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Outstanding in his field

China Daily| Updated: August 10, 2023 L M S


The exhibition, Visionary: The Works of Xu Jiang, features powerful impressions of landscapes and city scenes. CHINA DAILY

With an oeuvre inspired by sunflowers, exhibition shows the best of renowned Chinese artist, Ma Zhenhuan reports.

Renowned Chinese artist Xu Jiang may be recognized as primarily a landscape painter, but it is his painting and sculpting of sunflowers that has become his signature in the last two decades — at least as far as the public and some of his fellow artists are concerned.

For the past 20 years, Xu has been devoted to creating artwork on the theme of sunflowers.


The exhibition, Visionary: The Works of Xu Jiang, features powerful impressions of landscapes and city scenes. CHINA DAILY

He has traveled far and wide looking for them, from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region during the sunflower harvesting season to the Inner Mongolia autonomous region where they were covered with snow, and right on his doorstep in Zhejiang province, where several sunflowers still stood tall and proud, despite the ravages of a devastating typhoon.

In fact, for over a decade, Xu has cultivated sunflowers himself on a plot of land at the Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, where he served as the president between 2001 and 2020.

Indeed, "for the last two decades, not a day has passed by without Xu thinking about sunflowers, and not 10 days have passed by without him painting sunflowers", according to the introduction of his latest exhibition in Shanghai.


The exhibition, Visionary: The Works of Xu Jiang, features powerful impressions of landscapes and city scenes. CHINA DAILY

Until Aug 27 at the Shanghai Jiushi International Art Center, Visionary: The Works of Xu Jiang presents some of the artist's best sunflower paintings.

For Xu, sunflowers are full of symbolism.

"They are like people, especially the Chinese people," Xu says. "They are strong, fervent and tough."

In his painted works, sunflowers rarely appear individually and in isolation; instead, he has invariably restored sunflowers to the environment in which the plants grow, usually vast stretches of fields.



In particular, through painting, sculpting and writing about sunflowers, he says he hopes "to use them to represent our generation", as Xu believes the collective portrait of the plant embodies the life, as well as the spirituality, of his generation.

Born in Fuzhou, capital city of Fujian province, in 1955, Xu graduated from the China Academy of Art with a major in oil painting in 1982. In 1988, he went to study at the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg in Germany. Four years later, Xu returned to teach at his alma mater.

The defining moment of Xu's career as an artist, as he recalls, came on a day in August 2003.

On a cultural trip to Turkiye with a group of Chinese artists, he happened to see swaths of sunflowers near the Sea of Marmara.

"I was suddenly confronted with an expanse of withering sunflowers standing in the setting sun," he says. "And they struck me as if they were made of steel and copper, blended with the earth."

"I thought I saw a legion of aged troops, or indeed ourselves," Xu says.


Four paintings depicting Shanghai with a hazy perspective by artist Xu Jiang, whose work is on show in an ongoing exhibition in the city. CHINA DAILY

As they drove on for another 100 kilometers, the ancient ruins of Troy, immortalized in Homer's Iliad, appeared before Xu.

The contrast of the two sights — a flower that blooms and falls each year on the one hand, and the 4,000-year-old repository of human civilization — seemingly ignited Xu's passion for sunflowers, and helped him identify a lifelong painting subject.

Ever since, sunflowers have captured his imagination: To Xu, they are not just plants, they represent his spiritual underpinnings.

As another well-known artist Qiu Zhijie once quipped, "Once Xu Jiang stepped into that sunflower garden, he has never looked back."

Another part of the exhibition showcases Xu's paintings of Shanghai's Bund, created over 20 years ago, presenting a historical panorama of the metropolis at the time.


Sunflowers, in various states, are a key theme in his paintings. CHINA DAILY

In these paintings, Xu has depicted "the ruins and monuments of time" for the viewer, says Gao Shiming, Xu's successor, the current president of the China Academy of Art.

"The Bund in his works is no ordinary urban landscape; rather, it is a witness to the vicissitudes of modernity," Gao says.

"Holding an exhibition at the Bund by the Huangpu River is quite a memorable experience," Xu said in a speech at the opening ceremony of the exhibition.

"The Bund of many years ago appeared in my paintings and my gaze frequently. Standing here, I feel like I'm in a scene from history or a garden of nostalgia," he says.