REFLECTION on water, peony flowers and ancient canal towns — all seem very distant from the hustle and bustle of life in a big city.
And for artist Lu Jiren, this is an eternal dream always haunting on his mind — and the mere reason why he spent five years on a project titled “The New Landscapes in Pingjiang” that features 40 paintings.
The ancient 2-kilometer-long Pingjiang Road in Suzhou still retains its old flavor. The pebble road, the bridge and the ancient wells all conjure up artistic images. For many people, Pingjiang Road is one of the last places where you can see and feel the real Suzhou.
Although he’s not a native of Suzhou, artist Lu was born in Huzhou, another historic city near Shanghai.
“In fact, my father learned to do silk business in Suzhou when he was a teenager, and all my family members are able to speak the local dialect, including myself,” says Lu with a smile. “I feel I’m very closely connected to Suzhou.
“I try to capture every detail of the road,” he says. “The bridge and the old wells, the ancient trees and even the passersby are all fascinating for me.”
Some of the paintings in “The New Landscapes in Pingjiang,” together with some of the artist’s other heavy-colored ink-wash paintings, will be unveiled at the Shanghai Gallery on the Bund from May 18 to June 12.
Currently residing in New York, Lu says he shuttled between New York and Suzhou frequently for this project. “Shanghai, Suzhou and New York are my tale of cities,” he says with a chuckle.
Growing up in Shanghai, Lu as a boy was tutored by He Tianjian (1891-1977), one of China’s most renowned calligraphers and ink-wash painters in the 1950s. Later he entered Shanghai Art College which has nurtured a cluster of big names such as Chen Yifei (1946-2005) and Chen Danqing.
Equipped with a strong traditional technique, Lu decided to “have a look at the outside world” in 1981, which was a trend among many young artists and intellectuals at that time shortly after China’s opening-up policy.
Four years later, Lu graduated from the Art Students League of New York, established in 1875, which was also the alma mater of heavyweights Mu Xin and Chen Danqing.
Upon graduation, like many of his Chinese peers, Lu first entered an art restoration company to earn a living, and his first assignment was a Rembrandt painting.
“Can you imagine how I felt at the time when being given such a masterpiece?” he asks, his voice strong with excitement. “I could only say that I was so, so lucky.”
After settling down with his family in New York, Lu switched his role back to a professional artist.
Today, the Western influence on him is obvious, whether in the use of colors or the arrangement. Perhaps that’s why his depiction of the canal towns in the southern part of China can always ring a bell with the viewers, whether through the scenes along the stone roads or from the riverside.
The artist endeavors with every brushstroke to reflect the harmony and serenity that wafts over the towns. His superb technique is especially obvious in those reflections on the water — a very difficult task when using rice paper.
“There is no secret in this,” Lu notes. “I just adopt some Western painting techniques and have a patient heart.”
Lu’s works usually take several months to finish.
“I am not the kind of artist who knows how to be lazy while creating,” Lu says. “I really enjoy every moment in my painting. I have an inexplicable attachment to those old canal towns.”
His enthusiasm for the subject has been rewarded. In 1996, Lu’s “Quiet Village” won the Grand Prize at the American Artists Professional League while his “Early Spring” was awarded a gold medal from the Allied Artists of America.
“Believe it or not, many Westerners, even though they haven’t been to these towns, are touched by my paintings,” he says. “I guess they might see a true Oriental beauty in my works.”
Because of Lu’s great efforts in promoting Chinese canal towns, Shanghai’s Fengjing Town in suburban Jinshan District established a showroom for the artist in 2011.
“I never think that traditional subjects or techniques are clichés,” Lu says. “It’s true that some modern styles do prevail in the art community, but I am not a ‘blind follower.’ What I believe art is about is elegance, beauty and day-to-day life.”
“The New Landscapes in Pingjiang”
Date: May 18-June 12, 10am-7pm
Venue: Shanghai Gallery, 429 Zhongshan Rd E1
Q: Water is mostly reflected in your paintings. Why are you so obsessed with that?
A: Have you seen one of my paintings featuring the river scene along the Pingjiang Road on rainy days?
Actually I didn’t paint rain directly, but added some raindrops on the surface of the river.
For me, water is closely linked with wind. The depth of the silhouette on the river, the texture and the ripple should be carefully considered.
Some viewers, after seeing one of my big works featuring a waterfall which is now displayed at the Radisson Blu Plaza Xing Guo Hotel Shanghai, said that they could even hear the sound of the water. For me, this is a best compliment.
Q: Your favorite subject is the canal towns in the southern part of China, but actually it is not new as many artists have done the same thing on oil, rice paper or even porcelain, what distinguishes your work?
A: When I came to Pingjiang Road for the first time, I was immediately taken. It was such a beautiful road. So I wanted to do this project. I am a diligent, or maybe not so clever, artist.
Xie Zhiliu (1910-97), one of the masters in China’s modern art history, once commented when seeing my paintings: “Today, there are few artists who could bear the solitude and paint patiently and seriously like you. I ought to give your buttock a reward for being able to sit so long on the chair.”
Q: What’s your understanding of realistic style?
A: Realism doesn’t refer to a direct copy of a photo. Realistic paintings should have more freedom and imagination.
Some of my friends, after seeing my paintings of Pingjiang Road, joked that they never before found the road so beautiful. For me, the curiosity and naivete to observe the surroundings are critical in realistic work.
Q: What influenced you most when you went abroad?
A: I learned many things that can’t be learned in China and saw many things that can’t been seen here. Especially after I restored nearly 1,000 masterpieces — from Rembrandt to Picasso, I have a deeper understanding of the Western paintings. My motto in art is ‘Never repeat others.’ I must have my own personal art language.
Q: You are one of the earliest Chinese artists who furthered studies in the US after China’s opening-up policy, was it very difficult at the beginning?
A: Without such experience, I couldn’t have created these paintings. In New York, I washed bowls and restored antiques.
Although I was not rich at the time, I was still hospitable for those newcomers to the Big Apple from China. I introduced jobs and friends to them, and sometimes provided accommodation for them.
Many asked me which city is better? Shanghai or New York? My answer is adding New York and Shanghai and dividing them, then this is a perfect city. I never regretted what I have gone through.