Cui Ruzhuo is one of the most expensive living Chinese artists. His works have been acquired by world's leading museums and private collections. This autumn, St. Petersburg audience gets a unique opportunity to view over 200 works by the artist, including his famous polyptychs spreading to up to six meters. All of the works presented at the Manege were created from 2011 up to present time.
An excerpt from the catalogue to Cui Ruzhuo's exhibition 'The Glosiness of Uncarved Jade' at St. Petersburg Manege ...
Playing a game of Go
Cui Ruzhuo scheduled a meeting with me at his exhibition in the Forbidden City, in the palace of Chinese emperors. To be honest, I was surprised to discover that a living artist would be accorded the honour of holding a solo exhibition in such a place. Given the extremely hierarchical nature of Chinese society and its scrupulous deference to ritual, such a development appeared simply inconceivable.
The long wait was followed by long welcomes. A short energetic man with a toothbrush moustache and a pixieish air stood before me. I took note of his boots made from crocodile leather and his embossed cane – attributes attesting not so much to evident prosperity as to a slightly exaggerated and filmic concept of elegance. The museum was closed on this particular day. Consequently we were able to converse in peace and quiet.
Surrounded by numerous followers, we moved leisurely through the scrolls with monochrome landscapes, only occasionally animated by flashes of colour. The glass through which we considered the nature that he had depicted in various states and during different seasons appeared, on the one hand, to be simply a transparent barrier, separating daily fuss and bother from eternity, and on the other hand accorded the works museum significance.
I already knew a little about him. I knew, for example, that he had lived at some point in the USA and felt that it would only be natural to talk to him in English. However, it soon became clear that this was not the best idea. One had to talk to Master Cui in his native language, albeit through an interpreter.
For a long time, China was a closed-off country – the majority of people were not even supposed to have a passport. However, after successful reforms, which have changed the face of the country and the lives of millions of its inhabitants forever, the Chinese have spread all over the world. The international experience that they have acquired abroad has compensated for the shortfall in social bonds and experience of communications missing at home in their vast but utterly hermetic country (it is understandable that Cui Ruzhuo’s career also developed along the standard communist trajectory). At the same time, they have retained a strong national identity and in any country have tried to continue acting as if they were still “back home”.
I was standing before a man, who is on the one hand closely tied to national art, with its traditions of portraying nature dating back thousands of years. On the other hand, he understands the techniques for attracting the viewer’s attention and knows full well the concept of artistic effect. He has an excellent understanding of abstract art and how Picasso and Pollock created their works. He is in intellectual and emotional balance, and knows how to impress a European. When I asked how he creates his works, he responded that he used the traditional (Guohua) technique and literally drew with his hand, applying the Zhimo technique: he does not always require the mediation of a brush – his hand becomes a more emotional instrument.
The landscapes were endless. Later on in the evening, already back in his house, he showed me a 60-metre scroll that he had created for his daughter’s birthday. Asked how long it had taken to complete this work, he answered honestly: “Three months!” And then he began showing his books. They would be brought out one by one and this process also seemed endless. He named his teachers, Chinese artists, whom I naturally had never heard of, with the exception of Qi Baishi, who was well known in the USSR. He was clearly proud of the traditions that he is continuing, and is not in the least concerned about the uniformity of these landscapes apparent to any European. At the same time, it was clear that he is well informed about the secrets of contemporary art and understands such strategies, and indeed finds them interesting.
Cui showed me an enormous album with sketches: it was the architectural design of a building, which will include a school for artists, his own dwelling and studio. He will live, work and teach here – he has come up with the idea of establishing his own empire. Understandably, this is the right approach politically — in China such initiatives are supported in every possible way. Everything related to publicity, openness and the engagement of young people in art is welcomed by all branches of the Chinese authorities. However, it is more important that in doing everything on his own, he is trying to expand the space around him.
In traditional Chinese art, you cannot make a mistake. The artist should hone his or her skills over a long time in order to master precisely the perspective, draw the only right line, find accurate tonal coordination and finally combine the fragments in a single whole. Traditional Chinese artists make no effort to portray nature realistically, but set themselves instead a far more grandiose and ambitious goal – to accord nature a symbolic meaning. This is practically impossible for an outsider and in particular an idle observer to understand in Chinese art. I don't know of a single European who has worked in the Guohua technique, as mastery is attained as a result of long and painstaking work and an as it were intrinsic genetic link with the item being depicted. This skill is transferred not only through hands and eyes, but through blood as well. Here precision is essential. Precision in everything – precision of drawing and precision of movement. They hold the key to successful work. Ink and paper do not tolerate mistakes. However, this does not mean in any way that the apparently extremely rational, or one might even go far as to say calculating, art is not emotional – in Cui's works it borders on expression. This expression, amalgamating ancient traditions and acute modernity, combined with primeval force, is altering long-standing European perceptions of Chinese painting.
It should be noted here that Chinese art is revered, known, collected and purchased first and foremost in China itself. However, one could probably say the same about other countries and peoples; notwithstanding the globalisation and internationalisation of the art market, all the same everyone tends to focus primarily on national art. Collectors and simply art enthusiasts buy first and foremost works by their own national artists. In China this is particularly evident. In actual fact, the capitalisation of Chinese art is attributable namely to this factor: rich Chinese have bought and continue to buy willingly numerous works by local artists — leading to stratospheric prices. And Cui Ruzhuo has become one such popular artist on the market. In other words, he has become an expensive artist, and in modern art this may be called the key factor.
He is an elderly man, and this is also very important in China, where age is respected, regardless of current ideological attitudes and the nature of the regime. It goes without saying that he is a traditionalist, and the history of Chinese art going back centuries stands behind him. At the same time, he is open to all developments in global contemporary art. Finally he is an excellent strategist. Chinese are in general excellent strategists: they always think about the long term, patiently and methodically attaining their plans. They take their time reaching their goals and are tolerant in all areas, other than alcohol consumption. And there are so many of them that they are compelled to compete with each other. And here only the very strongest survive, including in art.
Why is this exhibition of interest to us? In the succession of waterfalls, forests, bamboo groves, precipitous cliffs and reedy river valleys the spectator will see the real China, a land whose beauty and elegance you will never tire of admiring and that will constantly surprise you. This exhibition is a sophisticated game of Go that the master is playing with the public, transposing the stones with elegant and measured movements, leaving the spectator at a loss as to his own profound plans, and wins effortlessly, virtually without looking at the board, overcoming bewilderment or incomprehension by his expressions of pure joy.
Today we are more closely connected to China than ever before, and this tie is even stronger than in the late 1940s-early 1950s. Geographically and mentally, Russia finds itself in the middle between East and West. And that is why we are equally interested in Western intellectual and Eastern meditative art. And Cui Ruzhuo combines the expression inherent in contemporary Western art with ancient Eastern wisdom.
When you are in China, you feel as if you are on a completely different planet. The Chinese live and think differently. As a society and community they have experienced a very large, serious and complex history. And we cannot remain indifferent to developments there. Knowledge and understanding of our Eastern neighbours is important not only in the artistic, but is also the geopolitical, or if you like, geo-philosophical context. And the new level of links and their rapid growth, and level of depth and scope require a completely different approach – attentive study, flexibility in perceptions and a real readiness for dialogue. That is the reason why this exhibition is firstly a mark of respect for the artist and the culture that he deservedly represents. Secondly, this is a message addressed to us, the bearers and guardians of an old, authentic culture — about how one can and should relate to roots and traditions, notwithstanding all the complexities of modern life.