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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.

Day and Night, 2007, ink on paper, 193x471cm, collection of the Singapore Art Museum, donation by Gao Xingjian

    His fascination for light started when admiring Western painting “so well studied [...], so well achieved”. In European masters’ work the source of light is always present, depicted in the painting or hidden outside the frame, it pours from one or multiple sources to sculpt the image. In Gao Xingjian’s paintings, there is not such light, instead it comes from within.

    Though an admirer of Western aesthetic, the artist claims to be on a different path. In his work, the notion of light is different altogether. There is “ no need to say that it comes from the sun or the lamp. Everywhere there is light. No need to specify the source”, " I'm looking for another notion of light, especially when working with black and white, as in the black photo. and white ".

    When sent to the Chinese countryside for re-education, during the Cultural Revolution, Photography was his only creative mean. His brushes and his painting being confiscated, he instead took pictures that he would offer to peasants.


    The eye is a recurring symbol in the artist’s work. Either representing or evoking eyes, suggesting sight or the act of looking, Gao Xingjian's paintings evokes notions of seeing and being seen.

Appearing in his ink work as early as 1990 in France, eyes have also made their ways in his plays and writing. Some of his paintings’ titles are unequivocal like Un Oeil (‘One Eye’ 1990), L’Oeil (‘The Eye’ 2005) or L'Oeil Céleste (‘The Celestial Eye’ 2011 as seen on the left hand side), while others suggest in their content images depicting eyes like in Présence ('Presence' 1997), Au Fond (Bottom Deep 1996), Paysage Intérieur (Inner Landscape1998), L’Eblouissement (Glare 1998), Le Monde du Silence (The World of Silence 1999). 

    Often the eye is unsettling, captivating, and celestial. It can also appear cold due to its fixing gaze or be heavily present by its scale and contrasted rendering.

Mon Oeil, 2012, ink on canvas, 79x79cm

However, it never attempts to be realistic:

“if it's too defined, hyperrealist like a photo, it's already seen. We need to create another kind of dream image that gives this other space to imagination”.

Gao Xingjian way of painting eyes also leaves space to ambiguity where “one is observed by oneself though it remains beyond oneself” (see article by Muriel Chemouny).

    Daniel Bergez, writer of Gao Xingjian. Peintre de l'âme, has drawn parallels between the artist's representation of eyes to the ones of Odilon Redon as seen in Eye Balloon drawn in 1878.


   His pictorial language evolves between figuration and abstraction to the point that Gao Xingjian has created an entire new esthetique that evokes inner images and experiences as encountered in dreams (see Aesthetics and creation / Gao Xingjian translated by Mabel Lee, and watch the conference organised in January this year by Festival de l'histoire de l'art).

Listen to the Wind 聽風, 2009, ink on canvas, 146x114cm

     If figuration is a representation, according to the artist, abstraction is an expression. Gao Xingjian explores a third path based on suggestion and the evocation of a vision to be communicated to his public (see another interview in French by Daniel Bergez).

     For Gao Xingjian, the importance of his work resides in the creation of a new language that neither resides in abstraction nor figuartion but at the intersection of both. In this in betweenness, the depth of his paintings does not “come out of the observation of reality, but [is] visualised internally” (article by Bridget Gleeson for Artsy).

Illusion 幻境, 2017, ink on canvas, 60x73cm

    His paintings are described as deep, “their beauty lies in their intense simplicity. His works [...] blend the abstract and the literal in remarkable, decisive ways. Images are fluid and interpretation is open, like a Rorschach” (Madeline Gressel, South China Morning Post). With a distinct meditative quality and openness to self-introspection, viewers are free to interpret the paintings in a way that resonates with them.


“Like his writing, his paintings convey poetry, intellect, and powerful narrative. At the same time, Gao . . . is a master of ink technique, and his works exude a creative energy born of Chinese tradition while being thoroughly universal and contemporary.”


Article written on the 19/04/2019

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