Shou: An Introduction

I met Tang Guo for the first time in Nanjing in 1993. At that time I was a student of the local University, Nanjing Daxue, longing to meet Chinese intellectuals. I was immediately impressed by Tang Guo because of his great charm and his attachment for his own culture, in a moment the 90's, when the most part of Chinese intellectuals strongly was attracted for the West, neglecting their own roots. I remember Tan Guo's home full of archeological finds, dug by himself during long excursions in the countryside, and furnished with the old style mandarin taste, very far from today's fashion. China was changing and an intelligent artist as Tang Guo couldn't reject what was happening in front of his eyes, I wasn't surprised then when some years later I found on the web some recent Tang Guo's works, quite different compared to the ones I already knew and yet with some elements of continuity.

Tang Guo was born in 1955 in Nanjing, a city with deep traditional roots. After two years spent in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, he first joined the Group of the New Literati, distinguished by traditional subjects and techniques, then evolved towards an abstract aesthetics that can interpret the age of upheaval Chinese society is living in. Shou, the title of this exhibition, comes just from this to emphasize the longevity of the famous Oriental cultural tradition, fit to develop without neglecting itself. Patrizia Chignoli has been matching these paintings with Far East Precious antiques, all chosen with great professionalism and sensibility. This unusual and interesting exhibition give us stimulating elements to understand more deeply Asiatic culture.

For the firs time in twenty years Patrizia Chignoli starts dealing with contemporary art of China after having explored enthusiastically numerous aspects of antique art. This enlargement of the perspective is due in part to the great stimulus of the present and lively Chinese culture but specially to Tang Guo's paintings, rare examples of captivating formal expression and intrinsic intellectual content.

In this introduction I will try to suggest possible ways to interpret Tang Guo's art, drawing attention to some interesting peculiarities.

Chinese traditionalism in art has often been thought as a manifestation of inertia and resistance to changes. But in many ways the impulse to take possession of history, the most creative positive aspects of this impulse, doesn't mean just a return to the past but actually the opposite it is a strategy to support a change.

China's artists in 20th century were influenced considerably by the rediscovery of the Buddhist cave paintings at Dunhuang in Gansu province, China. Dunhuang has been an important oasis in the Gobidesert along the Silk Roas from the West, which linked China to India and Persia as well as to the civilization of the Mediterranean, but it was long abandoned and forgotten in the desert sands. Caravan traffic had ceased at some time in the fourteenth century, but from the fourth until the thirteenth century, travelers desiring some insurance in this life or the next had richly patronized the Buddhist community at Dunhuang, ordering the making of frescos and statues. In 1942 Zhang Daqian, a painter in the traditional style, led a small group from Chongqing to copy sections of the fabulous cave paintings. Western explorers had also made records, through drawings and photographs. The response was enthusiastic. The Dunhuang copies provided new sources as an alternative to traditional ink panting. Tang Guo makes modernity and cultural identity the starting point for his artistic activity. An extraor dinary quality blane de Chine budai, early Kangxi (1662-1711), has been marching with a painting titled Posthumous Dunhuang works 2. The painting at the centre presents the scene of a Literate and a lady in the countryside, all around golden leaves of irregular shape and sheets of antique literature: from a brown background emerges the calligraphy by Tang Guo, characterized by a concise strokes. The composition presents at the four sides floral motif, lively lotus in black ink, similar to the one used on the most beautiful porcelain of the past centuries.

Another painting inspired by Dunhuang caves has been matching with a marvellous horse. Tang (618-906 AD) modelled standing and glazed predominantly in chestnut with a cream-coloured glaze running from the poll to the muzzle. The horse was a very important animal at the time when Dunhuang was a lively trade centre an was often painted in the caves.

The series of paintings titled Secret Chinese Character are based on calligraphy, a particular art which can give the artist good opportunities to reach new abstract artistic vision. One of these paintings presents along and narrow sheets of paper of auhergine colour and fragments of old books on a white background: above all this, the painter has "written" Chinese characters, as abstract movements in the space with strokes similar to the speed of the dance. At the bottom, at the centre and at the base, golden leaves. Typically Asiatic, calligraphy (Shu) was part of the education of the Literato, together with painting (Hua), music (Qin), chess (Qi). It is regarded as the most abstract and sublime of the arts and the easiest to show artist's soul and personality. During the imperial age, calligraphy was a way to select the best mandarins. It is different from the other form of art because in calligraphy every stroke is uncorrectable and permanent: the calligrapher has to pay a great attention to the preparation and the execution, concentrating specially on ink, paper capability of absorbing and flexibility of brush.

The Chinese regard calligraphy in cosmological terms: the empty page represents the universe before the creation; the first stroke represents the first form of life born thanks to the marriage of ink and brush, yin and yang; every more stroke creates more relations between yin and yang, all in the Harmonious of the Whole that's Tao.

Tang Guo doesn't represent the world in a realistic way. He takes possession of the Chinese character which already exist and use them going beyond their literal meaning and recreating the natural forces of life, to reach a new expressive language.

Besides the memory of Dunhuang and calligraphy, Tang Guo's paintings often present a colour that made the history of China: red. Even in prehistoric times, red seems to have been regarded as a "life-giving" colour: evidence from burial sites suggests that cinnabar or red chalk was buried along with the bodies. Red is the colour of the Summer, of the South and also of the ancient realm of Zhou (1050-256BC). This ancient stratum of popular belief is not exhausted yet - cf. the presentation of communism as the rule of the Reds (Feng You-lan )and of Red Guards as the shock-troops of revolution unrest. The faithful in temples used to tie a red rope around the neck of the gods. The Red Evebrows were a group of rebels in the 1st century AD who painted their eyebrows with an indelible red so that they could not desert their cause. Red is also the colour of richness and love (in many novels we read that a girl is as red as a peach blossom and ripe for love.)
A sang du boeuf glazed vase of superb quality with two Laotie mask handles suspending fixed rings at the shoulders has been matching with a painting titled Red Mark that's a calligraphy on a blood red background with golden leaves a old books sheets. The painting is extraordinary for the colour, a powerful red that seems to come close to the public and for the golden leaves, real point of light.

A constant subject of Chinese paintings is the landscape. A painting titled Plant 1 shows us how Tang Guo interprets nature: at the centre sections of vases, flowers and little plants, maybe bonsai, all between small golden leaves and a curved sign, similar to the sinuosity of a plant. The background is a soft earth colour. A spinach jade baluster vase and cover carved all around the body with flowers, birds and buds has been matching with this painting. Two different ways equally wonderful to interpret nature: the painting presents an essential and subtle style that gives the opportunity to enlarge imagination limits with a special attention to the naturalistic details.

I'd like finally to mention the paper of these paintings: Tang Guo made it by himself according to antique process rules, as he himself tells us in the interview hereinafter.

Cristina Filippi