The Man from the East

Of yesterday and of to-day

He Canbo uses the instruments and supports of the traditional Chinese pictorial paintings: Ink, water, the brush and rice paper. So, it would seem obvious that he would approach his art in function of the history of paintings based on the “Four Treasures” in the Middle Kingdom. Admittedly, there are some specialist works, some in French, synthetic, necessary, insufficient, more numerous in English, all of which lead to one certainty: one will never catch up with, be it an expert calligrapher endowed with an additional layer of a well proven Sinologist and of a well established plastic artist, plus the knowledge, the experience and the sensibility stemming from both a Chinese education and cultural stock. Granted that the erudition allows us to identify the natural reference of such a trait, of such overtone in the composition of a character. However, what else can replace the familiarity with the landscape, the trees, the mountains and the Chinese countryside, with its people in the streets, in the villages, in the cities, the sky that embraces them all, where the wind blows, and the rivers that irrigate them... How to recapture the historical depth of thousand of years imbued with the lifestyles and thoughts of such great Confucius, Taoist and Buddhist philosophical tendencies… How to convert our rational and analytical approaches into their holistic approach with the deep beliefs of an organic world animated with continuous mutations… What are the substitutions for the daily study of a character whose orderly fashioning leads to the construction of the world, while man is the intermediary between earth and heaven as expressed in each stroke of the brush, be it only with the verticality holding of the brush? How to behave when confronted with a Chinese artist who not only uses the instruments of his august colleagues and predecessors, but who is also the son of one of those legendary guardians of the Chinese culture; the well-read and educated ones?

But the art of He Canbo speaks about himself to a Western audience who is at ease with him. Does it then mean, that the artist has adulterated his tradition, as a result of the powerful modern movement that swept China in the 1970’s, leading him to be a sort of populist capitalism under the Communist aegis? Has he succumbed to the western influence to the point of becoming so familiar with it that it has lead him to forget about his origins? Has the heir to the landscape, the flowers and the fruits, the peach branches and the red robin, the mountains and the hermits, become a realist or an abstract or an expressionist or a conceptualist or a lyricist… <<avant-gardist>>, to comply with an eventual public, eventual art dealers ready to flatter their clients… But then, why attach oneself to those ancient techniques; exigent, arid, the ink, the paper, the black and white? Why ignore the facilities of the canvass, oil-paint and its colours that allow for mistake, the superposition, the variation, the nuance, a prolonged execution, suited to mask the imprecision of drawing, the incertitude of sketches and of perspective, the seduction of the tincture, the composition of forms and volumes…

In reality, if He Canbo touches us, is it because his art is timeless and borderless? Of yesterday and of today, of the east and of the west? Of yesterday, he keeps the instruments and techniques, not the paradigms (models): those trees, those mountains, those rocks, those flowers, birds, fishes, bamboos, peaches, leaves, saints, hermits that sometimes, render the visit to Chinese museums weary for those who do not appreciate the energy, the impulse of the artist in his gestures which are being played under the forms and the support, the suppleness of the paper or of the brush, of the imposing elevation of the mountains or of the seduction of a fruit… He Canbo speaks to us about today with yesterday’s means – or is it of always? And if his art speaks to us, is it not that it also speaks about us?

See, Listen and answer

It is not about concluding immediately on what his <<signature>> is, this profile for sure is close to the Greek Omega, but whose head, neck, shoulders, seem rather to be the upper part of a human bust, rigid as a sentinel: guardian of what is going on in the painting and of those who is looking on. It is before this awareness of man to man that the works of He Canbo attract, retain, astonish according to the diverse description of the emotional aesthetics that it evokes. Not that it represents such and such world phenomenon, such as an interior scene, such a human activity. In his works, it is not the representation, the resemblance of some spectacle, familiar or legendary which gives us satisfaction in their recognition, or the enchantment of the transfiguration. It is neither some explosion of colours: also, one is aware of He Canbo by the economy of his plastic means. Colour is limited, highlights, rings, blots, halos… His paintings is about textures and about light, about composition and about mystery, in which we want to enter, and because of the matter, the light, the forms, the order, - be it as a result of the meeting sometimes fortuitous between the support and the inscription -, possess an intensity that the spectator would like to be aware of ( or master), by the only means at his disposal: the description.

Granted that the artist affirms it; it is not the matter that is important, but the spirit, and the paintings is felt more by the heart than by the vision, which according to him distinguishes Chinese aesthetics from the western ones. However, for those who, with Paul Valery rehabilitate emotional aesthetics, do so, because the heart is touched, that the eyes, and the theoretical western sense come into play. Then, these effusions that the philosopher Hegel called, “the Oh and the Ah of sensibility”, may inform us either of the admiration or the rejection of the spectator, but it says nothing about what arouses them. From there, to make manifest, that which moves the heart, that which appeals to the spirit, we have to refer to the description of the work, which is at the base of this anagogic phenomenon that leads from visibility to invisibility, from matter to the spirit. Along this journey, both the profound adherence to national tradition and the universal “artistic” dimension of He Canbo will be revealed.

For an un-trained eye, the white background, dense, compact, full, would seem the particular work of a paste, - a mixture of pigments and oil paints -, heterogeneous, which immobilize and disperse all the compound. But this living background is the rice paper that is so specific to the premier Chinese art, paper that was described in the ancient treatise as in the Dongyang fish spawn, with whom he shares the smooth aspect, supple and faithful to the tradition… We would qualify the colour, whitish more than white, and the composite character, compressed, with an unequal relief. This particular consistency allows the rice paper, sometimes produced in the Pierre D’Alun’s way, to be part and parcel with the creator. In fact, absorbent or <<solid>>, supple or rigid, it dictates the choice, and about the painter instruments, supple or dry, the artist, whatever his skills, is never sure of the outcome even though he has a set goal. At least, He Canbo does not deprive himself as he can play with this inventive interlocutor. From thence, the interrupted course, - some voids -, from the breadth of the registration, in ditches, in flashes, in vortices, in billows, tiny water patterns, depending on the ink densities, would suggest a tempest, the rain, the flow of a river, or even, as an echo of recent images, the irrepressible fury of a tsunami. Thus, as always, the microcosm will evoke the macrocosm. Because, He Canbo works as his millenary predecessors do, with the black, of which the multiple nuances, from the lightest to the darkest, is a testimony on the one hand of his mastery of tradition, and on the other, of his inspiration which is often somber. 

In the west, even for the Poussinists (followers of Nicolas Poussin) of the 17th century, of which we know their predilection for drawing, and the colour (a privilege for the Rubenists) is something very important. The question between the two parties is simply to know whether the contrast and the variation of the tones are sufficient or not, sufficient in defining the forms and their compositions in the painting: it was never an option to opt out. But for the traditional Chinese painter, even though working only with ink, he should be able to allow for the other 5 colours, - (green, blue, red, yellow and white)- colours as such, extract from pigments, intervene only as a last resort and is used with parsimony. When he uses it, He Canbo expresses it in a wash-drawing (Cube and Fresh Water, 2006), in China Blue (Different Perspectives, 2005). If he wants ochre, he uses tea (Maya 04, 2008), sometimes some pigments (Portrait D’Era X, 2004) or quite frequently of gold powder ( Observer, Moment of Meditation, 2006). It can happen to him - rarely - to dip his brush in rose acrylic (Voyage of Life, 2006), or sometimes with watercolour, even if this seems borrowing from the west.

There are some others that are more evident in the work of He Canbo, at least, to the eye, when ignoring the make-belief, they are: the haloes (Saint and 24 Disciples, 2006), the carving of an icon (Revelation Series, Confused Boundary, 2006), quadrilateral with a rounded summit (Revelation Series 06, 2006), of a triptych (Revelation Series 5B, 2005), even the profile of the Virgin Mary (Ultimate and Untitled, 2005). Identifying a character in the midst of a crowd, the former could be referred to some works in Nantes Museum of Fine Arts, that is, the light, golden circle, halo, crown, enshroud, that distinguish the Christ (Gustave Dore, Le Christ Quittant Le Pretoire), from the Saint as expressed in a crowd of uniform light blue. But He Canbo would remind us that the halo is frequently used in ancient Chinese Murals… Mysticism or the consideration of metaphysic is present in the works of He Canbo under the form of an exploding rear-world (Revelations Series, 5A, 2005), of bright lanes. All the same, it is really about Christianity that are found in those overpopulated chapels, with the summit decorated with a tiny cross against an enormous moon (Roaming Under the Moon, A and B, 2005)

Men from the East and from everywhere

Admittedly, the confrontation with the west for the young He Canbo was carried out in Japan, where churches are rare. From the country of the rising sun, it seems that he has retained the contrasts of the graphic motifs, the lacings, the meshes, the straight lines, all of which, scan and (de) construct his compositions. We can also recognize his admiration for the Italian Renaissance paintings, from Leonardo da Vinci, to Michael Angelo and others, for whom neither the line, nor the religion was a vain word. But, it is well before those giants, and it is besides the first defenders of the divine images, that we can find the echo, the inspiration, or the answers that in 1993 will become his trade mark, - the graphic on the pin of his <fans>- this famous small personality, this omega or “dead-end man”, ever-present as already mentioned. The icon is a happy medium between the iconoclast and the iconodules, the former being convinced of the unrepresentability of the divine, the latter, arguing that the incarnation of Christ gave license to its representation. From this production of anonymous figures, disembodied, timeless that are those icons, is where we can recognise the human traits without ever being able to identify anyone.  Thus are He Canbo outlines: it is really the profile of a skull, of a neck, of shoulders on which it rests, but it is a head without a face, without a look, without a smile, without words, but even more disembodied, even more abstract than an expressionless icon with a rot-proof golden background. And yet, in the absence of all sensibilities, what a presence, how much significance there is in this recurring and obsessive figure. The artist defines it, gigantic and encompassing, L’Observateur (2006). He also assigns to it a number of other functions, along its declinations, in group, large or small, en masse, in a crowd, in columns, at a window (Icons and Me, 2005), in a roll (Spread Scroll, 2005), in a fan spread (Floating Fan Cover, 2006), in cubes, adults, children under a pine tree, grouped in a chapel, some under a pyramid… It looks like an army, a crowd from a factory, sometimes as if coming from a roll, a simple graphic motif without any anthropometric references, a bit like Matisse transposing in frieze the regular alignment of turbans and slippers of Muslims in prayers: it “just needs” to capture a form and a rhythm. For sure, in some cases, He Canbo can be explicitly recognised, Moi, Avec 16 Icones (2005), but only in its title. Nothing identifies him, neither the look, neither the outlines, nor the mouth. The more the artist himself, and the more He Canbo detaches himself from his work to the point of substituting a minuscule red seal for his signature, the more we are fronted with the man, the men who are being directed into multiple postures, in which we can discover some activities, some adventures of our neighbours. In fact, it is when he is alone that he takes on an accusative figure, the presence of the artist in his work, questions about He Canbo and his world where he dwells are what he translates into his paintings: conscience of the existent more than the artist self-reflection.

Not that He Canbo represents, imitates a landscape, a generic scene or a social event. Chinese paintings, even when generated from the observation of the most refined tracings, is above all an abstraction: << Presence without form, but endowed with an infallible internal structure>>, said Du Yen T’u. For painting is the result of the sensible and spiritual appropriation of the world, and it represents its translation. It is the exterioration of an interioration. This is why He Canbo claims to be appreciated more by the heart than by the eye. More than the imitation of the real, - as we have known since Leonardo da Vinci- it is something “mental”. Which means that, the world of paintings can do without the artifices of the rational representation, and of the uniformity of space or of measured time. Time is read as the deployment of the paint roll from left to right. Space stamped out of all monocular perspective is about displacement, towards the above, towards the below, in depth, or of immobility. The contrasting composition of these three dimensions gives sense to the image, an itinerary towards a high ideal or the interrogation on the elements which clash together, human groups or constructions (Different Perspectives, Pretty Screen, 2005). As in a chess game, the main important thing is to place available points that will evoke the internal structure of things, similarly, in the work of He Canbo, it is the fine tracings that orient the readings.

The world of He Canbo is somber. This flow of human beings (Dust Through Time, 2004-2005, the series of Revelations, 20056-2006, especially, Towards Suspense, 2006) is not without evoking another human avalanche: The fall of the Outcasts of the Sistine Chapel by Michel-Angelo. To him the fallen people are without legs, a bunch of rigid and passive heads. Together with Blaise Pascal, the passengers of the cube with their angular zigs-zags on their luminous journey in the middle of the painting (Voyage of Life), seem to say <<We are embarking>>. And if sometimes the artist withdraws into himself, solitary, to look and show that he sees, he non the less does preserve all the same characteristics of his fellow humans beings: precisely, that, in front of a destiny, not to have a world that is stronger than man who already is humbled by the legendary abundance of the Chinese population. About the latter, the poet Claudel, a great enamored of China, gave credit to its <<ant-like>> nature and pay homage to its activities rather than its population numbers, and on to a symbiosis that he described as <<a friendly and reciprocal corporation based on the difference>>. But from works to works, that see the light of day, there is certainly an underlying humour running through this cast, as recruits, being pressed, but also side by side, - more than face to face - and subject to some minimum differences in orientation. There is the scornful reductive self-exposition of the conscience without the illusion of a condition quite common and more or less unavoidable. Those heads almost identical and parallel also recall the spectators of a tennis match, all looking alike under their white sun-hat, and who, as a perfect whole turn their heads alternatively from left to right according to the rhythm of the exchanges… 

Then, it is really men of all seasons and of places that meet and found themselves in this pictorial work stemming from a millennium heritage. It is as if He Canbo, pointing out thus the universal pertinence of this thought, has in his own way discovered the Levinasian <<face>>, face without physiognomy, which however, the simple appearance is sufficient, be it in its external appearance and its exposition to recall all man to his humanity.


(Translated by Bob Chung)

Marie-Anne Lescourret

Trained as a philosopher, Marie-Anne Lescourret dedicated her first thesis to Wittgenstein's philosophy of language, and therefore studied, thanks to international grants, at the universities of Munich (Germany), Cornell (USA) and Oxford (England). Turning back in France, she translated German and English analytic philosophy in French, and was for a few years active as a journalist (L'EXPRESS, Le Matin de Paris). She also produced musical broadcast programmes, in which she explored the relationship between music and literature for such creators as Hermann Hesse, Alejo Carpentier, Thomas Mann, Hans Werner Henze ... Quitting journalism, she completed a State Doctorate at the University of Strasbourg, where she taught philosophy of art, - music and painting-, during 17 years. She published 5 intellectual biographies, Rubens, a double life; Emmanuel Levinas; Goethe, un homme sans fatalité; Claudel, la conversion du désir; Pierre Bourdieu, vers une économie du bonheur by the French publisher Flammarion, as well as an Introduction to aesthetics. She also wrote numerous scientific articles. Her works are translated into 15 languages.She gave talks and lectures all around the world, Berlin, Rome, London, Minsk, Oslo, Bari,  ... and taught in the USA (Buffalo university), in China (Shanghaï-Fudan) and Brasil (Sao-Paolo and Campinas).
She is currently chief editor of the Journal CITES (history, politics and philosophy).