Remembering interviewing one of the five founders of The Stars Art Movement (Beijing 1979), Qu Leilei. My first profile of him was published in The Oxford Times on June 24 2005.
Qu Leilei’s Visual Diary contains his Stars’ work from 1979. ( Much of it is now in The Museum of Modern Art /Tokyo)
Qu Leilei by the railings where The Stars held their illegal exhibition in 1979. He is showing fellow exhibitor, Shao Fei his work.
The Stars march to Tiananmen Square demanding Artistic Freedom after their paintings were removed by police (October 1979)
Qu Leilei in 2009 showing me the railings where the Stars hung their (for China) sensational new art.
Leilei and I outside his childhood weekend home in The Summer Palace and researching detail for Brushstrokes in Time.
Below : Portrait of his wife Caroline in Everyone’s Life is an Epic @The Ashmolean in 2005.
Hands (Here and Now ) from a review of mine in 2009. In November 2015, there will be an exhibition partly celebrating the Stars at the British Museum. ‘The Soldier’ & ‘Journey’ will be two of Qu Leilei’s paintings on display. See below two features I wrote involving Qu Leilei.
Ai Weiwei’s artistic career also began with the Stars in 1979. After the legal exhibition within the National Gallery (Beijing) he headed for the USA and returned to China in 1993. My review of his show at Blenheim (2014) is on the website (click on category ‘China’ ) He is coming to the RA for the opening of his show in September 2015. I have written a feature about him and Chinese artists with links to Oxfordshire for the October 2015 Edition of Oxfordshire Limited Edition magazine.
( Image used in my review of Ai Weiwei’s show at Blenheim . His crabs were overlooked by a Van Dyke!)
Brushwork—A review of Qu Leilei’s book Tao of Sketching by Sylvia Vetta ( published in November 2006 in The Oxford Times Weekend magazine )
Last year, the Ashmolean mounted its first one man show of a living Chinese artist. ‘Everyone’s life is an Epic’ by Qu Leilei was a moving and life -enhancing exhibition. It was strikingly contemporary without being gratuitously sensational. I am sure I am not the only Oxford Times reader who went to see his intense portraits. Calligraphy is integral to Chinese art and Leilei uses it in his work. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, he was suddenly exposed to Western Art. It inspired him to be one of the founders of the ‘Stars’ illegal exhibition which launched the contemporary art movement in 1979. Qu Leilei’s art successfully combines both traditions.
His role in reporting the trial of the democracy movement leader, Wei Jingsheng resulted in him having to leave China. Against the odds, he has established a successful career as an artist in this country. He has also proved to be in demand as a teacher. In 2000, he won the Millennium Tutor Award for Great Britain.
On November 17th, he will launch his latest book titled ‘Tao of Sketching’ at the Dadbrook Gallery, Cuddington (not far from Thame). Leilei carries a sketch book with him everywhere, using it as a visual diary. The book includes 100 of Leilei’s expert tips, gathered from years of experience sketching people and places world wide. This year’s Big Draw has proved popular and given lots of people the confidence to have a go. For those who would like to take it further, this is an ideal manual. It is a tranquil pursuit. I attended one of Qu Leilei’s calligraphy sessions at the Royal Academy and although I was pretty hopeless at it, I can understand the attraction. It is a practice that brings with it peace of mind. It is not surprising, therefore, that Leilei is also a teacher and writer on T’ai Chi.
Lao Tzu, the creator of the Daoist philosophy is thought to be a mystical older contemporary and teacher of Confucius. He said “Outside we learn from nature, on the inside we learn from our soul.” In his view, truth and beauty come directly from nature and being in tune with it leads to harmony in man. In our increasingly urban world, we are often divorced from continual direct contact with the natural world and society is probably worse off because of it. I asked Leilei what lay behind this book. He said ‘I have often wondered what it is that makes a master painter. I believe the brilliance of artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Goya came from doing sketches and doing them all the time. Before film and photography this was the most convenient means of recording what you saw and wanted to express. I have met people all over the world who enjoy my sketches and many have really wanted to do the same but felt daunted and so lost heart. Often it was something simple like feeling embarrassed drawing in public places or simply knowing how and where to start. The aim of this book is to resolve some of these problems. I often find myself saying to people, ‘just do it’.
Even if you are reluctant to have a go at Tao sketching, this book will be a delight for your eye as you can see from the images reproduced here. It could make a welcome Christmas present and not an expensive one. You can meet Lei lei and get your copy signed with a personal inscription at the launch at Dadbrook House on 17th November or at the QI Club on the thirtieth. The QI bookshop/ club is in Turl Street.
China : The First Emperor with quotes from Qu Leilei .
(Published in Weekend September 21 2007)
Qu Leilei saw the Terracotta Warriors being unearthed in 1974. He painted a picture of himself among them. It was intended for a show which the Chinese government banned. It eventually went on display in New York in 2009. Below is the copy of my review of The First Emperor exhibition at The British Museum with insightful comments by Qu Leilei. I took the photograph below of Qu Leilei in the area where he was based as a soldier in 1970 .
This show was breaking records before it opened with 140,000 pre- booked tickets. It remains at the British Museum until April 2008 so you can still join them.
China is probably named after, Qin Shi Huangdi, who created it out of warring states and abolished feudalism. (Qin is pronounced ‘chin’.) His legacy has similarities with another great military empire emerging at that time, Rome. It united Europe and the near east, and not just with its army but also with its law and language.
The First Emperor unified the currency, weights and measures and introduced laws to apply throughout. Above all he standardised the script so it could be understood everywhere in his vast kingdom of many tongues. Latin was to play a similar role in Europe for centuries. He also defined China’s borders and built the first Great Wall which is said to be the only man –made edifice visible from space. Everything about this Emperor is huge. Qin Shi Huangdi was buried in Xian, in 210 BC, with a life size terracotta army some of whom have invaded the British Museum. Less than one percent of the site has been excavated, so we can only guess at the size of that army. That one percent is larger than a football pitch. You can have eye contact with life size terracotta warriors from the tomb site and with recently excavated models of acrobats, musicians and bureaucrats. The exhibition uses these famous objects to reveal the importance of this emperor in Chinese and world history.
Sima Qian (145-90 BC ) the great historian of early China saw the benefits of unification but also recorded the gross abuse of the people and the destruction of freedom of speech. The First Emperor was not keen on intellectuals, of Sima’s ilk. In my opinion, the last Great Emperor of China was Mao Zedong, who admired Qin Shi Huangdi and shared his dislike of scholars saying ,
‘He buried 460 scholars alive: we have buried 46,000 scholars alive.’ Both of them burnt books, outlawed Confucianism, and organized a surveillance culture in which neighbours were expected to spy on each other.
The artist Qu Leilei, whose one man show at the Ashmolean, in 2005, touched many hearts, was a teenager when the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution were unleashed on an unsuspecting populace. Leilei was one of the five founding members of the avant- guard Stars Art Movement. I recalled seeing a painting he made in 1980, in the early days of the movement, based on the Terracotta Warriors (only discovered in 1974) of which there are twelve in this exhibition. My first impression was that these figures have individuality and may have been modelled on particular soldiers. Interestingly, Qu Leilei did not react in the same way. He spent three and a half years in the Peoples Liberation Army during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and understands what it means to be a soldier in China. He also lectures on Chinese Art at the British Museum so I asked for his opinion on the First Emperor.
‘My hero is Jing Ke who fought this cruel Emperor in an attempt to preserve the humanitarian thoughts of Con Fuxi (Confusius) and Lao Tzu ( Daoism), Mencius and Hsun Tzu. They produced our most splendid philosophies and outlined a peaceful and harmonious way of life that did not depend upon supernatural belief. All of our greatest thought was produced before Qin Shi Huangdi. The Great Wall is a symbol of power but also of sadness and sorrow. One man died for every meter, possibly five million lives for what—-to keep out the barbarian? That attitude held for two thousand years — What is outside is the ‘enemy’ and only now is that changing. If you believe in our common humanity that inward looking perspective is disastrous.’
Leilei told the story of a folk heroine from that time is Meng Jiang Nu. ‘Her husband was among those conscripted to build the wall in the mountain wilderness. When she had no news of him she walked across China carrying his warm clothes and boots. When eventually she found men who had worked beside him, they told her he had died of exhaustion and like all the dead was buried beneath the wall. She sat where her husband was entombed and wept. The story goes that her grief was so great; her tears became a river that collapsed the section of wall where he was buried and delivered forth her husband’s body. Rule from the centre has continued ever since the First Emperor. The system he created stays the same, just the dynasty changes. Individual human life does not count for much.’
Leilei painted a Leilei among the warriors. As a soldier he felt like a cog in the machine of state; his image is intended to contrast with an attempt to corral individuals. To him, the features that differentiate the warriors are the idea of artists and craftsmen who made them and not a reflection of the attitude of their Emperor.
The exhibition is in the Great Reading Room. There is a wonderful irony, we walk on a floor erected over the desk where Karl Marx wrote ‘Das Capital’. He expected revolution would come in industrialised Britain and not in China. When it happened within ten years China was being ruled from the centre by one man! Visually this is a stunning show.