Published  15/07/2011

On Top of Two Empires – Xu Longsen

On Top of Two Empires – Xu Longsen

Museum of Roman Civilization, Rome
22 June–24 July 2011


Xu Longsen: On Top of Two Empires, opened at the Museum of Roman Civilization in Rome on the summer solstice this year. The magnificent, imperial grandeur of the nexus of the entire Roman Empire formed an unlikely backdrop for an awe-inspiring body of work from one of China’s leading landscape painters.

Dialogue was a stated intention of the exhibition for Xu Longsen’s work, juxtaposing the delicate but vast works on paper, massive scrolls, against the authoritative power of Roman sculpture and the monumentality of Roman architecture. Historically Chinese art has played an important role for Western artists, providing “a culture of synthesis, spirituality and contemplation”;1 In the 19th century, Orientalism, a generic mix of Chinese and Japanese culture, provided a new angles of seeing, and challenged the West’s one-point perspective. Throughout the 20th century there are important examples of artists such as Mark Rothko whose experience of Eastern spirituality enabled him to produce an abstraction that broke fundamentally from Western tenets of art.

As one travelled across Rome, past the Colosseum and the Pantheon, the temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome, to the Museum of Roman Civilization, Rome a building that was created as a permanent Exhibition of Roman Culture, one was taking a journey firstly of anticipation, then to be taken aback not so much by incongruity, but by an intriguing juxtaposition. The installation was superb. The Museum of Roman Civilisation was the eventual product of the Universal Exhibition of Rome, planned for 1942, to celebrate 20 years of Fascism. Because of the war, building work was interrupted and only completed in the 1950s, when FIAT offered to take on the completion of the building. The Museum of Roman Culture thus came into existence in 1955.

On Top of Two Empires takes place during the Chinese Culture Year in Italy. The municipal government of Rome hosts the exhibition in collaboration with the gallery Beyond Art Space in Beijing. The solo exhibition of Xu Longsen in a building built to celebrate Fascism and funded by a car manufacturer, housing a permanent display of the Roman Civilisation; might not seem a perfect recipe for success, but it is magnificent. The hang required massive ceilings: the paper of the vast scrolls creates a vertical axis with every piece, elegantly juxtaposed against Roman stone walls, realistic sculptures of the human form which normally dominate the large space. The museum’s collection is laid out over 12,000 square metres. The rooms are ten metres high and the total wall space is more than three kilometres. The first rooms tell the story of the history of Rome, from its origins to the 6th century AD; followed by a section devoted to Christianity. The rest of the museum documents Roman culture in its various aspects, both those related to public life, and those belonging to the every day world. There are reconstructions of parts of buildings, entire architectural structures and towns.

This is the detailed narrative or reconstruction of history. Yet in each of his ink paintings on paper scrolls, Xu Longsen transports us to Classical China, where he evokes stillness and understatement in the presentation of a landscape devoid of human figures or the paraphernalia of daily life. Human presence is, by contrast, implied not stated; the human spirit is insinuated through the delicate application of ink on paper, calligraphy on a vast scale, with its connotations in recent drawing research of art as exploration, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. The first works as one enters the museum are three scrolls, each with a single tree, as curator Angelo Capasso writes:

The Chinese religious system is an amalgamation of three religions. Xu Longsen opens [his] exhibition in Rome with three symbolic figures: “Bodhi tree” is the tree of Buddhism, the “Phoenix tree” is the tree of Taoism, and “Cypress” is the tree of Confucianism. The tree is traditionally the symbol of life: the self meets the microcosm and the macrocosm, the One and All, is the link between Earth and Heaven, from the roots to the earth to the top of the shoots tended towards the sun, the tree becomes an imaginary bridge between physical and metaphysical.2

The vast majestic scrolls (which require the artist to work on a ladder) suspended from the ceiling infuse the space with a curious sense of hope. Presented in a vast public space itself represents a departure in exhibition practice. The content of these works and the manner in which they prompt comparison and dialogue between Classical China and Ancient Rome ensures that the dialogue is not limited to history but can challenge the hiatus in European cultural dialogue and notions of modernity. The Platonic ideal of mimesis over “techne” or skill was used to explain abstract art in the early part of the 20th century. Platonic ideals now, can be given a new impetus in the context of Chinese art, in the relationship between concept and language. Gao Shiming points out that early theories of Chinese landscape painting emphasized the unity between the landscape and its representation:

The mysterious landscape and the pleasurable painted scroll had to be in a structurally consistent, symbiotic relationship with one another, and the source of the painting’s essence naturally occurred as a result of reading the image’s mystery and appreciating its nature. Landscape painting was a certain kind of recollection. Painters [had] to rely on memories, in the process of their work. They had to record the trail of their memories, and give the memories themselves form, as opposed to their origins. …Painting is remembering, viewing a painting is also remembering; it is a visualization and realization of memory; or even more it provides a memory with its own realm of reality. The former brings nature into the painting, the latter returns the painting itself to nature.3

Xu Longsen’s art practice leaves no room for accident or ambiguity, yet a sense of space in physical terms can be seen to resonate with mediation, order and purpose. A silence draws the viewer, where layers of grey ink allude to the movements in music and in nature itself. Without obvious borders, the abstracted forms in Xu’s paintings ascend to the mountain peaks, where light bathes the soft visual forms. There, clouds, shadows, aspects of night and day, surprise and reverie, constantly amaze and inspire with a spiritual force. Adapting a classical language, the paintings of Xu are also forceful statements about contemporary society, addressing global issues of great urgency. Responding as well, to superficial notions of Chinese exotic, that seem to be seducing the western art market, Xu Longsen expresses his rejection of the attitudes of artists such as Ai Weiwei who destroy classical artifacts to illustrate political views, and to the vast number of artists in the burgeoning industry in China who are determined to replace old forms for new as a matter of course. The monumental quality of Xu’s landscape painting, its majesty and dynamism calls into question contemporary Chinese culture and in turn questions the nature of contemporary global culture. The Director of the National Art Museum of China, Fan Di’an, observes: “the Chinese artist Xu Longsen's landscapes bring the visual power between softness and strength. In the essence of the civilization, the East and the West have a consistent place, such as a reverence for the universe and the earth, the pursuit of the extensive veneration and erudition. Xu Longsen landscapes inherited the feelings of the Song dynasty for the great mountains and the rivers in landscapes, but also absorbed the Chinese philosophy of Heaven and Man, which continue to learn, so his landscapes are the essence of the Chinese landscape painting and his constant strong creativity.”4

There is a form of poetry, in the spatial configuration, of Xu Longsen’s well- cultivated and classically inspired work. It is no surprise that poet Yang Lian and Xu Longsen, who met in March 2011 for the first time, share an energy and vision that is largely unique anywhere in the world. In Rome I interviewed Xu Longsen and Yang Lian, who also acted as interpreter. For Yang, poetry occupies a literary visual space. He cites the example:

Where two sentences in classical poetry form a pair, with the same number of exactly parallel sound structures, they are visually very beautiful:

Autumn water and the long sky, share the same colour
The colour of twilight, and the lonely bird, flying together.

The two sentences are very visual and the same resonance can be experienced or found in the landscape painting of Xu Longsen.5

The power of Xu’s landscape painting is achieved through a masterly use of spatial and musical composition. This can be seen to achieve something of a breakthrough in visual meaning, an energy that is normally ignored. It gives language a new meaning and is key to the potential for the poetic visual dialogue to challenge European models of modernity. Xu Longsen’s fresh experiments find their origin in Classical Chinese art and philosophy. Gao Shiming sees the “mission of landscape painting is to renew the spirit and courage of one’s fellow man and to extend anew the vitality of nature, absorbing the natural into its composition and expression…  This mission, if carried out, is where the potential greatness of painting is found. It is also the underlying order at the heart of the entire Chinese painting tradition”.6

Xu Longsen was born in Shanghai in 1956. He studied sculpture, calligraphy and painting. According to Capasso, he has, since 2001, “virtually initialised a revolution when he began to concentrate on landscape painting”.7 His landscape painting is characterised by the use of traditional methods of calligraphy – the intricate and subtle technique of pen and ink, but on a greatly magnified scale. A work that might historically be viewed closely, in Xu’s hands assumes an architectural scale. He is on one hand reviving the essential aspects of Chinese painting, but far from creating mimesis, his inspirational works challenge the Chinese people’s view of nature, which is itself has changed dramatically in the past century, and also further in recent years. Against a background of environmentally devastating policies under Mao, and more recently the profligate use of outmoded industrial methods that create severe pollution, the awe-inspiring beauty in Xu Longsen’s work is a stark reminder and indeed a judgement call for a civilisation that has the economic power in global terms to wreak havoc and destruction as a consequence of transformational economic policies and development. “The error of contemporary landscape painting lies not only in the decline of painting as an art, but even more in the perishing of the landscape itself, and in the loss of what it means to experience it.” In relation to Xu Longsen’s painting, Gao seeks to clarify Nature:

Nature is not limited to the mountains and waters; nor is it a collection amounting to the whole of creation. Nature is the movement of the cosmos, the genesis of genesis; it is creation and change. Nature has “The Way” within it, and yet there is no way to define it. The process of modeling something after nature must therefore hinge on the whole of creation – the what it has come to be, and the way it continues to transform.
Inspiration is the basis of the relationship between us.8

Although he is considered a master in art circles in China, the work of Xu Longsen has been only exhibited several times in the West. “Xu Longsen has revived the essential characteristics of Chinese painting – forceful and unrestrained, candid and broad-minded. Over the past 500 years, these characteristics were gradually lost, because of the isolated scholarly culture of the Ming and Qing and the arrival of modern colleges. But in Xu Longsen’s creations, they have been retrieved once again. And yet, he does not stop at achieving Zong Bing’s itinerant state of “Sit and study the landscape;” he goes further, “taking an active stance and responding to the contemporary public space”.9 Xu Longsen is aware of the danger of being swallowed up by tradition. “The practitioner who imitates nature without paying the same attention to his internal life will not succeed in creating a living tradition.” “Adding to tradition”, he says, “will only be achieved if the artist is to recognise the paucity of purely conceptual ambitions.” The regeneration of metaphysical meaning in landscape painting can, he believes, start in China: not a second-hand language of theory, but “my idea of perfection”. There is, he asserts, a profound difference between classical and contemporary, for “landscape is the culture of the global world – taking the local and finding in it the key to something much bigger”.10

A continuous dialogue with self, and universal ideas is central to Xu’s art practice, where every part of a work must have a perfect structure within a bigger piece. Very few Chinese artists, Yang Lian points out, achieve this level of thought. Xu was first a collector of Chinese classical art and antiquities, through which he gained a great grounding and understanding of Chinese tradition and history. He also absorbed the values of the Classical literati tradition, in Shanghai. Like Yang he became an artist and thinker during the Cultural Revolution. Describing his education as largely self-taught, he explains that it was a case of self-questioning, during an oppressive time that led to a “Nightmare Inspiration”, precipitating a massive departure from normality. “We have to ask, question, and answer ourselves; judge the originality and quality of thinking from an international perspective. Is that language enough for you?” In his late forties he found his real source of inspiration in the writings of Confucius. A study of 300 years of Chinese philosophy and history, led him to conclude that culture and life had become separated from the past and from ancient Chinese culture. There is ennui and sadness in Xu’s painting, and an unerring commitment to a philosophical life of great import. “The study of creation, of new experience and ideas, pushing boundaries in intellectual terms. An artist is a dictator who cannot be controlled. He is therefore the enemy of Mao. An artist must make all his own decisions, make a spiritual journey”. Before setting out to paint, Xu Longsen follows his set rules; he sits, observes, meditates, makes tea, follows established rituals pertaining to cleanliness, purity of body and mind, a classical minimalism, to separate himself from outer or public life. His most important works are unknown to him at the time of completion. In Rome, numerous people approached Xu Longsen to say that it was impossible to create work such as his, in Italy. Conceptual art and Arte Povera have run their course, perhaps, in visual terms11. The exhibition On Top of Two Empires, has precipitated a profound dialogue, that will be ongoing.


1. Angelo Capasso, Xu Longsen: On Top of Two Worlds,Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome, 2011: 16.

2. Ibid: 18.

3. Gao Shiming, No Mountain Too High:The Crisis of Landscape and Xu Longsen’s Outsized Shanshui Experiments,

4. Fan Di’an, “Inheriting Tradition and Embracing Modernity”, catalogue, op cit: 30.

5. Yang Lian, interviewed by Janet McKenzie, Rome 22 June 2011.

6. Gao, op cit.

7. Capasso, op cit: 17.

8. Gao, op cit.

9. Ibid.

10. Xu Longsen, interviewed by Janet McKenzie, translated by Yang Lian, Rome, 22 June 2011.

11. Ibid.


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