I have the feeling that centuries, rather than years, have passed since I first met Yu Youhan in Shanghai, back in 1990. At that time he was working on the abstract paintings 'Yuan' (Rounds) in a dark old house, and on the first images of his flowery Mao Zedong.
Since then, he's been carrying on his pictorial research, keeping some of the earlier themes and replacing others with new subjects. After the 'Ah, us' series, which had been completed some time ago, the painter seemed to have disappeared from the public view for a while. I believe it was the beginning of 2003 when I visited him in his new apartment, and was pleasantly surprised upon discovering a rolled-up brand new series devoted to landscapes. Having, myself, a great love for nature and the countryside, I was captured by those atmospheres which instantly led me far from the metropolitan environment.
At that time I did not know that landscape had actually been one of the most recurrent themes in the painter's early activity.
Wanting to know more, I engaged the artist in the following conversation.
Monica Dematté: When and why did you decide to paint this recent series of landscapes?
Yu Youhan: In the summer of 2002 some of my colleagues and I were granted a holiday in the Shandong's countryside near Yumengshan, where our school occasionally used to send the students for their outdoor painting exercises. We were supposed to bring canvasses, brushes and colours, but I decided to carry my camera instead. I took a lot of pictures and painted these works at home, when back in Shanghai.
Monica Dematté: Why didn't you paint on the spot?
Yu Youhan: Because it requires a lot of time, and we only had a few days. You know, it takes time to finish a work, and you can't always expect to be in the right mood.
Monica Dematté: How long had passed since you had been to the countryside?
Yu Youhan: Not very long. But nowadays you need to avoid those touristy places, which are so boring and fake... Instead, a place like Yimengshan really enables you to feel nature as something real and not artificial. These places are commonly considered poor, backward. It is true that you hardly find any young men there; they've all left to work somewhere else. You only see women and old folks working in the fields, as well as children.
Monica Dematté: Were you sent to the countryside during your youth?
Yu Youhan: Of course, I spent much time in the countryside, I was in the Liberation army for a while, and then I had to help the peasants.
Monica Dematté: I've noticed that one of your paintings bears the writing 'I in Yimengshan', so I suppose it's a self portrait.
Yu Youhan: Correct
Monica Dematté: Is it an 'ideal' self portrait? You are seen pushing a wheel barrow. Were you fantasising of leading a bucolic life, of going back to a more natural lifestyle?
Yu Youhan: It is an ideal, but only a small one. I felt so happy and relaxed there, that I decided to express it in that self-portrait.
Monica Dematté: It's actually your only self-portrait I've seen. At least the only self-declared one. By the way, were you inspired by a photograph?
Yu Youhan: Yes, it is, but the image in the photo was completely different, there was a road behind me, and the mountains were much further back. I changed the whole composition.
Monica Dematté: What do you think is the difference between painting 'dal vero', in this case en plein air, and photography?
Yu Youhan: As I said, to paint directly en plein air is much slower. And then, moreover, it is dangerous: one gets easily captured by what one faces.
Monica Dematté: Do you mean, the painter tends to get carried away by what he sees?
Yu Youhan: Yes. You know, in Chinese art schools we tend to paint things that 'look like' what is considered reality, disregarding personal creation. When you face the real object – or scenery...- it is even easier to do so.
Monica Dematté: So what is your artistic process instead?
Yu Youhan: When I was in Yimengshan I took a lot of pictures, then, back home I used one piece here, one there, juxtaposing them in a way which considers the pictorial effect, not the resemblance.
Monica Dematté: What kind of influence has photography had on painting, from a historical point of view? How do you see their relationship?
Yu Youhan: Actually, I think that since photography was first introduced, we notice too many particulars, too many superficial details which have nothing to do with our interiority. It is like having a bi-dimensional model of the reality in front of your eyes, and needing to deal with it. Before photography everybody was painting something far from the reality, as if they were all children.
Monica Dematté: It's interesting to hear this from a painter like you, who has used photography so much as a source of inspiration in your Mao Zedong series...but that was another period I understand, more related with society and with your biography, and deeply intertwined with the recent history of China.
So, coming back to the landscapes, what kind of models do you have in mind when you approach the canvas now? Is it the reality, photographs, western or Chinese art history masters...?
Yu Youhan: That is a question I have actually never considered. But yes, I definitely consider art history the most. I believe in China there are very few painters who paint spontaneously: they all have a heavy academic background.
Monica Dematté: Your paintings have a very distinct personal style, which seems to lay on a sort of anti-academic attitude, even though they're the result of careful studies in terms of composition and colours.
Yu Youhan: Yes, I like to look at paintings which have something odd to them, I would even say something awkward. In that way they are more tasteful, and they get closer to my idea.
Monica Dematté: And what is your idea?
Yu Youhan: It is hard to express it with words. I need to feel happy when I look at a painting, it must have something unsophisticated.
Monica Dematté: Just now you said that you highly regard art history, and the past masters. How does it work?
Yu Youhan: When I have finished a painting I compare it to, for instance, a good shanshui (traditional landscape) and I see whether there are parts in my painting which need to be 'upgraded'. Looking at high quality things gives me a clearer insight of my own works as well.
Monica Dematté: Then how do you proceed?
Yu Youhan: Usually I identify a portion of my painting which is really successful, and contains what I would modestly call 'art'. The rest isn't so well done, and I need to find a way to harmonize the whole thing, keeping in mind that there are always different degrees of quality. Actually, their relationship, if well balanced, is an interesting element in the painting. The painting must somehow share the same spirit, but it shouldn't be too even, too flat.
When I start painting I have an idea, but then it changes according to how I proceed. I'm like someone who while walking along the road gets attracted by this and that, and has to modify his course according to his new interests. Then I try to focus all these different features into one main direction... piece
Monica Dematté: I know that you really admire Cézanne. I imagine you've examined his works thoroughly... Yu Youhan: Yes, I have. But I have never tried to copy him, I just like to analyse the way he works. His is a way which fits my own needs as well. I have noticed that he really considers the overall structures of the painting, and how the lines which divide the painting are drawn according to the visual effect. On the other hand, every portion of the painting works on its own. every portion has an inner coherence while, at the same time, harmonising with the rest. I think Cézanne is really great at linking different aspects, different tones. For instance, if there is a majority of green somewhere, he will balance it with some red...or he will counterbalance heaviness with light details... In a nutshell, he has great care for the visual effect, he is very pictorial. Moreover, I have realized that every single portion of the canvas can be divided again, and so on.
Monica Dematté: On and on until we get to the 'single brushstroke'?!
Yu Youhan: The first brushstroke is the most important one for me. The second is influenced by the first, and so are the others. At one point I need to consider whether I can keep that first stroke, or whether I need to cancel it in order to get rid of its presence. It is all about harmony, about the reciprocal relationships of the various components, again, in favour of the visual effect.
Monica Dematté: Actually, thinking about the 'single brushstroke', I feel that some parts of your recent landscapes show the same careless, yet individual strokes of the abstract paintings from the 'Yuan' (Round) series, which date back, if I'm not wrong, to 1985, and which you're still carrying on. Not only that, but to me, these two series, the 'Yuan' and the landscapes, seem to be the most spontaneous, unpretentious, and therefore successful, of your works. It's just a personal opinion, obviously... Yu Youhan: When I started painting the 'Yuan' I wanted to get away from reality, in order to have my own, personal, free universe. Now when I go to the countryside I feel good and free, far from the pollution.
Monica Dematté: You told me that you've painted many landscapes in the past.
Yu Youhan: Yes, of course, and continuously during the years. It was an important subject I had to practice as a teacher, as well. Actually, in '78 I started to paint in the Pissarro style, having seen an exhibition of works by the Barbizon masters which came to Shanghai, and by 1984 I was still walking and cycling around in Shanghai with a canvas under my arm... Monica Dematté: At that time, as now, you were devoting yourself to figurative and abstract painting at the same time. Did you consider them different back in the Eighties?
Yu Youhan: Nowadays they are the same for me. Actually, if you look at portions of my landscapes, you'll realize that it is pure abstract painting. At that time I remember my approach being very similar, but abstract art was considered to be newer and fresher.
Monica Dematté: We haven't mentioned those few recent paintings which have gardens as a subject matter yet. One of them has a very unique composition; there's a clear line which divides the surface into two scenes.
Yu Youhan: Right, that one was inspired by two photos: one was taken from above, and reproduces the reflection of the trees in the water, and the other from below, towards the sky and across the foliage. I have juxtaposed these two views together in a pictorial way. It is an experiment.
Monica Dematté: I like it, it's somehow displacing. By the way, why don't you come here to paint in the backyard, one day [noting that the painter is admiring the tall trees outside the window]?
Yu Youhan: No, I would be influenced by the reality, which is so pretty... Look, leaves in the sun, in the shadow, so many hues... However, for me a work of art will never be the representation or the mirror of a beautiful natural setting. One will never be able to reach such beauty in a painting.
Monica Dematté: But artistic awareness can enhance one's appreciation of nature...
Yu Youhan: It is not my case. It would only enhance my sense of defeat for not being able to attain splendour as is found in nature (laughing)!
Shanghai, end of November, 2004