Learning from the Chinese.

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Learning from the Chinese.


Burgess, Ruth.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Learning from the Chinese.
by Ruth Burgess

At an exhibition of 12th century Japanese paintings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last year, there was one of the poet Fujiwara sitting under a pine tree with the poem “Now thinking of this Mount Ogura, I have become so familiar with the pine tree I must have been here for a long time”. This poem and image actually echoes the Chinese Chan philosophy of the relationship of the artist to landscape.

The forest in which I have lived for a long time is the symbolic material for all my work - so that all influences become part of its landscape: leaves, branches, tree trunks, stars, insects, sunlight, birds, moon, night, the distant sky, wind, all celebrate a chaotic order - an enigma of illusion when moments of bliss reveal the true nature of our experience.

The woodcut best expresses the power and energy of the landscape and figures in this landscape. The images are cut into wood blocks and are all hand printed on handmade Japanese and Chinese papers with barens and wooden spoons. This is historically the traditional method in China and Japan.

Through 9 journeys to China the explorations of the woodcut and my identity as an Australian artist remain in this Australian forest, and yet so much of my path as an artist has been with China.

In 1988 I was sent to China by the Print Council of Australia and the Department of Foreign Affairs to a woodcut symposium in Heilonjiang, North East China. Here I met woodcut artists, art historians, teachers and printmakers from all over China who were there to celebrate 30 years’ work of the Northern Wilderness.

Such a large and historic gathering not only gave me an overview, but many personal contacts which were the seeds of my future travels and exhibitions, and I was able to arrange several art exchanges between China and Australia. I took several images, of which Tanrokubon, a red and green woodcut of currawongs, Lorikeet Flight and The Girl and the Currawong are three.

In 1990 I took a large exhibition of my woodcuts to the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (The National Art School in Hangzhou), and spent some weeks with Professor Zhao Zong Zao, who established in the 50’s the woodcut curriculum as equal status with painting and calligraphy. I formed a deep friendship with Zhao (in Chinese ‘an echo of the spirit or qui’), and he revealed the profound Chinese traditions of wood, stone, calligraphy, paper and, very importantly, the essence of Chinese painting where the artist draws on the qui or spirit of himself through nature.

Some of the works from this exhibition were very large: Winter on cream Japanese paper embossed, Summer a multi–block print using the seasons as imagery, Moon and Sun, multi–block prints showing the lack of central focus, as in Chinese landscape art. This feature of Chinese art was also noted by Margaret Preston and Ian Fairweather. Moon and Sun are mounted as silk scrolls by my friends Sun Yu and Yang Yan Dong, who work at the Art Gallery of NSW.

On this journey I also travelled north to Tianjin Academy, Hangu Peoples’ Workshop and to Beijing where I found some of the most promising young artists under house arrest or working in secret, after Tiananmen. I kept asking to meet Xu Bing, the greatest of the young printmakers and I found him in secret in his room full of woodblocks, rolls of paper and books. His transcendent “Book of Heaven”, installation piece, is in the Queensland Gallery now. We became ardent friends and I was able to buy some of his works for the NSW Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia. He also showed me the history of the Chinese woodcut from stone cutting, the unique Chinese knife, and the origins of the Buddhist woodcut. From this point the Art Gallery of NSW asked me to collect the best of the contemporary Chinese artists in woodcut, and this collection is the best of its kind.

In 1991 I was invited to take another large woodcut exhibition to the beautiful gallery in the Zhejiang Academy and took some works significantly influenced by China, and this was commented on both at Hangzhou and later at the Central Art Academy exhibition held during Australia Week on a subsequent visit. These works included Mountain – a multi block using a limited colour range, Beyond the Mountain, Mantra for Winter, and The Temple in the Forest, which shows my interest in the Chinese Buddhist tradition developing, and also Remember Birds and Figure and Bird.

I also travelled to Shanghai and Nanjing with this exhibition. I took this work in mylah sleeves in a canvas portfolio made by a sail maker, as conditions in the academies were very dusty and hanging conditions at the time were poor.

In Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, I saw the beautiful water–based woodblocks, which influenced Japanese printmaking in early times and bought some contemporary works for the collection.

In 1993 I had an exhibition for Australia Week at the Beijing Academy of Art and travelled to the south west, to Sechuan, Guizhou and Yunnan, meeting woodcut artists in each province and again collecting some amazing work.

Travelling in the south west, its extensive minority cultures, and its proximity to Tibet, brought about another dimension in my work. I had a large exhibition at the Fire Station Gallery in Sydney and these works showed these influences – Figures in a Future Forest, Sky Dancer, and Yogini in the Forest use figures to express meditative energy.

Mountains in the Forest, Transcendent Light and The Nature of the Universe are more recent works, using vigorously cut blocks and multi printings, wet on wet, or wet on dry.

My subsequent visits to China (the last 3 visits) were to live in a temple with my beloved teacher Master Hui Hai, a Chan master who had rebuilt a Ming dynasty temple. I lived in the way the Ming painters dreamt of – in a beautiful forest, woken by stone chimes, with sculptures, bells, chanting, the trees and flowers, yet in the everyday world, particularly when I worked for two weeks in the rain on shaky bamboo scaffolding with a team of Guizhou artists to paint a 4 x 2 metres Buddhist mural.

Recently, The Steps of the Sun, Sleeping Buddha, Forest Music and The Song of Summer Rain continue my work exploring nature through woodcut.

I have now reached a stage where I can work without any particular reference to external pressure, hoping that the next woodcut will come a little closer to the essence.

© RuthBurgess
Paper presented at the Fifth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2004