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Gao Xingjian 高行健 - contemporary ink master

Updated: Apr 20, 2019

     A paper sheet of several meters is unrolled on the ground. Gao Xingjian stands, holding a mop brush in his right hand and a bowl of ink in his other hand. At once, he pours the entire content on to the paper and steps right in the ink puddle. _

    It was the year 2000 when this picture of Gao Xingjian, then about 60 years old, was taken. He is becoming a public figure after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Considered by the critics as a total artist, his talent also encompasses novel writing, poetry, theory, critic, playwriting, film making, photography, opera writing, screenwriting and directing.

    In his eyes, the act of painting surpasses the act of writing and, as he puts it, painting starts where language does not suffice anymore (“peindre là où le langage ne suffit plus”).


     Born in 1940 in Guangzhou, in South China, Gao Xingjian lives from a translation job while pursuing his aspiration to become an artist. As an oil painter, he practices within a secluded cultural environment where no foreign oil painting exists. It is only in 1979 that he discovers European masters’ work while travelling to Germany as a Chinese delegation’s translator.

     Realising the knowledge and skill gulf to overcome, he leaves all together oil painting to focus on Chinese ink. Halfway between western and Chinese traditions, figuration and abstraction, his paintings are onirique, spiritual and condemned (like the rest of his work) by the Chinese government.

Waiting (L’attente), 2004, ink on paper

    Gao Xingjian says that ‘his experiences left him feeling as if he had lived "three lives" already. "I began writing, drawing and acting from a young age, and I set up a theatre group when I was at university, but in all these areas I faced a lot of problems and political interference, until in the end my plays were banned and I couldn't publish my works" (interview by Helier Cheung for BBC).

    Suffering political reprisal, he burns his writing and paintings to escape persecution. He is sent to forced labour during four years, before fleeing China. In 1987, he begins a life in exile in France. After the Tiananmen events, he seeks political refuge and is naturalised French in 1998.


    Zen Taoism gives existential importance to the esthetique of void, this absolute nothingness from which everything proceeds and returns to. Well versed in this philosophy, Gao Xingjian aspires to self-purification through painting.

The Voide (Le Vide), 2008, ink on canvas, 205.7×254 cm

     Acknowledging our ignorance about life and the necessity to elucidate its mystery, his black and white paintings reflect an endless quest, continually evolving, to interpret the world and its chaos. As such, Gao Xingjian's work is considered to be “placed within the philosophical and cultural theory of Absurdism for its wry examination of human existence.”

    Praising lucidity towards the individual and life, he openly criticises Nietzsche's philosophy for, as he calls it, its congealed ideology, its sterile utopia that frames and chokes creativity and thoughts. “An artist must walk his own path, and if there are rules, they should only be rules that he himself has created" says the artist (interview by Alexandra A. Senojune 11, 2008 for NY Times).


     His technique encompasses ink on paper that are either framed or mounted on canvas, as well as ink on canvas (as seen above). Gao Xingjian adapts his formats according to the exhibition space and location where his work will be shown. Nowadays, he paints monumental works that are exhibited across the world.

   Breaking away from conventional calligraphy, he develops a personal style that borrows glazing techniques from oil painting. Layering black ink of various intensities, the artist is able to create imagery that overlaps like in a dream or in memory. This made him known for his skill to control the unpredictable movement of ink.

    In the last fifteen years, Gao Xingjian has mainly focused on painting over other form of creative expression. He practices it as a physical activity while listening to classical music, mostly Vivaldi, Kodaly and Bach (interview by Alexandra A. Senojune 11, 2008 for NY Times).

    His studio too, a large bare space, takes from the Zen Taoism philosophy and sits as far as can be from classical artist's studio dedicated to the reception of clients and visitors as depicted by Courbet in L’Atelier du Peintre or by Horace Vernet in Un atelier d'artiste.  As a space dedicated to self-reflection, it is vast and embedded with silence.

Free from any decoration, the white walls surround a black floor, and the external light is entirely obscured by large hangings that obstruct the windows (nowadays, Gao Xingjian works indifferently day and night in the electric light).

Though at times the artist do research through sketching (see interview in French by Daniel Bergez), nothing seems to pre-exist the final artworks. Everything happens in the very moment of creation. To achieve such tour de force, the artist needs an extreme stripping, an initial emptiness which allows the appearance of the work.


    Light and shadow animate flat surfaces in Gao Xingjian’s work, exuding a three-dimensional depth. To achieve such result, he plays with the full palette of greys that Chinese ink offers. Despite the classic provenance of his medium, the artist does not consider his practice as traditional. Unlike in Chinese ink painting where the notion of space exists without the one of light, Gao Xingjian is on a continual pictorial search where both elements will create a visually striking dialogue.