By Zhao Changping
I met Dawei again about five or six years ago at an exhibition of Chinese paintings. I hadn’t seen him for thirty years. A line from an ancient poem captured my feeling pretty well -“I inquired about the gentleman’s name and was startled that he had been an old friend, and I began to remember the way he used to look like.” But when I saw Dawei after so many years, I found it difficult to collage the timid and innocent look of the Shanghai lane then, and the majestic and imposing countenance of him now, not to mention those grandiose and brilliant works behind him. I remembered Dawei the way he was when I departed for Beijing University in 1963 - he was slender and tall, white and clean, always neat but seemed to be shyer than Yanhua, his junior high classmate and my cousin. But finally I recognized him when we shook hands, from his signature smile and the expression in his eyes: determined, friendly, kind and genuine, mixed with a sense of bewilderment. I once said to Yanhua, Dawei seemed to be looking into the distance and expecting something. Now, there was more forward looking and confidence in him, which came from his rich experiences, but the bewildered expectation was still there.
I was surprised by the big changes to Dawei’s look, but marveled even more at the changes to his painting style. For a while, I couldn’t associate his Chinese paintings of seemingly heavy western modernism with his earlier works, such as Tempest, a picture storybook and Tiger, a traditional Chinese painting he had given as a gift to my brother, who had gone abroad. The changes are simply dramatic. I came to a proper understanding of his new works two years after our encounter at the exhibition. We went to Beijing for a multiple-day conference each year and had ample time to talk. Some very interesting, epic-style culture projects had come out of these communications.
As the editor-in-chief of Shanghai Chinese Classics Publishing House, I have always been looking for painters who work on epic themes. We have published a few long scrolls of historical paintings and I wrote preface for them. On the other hand, I also felt there were something missing. Epic does not only span a long time, it also contains complex and profound causes and dynamism beyond historical events. To use the term of traditional art and literary review, it is a “force”, in simpler term, a force built on historical and realistic influences. Traditional Chinese painting specialists are often weak in presenting this powerful “force”, no matter how skillful they are, or how long their scroll extends, because there are not enough tactics at their disposal. To be fair, traditional Chinese painting also talks about “thousand miles of coverage”, but it is a feel and flavor based on the theory of mind and things coming together and vivid depiction, entirely different from the “force” in epic. In the former, the inspiration to paint and the completion of the task happen at the same moment. In the latter, if a painting is to come into being, historical time span has to be transformed into instant visual impressions in the same time and space. A painter can rely solely on his/her instinct and presents a virtual image in the former. With the latter, a painter has to think rationally, profoundly and hard, and even to question his/her soul to integrate various historical components. For this reason, the former is an innocent construction of the traffic between mind and things -“you devote your feeling to nature, and the nature returns with artistic inspiration ”. In contrast, the latter is a reconstruction of the history after it has been decomposed. In simple terms, excellent picture storybook and captions have to be abstracted on a high level and recaptured on a single canvas.
I have been deeply touched by“Creation of the Universe”, a refreshingly done epic myth by Dawei. Yes, I can hardly recognize the truthful shapes and images of Pangu and hundreds of components surrounding him, but I certainly feel the dense mist and force when the heaven was separated from earth, the simple and unaffected view of the nature in early China, when heaven, earth and people were together - the view is amply described in classis from Zhou, Qin to West Han and East Han. I also see the wild, raw, strong, vast and boundless creativity of the Chinese nation behind this view of nature. The “force” I wished to see in epic painting has been fully presented here.
Initially however, I had a very shallow understanding about Creation of the Universe and other epic paintings with modern themes of Dawei, such as Tianjing Incident, The Long March and Wannan Incident. I didn’t know the deeper meanings in them until I saw Dawei’s loess plateau series in his album, and I came to a more profound understanding of Dawei and his new painting style. This series, I believe, is the key to the changes to Dawei’s style. I saw loess plateau in 1968, when I graduated from university and went to Inner Mongolia from Beijing. I was deeply affected then, and my heart virtually wrenched. But I had never grasped what lay behind this emotion. Thirty years later, I was faced with Dawei’s works - and he told me recently that he had revisited a north Shanxi village on loess plateau - and I finally got it. A large stretch of yellow forms a strong visual impact, in it, you see the ditches and gullies on loess plateau, which seem to have been deeply tilled by the plough of god, and you also see the deep wrinkles of an old north Shanxi peasant, whose forehead seems to have been tilled by the plough too. I feel the painter’s ardent, unyielding pursuit of national history and spirit in the three dimensions of heaven, earth and people. The painting comes with a deep force, which is accumulating in a historical period of numerous, grand changes, and the force is ready to gush out. We have also observed a humanistic abstraction derived from the deepest feeling in a vivid picture. All these elevated my earlier emotion. The idea and tactics beyond shapes and images started from Loess Plateau series and extended to Creation of the Universe, and Houyi’s Story in this album, and we can see the path Dawei has taken in bringing modernism to traditional Chinese painting. Looking back to Tempest and Tiger from Loess Plateau, we can also see why The Literary Mind and the Craving of the Dragon, a literary criticism classic, said that “The most important thing in learning is to start prudently”, and “Achievements are built on initial efforts”, and why Dawei is so committed to give a new dynamic life to Chinese painting.
With these understandings, I read once again and carefully those large, seemingly very western paintings that Dawei has produced over the last decade. Gradually I saw skeletons composed of strong and skillfully-rendered lines in extremely impressionist color iris and extremely abstract transformations, I also saw homogenous, similar or opposite and reverse textural connection in outwardly disorganizations. There is therefore balance in dangerous structures, wholeness in fragmented parts, and lush and vivacious dynamism in dim main color tone due to inherent tension. Without a question, Dawei’s new style has borrowed artistic ideas and techniques from Van Gogh, Monet and especially Picasso, but he “leverages the power of brushes and xuan paper to the full” with his efforts, which becomes an organic component of his new style. Viewing his works, I even see his old face of thirty years ago - the exploring, genuine and kind smile and expression in his eyes with a sense of bewilderment.
Dawei asked me to write something for his album. I don’t paint myself, and I feel my writing would be redundant since Mrs. Wang Anyi and Mr. Zhu Weidong have both been written for the album. Dawei has been calling me “Brother Changping” for a long time and I don’t want to let him down. So I allowed my thoughts to flow freely and wrote down “Dawei as I know of” here. If our readers can see with a new perspective Dawei’s efforts to change, and the meaning behind “mainstream” as he puts it, I will be extremely happy.