East Meets the American West


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An old Chinese man went to Yosemite and it blew his mind. To explain why, we have to go back a few thousand years. Chinese people have an old civilization. Older, perhaps, than anybody else’s civilization. That depends on how you define “civilization,” but who has the time to fight about these things? Point is, it’s old. Chinese art thus has a lot of tradition. Chinese artists predictably spend a lot of time coming to terms with that tradition. You study the old masters, you reject the old masters, you copy the old masters, you desperately try to ignore the old masters, you become the old masters.

Xie Zhiliu was born in 1910 and he died in 1997. He grew up in Changzhou, which is known to have had a great tradition of Chinese painting, especially bird and flower stuff, which is the bread and butter of hundreds of years of Chinese painting. He later moved to Shanghai, where he was a professor of painting and an advisor to the Shanghai Museum. He was as firmly implanted in the tradition as a man can be.

An exhibit of Xie’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — “Mastering the Art of Chinese Painting: Xie Zhiliu (1910–1997)” — makes that traditionalism very clear. We see all kinds of birds and flowers and landscapes and calligraphy. Often, we see them right next to reproductions of the older classics Xie was imitating. The exhibit is thus a quick and highly enjoyable lesson in the history of Chinese painting and drawing.

Then you get to the last room of the exhibit, where something special happens. In 1994, Xie traveled to Yosemite National Park with his painter wife Chen Peiqiu. There, he produced a series of paintings that are a testimonial to cognitive dissonance. He paints the mountains and trees of Yosemite, but they look vaguely Chinese. The vegetation looks sparse, like in the drawings that accompany Chinese calligraphy. The stones of Yosemite rise up with the stalagmite abruptness we expect of Chinese art.

I remember traveling to Halong Bay, Vietnam a few years ago. I saw them all of a sudden, those famous rock formations that shoot directly out of the landscape toward the sky. Impertinent Earth erections, they were topped with outcroppings of green and the clingy trees we’ve all seen a million times in Asian art. It is a natural phenomenon you don’t get in the West. Seeing those formations in person, you see why so many generations of artists were obsessed. It is nature in a form highly pleasing to the human visual apparatus.

Stunning as the natural formations are, they’ve also been fully co-opted into human culture. Chinese artists, generation after generation, managed to create what they were looking at almost as much as they simply recorded it. They forced us, in their paintings and drawings, to pick out the landscape in particular ways, to value certain kinds of rocks and outcroppings more highly than others. Over the centuries, they became connoisseurs. Over the centuries, it became impossible to see that particular natural phenomenon through the eyes of anything but the tradition.

And that’s what happened to Xie Zhiliu in Yosemite. He painted a Yosemite that simply doesn’t exist, at least to those of us on the Western side of the globe. Actually, his Yosemite doesn’t exist on the Eastern side, either. It exists only in Xie Zhiliu’s head. His Chinese tradition was in a locked battle with a landscape he didn’t recognize. Yosemite doesn’t look like the mountains of China. The stone is different. The mountains came forth because of different geological forces. The foliage is made up of different species of tree and shrub. Reality doesn’t show itself in Yosemite the same way it shows itself in Taishan Mountain. The paintings Xie Zhiliu made in Yosemite don’t reconcile that confusion, they simply record it. One of the deepest ongoing philosophical and aesthetic problems is whether we have access to reality as it really is, or whether we always see our own version of it. In no ways can Xie Zhiliu’s Yosemite paintings be said to solve this problem. They do reflect, however, what a wonderfully, productively, beautiful problem it is and, I suppose, ever shall be. • 29 April 2010