artist / participant


press release

25.09.2021 - 10.10.2021

Xianwei Zhu. In a Landscape
Xianwei Zhu's Paintings

Guiyan He

exhibition planning : Junchun Wang, Yi Sun

Flowing mountains - In the landscape of Xianwei Zhu

... how beautiful from a serene distance
shines the wonderful picture
of the landscape ...
(Friedrich Hölderlin, 'The Walk')

Xianwei Zhu has developed into one of the most interesting landscape painters in recent years. In gestural-spontaneous painting acts he combines the ideal of the soul landscape in the sense of the German Romanticism, especially Caspar David Friedrich, with the philosophical insights of Zen: Mountain and river become one, in order to join again in the inner image of the viewer to the overall view. The look back to the future is directed at the magic of nature and aims at a conscious experience of our environment, which is increasingly threatened. The fact that Xianwei Zhu finds his motifs on the Danube or in the Chinese mountains is a reference to the real landscape. However, he is concerned with the fictional localization of an idea of nature that leads us to the spiritual maturity to really respect it. The painter makes use of literary as well as philosophical reflections from Friedrich Hölderlin to Martin Heidegger, always with regard to the great tradition of East Asian painting and philosophy.

The Chinese-German painter likes to travel with the ink box, has hiked the Danube valley drawing and has set his sights on the Hohentwiel as a motif - or was it a river and a mountain in China after all? Or memory? Xianwei Zhu's work is a process of self-location. Born in Qingdao, China, the painter, who completed his art studies both in his home country and in Stuttgart, evokes classical times to explore and secure his two binding cultural spaces. It is about home in a globalized reality. Xianwei Zhu initially evaded the feeling of the universally unhoused in a figurative way. From a partly witty, partly whimsical childlike motif that gave expression to wonder at a foreign world, the protagonists became increasingly adult, albeit less heroic than satirical, whether in the costume of a Napoleonesque emperor or a lonely wanderer over a sea of fog. The figures portrayed became smaller and smaller, the surroundings more grandiose. From there, it was not far to landscape painting, which now characterizes Xianweis Zhu's work.

What could be interpreted as an escape from the world in view of the post-Romantic search for traces and preoccupation with Zen philosophy is in fact a complex attempt to penetrate the essential structure of unshakable East Asian thought and the much-vaunted Romantic soul at the same time. That he combines both is the strength of his painting, which is precisely not backward-looking, but takes a post-modern perspective with the internalized images of earlier eras. To the Asian viewer, traditional images of nature come to mind; to the Central European viewer, Caspar David Friedrich comes to mind - both are far apart in space and time. But this hardly matters if one internalizes that, despite all recognizability, it is about the appropriation of a spiritual space. An aphorism of Friedrich's has become famous for the Romantic self-image: "The painter should not merely paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within himself. But if he sees nothing in himself, he should also refrain from painting what he sees before him." What appeared in his mind, however, was already impressive, not to say sublime. The arch-romanticist could hardly have missed Kant's and Schiller's discussion when he himself writes of the "feeling for the sublime in nature": "But to depict the most beautiful and the highest and the most moving would surely be the task of a true painter." He explicitly has neither "sky-high mountains" nor "endless abysses" in mind. Because of the introverted view demanded of the painter, it is precisely the invisible that appeals to him. "When a region is shrouded in mist, it appears larger, more sublime, and heightens the imagination and tenses the expectation: like a veiled girl. Eye and imagination are generally more attracted to the fragrant distance than to (what is) so near and clear before the eyes."

Xianwei Zhu moves completely freely in the nowhere between the Swabian Jura and Hsiao-Hsing; it is precisely from the vantage point of Asia that he is familiar with the sense-filled emptiness. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a contemporary of Caspar David Friedrich, dealt with it and developed a kind of negative theology in the best sense, which the romanticist ultimately has, too, since he lets his God appear only in and through the inwardly felt nature. Hegel interpreted the philosophy of East Asia as a "religion of being-in-itself", even if he was wrong in doing so: the Zen Buddhist world view opens itself without limits, de-innerizes itself downright, makes the center omnipresent by suspending it. The Japanese scholar Dôgen writes: "We must behold the whole universe in a single speck of dust." Even more: the speck of dust becomes the universe, and the universe becomes the speck of dust. The difference with European pantheism, which co-determines Romantic landscape painting, is that God becomes superfluous. Via Hegel, Schopenhauer and Heidegger, the Buddhist values of emptiness, nobody and nothing have nested in our Western present, but these thinkers always remain committed to the concept of substance.

Xianwei Zhu became at home in the reading of Western philosophers without abandoning Eastern thought. He knows, of course, that it remains a mental game. Painterly, he presents a romantically felt but insubstantial landscape. The fleeting brushstrokes only hint at it, reminiscent of the "Eight Views of Hsiao-Hsing" by the Zen painter Yü Chien: mountain and river, sky and earth merge, become one. According to the doctrine of Dôgen, everything flows - more sensually than the Western 'panta rhei' ("everything flows") propagated since antiquity: his blue mountains "wander", there is talk of the "flowing mountain". One has to imagine Xianwei Zhu's painting under such an image of Dôgen, which is not just metaphorical, but lived: "The mountains float above the clouds and wander through the sky. The peaks of the water are the mountains; the wandering of the mountains, up and down, is constantly happening on the water." With European eyes, we see a play of clouds in the mountains, with reflections in the water, causing a mountain to flow as well. With the eyes of the Zen expert, we see the mountain flowing not as the river, but as a river.

Xianwei Zhu's paintings also evolve, often in the direction of reading, the gaze flowing towards culminating mountain ranges or from clusters of trees into the distance, etc. The point, however, is to free oneself from classifications, to let the mountain become a river and ultimately wisdom. Xianwei Zhu reminds us of the "wang ji", the forgetting, thanks to which one reaches where one wants to go in the first place: whoever strives for something makes himself unfree, tenses up and possibly ends up on a wrong track. Only when one no longer thinks about it, one will reach the goal. Martin Heidegger illuminated a Zen anecdote in this sense: A Zen novice sees mountains and water in front of him; in an inner vision, as an advanced student, he begins to doubt that mountains are mountains and lakes are lakes - only as an enlightened person does he see mountains and waters again, but they are stripped of their being-ness. Mountain and river are no longer questioned in their immanence, as the old Chinese story of the "Ox and its Herdsman" suggests: "Yesterday, today, it is as it is. In the sky the sun rises and the moon sets. Outside the window, the mountain looms far away and the deep river flows." The fact that the huge moon in the reflection fits into the comparatively small lake fits well there. Images we encounter again and again in Xianwei Zhu's work. His tendency to restrained color variation, sometimes to monochromaticity, inspires the emptiness of the representation, but also promotes the invisible depth of space and resounding silence.

Xianwei Zhu has questioned the poetry of the Zen Buddhist Tang poet and hermit Han-Shan, as well as the German classic Friedrich Hölderlin, before the images of German Romanticism, and he has confronted them with East Asian ink painting. "People ask about the Hanshan path - / Hanshan? No path will lead you there! / Here the ice does not melt even late in summer, / In the fog the sun rises pale as the moon ...". Transformation is the magic word, an immersion in the landscape. Xianwei Zhu does not paint the landscapes as a backdrop of mountains, rivers, etc., but he seeks to merge with the landscape. This is even more evident in his action drawings with ink than in his paintings - especially when he applies them with a large brush on paper, inspired by traditional Asian or modern European music (such as John Cage's 1948 piece "In a Landscape"). In addition, he strove to see or reinvent both the Asian world of thought and the Romantic spirit through the lens of Martin Heidegger. The result is noticeable in the work of this commuter between worlds, which addresses the enduring strangeness of the contemporary sense of home just as much as it emphasizes the utopian nature of a concrete home. In his most recent work, Xianwei Zhu seeks a figurative expression for the absolute language of Friedrich Hölderlin, who hellenized his Swabian homeland in such a way that the reader finds himself in a dreamed-of faraway place. There is hardly any other German-language poet who could so somnambulistically put mountains, clouds, and waters into one and at the same time describe nearness and distance - as, for example, in the poem "Heimkunft," which begins as follows:

In the Alps it is still light night and the cloud,
Joyful poetry, it covers the yawning valley inside.
There, there the joking mountain air roars and falls,
Craggy down through the firs shines and fades a ray. ... Foreboding growth, for already, like lightning, the ancient
Water springs, the ground under the falling steams,
Echo sounds around, and the immense workshop
Move by day and night, sending gifts, the arm. ...

Hölderlin's pictures are of a captivating urgency and detachment at the same time. They are marked by a romantic melancholy, but at the same time they are illuminated by a cheerfulness that might also find its effect in Asia. In the poem "The Walk" - it is more of a wandering - the poet writes:

Her woods beautiful on the side,
Painted on the green slope,
Where I guide me around,
By sweet rest paid
For every thorn in my heart,
When my mind is dark,
For art and senses have tasted
Tasted from the beginning.
You lovely pictures in the valley,
Gardens and trees, for example,
And then the narrow path,
The brook hardly to see,
How beautiful from a serene distance
The glorious picture shines
Of the landscape, which I like
Visit' in weather mild.
The deity kindly guided
At first with blue,
Then prepared with clouds,
Formed arching and gray,
With scorching lightnings and rolls
Of thunder, with charm of image,
With beauty that welled
From the source of original image.

Hölderlin conveys a modern feeling of nature, which turns the innermost of the ego outward and shows the brokenness of his/her/our time. Xianwei Zhu, however, tries to visualize Hölderlin's poetry with his own cosmos, fed by the Asian pictorial tradition. The sometimes tiny, almost vanishing figures resemble messengers from the past, but also testify on the one hand to the existential nothingness in the whole of threatened nature, and on the other hand to the nothingness that has freed itself from personal striving. The romantic-pantheistic world and the emptiness of Zen transfigure themselves into the unity of a "painted philosophy", as Peter O. Chotjewitz wrote about Xianwei Zhu's work. Time- and space-less, Xianwei Zhu sets out in search of himself and of his at times doubly errant world, ultimately approaching the void with a serenity, even playful appropriation.

Günter Baumann / art historian/Gallery owner , Schlichtenmaier Gallery, Stuttgart, Germany



Who takes the Cold Mountain Road
takes a road that never ends
the rivers are long and piled with rocks
the streams are wide and choked with grass
it’s not the rain that makes the moss slick
and it’s not the wind that makes the pines moan
who can get past the tangles of the world
and sit with me in the clouds (Transl.: Bill Porter)

These words were penned by the Chinese poet Hanshan. This name is a pseudonym, it means “cold mountain”. The poet lived in southeast China in the 9th century and was named after the mountain he lived on as a hermit. He wandered through its landscapes tirelessly and left his poems on rock faces, stones, and trees.

Xianwei Zhu knows Hanshan well. The poet and the mountain. He came across the poems and was immediately fascinated. He decided to travel to that mountain and wander there, to be nearer to the poet and his poems. The mountain is a metaphor for the self. Hanshan’s poems are like a meditative process, they are like walking a road to seek one’s inner self. This also goes for Xianwei Zhu’s pictures. The quest for identity and ego, the search for one’s own self connect the painter and the poet. Additionally Xianwei Zhu has recognised an attractive link here to Western Romantic landscape paintings.

The first impression you get from pictures of the Romantics and those of Xianwei Zhu is that a natural landscape is represented. Similarly the first impression on reading Hanshan’s poetry: it describes nature in the mountains. And yet, both poetry and painting deal with so much more: a mental landscape, an inner feeling, an inner awakening. “The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself.” (Caspar David Friedrich)

Nature, landscape, and mountains have always held a great attraction to humankind. Nature becomes landscape through the conscious act of human seeing, becomes a very personal idea of that landscape. A landscape touches us at our core. It carries meaning as nature, as distance from civilisation, or even as an idea of paradise. On the one hand, a landscape seems familiar, on the other hand, it remains unapproachably strange in its autonomy and independence, its savageness, or even its eeriness. Especially the mountains are an ideal projection surface for wishes, dreams but also nightmares.

In the 19th century, people made a commitment to individuality and to liberty and began to feel estranged from nature. The Romantic individual went on a quest for that seemingly lost unity. Poets and artists saw nature as a source of passionate feeling and gave it a metaphysical dimension. In their belief the “grandeur” of nature embraces a transcendental character; it is supposed to evoke reverence for creation. But nature is also a mirror of human emotions, of an inner image.

But what kinds of landscape do we see here before us? They are inner images, but they remind us of Chinese landscapes and landscape paintings, as well as of landscapes in our climes and their Romantic renderings. Xianwei Zhu is interested in the dialogue between Chinese and European landscape painting, their respective philosophies as well as their techniques. He blurs the lines between Western and Far Eastern traditions. He goes hiking and mountaineering in Germany and Switzerland and incorporates these personal impressions into his paintings.

Here we have the Romantic view of landscape, the feeling of awe at the grandeur and immensity of nature that causes reverence and terror. There, the Chinese idea of landscape that understands nature as a whole and thus painting as an attempt to grasp its growing and fading, to understand and depict its spirituality. Similar approaches, joined in Xianwei Zhu’s wonderful pictures. His paintings appear strange and familiar at the same time. This is what constitutes their great strength, this is what makes them contemporary and current. We are more similar than we think we are.

We are likewise fascinated by the artistic quality of Zhu’s pictures. His open brushstroke continually moves along the thin line between representational and abstract rendering. The artist creates sketchy landscapes, perceptible as such only through miniature figures that make them concrete. Enormous nature, small humans: Zhu quotes the archetype of the Romantic landscape, certainly. Then again this setting renders a mystical, even fairy-tale-like character to his pictures, as many figurative details like houses or strange apparatuses will only be discerned on closer inspection. The paintings seem like fleeting memories, neither comprehensible nor intelligible. With a tender, yet strong style and a reduced palette of blues, browns, and greys, the artist creates atmospherically tense colour spaces. Earth and landscape emerge from air and light and seem to disappear in the delicate haze only a moment later.

We thus also find a great melancholy in these pictures. Vast nature, mist-shrouded mountains, and a sometimes morbid beauty remind us of the transience and mortality of all being. And most of all: the lonesome individual thrown into this world, including their dark sides, the abyss lurking within them.

I want to close with this poem by Hermann Hesse:

In the Fog
Strange to walk in the fog!
Every bush and stone is lonely,
no tree can see the other,
each one is alone.

The world was full of friends
when my life was still light;
now that the fog is falling,
no one is visible anymore.

Truly, no one is wise
who does not know the darkness
that quietly and inescapably
separates him from everything.

Strange to walk in the fog!
Life is loneliness.
No person knows the other,
each one is alone.
(Transl.: James Wright)

Günther Oberhollenzer /art historian/Curator State Gallery of Lower Austria, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Krems, Austria