The story appears on

Page C6

September 16, 2009

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

What one man sees in another: It's much more than a guy thing

FOR 10 years, Mao Yan's sole subject has been a European expat named Thomas.

It seems a bit unusual that a Chinese artist could be so dedicated for a whole decade to portraying one man from Luxembourg.

The oil paintings, in very pale, almost white-on-white tones, are so nuanced and Thomas' expressions are so subtle and complex that some observers have suggested an intimate relationship must exist between the two men. Otherwise, the thinking goes, "how could one man look so deeply into another man's heart?"

"I am glad you dare to ask me this question face-to-face," says Mao with good humor during his recent solo exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum. It's titled "Longing for More."

"I can tell you: We are not (lovers). But it's okay if other people think this because they are reading some other message I unconsciously fuse in my paintings," says the Nanjing-based artist.

Asked whether he is a bachelor, Mao hastens to say: "Oh, no. My daughter is 17 years old. I have a good marriage, and my wife was my high school sweetheart."

Mao, who is around 40, was born in Xiangtan, Hunan Province, and says he was a "prodigy."

"I realized that I am an art genius even when I was a little boy," he says.

In 1987 Mao was one of only four students admitted to the prestigious National Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, which received thousands of applications.

Even in school, Mao's superb technique was widely recognized. He and his work were rather low-key at the time.

"That's part of my character, I am not a pushy or outgoing person," he says.

Maybe that easygoing aspect explains why after graduation he chose to base himself in Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu Province.

At the beginning, he only planned to stay there for one or two years as a transition.

"Then one day, I found myself quite accustomed to the lifestyle and the vibe of the city," says Mao who developed his social network in Nanjing. His friends there include top novelists Su Tong and Han Dong.

It was in Nanjing in 1999 that Mao first encountered Thomas who was studying Chinese. A friend introduced them and a group of them began to socialize.

"As he was a newcomer, it was natural that I showed him around some interesting places," Mao recalls.

Soon he began to paint Thomas, just as he often painted his friends.

"The more I painted him, the more I liked him," Mao says. "Thomas is a very noble man, well-educated and with good manners. Unlike some Westerners in China who are influenced by some bad habits or small tricks, Thomas never changes."

Thomas on canvas is often quite relaxed, reflecting or sleeping.

"Because of our years of working together, he totally relaxes in front of me," Mao says.

"On the surface, it might appear that I am painting him, but in fact I am revealing my inner self through him. Thomas is more akin to a medium," he adds. "My art is not just about one or two paintings, but the whole process for nearly a decade."

Over the past 10 years, Mao followed Thomas.

"It wasn't difficult. Sometimes I flew to Beijing, or he flew back to Nanjing," he explains.

Mao took numerous photos. From 1999 to 2009 he created around 80 paintings of Thomas.

The impression and feeling of the canvases is one of lightness, with almost no trace of texture. It's somewhat reminiscent of traditional Chinese ink-wash painting.

"Do I use egg white? Are you kidding? I never use it," he says, laughing. "The oil paint I use is available everywhere."

He usually paints 30 to 40 layers on each canvas.

"I pour all my emotions into the whole process - loneliness, desperation, perplexity. All these feelings are precious, revealed unconsciously and truthfully. If these emotions resonate with viewers, even a little, then I am pleased," says the artist.

Mao says he enjoys solitude and can easily work eight hours in his 400-square-meter studio in a renovated warehouse. Sometimes he just reads and relaxes.

Some of his closest friends are writers.

"The vocation of writing is lonelier than painting," he says, "but writers reach philosophical heights that often inspire me."

After 10 years of Thomas, is it time to quit, perhaps consider a different subject or medium?

"I should keep this secret," Mao hesitates. "But I'll tell you. I don't know whether I will continue to paint Thomas. One thing is for certain. I will start a new series, in a bigger size, and it will be about women."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend