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The Art of Yan Zhou Xu: A Continuing Journey

October 17, 2006 - April 16, 2007


Yan Zhou Xu is a contemporary artist, an exemplar of his own "surreal-realism." Xu stands apart from such modern contemporaries as Duchamp and the followers of the anti-art movement. Xu marshals his talent, his intelligence; his singular determination and independent vision of life find expression through the arts. It's the author's belief these characteristics are essential if the modern artist is to be self-possessed while striving to be creative.

Xu Yanzhou became well known as a professional artist in China at a very early age. When he was 21 his college thesis earned him even broader recognition within the prestigious National Society of Artists in Beijing. His paintings "Busy Autumn," "Morning Makeup," and "Chatting Among the Yimeng Villagers," among others, reflect the style of of Jules Bastien-Lepage, the 19th-century French master of realism, and of Valentin Serov and Arkady Plastov of the Russian Masters' School. As in the latter school, Xu's techniques were simple, persistent, and smooth. He described the purity and beauty of his subjects as he saw them in nature. He painted from an urban person's perspective, incorporating his appreciation of the charm of rural landscapes and country life. His paintings of this period convey native themes of the north-central Chinese countryside, and include such typical objects as a basket made from willow branches, a stone mill, a mud stove, a stone cottage, a shoulder-pole; and farm animals such as chickens, ducks, cattle, sheep, and even pigs. His country children and girls wear cotton clothes decorated with bright flowers and, often, some favorite item adds the rich flavor of a personal touch in the pastoral poetic style. His figures are warm and gentle, honest, relaxed and completely free of the hardship and suffering so common in the paintings of others who described similar country themes at that time. Those paintings earned Xu Yanzhou the place of a representative figure in the Chinese Contemporary School of Rural Realism.

At this stage of his career, Xu had already drawn certain techniques from other Masters which he formulated into his own personal strengths as a painter of delicately shaped body forms, eloquent color and expressive brushwork. These paintings always have a discernable trace of the story within and the titles provide a hint of that story.

Over the years Xu's painting styles have shifted several times. The earliest was to a more exquisite technique, nurtured directly from ancient Chinese mirror paintings of the Weijin South-North Dynasty (third through fifth centuries, AD) and drawing from the later Baroque paintings of Europe and especially the Netherlands. Xu has been especially influenced by the masters Van Eyck, Bruegel, Vermeer and Holbein.

Xu's early Impressionist-realist style evolved to a more classical-realistic mode as his themes became more thoughtful. However, over the years, as styles and subjects and formats evolved, he retained until recently the signatory angle of observation from which viewer stands to see the subject.

Xu Yanzhou might well be called an "artist of sense." His works draw on the deep sensitivity of his feelings and thoughts, and the profundity of his insights into all that surrounds him. But his paintings also express a critical consciousness, and mark changes in time as well as in space. Xu was the first Chinese oil painter to incorporate the ancient twenty-four season calendar into the titles and content of his work. Thus "The Waking of Insects," "The Spring Equinox," "Praying of the Spring," "The Bride," "The Sweating Mt. Yimeng," "Snow in June," and "Early Spring, and the Little Boy from the Horizon" all describe the evolution of seasons and conditions of being. These were painted around the events of 1989 in China. At this time of national sorrow, Xu turned his very personal pain into a renewed creativity that spoke for the nation's unheard voices. The works of this period reflect his heartfelt concerns about society, life, death and the future of the Chinese nation. As he boldly spoke out in the artistic language he knew best, his messages were broadly understood and the impact of his work became very widespread.

In these paintings delicate shoots begin to grow anew from the rich and heavy soil between undulating fingers of white melting snow. These black and white compositions use the receding landscape to create a cubic visual perspective. Despite such stark contrasts of black and white, a sense of wholeness is maintained. It is widely believed that this particular effect had never been achieved before in oil painting. Then, and now, the observer is astounded by the visual strength of the grand abstractness of these paintings, and the feelings they convey of disturbance of the natural world as viewed from a distance. On close observation the rich variety of fine details and craftsmanship is stunning.

After his move to North America, Xu Yanzhou's art evolved again. He emphasized even more the modeling of shapes, added even more bright colors, gave richer and more glowing tones, and more delicate shadings to skin textures. The rich sense of beauty became more intense. His brush strokes became more determined; his tones sharper, though still glowing; his touch clearer and quicker; his phrasing, more legato -- the total effect unifying all elements in the work while creating an irresistible magnetic attraction between the exquisite and elegant paintings and their observers.

Xu Yanzhou, in a manner similar to that of Pierre-August Renoir, paints such lovely subjects and themes as flowers, and women and children in their very special environments. In a series of works that include "The Lost Song," "Winter Dream of Summer," "Sun Set, Cloud Up," "New Century," "Grandfather's Bird Cage," "Star River," "Await," "The Roaming Cloud," "The Boy with Apple and Banana," "In Eden", and "The Messenger from the Other Side of the Space," Xu often unites normally disparate elements -- a woman's portrait, nude bodies, spring flowers; the birds and insects of summer, fruits and produce of autumn, snows in winter, and fish in water. Everything, including time and space, appears out of place, out of scale, yet, miraculously, all seems to fit easily into Xu's world.

Xu's extraordinary visions of the natural world could seem to reflect a simplistic fascination for that sort of superficial surrealism in which elements of a composition have no apparent connection with one another. But in reality, Xu uses his intuition, superb talent and ability to understand associations to describe his views of the generation gap, disharmony, dissolution and, yes, even mutation that occur among evolving and differing political, economic, cultural, and natural elements of the earth. His genius is to assemble this disarray into a natural ease.

In yet a further evolution, the single lighting source of earlier works has dispersed to many sources. Time, space and scale are still distorted and birds are still out of their cages, but now the cage contains a rabbit. Innocent butterflies and dragonflies mate in the cage, and a big egg, too, is growing and wriggling there. Fish are swimming in the air in the bird cage and butterflies play in the snow. A magic cube dangles from nowhere -- and rabbits have wings. Xu is a mysterious person who believes divinities are real, and the soul lives on earth: believes the Daoist interpretation of the world.

While American critics regard Xu Yanzhou as having actually transformed realism into surrealism, Xu argues that he is a realist: we are all, in fact, living in a surreal and displaced dream-like world. This is our reality, and this is what Xu paints. Nevertheless, the objects in his paintings, such as the lone palm-tree stub in the landscape, the stick-like cactus in the melting snow, and the egg-like fruits, as well as the mating insects, imply sexuality and praise of new life.

Whatever he paints, whether human beings, animals, or plants, Xu unfailingly emphasizes accuracy within the brilliance of his illustration, and the delicacy of his expression. The symbolism and implied meaning in his painting is complemented by strong intentional modeling. Xu has developed his own "surreal-realism" by combining illustration with implication, while at the same time consistently using a painting and modeling language that expresses the beauty of finely textured skin and glowing objects.


* * * *


Xu Yanzhou was born in coastal Qin Dao City. His appreciation of beautiful things was nurtured by the beauty of the landscape and relative affluence of the City, as well as its native culture and customs.

He has an optimistic outlook and an open, confident and delightfully gregarious manner. He is primarily a person who grasps and interprets the world intuitively. His view of life is positive, progressive, and optimistic. He treats the beautiful things of the world as actively good: flowers, beautiful women, rainbow clouds, mysterious animals, birds, insects, varieties of tropical plants, and even delicious food. He freely gives new life and meaning to these earthly elements and praises them in a painting language that is highly distinctive and widely admired. He is energetic and never bored. From outward appearances, nihilism seems never to have occurred to him. This view of life, rare and precious in any time, is even more so in our own. It is also the mark of one who is autonomous, preserving self-awareness, and intentionally avoiding a potential to drift with the common tide.

Xu believes that art has rules to follow, and freedom exists only because of such rules. Rather than the anti-rule of nihilism that voids creativity, he believes these rules liberate true creativity. Xu holds that Marcel Duchamp and related practitioners are not artists at all; that they are in fact anti-artists, whose paintings only make sense when one understands them as anti-art, "pan-art." While in Xu's view Marcel Duchamp has become a stumbling block to all constructive artists, Xu concedes that at some times and in certain circumstances, anti- and pan-art do have their rationales for existence, since they warn against the loss of the essential but unwritten rules. Like political propaganda or media slogans, they can never replace true art.

There are unlimited numbers of things waiting to be developed and explored by the artist. Once explored, surprise and amazement await the observer. Xu Yanzhou has unfolded before us his own solo explorations and discoveries. They are the praise of the beautiful and the creative, the healthy animate life; the praise of light and the recognition of positive forces in the world. His marvelous paintings, rich with emotion, display the variety of human life, and symbolize the existence of luminosity, color, beauty, tenderness, happiness, health, vigor, and the positive; as opposed to darkness, dullness, deficiency, stiffness, suffering, illness, dispiritedness, nihilism and the negative. From his point of view, Xu Yanzhou has chosen as his subjects the most meaningful things that art can represent.

In the remote Rocky Mountain foothills, far from his mother country, Xu Yanzhou is living, painting and continuing to praise life and beauty in the world through his art. As his artistic and cognitive talents continue to unfold, the world responds with increasingly more attention.


Brief biography

Xu Yanzhou was born in Qin Dao City, China. He earned a Master of Fine Art degree from Tulane University. He has studied and taught at the Shangdong Institute of Arts and the Central Institute of Fine Arts in China; at Luther College in Canada; and at Newcomb Art College in the United States. A major figure in the school of rural realistic painting in China and master of contemporary realism, he became a member of the Chinese National Society of Artists at the young age of 24. When he was 28 he became the first artist in China both to publish a personal painting album and to have a solo exhibition in the Chinese National Fine Arts Museum. At that time, five of his oil paintings were in the Museum collection. In 1990, Xu Yanzhou became the youngest visiting Fine Arts Professor ever invited to North America by the Canadian Government. He is also the only Asian artist to win the Four Arts Awards in the 68-year history of that Palm Beach, Florida show.

Xu Yanzhou has had many one-man exhibitions in museums and major galleries. His works have been collected in more than twenty countries and regions, both by individuals and by public institutions, and have been extensively commented upon in many languages and in a variety of media. His publications include the catalogs "Selections of Xu Yanzhou Oil Paintings," and "Yan Zhou Xu's Art Journey." Since 1993 his oil paintings have also been auctioned at world wide auction firms such as Christie's.

Additional biographical information

As a China born international artist, Yan Zhou Xu art is grounded in his own rich Chinese heritage yet is also influenced by the mix of cultures found in the United States. His paintings constantly push the boundaries of traditional realism and delve into the surreal. But it is his ability to portray ordinary life with vibrant colors and thought-provoking insight that has attracted worldwide recognition.

Yan Zhou Xu's intention is to create a tension which pushes for maximum freedom in texture, lighting, color, and subject matter, which creates its own reasonable balances between the rational and the irrational, reality and fancy

Born in Qingdao, China, Yan Zhou Xu has study and taught in the Shandong Institute of Art in Jinan, Chinese Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing; University of Regina in Canada; Tulane University and New Comb Art College in New Orleans. He was the youngest visiting professor in Canada (by CBC News report) and he got his MFA from Tulane University. Since 1998, he has worked as a full time artist in Loveland, Colorado.

When Yan Zhou Xu was 19, his paintings were exhibited in the China National Fine Arts Museum in Beijing and appeared on Chinese Central Television. At 21 he was the only artist in China to have two oil paintings selected from among tens of thousands for the prestigious Sixth National Art Exhibition, and won the excellent award. He was the youngest oil painter in China to publish a book by the national press and to have a one man show in the China National Art Museum. He was the winner of the Four Art Award from the Four Art Society in Palm Beach , Florida, in 1994. Today, hundreds of his original oil paintings have been collected by museums and galleries around the world, including The China National Art Museum, China National History Museum, China International Art Exhibition Center, Pacific Museum in Pasadena, CA., Tulane Law School. Many pieces are in private collections. His art is widely published in different languages and is so prominent in China that examples of it are shown in textbooks.


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