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Talk with Ji Wenyu

Interviewer: Lorenz Helbling 1997

Lorenz Helbling(LH): Some of your paintings relate for example, to Rubens. Others show influence from more recent Pop art.
Ji Wenyu(JWY): This has to do with the history of the reception of Western art in China. You see, in the West, the last hundred years of art were more or less hundred years of Modern Art. Chinese artists however went in these last hundred years through one thousand years of Western art history. So many things, artists, painting styles, which may look very remote in the West are here in China still very present, they just came to China. In this process many different things were mixed together. But we not only face traditional and modern Western art, we have also our own cultural tradition. All these contraditionary things are mixed together. It's a big puzzle. We have to make a choise, but it is difficult to know what to choose. With China's opening in the last years, many new things came into the country and we want to create, imagine new things. But what is told at the art academies is still very conservative. We want to go new ways, but we know only the old ways. My paintings are dealing with this contradiction, they are part of this process. It's about destruction and renewal.

LH: Are you serious or are you just playing around when you use so different elements on your paintings?
JWY: Our Generation often cannot take things very seriously anymore.

LH: Was that always like that?
JWY: As a child I liked nature, I liked small animals, I kept cats but also mice. I didn't like it if people killed chicken and other animals. I liked landscapes. I painted landscapes, nature. I never really painted people. I never thought about making people the center of my art. Today, that is after 1993, there are people in all of my paintings, but I make fun of them.

LH: Where did you get your training?
JWY: Landscape painting was just my hobby as a child. When I was 9 or 10 years old, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, there were images of Mao Zedong in every lane. Some of them as woodblock prints, some in oil on metal board. I had a neighbour who was really good in painting huge Mao portraits. I admired him even though he was painting figures and not landscapes or animals. I admired how he could reproduce reality. With him I went also to one of his painter friends at an University. He was later teaching me. It was mostly very traditional, Russian style art. Real education I got only at the Art & Crafts School in Shanghai between 1977- 1980. Again, Russian influence was very strong here. We painted landscapes, people etc. in the classical realist style.

LH: Which artists influenced you most?
JWY: Besides the Russian painters, or painters from Eastern Europe, there was also Rembrandt, especially in the school. We only had very badly printed reproductions of some paintings available. But these prints were treasures. In the earlier 70's it was difficult to find them. In 1979 I saw for the first time impressionist paintings, they had a big influence on me. I liked Pisarro, but not yet Cezanne, Gauguin. I liked van Gogh, because he painted so naturally and because of his life, he had a real life.

LH: Which influence did impressionism have on you?
JWY: I broke with the old. After I saw Impressionists, the Russian art (i.e. realism) disappeared. The impressionist were like me interested in landscape, in light, in atmosphere. Later I saw Cezanne, Picasso, which I didn't understand in the beginning. The surface of the canvas, the composition of the painting became more important than the reproduction of nature, than realism. By 1985 Modern Western art became important in China. But I was more interested how to express Chinese ideas, thoughts in a contemporary way. In 1988 I got very sick, I couldn't stand any strong colors anymore. I got interested in Buddhism, Taoism. I went further away from realism, started to express my own ideas. My 'cloud' paintings where the result of this search. When I got better again, I didn't like these paintings anymore. I way rend the new, but now I realize, nothing is sacred. What I learned, like the traditional oil painting technique, is of no use anymore.

LH: You are using strong colors on your paintings.
JWY: I use popular colors, the colors you can see in Chinese folk art, peasant calendars. I use often red and yellow, which are typical Chinese colors.

LH: With whom do you discuss your paintings?
JWY: Mostly with Ding Yi and Yu Youhan. We discuss a lot, but it's often nor very specific, just talking.

LH: Do they go to your studio to see your paintings?
JWY: Sometimes. We don't talk about details. Some time later, they may suddenly say something, make a remark.

LH: How long does it take you to finish a painting?
JWY: 2-3 weeks if I work the whole day.

LH: How do you paint?
JWY: I don't make sketches. I paint directly on the canvas. I just take an idea and a canvas, the result is always uncertain, always different from the first idea. The painting is changing all the times when I am working on it.

LH: What do you do when you don't paint?
JWY: I don't know. Painting is a very important part of my life, I am not good in doing anything else. A certain time he liked photography. I like nature, and like to express that with the camera, but I gave up.

LH: What is your wish? What do you try to achieve?
JWY: I enjoy to paint very much. It's my life. I want to paint good paintings. Like Leger, Rousseau, I want that all the paintings I show are good.


(Ji Wenyu interviewed by Lorenz Helbling at ShanghART, April 20, 1997)

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