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The flowering of an artist with a passion for his country

VAN Gogh painted sunflowers as few others have and since his dazzling creations few artists have tried to match them. But one of China's leading artists, Xu Jiang, has his own take on sunflowers. Wang Jie looks into the frame.

Van Gogh's stunning sunflowers are wild and energetic, the product of a master's enthusiastic brushstrokes and drive toward a vision. Few artists dare to follow the path of the sunflowers. They are very much van Gogh's own creations and are inextricably linked with him.

We say few artists. But now one is challenging the van Gogh tradition in a big way.

Xu Jiang's solo exhibition, "Redemption of a Sunflower Garden," featuring about 300 paintings, sculptures, installations and photographs will be unveiled at Shanghai Art Museum today.

Art lovers may still remember well the huge train that appeared at the entrance gate at the 2008 Shanghai Biennale. Now the site has been reserved for Xu's daunting sculptures featuring clusters of withered sunflowers two meters high.

"Although distinguishable, the venue is not an easy site for an artist," says Zhang Qing, curator of Xu's solo show and also art director of Shanghai Biennale, "because the building of the art museum itself, a former horse-racing stadium, the neighboring People's Park and the bustling Nanjing Road outside may actually 'dilute' the visual impact or the inner power of the artwork itself."

However, Xu's withered sunflowers, in stainless steel, are undisturbed by their surroundings, silently and strikingly rendering a message of awesomeness and mystery.

"Van Gogh's sunflowers eulogize the harvest and the energy of life, but mine lament the pain and burden of our nation; Van Gogh's sunflowers are dazzling and passionate, but mine are withered and sad," says Xu, president of the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, ranked one of the top 15 art academies around the world.

Born in 1955 in Fujian Province, Xu is a graduate from the oil department of the China Academy of Fine Arts.

Like his peers, Xu's personal life experience is entwined with the vicissitudes of the country.

Xu belongs to the generation that had been assigned to the countryside for labor training to "purify their souls" during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) and he was also one of those young Chinese intellectuals who furthered their studies in the West in order to "see the exciting outside world" after the launch of China's opening-up policy.

"For me, such an experience was really unique, and could hardly be repeated by the following generations," he says with a smile. "Perhaps that well explains why my generation is stamped with more social responsibilities and self-conflict."

Xu mirrors his past experience and his concerns about the country within his brushstrokes. With a solid classical base, Xu's canvases are filled with a rare fever or madness rarely seen among many other Chinese artists who are usually controlled in their technique and expression.

The "burning fire" of art seems to float away from their pieces.

"Xu is the kind of artist who never drains as he ages," says Zhang. "If you ever listen to him speaking, I bet you will never forget his voice."

The artist is noted for his vivacious character, of course, which is echoed by his distinctive voice.

He holds several important roles in the art world, such as head of the academic committee of the Shanghai Biennale, but at the same time the man is surprisingly productive.

"I sleep fewer hours than you," he answers. "Perhaps my previous experience has trained me to be strong."

Xu says his overseas experience was actually more painful for him than his laboring in the poor countryside.

"I was in Germany in 1988, a penniless Chinese art student with hardly with any connection to the society," Xu recalls. "Just imagine how hard my life was then. I was always struggling between solitude and hopelessness."

Xu created a series of avant-garde works in Germany but they did not work.

"It was then that I realized my art must be rooted in the Eastern philosophy and tradition," he says.

Perhaps that's why Xu has later returned to sunflowers, a subject that he claims "summarizes the essence of the spirit of the Chinese nation."

Xu feels that mature sunflowers with their heavy flowers leaning towards the sun are similar to the Chinese people, or a nation that has suffered too much in the past.

"Look at these sunflowers, aren't you moved by them?" Xu asks. "Our nation has suffered in wars through the centuries, but it still strives to stand up."

Instead of the impact of visual images, Xu's art always endeavors to convey a spirit to the viewer - perhaps that his own redemption.

Date: April 3-24, 9am-5pm

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Tel: 6327-2829


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