With Both Hand – Asides about Rao Fu and his painting

With Both Hand / Asides about Rao Fu and his paintings – by Monica Dematté

Today I find myself in the difficult position of making use of writing in order to fully investigate the paintings by Rao Fu, a young painter of Chinese origins (Beijing 1978) but by now resident for a decade in Dresden in the former German Democratic Republic. I say ‘difficult’ because there are already many essays about him*: what can I add so that the viewers, though left alone to immerse themselves in the painting and interpret it in their own way, can deal with it with the best-adapted tools? I don’t have at my back a long-standing knowledge or frequentation of his work that would allow me to speak with the ease of an old friend, I can only follow my sensations and weave together the threads of the many hints his works refer back to, without any temporal or geographical limits, and move from his personal life to recent events, from reality to dreams, from quotations to daring inventions, from monochrome to a rich range of colours, from veils of paint to clotted material. Perhaps Rao Fu has had the fate of finding himself at such a crossroads of time and culture that he can whirl in a dance of strong colours, the bright contrasts of latent or actual tragedy.

Space and Time
Where did Rao Fu come from and where is he now? How does he live, paint, and why? I can only attempt to give an answer to these questions. Rao Fu was born in Beijing but grew up in Shandong, the region his family came from. The- re his grandfather was the most well-read person in the village: he wrote the new year’s calligraphic greetings for every family. Rao Fu, after having studied graphic design in the capital, had the opportunity of moving to Dresden in Ger- many, the state capital of Saxony and a city with a great cultural tradition. He studied German and became aware that it was painting that most interested him. He became a pupil of professor Kerbach. In the city museums (Albertinum and the Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister) he discovered many masterpieces from remote times that became favourites: Rembrandt, Rubens, Brueghel, Vermeer. Or less remote times: Romanticism, Kaspar David Friedrich, the Impressionists, Felix Vallotton, Expressionism. And contemporary artists: Baselitz, Marlene Dumas, Gerard Richter (present with his archives at the Albertinum). He became part of a group of artists who worked sporadically at installing exhibitions and this gave him the opportunity of being in direct contact with the works. He could look at the brushstrokes and discover states of being, just as with Chine- se calligraphy. He was permeated by the moods that the canvases communicated while he stopped and looked at them close-up and without hurry. He came are severe, serious, concrete, mainly in black and white, that illustrate the latest technical and scientific advances and that suggest very complex ‘do-it-yourself’ experiments. The images are mostly of machines and factories and are sober, well-ordered; the machinery is worked on by young people wholly caught up in ‘constructing the future’. Then there are albums of black and white or sepia photos(fig.2), with faded images and comments written with a fountain pen; they are the memories of families from the past who have drifted apart and been forced to get rid of things. There is an old stove, no longer working, that acts as a table top, there are piles of art books, and canvases hung almost everywhere, at random, in an organic disorder that stimulates spontaneous associations. There are dark and disordered corners, inaccessible spaces, there is all the fascination of a past that reaches us without a break. I realise that what I can see here is a heritage that Rao Fu uses fully for constructing a complex and multifaceted image, the ‘mirror’ in which he looks every day: his paintings. It is as though age did not count: those images, these objects that are older than him and that belong to another culture, are ‘about him’: I think I understand that Rao Fu is someone who experiences the links with the past in a visceral manner. Not through rational reconstruction but in a quite personal, intimate way. The testimonies of past events, whether in Germany or elsewhere, make him nostalgic for the places of his childhood, which he will never see again because they have been destroyed or radically altered. I would be tempted to suggest that Rao Fu, in an earlier incar- nation, lived in Germany. I cannot prove this nor is it important: what counts is that he sees himself in the environment that surrounds him and to the construction of which he makes his own contribution. He actively participates in it by creating with his painting links that supersede apparent distances and touch on hidden harmonies and analogies.

The Dance of Life
I asked Rao Fu if he remembers from where he began to paint the large painting that is now in front of us (Infinitrace, 2019, 220 x 435 cm)(P.29), and if he follows any particular habits. With a rather malicious smile he told me that when he finds himself in front of an untouched canvas he loves to deal with it with ample movements, in a dance in which he opens his arms in order to con- tain everything that already exists in nuce, and that he will discover slowly as he paints. The paintbrush is loaded with brown paint, that bituminous colour that was the protagonist of many paintings from recent years and that he continues to use frequently, drawn in long, fluid lines and curves.(fig.3) I seem to imagine.

Elective Affinities
The faces of the figures by Rao Fu, with outlines that are only hinted at and with two simple, empty circles for eyes, could well recall children’s drawings, but they are far more disturbing. They also allude quite obviously to the artist who is perhaps the most loved by Rao Fu: Edward Munch. Rao Fu appreciates Munch’s ability to pictorially translate in a fundamental and powerful manner such highly intense feelings as love, pain, and death. He is touched by the unmediated expressivity of the paintings by the Norwegian master, by a use of lines that reminds him (above all in the engravings) of the great Chinese tradition. He is struck by the repetition of certain themes on which Munch persisted
because they are the most true, profound, and human ones. They are pure emotions, but distilled by the torment of life, and they gush out with the immediacy of a xieyi* by Badashanren**.
The world of Rao Fu is vaster than that of those compatriots of his who have remained in China, and also of his German colleagues: he has at his disposal a range of visual and cultural stimuli in which to dip with both hands without qualms, aware that we are all linked together, that nobody creates from nothing but that everything is in continuous evolution. And so, while there are still some who insist that “the East must not be inspired by the West” for fear of losing face or perhaps for a badly hidden new kind of national pride, Rao Fu calmly lists the names of the painters he loves the most and with whom he feels he has something in common. He ranges, as I have already said, from yesterday to today, but also from the East to the West. From Russian icons to the murals of Dunhuang, Marlene Dumas, Giorgio Morandi, Luc Tuymans, Fan Kuan, Daniel Richter, Ma Yuan, Peter Doig, Neo Rauch, and Dandang***. A seasoned storyteller or expert alchemist, Rao Fu constructs his large recent canvases like extremely complex mosaics, carefully dosing every detail. The small paintings relate to the large ones like the single chapters of a novel relate to the final, vast, and developed work. It is true that the atmospheres are at times dark, the tones dramatic as in a world invaded by all the “evils” after the opening of Pandora’s box. But thanks to what has remained at the bottom of the box - hope, which here I intend to consider a creative force - it is perhaps possible to overcome the impasse of a resignedly pessimistic vision of life and the role of the artist.

Monica Dematté
Vigolo Vattaro, 15 June 2019