Book Review: Gao Xingjian: Painter of the Soul

Gao Xingjian is one of China’s greatest living writers and dramatists, a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. He won acclaim with his novel Soul Mountain, a part-memoir, part novel detailing his travels among Chinese minorities on the fringes of the Han Chinese civilization.

Unfortunately, like far too many Chinese artists, he cannot be read in his own country because his works are banned, nor can he practice his art there. He now lives in Bagnolet, a Parisian suburb, after his political work Fugitives, which makes reference to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 resulted in a ban of all of his works.

What is little known is that the 74-year-old Gao, known as a pioneer of absurdist drama, is nearly equally as famed as an artist as he is as a writer, critic and playwright.Asia Ink press, a London-based publisher of illustrated books, has produced a massive volume of hundreds of his paintings, all of them in muted shades of black and grey that, as he says, are designed to preserve the memory of his roots in China. Those memories are not always positive.

“Your country exists in your memory only, as a hidden spring gushing forth feelings that are hard to articulate,” he wrote.

Gao, the son of a bank clerk and an actress in Jiangsu, first became a follower of the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong, but became disillusioned and in 1970 was sent to a re-education camp where he spent five years working on the land. He was ultimately forced to destroy most of his early works.

The paintings in the book are abstract, “striking, with their masterful gradations, random or deliberate brushstrokes, use of whit space, movements that envelop and create shapes and playful manipulations of the grain of the medium,” wrote Daniel Bergez, a Paris-based art and literary critic, a friend and admirer who pulled the book together.

Although under suspicion from the authorities, he continued to draw and paint for himself, holding his first exhibition of ink drawings at the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing, to widespread acclaim. Later, he held exhibitions n Berlin and other cities although, as Bergez points out, he remains a reserved artist, impervious to requests for media exploitation to continue to devote himself to his literature and art.

The paintings, in chronological order starting in 1965, are all abstract, following classical Chinese ink drawings. He works in dark shapes, overlapping or encroaching on one another so that no clear drawing emerges. However, studying them brings their abstraction into full focus.

“Gao’s conscious choice of a ‘limited’ medium gives his art its inexhaustible richness,” Bergez writes. “This makes every detail noticeable and discernible, awakening a subconscious sustained by the randomness of working with ink. Varying hues of blacks and greys on white, the unpredictability of washes, every swirl, every curve of every line, becomes a sign.”

At, despite his personal commitment to artistic freedom and the burden of having to flee the country of his birth to practice his art, there is no political art in this book, no indication, as Bergez writes, “no direct reference, for instance, to what he saw or experienced in the reeducation camps, and no questioning of history. Equally there is no reference to contemporary life.”

The book, at the end, features an interview with Gao written by Sherry Buchanan, the creator of Asia Ink and a former Wall Street Journal and International Herald Tribune writer. In the interview, asked if he considers himself a dissident, Gao answers: “The media has labeled me a dissident. The dissident label is limiting. Dissidence is about politics. For me, art goes beyond politics. I am simply a citizen of the world. That is what defines me.”