Marc Bollansee About He Wenjue

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About He Wenjue


He Wenjue was born in Hunan, a place of great natural beauty in south-central China which is famous for its Dongting Lake, the second largest freshwater lake in China. The artist grew up at the riverside and therefore water and swimming have been part of his life for a long time. When he took up painting seriously in 1996 he naturally started painting water.


For He Wenjue water is just a symbol for any living space, but its turbulence and instability are metaphors for the general instability in society at large while the struggling swimmer is a metaphor for the individual who has so many difficulties to find his place in society and so desperately aspires to freedom. Thick brushwork is used by the painter to create tension between the water and the swimmer, while thinner brushwork is used to emphasize the power and the vast expanse of the water which in turn downsizes the swimmer.


Chinese artists are known to try and fully explore certain natural themes like mountains or rivers until they feel they have exhausted all their inherent possibilities. Likewise He Wenjue has painted water for almost 10 years but already in 2003 he felt he could not bring his series to a higher level anymore and consequently started looking for new themes.


The artist grew up in cinema and watched all the best movies in his youth, so another natural theme presented itself to him but it took him a long time to imagine the proper technical way to paint movies. He has stated that he believes nobody has ever systematically depicted movie images in art. However the reality is that many artists have been influenced by movies or have depicted film stills, although not always with purely painterly means. The American Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks” done in 1942 looks like a film scene and it is a known fact that Hopper was an avid moviegoer who has even anticipated the look of “film noir” with his paintings. Another American, John Baldessari incorporated images and text from the advertising and movie industries in his photo-based art in the sixties. He appropriated movie stills, manipulating, editing and cropping them in conjunction with texts. Andy Warhol’s silkscreen techniques allowed him to transfer appropriated images, like film stills directly on the canvas. The contemporary Belgian artist, Luc Tuymans, one of today’s most influential painters makes extensive use of film techniques, like cropping, framing, sequencing and close-ups.


Like He Wenjue’s works some of his paintings tend to represent abstract emotions that are obtained by using blurry effects. Another contemporary artist, the German Johannes Kahrs takes photos and film stills as the starting point for his paintings but reinterprets them and creates a new fiction by shifting tones and gradations and often leaving contours blurred. Consequently Kahrs radically changes the meaning of the original film still.


He Wenjue takes a different approach. From 2006 onwards he seriously started to paint movies focusing mainly on the themes that fascinate him. He considers that themes featured in movies are broad, including war, politics, human nature, eroticism and culture. All these themes are a reflection of present society and are visually extremely powerfully represented in films, especially with the help of state-of-the art technology. They also represent the social developments and historical changes which are the most important criteria for the artist in the selection of his movies. Analyzing his artistic process we discover a double selection process which operates on two different levels, a more intellectual one for the selection of the movie and a more emotional one for the selection of the scene. The movie he selects contains an historical event, a story or a societal drama that he considers to be important and that moves him at the same time. Asian classic films are of course clear favourites and masterpieces like “Red Sorghum”, “Raise the Red Lantern”, ”In the Mood of Love”, “Curse of the Golden Flower” feature prominently among them. Afterwards He Wenjue needs to select a scene, to select from a pool of images many of which are ingrained in Asian collective memory. The artist does not want to add banal imagery to all the images we already get flooded by on our TV screens, on the Internet or in other media. On the contrary he wants to be ultra selective and find an image that fits in with his painterly mood and his emotions. It is obviously an approach that is totally contradictory to the typically strong images painted or photographed by most contemporary Chinese artists, which are culled from the multitude of media distributed images that strike them.


He Wenjue’s double-tier selection is therefore an intellectual, spiritual and emotional process that is unique in Chinese contemporary art and reminds us of the fact that there two important things in contemporary art: intellectual content and emotion. He Wenjue clearly appropriates the content, but makes small alterations to the meaning by using different treatments on figures, backgrounds or spatial relationships between figures. On the other hand he makes a significant contribution on the emotional side. With him, we are far away from adulated western contemporary painters like Peter Doig or Gerhard Richter who sometimes merely seem to copy postcards or photographs without imbuing them with their own personal touch. He Wenjue clearly has his emotional universe and knows what he wants. Of course his approach is totally different from Kahrs’approach who totally changes the meaning of the film still and whose work is fascinating in a different way. In both cases there is however a major artistic intervention that makes a contribution to the perception of the world we live in.

The contrast between the two approaches illustrates the fact that western art is still rather conceptual, while Asian art is freer, more direct and spontaneous and probably more in touch with contemporary life.


He Wenjue’s movie series just started and he will keep exploring it for a while and try to develop his skills. He has too much respect for Chinese film directors like Zhang Yimou to want to radically change the meaning of a scene and considers that a transfer of medium from the screen to the canvas suffices to legitimate a work of art.

When he starts a painting he seldom knows where it is going to end up as the artwork keeps changing according to his psychological and emotional situation. Especially the blurred and destroyed images incarnate his feelings when he paints. Most of his heroines like the iconic actresses Gong Li or Maggie Zhang have a melancholic look because of this blurry effect. Technically He Wenjue knows the art of filming very intimately and he is aware of the difference between a sequence, a still, the absence of motion, the absence of sound or narrative. Therefore he wants to encapsulate a maximum of feelings, poetry and aesthetics into his paintings. In his film series his technique is flatter than in his water series and warm and saturated red-brown or blue colours often add to the delicacy, the elegance and the romantic temperament of his paintings.


In 2008 He Wenjue started to paint a series about the evolution of the cosmopolitan and historical city of Shanghai, from the thirties up to the bustling contemporary city we know now. The Chinese movie industry originates from Shanghai. He Wenjue has paid special attention to techniques and film montage to present the development of the city of Shanghai. There will be about thirty paintings in the series that will illustrate old Shanghai like in “Shanghai Triad”, the stock fever like in “Shanghai Fever” or the emotional struggle of young people featured in “A Long Night in Shanghai”.


The artist will also continue his ongoing movie series and is thinking about a next theme which will focus on the four Chinese masterpieces with drama characteristics. ”Dream of the Red Chamber” is one of them. He Wenjue’s intense involvement and intimate fusion with filmmaking give credence to his statement that he is the only painter in the world to systematically depict film scenes. It is one of the beautiful stories about interaction between major art forms that will enrich our lives in the following decades. 


Marc Bollansee


June 2008