experience in the landscape of the painting. The “She” in the title may be a reference to the artist’s inner state as he looks back with resignation, which resonates with a poem by his dad:
“Also, we resemble those / ancients who compare lives to duckweed / accept with resignation / tomorrow’s farewell.”
Excerpt from Missing Linfen, Ai Qing
Ai Xuan may not have a good relationship with his father but his poetic style of painting makes up for the emotional distance. Light brushstrokes express the passage of time, delivering elegies for the artist’s powerful emotions. Sudden Departure best exemplifies Ai’s mature style of the 1980s and will be auctioned tonight at Sotheby’s. This outstanding work lets us peer into the artist’s sensitive and generous soul.
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