My Mirage, a fantastic painting, was based on a vision visited me when I was falling asleep but with enough mental presence to get up to make quick notes – a distant town, whose outlines barely discernible, in the manner of those commonly seen in old Dutch or Flemish landscape paintings, overwhelmed by several enormous and boldly sketched black feathers floating above the sky. Behind those dark and somewhat ominous feathers, a delicately pretty pale blue sky flashed through persistently. Yet, despite the seemingly menace, those dark feathers also looked rather protective and comforting. A world of ambiguity.
The famed Terracotta Army of the First Emperor of Qin Dynasty in China impressed not only with the sheer numbers of those soldiers, generals and horses, but upon close inspection, the endless variations of those individuals, each one of them seemed to have a distinct look and personalities, a far cry from cookie cutter mass production one might have suspected.
The most impressive was a Standing Archer - whose stylized yet naturalistic posture and his impassive face emitted an aura of zen, strange for a soldier. Also noteworthy was the plain but delicate face of this calm soldier.
I also love the horses "enlisted" in the army. They were absolutely sleek and beautiful. These beasts couldn't be nobler.
Banpo Archaeological Site Museum, Xi'an, China featured one of the earliest civilizations originated in China, in the Yellow River Valley, and it showcased many ancient artifacts remarkable not only for historical values, but the refined beauty belying their primitive and humble origins.
One such wonder was "A basin with abstracted fish design", whose rich earthy red tone was a thing of great beauty, and the black line drawing geometrical design of fish in multiple variations and arrangements was amazingly accomplished and startlingly modern.
A basin with abstracted fish design
Contrasting to the serious tone of the abstract fish pattern above, "A basin bearing the pattern of human face and fish" had a humorous conflation imageof a human face and a pair of triangular fish, sticking out like exaggerated beards. A clown? A dragoon? Fascinating.
A basin bearing the pattern of human face and fish
The breathtaking artifacts in the archaeology site Sanxingdui (Three-Star Mound) in Sichuan Province, China, astonished people with their exotic to the point of bizarre beauty.
For example, this pair of gold-masked busts though had all the prerequisite facial features, but the shape and proportions of those were so strange, that these busts were hardly human, at least not earthly human. However bizarre they looked, they were absolutely to behold. The green patina of the bronze harmonized magically with the pale gold, which shone without being unnecessarily brilliant.
Another strange statue was a giant with the similar otherworldly facial feature. The torso and arms were highly abstracted, resembled that of an advertising AirDancer in front of a shop, though it was obvious that this giant was an inflexible one. His embracing arms and his screw nut hands, must have held a something long and thick, perhaps a holy staff or a scepter.
The origin and the meaning of these mindbogglingly strange artifacts are a great riddle still to be solved.
The ancient culture in nowadays Sichuan Province, China was vastly different from those originated in the Yellow River region, the mainstream Chinese culture as we know it. Jinsha (Archaeology) Site Museum in Chengdu, China, featured many mysterious artifacts resembled those we would see in Sci-Fi movies.
The most treasurable item was a gold foil wheel of Sun Birds - four cutout mythical birds flying around a cutout swirling wheel, spilling flares just like the sun. Perhaps, it was the red background generated the semblance to the fiery sun; but the effectiveness was uncanny. The design of the birds and the flaring wheel were so modern that it was hard to believe that it was 5-6 thousand year old. One would incline to doubt if this had anything to do with extraterrestrials. This gold wheel was so beautiful and touching that it could bring tears to many.
Another intriguing artifact was a quite small gold mask, whose otherworldliness recalled that of the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. The face looked strange and a smile was as indecipherable as that of Mona Lisa.
Xu Beihong (1895-1953) was a renown Chinese artist, who was uniquely accomplished in both western oil paintings and traditional Chinese paintings. The museum bears his name, Xu Beihong Museum in Beijing had many of fine representations of his works.
One of his most famous oil painting was a portrait titled "Sound of Flute", which, though somewhat veered towards sentimentality, was redeemed by the heroine's shagginess, which transported her to the purer and more primitive and private world. Rather than a candied soiree, we were witnessing the sitter's private communion.
One of Xu's large scaled historical pieces in the style of French Academy, "Tian Heng and Five Hundred Followers", depicted a leave taking ceremony of those figures about to face their tragic and heroic collective deaths. The emotion and intensity were enhanced by the stoicism those figures exerted. However, some choices, such as the Titianesque blue sky and the yellow robe on the figure in the center, somewhat lent the painting a suspicious air of socialist realism. That said, one could not deny the painting's restrained grandeur.
The National Art Museum of China in Beijing has interesting oil painting collections, but when I visited it many years ago, the only oil paintings on display were a group of portraits of political and bigness bigwigs, uniformly done in the quite pompous and imperial fashion, therefore the only works worth seeing were some Chinese paintings and here are a couple of such samples.
The 1960 landscape "Xiling Gorge" by FU Baoshi was a bold presentation of an often painted subject - one of the renown Three Gorges in upper Yangtze River. With broad and assertive strokes, and only a few shades of black, gray and white, Fu fashioned an epic scene worthy of Homer, a monumental world of basic elements - river, mountain, fog, rain, and clouds - charged of primordial energy and majesty.
Further in the direction of modern, JIA Youfu's 1984 landscape painting "A Monument of Taihang" left an indelible impression with bold gestures, complemented by fine and layered details. The overlapping angular planes created a receding and serene universe, while the bold red colors and the jagged upward peaks punctuated the scene like a pounding heart.
Nurtured by many Russian novels while growing up, I developed a special feeling towards the omnipresent birches, which not only aptly set the scenes and evoke the particular melancholy especially associated with Russia and Russian people, and finally, I made effort in 2006 to try to capture such feelings with a painting titled Birches, which is currently showing at the McGuire Real Estate gallery in Berkeley as part of the “Crowded by Beauty” exhibit.
I love the slender shapes of the trees, the softness of the finely-layered birch barks and their eerie silver color, and above all, the eye-shaped knobs imprinted on the trunks from bottom to top, as if birches were meant to be the chosen observers from silent world, so as to judge humankind.
Birches Oil on Canvas 22" x 28" Completed in 2006
That painting is also a play of optical illusion - amongst the eyes on the trunks, there was a singular eye floating in the space, unattached, between two indifferent birches. Inundated by so many eyes, this oddity was not immediately obvious; once detected, one might ask, if this is a most determined birch eye, the eye of an invisible human, or just a wandering independent eye belong to nothing and no one.
The main museum in my hometown, Manchurian city Shenyang, Liaoning Provincial Museum, boasted some magnificent artifacts and Chinese paintings, due to the fact that the last imperial dynasty was originated from Manchuria, and had kept a rich trove of art treasures in Shenyang, especially during and after World War II, when Manchu elites retreated back to northeastern China.
Like many cities in China, Shenyang has experienced rapid expansion in the last decade or so, resulting in the move of its administrative and cultural centers southward, including the relocation of the Museum, which traded a round, nondescript building with a rectangular, nondescript building. Below are two pictures of the Museum before and after the move.
Former site of Liaoning Provincial Museum
Current site of Liaoning Provincial Museum
The most treasured painting of the Museum was a painting from Tang Dynasty by 周昉 Fang ZHOU, Tang Dynasty, (active 766~779 - 785~804), titled "簪花仕女图 (Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers)".
Of my several visits to this museum, I was only able to encounter it once, due to the typical fragility of Chinese paintings, and the preciousness of this piece of extreme sublimity and exquisity, which captured the luxury and easy of the court life during the most prosperous period in Chinese history. The dark and dull background was a perfect foil for the array of richly though never gaudily attired and confidently posed high-ranking ladies and retinue, whose pale skin glittered, underneath their crowning jet black coiffures, while denoting the high ranking of these ladies, together with strategically placed darker veils and belts, created much visual highlights and accents to the otherwise utterly sweet and soft sphere.
簪花仕女图 Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers
Enlarged replica of 簪花仕女图 Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers
Another striking painting was "红衣西域僧图 (Red Robed Western Monk)" by 赵孟頫 Mengfu ZHAO (1254-1322) of Song Dynasty. Here, the western world meant Western Asia. The painting was interesting, not only for the sitter, who was obviously exotic-looking to Chinese, but also the composition and the employment of a single viewpoint, which was more typical in western art idioms. The triangle form of the monk, the rock and the tree behind him, almost invoked a feeling of Italian Renaissance painting, and the single and closeup viewpoint was also an abrupt departure from Chinese painting tradition of a multiple viewpoints, such as the painting above. Here, instead of showing a huge swatch of landscape, and the complete form of the tree, the painter chose to show only the tree trunk and a few barely visible leaves and branches on the very edge of the painting, thus forcing the viewers to concentrate on the figure. Instead of a picturesque tableau, the painting became a character study, via his upright posture, his brilliant red robe, which contrasted strongly to and complemented by the verdant, moss-covered rocks, whose strangely lined surfaces per chance also echoed the monk's weathered and wise face and irregularly shaped head. An unforgettable glimpse of his inner world.
红衣西域僧图 (Red Robed Western Monk)" by 赵孟頫 Mengfu ZHAO (1254-1322)
Pinacoteca Nazionale (National Gallery) di Ferrara, also known as Palazzo dei Diamanti, named for its rusticated façade of diamond spikes, impressed with effortless elegance of the building and its collections.
The first striking piece greeted visitors was an "Assunzione di Santa Maria Maddalena" by Maestro della Maddalena Assunta.
The highly stylized landscape was an idealized world, where animals, plants, and humans mingled together in harmony. The low vantage point and the receding flat landscape helped to generate a visceral sense of witnessing Saint Mary flying up. Hovering just above the ground, the pious and still youthful Mary, borne by several cherubim and greeted by a pair of angels with enormous wings, though delicate and even fragile, commended attention through her centered position, contorted pose, and brilliant bloody red drapery. The small V-shaped hills framing the base of the painting, also added the sense of uplifting.
Assunzione di Santa Maria Maddalena, Maestro della Maddalena Assunta
I was also very moved by another Mary painting - Madonna col Bambino, which featured the tender Mary and a very trusting and adorable baby Jesus, engaging in silent and intimate communion, demonstrating the palpable love and trust between the mother and the baby. A touching sweetness permeated the painting, yet the painting never fell to the level of saccharine; the sweetness was manifested in the simplicity of these figures, their most natural exhibition of pure emotions, and the delicate and harmonious hues of pink, rose, and blue, all artfully woven together.
Madonna col Bambino, Sebastiano Filippi detto Bastianino
The formidable and somewhat gloomy fortress, Castello Estense in Ferrara, Italy was surprisingly airy and even cheesy inside.
Such as this whimsical ceiling painting, one of many, depicting carousing nude men and cherubim, who, despite in the drunken stage, allowed their stances and gestures to be regulated by some tidy order. Their pale flash tone worked really well against the elegant background of blue and pink walls and windows of a building façade, thus introduced another dimension of order and regulation. Finally, the fantastic drawn floral borders on milky colored background firmly planted this hedonistic scene in a florid paradise.
Opposite to that ceiling painting's festive atmosphere, a triptych of grisaille frescoes in a courtyard depicted some serious and highly-placed personalities, was all somberness and world-weary. Despite the lacking colors, or because of that, these "veiled" paintings were memorably atmospheric and evocative.
During my brief day trip to Italian city Ferrara, I admired two bronze sculptures on top of the arch entrance to its Palazzo Municipale (City Hall) — Arco del Volto del cavallo (Arch of Horse Front).
On the left, there was the seated statesman Duca Borso d'Este & Marchese Niccolo III d'Este and on the right, equestrian sculpture of Marchese Niccolo III d'Este.
Of these two equally impressive sculptures, the more flamboyant equestrian made more immediate impressions.
The overt masculinity and grandeur was reflected with his insolent expression, his immobile pose, and his easy on the schlepping charger. The silhouette of the powerful horse and the rider was as solid as a mountain, as if nothing could challenge and stop his marching supremacy.
Marchese Niccolo III d'Este
The seated Duca Borso d'Este, on the contrary, was all self-confident serenity, radiating innate strength, as if so confident of his divine invested power that he needed no military poses and trappings to uphold his control over his domain.
My brief excursion from Bologna to Ferrara led me to the wonderful Duomo, whose distinct façade of triple gables immediately brought me to a purified world of classicism.
True to the expectation, my favorite sculpture inside was a sculpture of a bishop (and a saint?) standing in a niche with minimal decoration. The most striking feature was the resolute and clean lines of the soaring figure, reminiscent the works of the great Bernini, such as his masterpiece of "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa", though much less florid and baroque.
I also really liked a fresco of Saint Michael of similar narrow shape. The interplay of ethereally pale blue and pink hues was wonderfully subtle and satisfying, forming and contrasting the saint, who, even engaged in battle, never lost his balance and grace. Utterly enchanting.
One was "Ritratto di vecchino (Portrait of an Old Man)" by Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto. This portrait presented a robust old man with a striking set of abundant white beard, contrasting and echoing the black cap atop his broad forehead. The unwavering, penetrating, yet not-unkind gaze of this old man told all we needed to know about this steadfast character - a general? a statesman? or a successful seafaring merchant? Whoever he might have been, he commanded our respect. A sliver of outside world at the edge of the painting indicated his adventures beyond the serenity of old age.
Ritratto di vecchino, Jacopo Robusti, detto il Tintoretto (1518-1594)
My second favorite was "Suntto per la testa di Gian Galeazzo (Sketch of the Head of Gian Galeazzo)" by Bologna's native son, Pelagio Palagi, whose fluid rendition of the melancholic young man captured his intelligence and sensitivity tenderly and economically. Even in this perhaps unfinished state, this portrait was just as full-bodies as any extra layers of paints and varnish could provide.
Suntto per la testa di Gian Galeazzo, Pelagio Palagi (1775-1860)
Basilica Santuario Santo Stefano, the oldest church in Bologna, was very atmospherically evocative and romantic, and the many unique artefacts in its often darkish chambers added much allure.
The artwork left the strongest impression on me was a small plate of relief on the exterior of its nave, featuring three primitive looking figures with haloed heads resembling astronauts' in headgear, and stiffly raised hands sending signals of warning or blessing. The central figure, the only seated one, held a commanding upright staff with a cross top, which dissected the plate into two uneven parts, lending some dynamism to this restrained tableau. These rigid figures, perhaps Jesus and his disciples, in their strange garbs, along with their enormous and somewhat stunned eyes, formed a society beyond our worldly reach.
My second favorite was a fresco painting of some wild or domestic animals accented with some scrolls, like an early day almanac, whose pale inviting atmosphere, coloration, and the wonderful sense of continuity and unity were particularly appealing.