Chinese Nobel author trades pen for brush

TAIPEI (Reuters) - A dark figure stands alone in the centre of a bleak, shadowy landscape in one painting, while an ethereal tree-like form claims attention in another.

Chinese writer Gao Xingjian, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize for Literature, poses for photographers in Barcelona, October 22, 2008. REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino/Files

The haunting black-and-white paintings are the work of Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese-born Nobel literature laureate, who traded pen for brush to explore a realm of mood and meditation in a rare exhibit in Taiwan’s capital of Taipei.

The 20 works on display in “The Edge of Reality” exhibition, the 73-year-old Gao’s first in Asia for three years, present stark landscapes of form, shade and shape that stand in sharp contrast to his detail-rich novels such as “Soul Mountain”, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2000.

“Painting and literature are two completely different languages,” Gao, who lives in France, said at the show’s recent opening. “Where literature reaches its limits of expressive power, that’s where painting begins.”

Gao’s literary oeuvre, which also includes “One Man’s Bible” and numerous stage plays, has won him global acclaim. In his native China, however, his works were banned in 1989 after a play, “Escape”, explicitly addressed the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

He said his two artistic endeavours have been part of his life since he was a child, although as an adult he keeps a distance between them.

“For my tenth birthday my uncle gave me a notebook that was just white pages, no grid and no lines,” Gao said. “At that time I used it for both writing and drawing.

“I strictly separate the two disciplines. When I’m painting, not only do I not write, I won’t even read.”

Gao’s art began to garner public attention in the 1980s with a number of exhibits across Europe. Since then, his works have been showcased in group and solo exhibitions around the world, although only rarely in mainland China.

“His art used to be more imagistic, more concrete,” said Thomas Lee, president of the Asia Art Center that hosted the exhibition. “These pieces are more abstract; he’s opened up a more imaginative space for the viewer.”

Attendees at the opening described a sense of emotion, particularly loneliness, from the barren scenes and dreamlike vistas on display.

“You really see inside his mind,” said collector Henry Chow. “Even though we’re standing outside the work, it draws you in completely.”

Though Gao intends to keep on with his art, readers may be disappointed to find that he plans no more novels.

“It’s too tiring,” he said. “That kind of work is too intense.”

“The Edge of Reality” continues until July 28. (Reporting by Michael Gold; Editing by Elaine Lies)