In The Studio With Ai Xuan [VIDEO]: “Painting is an Addiction”

For the last 30 years, Ai Xuan has been immersed in realist painting. His works are full of symbolism, and he often focuses on natural scenes and human relationships, all depicted in his trademark cool tones.

Ai is best known for his Tibetan series, which art critic Shao Dazhen once described as “using nature to express emotion.” These realist landscapes and painstakingly depicted figures are delicately imbued with Ai’s emotions, reflecting something of the spirit of ancient Chinese literati.

The figures in Ai Xuan’s paintings often feel somewhat lonely. “Every person is simply a transient organism, but the horizon is eternal,” he says. 

Although Ai is not restrained in his depiction of emotion, the free expression of personal feelings was out of bounds for Chinese artists of his generation for many years.

Mao Zedong’s 1942 talks at the Yan’an forum threw up obstacles for independent art. Mao believed that literature and art should “fit into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part.” After 1949, this utilitarian conception of art was developed into the widespread doctrine that art must serve politics. Thus, political interference influenced Chinese artists’ personal creations.

Like many of his generation, Ai Xuan’s life was intimately bound up with the political reality of socialist China. Ai Xuan was born in 1947; his father was the prominent modern poet Ai Qing, and his younger brother is the famous conceptual artist Ai Weiwei. Over the course of China’s various political movements, Ai Xuan and his family have had no shortage of ups and downs.

Recalling his artistic studies in the 1960s, Ai said, “At that time, the steps were: attend a middle school affiliated with an art academy, go to college, and then study in the Soviet Union. That was what everyone wanted.” However, after graduating from the Middle School Affiliated with the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1967, Ai didn’t have the opportunity to continue his studies or realize his artistic dreams. That year, Mao Zedong started the Cultural Revolution, which essentially stopped normal life in China.

“Many painters didn’t waste their time on war; instead, they wasted their time on political movements,” Ai said. “It was difficult to discover for yourself what you wanted to paint, because this wasn’t permitted.”

Before Reform and Opening, there were almost no independent artists in China. From the early 1970s to the early 1980s, Ai’s art was his work. He went with the Creative Group from the Ministry of Culture to the Tibetan areas of Sichuan and worked there for about ten years.

Ai Xuan noted that art during that time had specific political goals; the Long March, the Cultural Revolution, and the Sino-Vietnamese War became “creative tasks.” It was only after Reform and Opening that artists could express what was on their minds through the subjects and methods of their choosing.

“It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that true artistic freedom arrived,” Ai said. “Artists finally shook off politically-mandated painting.”

At the beginning of the ’85 New Wave, Chinese artists began to experiment widely with subject matter. There were also significant changes in artistic media and forms; Chinese artists began to explore installation, video, and performance as creative methods.

Despite the appearance of new artistic styles, Ai Xuan always followed his own path; he values the effort and wisdom that must be poured into a painting, and is rather indifferent to mere changes in form. Ai has traveled to Tibet dozens of times to make sketches for his work. He uses sociological research methods and a realist perspective to represent the people, wilderness, and mountains of Tibet, while permeating these elements with emotional resonance.

In addition to his independent practice of realist painting, he formed the Beijing Realist Painting School with Wang Yidong, Yang Feiyun, and others in 2004. The group organizes exhibitions and artist talks, working hard to keep realist painting alive and well.

Today, Ai still has great passion for painting. There are numerous unfinished oil paintings in his studio in a northeastern suburb of Beijing, and in the last five years, he has also started to paint in ink.

Regardless of political realities or artistic trends, Ai Xuan has always enjoyed the painting process, because, as he says, “Painting is an addiction.”

Ai Xuan’s solo exhibition “Colors from Ink” will be shown at Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery in Hong Kong from October 3, 2013 through November 2, 2013.

Translation by Bridget Noetzel