Artshard | Without Evading the Influence of Classical Paintings

Li Ning, Artshard, May 20, 2020

For this post, we talked to Cai Zebin about his thoughts on the history of painting presented in his recently mounted solo exhibition at Capsule Shanghai, his notion of space on the canvas. He has never evaded the influence of classical paintings. 


Q: From your Snake Charmer series, referring to Henri Rousseau’s Snake Charmer and Victor Brauner’s tribute to Rousseau’s piece, what kind of reflections about the history of painting are you trying to convey?


Cai Zebin: The history of painting is extensive. I think the phrase "the present wouldn't be possible without the ancient" perhaps best generalizes the relationship among these works. It's similar to the adage Chinese painters often mention, "Learn from the ancients to attain one's achievement." For me, painting does not progress but transforms. If we were to compare the self-portraits of Rembrandt and Picasso, it would be hard for me to say which is more advanced. 


Q: How have Henri Rousseau's paintings influenced your thinking of the medium?


Cai Zebin: The painter's model and basis of thinking haven't changed much, while their sensibility of things continues to develop. Rousseau's Eve and Snake Charmer are, in fact, two different subjects, but the imagery executed offer different impressions. The Snake Charmer is more profound and real, which influenced painting after that. Last year, I saw many works of his at the Musée Maillol. The most significant impression I had was his works provide a unique space, one that is parallel to reality. This space, executed without apparent distinction between the real and fictional, optical perspective, even the objects at a distance, is painted solidly, which gives the sense that objects have been placed onto the canvas one by one, rather than "painted." I felt I was pulled into the painting when I looked at it as if I could walk into it. The objects inside are set apart, as in real physical "space." It's neither innovative nor a visual game, but a new understanding of the painterly space, that exhibits an elegant quality. Moreover, Rousseau's imageries are dense, in which many sensibilities are entwined together. Furthermore, there are many contradictions and conflicts in his representations. Neither do his imageries the standard compositions, because he created many contradictions and balanced them with a unique appeal. The paintings we see today, to a large extend, are reduced, sometimes I ask myself, what is the intension of this continuous reduction? What would the final result be? Would the outcome still be appealing? Is the reduction approach more effective or the addition one an effort spent in vain? Why has my generation of artists stopped painting self-portraits? Is it because portraitures are too easy? Or are they uninteresting… 


Q: What are your intentions for the forms of the serpent, apple, and candle to recur in your painting?


Cai Zebin: Well, there are four artworks in this exhibition with these visual elements. The serpent, apple, and candle are the classic symbols in the garden of Eden, so these works embody my thoughts on Henri Rousseau's The Snake Charmer.


This process was fascinating. For example, I would think about Rousseau being a painter in the 19th Century, who must have known the history of painting one and two centuries before his life. Yet, the history of art is unbeknown to him posthumously. I am someone living in the 21st Century, so I know how this early 20th Century painter has influenced a school of painting and the influence he had from one Century before his lifetime. For instance, The Snake Charmer has had a tremendous impact on the hitherto Surrealism, or even on Dadaism. However, in Rousseau's lifetime, he certainly had no clue what kind of affluence this work has. Hence, it is very interesting to look into the relationship of this work to those before, concurrent, and after it. The serpent, apple, and candle are relatively eternal elements. The candle is symbolic of light and has always been an essential element in Western painting, unlike in Chinese paintings. By incorporating these elements into my canvas, I wanted to see whether I could command these conventional subject matters, as I thought it might be a challenge for me. In this case, I can compare and interact with the painters who lived before me, through which, to judge whether my works present sufficient artistic appeal. 


In this process, the great challenge for me was configuration, because painting is the outcome of visual thinking.


Laval is an artist’s book Cai Zebin published, in which he recorded the notes that inspired his works. “Laval” is also the title of the solo project he presented last year.


We selected some of the artist's notes that explain his paintings:


Laval, a town located by the Loire Valley, is the birthplace of the French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), and also the origin of his works. Taking Laval as a theme, I studied Rousseau's work and tried to figure out how the artworks were created. "How a work of art is born" is what I've been thinking. From Rousseau's work, I tried to experience the time, emotion, and spirit in his work and thus to discuss how I look at his paintings as a painter myself and how it interacts with my practice.


When I was copying ‘Myself-Portrait-Landscape,' the painter painted himself giant, higher than the symbolic Eiffel Tower, and higher than the ship mast decorated with colorful flags. The palette is the most appealing part to me, where written with 'Clèmence et Josephine,' names of his two wives. I can feel the artist's emotion conveyed from the palette. I've never seen a self-portrait like that before. For me, the palette, as a crucial tool for a painter's thinking, is the channel for himself, his thoughts, and emotion. By some random chance, I saw an article about painter's palettes, implying that the color, shape, and material of the palettes varied according to their specialties, just like the painters' self-portraits. I did some research into self-portraits of the artists that I like and made a few sketches. In the process, I came to know that although each painter's artistic language and style are different, the palette is an excellent medium to bridge these differences. Meanwhile, I was also thinking about making my self-portraits. Generally, the painters observe and face themselves through the mirror, and the portraits transform with time. How can I reflect my thoughts on self-portraits? What are the possible relationships between I, mirrors, palettes, and self-portraits, since the palette reflects the painter to some extent?


And how I can approach myself to self-portraits? In the process of translating Rousseau’s The Wedding Party, the bride's wedding gown is quite impressive. The bride, rendered with such a lightness on canvas, floats like a ghost in the woods between a group of people. The form this white wedding gown takes on canvas reminds me of my 2014 work, No One Ever Takes My Advice, which depicts a beauty mask. I wanted to paint a beauty mask hanging in the woods, light, and floats with the breeze. The painting tells a story slowly, so a certain kind of humor is inevitably distorted and warped.


Although the wedding dress in The Wedding Party looks ghostly, the black dog in front of her seems hefty, and the two placed together to offer a unique sense. These two objects can be put together in one painting to create contrast. I plan to paint the black component into a black cat, paint the cat in a dominating fashion that wouldn't allow the floating ghost to breathe. This approach reminds me of John Currin’s phrase, “I want to find a cliché, and try to believe it, and allow it to take me somewhere not funny.”


Victor Brauner paid tribute to Henri Rousseau with, La Charmeuse Congloméros (The Encounter of 2 bis rue Perrel, 1946, where Henri Rousseau's atelier was located). Rousseau’s The Snake Charmer appealed to many painters and left a tremendous impact on Surrealism. Before this, Rousseau painted Eve (1906-1907), a common subject matter in the Garden of Eden. I wanted to adopt the element of the serpent to integrate this work into Surrealism. The Snake Charmer conveys artists Robert Delaunay’s mother telling him about her experience in India, who commissions Rousseau to paint this piece. I found some visual materials on Indian snake charmers and tried to paint the relationship between man and snake. The black Eve in The Snake Charmer is restless, so I thought I could try to paint a black Eve.