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December 25, 2011

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Master of '3 perfections'

Many Western painters incorporate Oriental elements into their works and some are also familiar with Eastern culture, but few have devoted years to gradually mastering the classical "Three Perfections" - poetry, ink-wash painting and calligraphy.

One of the very few (and very probably the only in Shanghai) is French, Shanghai-based scholar Benot Vermander (Chinese name Bendu) who teaches philosophy at Fudan University.

An exhibition of Vermander's ink and oil paintings - figurative, abstract and landscape - and a selection of his poetry (in French) and photography is underway in Dpark (Duarte Foreign-related Economic, Innovative & Culture Park) in Yangpu District.

The 60 paintings were created between the late 1990s and 2007.

This is not the first time Vermander has exhibited outside the walls of cultural institutions. "I have always been interested in exhibiting in alternative places for they do not have an immediate vocation to hold artworks," he says.

Vermander, who was born in 1960, has an unusual background, to say the least. He has written poetry since he was seven, first in French and later in Chinese.

Since 1990 he studied calligraphy, at first on his own. The discovering of calligraphy as a "new language" sparked his passion for Chinese modern painting later on.

In 1992 he settled down in Taiwan for the first time and then moved to Sichuan Province, where he met his master and friend Li Jinyuan. The two have jointly held exhibitions around the world and still collaborate closely. He has also studied the ethnic minorities of southwest China.

Since then he settled permanently in China, steeping himself in its culture.

Although Vermander gradually mastered the traditional Chinese "Three Perfections" - poetry, calligraphy and painting - calligraphy appears to play an especially important role in his creation. He clearly remembers his first encounter with calligraphy in 1987 while he was in Sichuan.

"I came across a piece of calligraphy with the words feng, lin, huo, shan (wind, forest, fire, mountain). Since I did not speak Chinese at that time, the translator told me it was a maxim extracted from Sun Zi ("The Art of War") and I was immediately struck by the quality of its movement and how it can be so expressive while using few traits. Perhaps ink blots attracted most of my attention. I thought an art that allows such blots could not be bad," he says.

Movement, audacious strokes and ink wash represent Vermander's recurrent idioms. For instance, his series "The Face to be Born" (2004-2007) clearly emphasizes the diverse quality of traits and nuances of ink colors, which is reminiscent of Chinese pictorial tradition. However, Vermander says, "When I paint, I never ask myself whether it is Chinese or French, on the contrary I unconsciously avoid any cultural reference."

His desire to go beyond visual conditioning permits him to add new dimensions to calligraphy. In truth, Vermander's goal is to "explore a more intuitive response to portraits." The works are less the representation of a real person than the "examination of successive emotions that appear on a face, from its birth, to its transfiguration" - this interests him the most.

The apparent simplicity in his artworks reveals a deeper meaning that echoes Vermander's two distinctive sides. On one hand there is Vermander the brilliant scholar who uses highly analytical and critical thinking in his diverse positions: Fudan University philosophy teacher, head of the Ricci Institute (1996-2009), and editorial director of Renlai, a magazine of Asian cultural, social and spiritual concerns, among others. On the other there is Vermander the artist who tries his utmost to explore "a sort of animalism, inner freedom and other unconscious emotional states" that appear at odds with a rational mind.

Finally, it seems Vermander exemplifies a transcultural approach in painting yet with the strong desire to maintain a certain distance. More than a scholar, more than a painter, Vermander embodies a free and spirited heart who creates powerful and intriguing artworks.

(Marine Cabos is a Shanghai-based freelancer.)

Date: Through February 28 (closed on Sunday), 9am-6pm

Address: 738 Changyang Rd

Tel: 5160-7676

How to get there: Dalian Road Station of Metro Line 4




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