BACKJourney to the East |  Eleonora Battiston

After a few decades of gazes and ambitions aimed at that West which has been the cradle of
contemporary art, many Chinese artists have felt the need to return to their own past, hidden and
forgotten under the aegis of China’s development and modernization.

The history of China is a cyclical history of destruction and rebirth caused by empires and tolitarian
regimes which, in order to impose their own absolutism, have repeatedly sought to burn and erase the
remains of a glorious past, flourishing and at times threatening in so far as a term of comparison.

Fortunately, however, art has often been the treasure-trove of traditions transmitted and bequeathed,
from one hand to the next, from one paintbrush to the other. So why then do Chinese artists have to
ignore those millennia of ink paintings, ceramics and Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian iconographies
that are part of their own DNA? Being international artists does not necessarily mean leveling
techniques, styles and subjects typical of that – firstly – European and American art, which loves oil
on canvas and man as the centre of the representation.

Recuperating one’s own past would be easy if the obligation of originality, due to every artist, did
not impose itself. He Sen was able to do this, or rather take possession of famous works by others,
recreating and giving them back to the public with personality and subjectivity through a unique
creative process that cannot be imitated.

Like in his previous and most famous works – the so-called “Smoking girls” – he started with photos
of models to create his portraits mainly in black and white; now he is inspired by the photos of well-
known Chinese masterpieces published in Art History books to elaborate his works – if we may call
them such – “of landscape”.

The most interesting aspect is surely the technique, or rather the formal aspect: painted in part with
a brush and a spatula, He Sen’s canvases transmit a perception of material and style alternation that
focuses the attention on the brushstrokes and composition structure, leaving the content of the scene
to the side for a moment. The act of painting – with thick layers created with a spatula and able to
make the work three-dimensional and with diluted brushstrokes that call to mind the effect of ink –
is central to the work and research of this artist.

Equally fascinating are the subjects, well known and the source of pride for the Chinese and lesser
known but enchanting for a foreign public.

The main body of works in this series inspired by tradition consists in two genres typical of Chinese
painting: “landscape” and “flowers and birds”. Both subjects portray what in China is the main
source of artistic inspiration and poetical exalting: Nature.

At times human presence is hinted at, often a wise man or hermit isolated in a natural context of
which these men constitute one of the many elements. Man’s fragility and melancholy are lost in the
vigor of a nature that is strong and powerful also for the clear-cut and aggressive features with which
he is depicted, oftentimes sharp and pointy.

One of the main masters He Sen refers to is Xu Wei, a painter from the Ming period, often defined as
the “founder of modern Chinese painting” and affected by a manic-depressive disorder that led him
to kill one of his wives, to prison and to madness. Restlessness and genius brought about a revolution
in aesthetical canons and greater expression in Chinese art. His work inspired artists of later years,
also known for their extravagance, eccentricity and individualism, such as Zhu Da (Bada Shanren),
prodigious painter from the Qing period famous for his decided brushstrokes and ability to render an
image with few lines, an evident ability adopted by He Sen in the painting entitled ‘Medlar and Bird’.
They say he descended from a prince of the Ming dynasty, a time that witnessed the flourishing of the
arts and the need to recuperate a national identity following the Mongol domination during the Yuan
period. Therefore, we see another parallel of a China that, in a few moments of its History, reclaims
its own autonomy, a liberation from foreign dominion which at first enriches with its influences and
then ends up being too restrictive. Besides, how can one lose sight of and ignore a History that is so
centrist and full of pride like Chinese history?

That of He Sen is a sort of neo-classicism: he refers to the “classics”, to the canonical works of his own
country which he sums up and gives new life to.

A culture that wants to be aware of itself and its own traditions feels sooner or later the need to
reclaim something that escaped and which is part of its “genetic heritage”. He Sen had momentarily
lost sight of a past which now returns because it is impossible to forget one’s own roots. The artist
follows the warning of the modernist poet Ezra Pound in “Make it New”, and thanks to this he is
able to express himself and renew himself in turn.

Another group of works with more colourful, though with nuanced, shades and clearly outlined
contours regards the character of “the Monkey”. The Monkey King, Sun Wukong is one of the most
well-known characters in Chinese literature, from the Journey to the West, a classic in Chinese
literature also composed during the Ming period which narrates the mythical journey of the Buddhist
monk Xuanzang sent by Bodhisattva Guanyin to India to recuperate important Buddhist texts. Three
disciples accompany him along his adventures: the monkey, the pig Zhu Bajie and the river ogre Sha
Wujing. The monkey, compared to the monk, represents according to some scholars “the restless
instability of genius” and his adventures, somewhere between comical and didactic, have inspired
cartoons, theatrical works and artists of all kinds.

He Sen reproposes him in various scenes, like during a revolt or on a peach tree (a tree that according
to the story has magical powers), all absorbed in carefully observing the horizon of his next adventure.
These images emanate a sense of adventure, of freedom and search that have always incited man to
discover new worlds and artistic and cultural treasures. Thus, accompanied by the artist, with his free
boldness and desire to experiment, we as well allow ourselves to be carried away in this “journey to
the east” amidst the paintings and images of Nature and distant characters, in the times and settings
of a mythical and legendary China.