CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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CHINA: Fabienne Verdier, a French Master of the ancient Chinese art of calligraphy

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Fabienne at workSipping a cup of Chinese tea during a brief pause in the garden of her country house, Fabienne Verdier does not deny she is elated by the success of her work. She painted large size silk canvases for Joyce Ma’s shopping mall in Bangkok. After showing her work in Bangkok and at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, in Taipeh (Taiwan) at the beginning of 1998 she designed the first cover of a collection of books on China for a French publisher. All the paintings she put on show in a two floors gallery at Hong Kong were sold. Her Paris show was also quite successful: collectors from Asia, Europe and America buy paintings which fetch 20.000 dollars. And the first print of her new book, “The single stroke of the brush”, (Albin Michel, Paris), a beautiful artwork in itself, is sold out before reaching the shelves of the bookshops.

Fabienne’s life has not always been easy....

Born in Paris in 1962, she was terribly disturbed by her parents' divorce when she was 16. She left her very bourgeois mother - who threw Fabienne's belongings out of the window - to go and live with her father, who divided his time between his art director's job with an ad agency and a large farm in Southwest France. After a few weeks in a boring provincial high school, Fabienne decided she could not stand the dullness and the hostility of her school mates any more. It was then that she told her father that she wished to study painting. His reply was "Never mind... you must work." Work she did!

"I was myself a school drop-out; I quit school at 17," tells Fabienne's father who came to spend the weekend with his daughter. "And I was ready to teach her what I knew - but she had to work hard. I locked her in a room in the farmhouse for eight hours a day. I taught her drawing, painting, sketching, the art of perspective, still life painting,etc. It was quite an experience to have only one student, though sometimes she was crying. When she had worked well, I sent her to the soup garden, or to the field to erect some fences!"

"I was very fit, my body was so strong," says Fabienne. It helped me later in China." After two years of such a monastic life - she had barely any contact with the outside world and no boyfriends whatsoever - Fabienne decided she had enough of home study and went to study at the College of Fine Arts in Toulouse. Thanks to her father's teachings, she did in three years what it usually takes five years to complete. Simultaneously, Fabienne started studying the Chinese language, by correspondence with the French School of Oriental Studies. Why Chinese? Fabienne had an aunt who, as an ethnologist, introduced her to several famous sinologists: Jacques Pimpaneau, a specialist of the shadow theater in Asia; Christophe Schipper, a specialist of world fame of Taoism; Jacques Gernet, who wrote a history of China.

These scholars opened their private libraries to Fabienne, enabling her to discover the marvellous world of Chinese art and philosophy. She read François Cheng's Treaty of Chinese Poetry and Pierre Ryckman's Shi Tao Remarks about Painting, a book which was to become her 'Bible'. Graduating in 1983 from the College of Fine Arts with "Honorable Mention", Fabienne also won a Firt Prize from the City of Toulouse. The prize was a one year lease for a studio in Paris. "For me, born in Paris, it was worthless, and I said it frankly to Jacques Baudis, the mayor." He was a bit startled. Then he told Fabienne that he was going to Chongqing, a large city in China, which was a sister-city to Toulouse. He invited her to join his official party. It would be her 'prize'. Fabienne went to see her sinologist friends in Paris to find the location of Chongqing on a map. Jacques Pimpaneau told her it was stupid to travel to China in such conditions. With the money that would be spent on her journey, she could live for a full year in China as a student. "Why don't you convince your mayor to organize an exchange of students between Toulouse and Chongqing," the scholar asked Fabienne. He and his friends gave Fabienne several letters for Baudis.

At first, the Ambassador refused to consider allowing Fabienne to go to Chongqing. There was no special department for foreign students at the Universit. In time, he relented.

A Long passage Through China

Fabienne finally arrived in Chongqing, the most populated city in China and also the most polluted, in August 1984.  The university was located on the outskirts of the city, near a steaming Russian-built power station.

She soon discovered what it meant to live (almost) like a Chinese student. Fabienne had her own room -- a luxury. The room was a squalid one by most standards. In the room she discovered a neon tube for light, a bed with a straw mattress, a zinc wash basin and a Fabienne's toolsnumbered mess tin for her meals. Lights were switched off promptly at 10.30 pm. Rats ran freely in the darkened room. “Overnight, I had no private life. We had a shower once a week at the power station. It was like a concentration camp. I saw one thousand naked women rubbing their bodies until they were as red as crayfish to get rid of the dirt. And every time I arrived, all of them stared at me, the only foreign girl... And I discovered the Chinese toilets -- 40 or 50 women squatting side by side”!

At the same time, Fabienne was totally isolated from the other students. There was a piece of paper -- a “DaZiBao” -- on her door, which she did not understand: it said: “Absolutely Forbidden to Disturb the Young Foreigner”! For many long months Fabienne did not understand why she was so lonely. For her meals, Fabienne had special treatment. She was served in a small private room for guests, but the door was kept opened. The 2.000 students insulted her when walking near by. “I felt like a monkey in a cage”, says Fabienne who, after a long while succeeded in sharing the ordinary treatment of the students. Queueing with fellow students for hours to get a bowl of rice, she could meet them, talk with them and learn the language. The students in Chongqing did not speak the “Mandarin” that she had learned in France, but Sichuanese, a provincial dialect...

Fabienne's calligraphyChongqinq had one of the three best Colleges of Art in China. Fabienne followed the program for graduate students, a group of six students selected from among 2.000 candidates -- the best of the elite. The lectures were terrible. The teaching was totally westernized and influenced by the Russian school of “Socialist Realism”. Fabienne had private lectures. Again, the authorities did not want her to mix with the students.

“I fought with all my energy. I had not made it all the way to Chongqing for that. The problem was that when I arrived, the roots of traditional Chinese aesthetic thought, poetry, Taoism, the concept of space -- the whole history of art had been eradicated. All the heads of department and lecturers had done the Cultural Revolution; those who had a knowledge of the Chinese traditional art had not been rehabilitated”.

An old master who was living like a hermit

After one year at Chongqing, Fabienne heard about an old master, Huang Yuan, who was living like a hermit. He kept calligraphing and reading old poetry books, totally apart from the official system. He only spoke Sichuanese. Through an interpreter, Fabienne told him that she wanted to study with him. He flatly refused, saying: “It is out of the question that I teach -- especially a foreigner. Even my own son does not understand what I am doing”... But Fabienne insisted so strongly that he told her to bring her work. He had a long look at it, and then, to assess her vision, he asked her to look at his books of calligraphy.

Unknowingly, Fabienne selected three famous masters: Huang Yuan was impressed, and decided to give her a chance. For six months, Fabienne spent ten hours a day studying calligraphy, copying and interpreting the old masters. Finally Huang Yuan decided  to give her a chance, and she became his student. This meant that she would spend a lot ot time traveling with him to the remote “Holy Mountains” in areas of China forbidden to foreigners. Some masters teach how to paint trees, flowers, animals or people. Huang Yuan taught Fabienne to paint landscapes: it was, he told her, the supreme art. But unlike painters in the West, who draw immediately what they see on a sketchbook, “He taught me to be overcome by a landscape, to live it fully ZEN, so that it could live in my memory; and then, afterwards, when we went back to a temple or to some friend’s house, to feel again the same emotion in front of a white sheet of paper, and to reconstitute the landscape, from memory... It took me a very long time to do it, especially when dealing with a complex landscape; but the result is far richer. It is a real work of creation. One learns to work like nature. It took me years to be able to do it”.

Dressed like a Chinese with plaits, Fabienne traveled on the roof of a bus to Tibet, hiding herself in a basket full of geese. She visited the Liang Shan district, at the border between Tibet and Sichuan. This area is inhabited by the Yi, a minority group whose members wear long pigtails and dress in animal skins -- still living as in the Middle Ages. They knew nothing about the outside world. Fabienne was the second White person they had seen, after a British pilot who fell from the sky during the war. They believed Fabienne also came from the sky!

A vision of art and life

Awakened each day at 5 am by her master, she learned to start the day with a ritual washing and some exercises in calligraphy. The entire day he taught her his vision of art and of life. At night, drinking hot water instead of tea or rice alcohol, she would listen for hours to her master and his friends speaking about poetry, philosophy and art. They slept in temples and in shacks. Fabienne’s experience was unique. She discovered China from inside like no other Westerner had. With her master’s friendship, her brushes and her sketchbook were her passport, along with a travel permit delivered by the director of her college.

She also experienced China’s misery, was often infested with fleas and different lices: she had to shave completely several times. She was sick with diarrhea, and collapsed once in the toilets of her university, without understanding the Chinese word used by her college friends who immediately made the diagnostic: she had a severe hepatitis.

Fabienne learned the art of landscape painting with her master, Huang Yuan. She learned the technique of pasting paper with a  university professor. She also wanted to learn the old art of engraving a seal. She found out there was a man who was living in the compound of the Russian power station who still knew how to do it. She was warned that his fingers had been chopped off during the Cultural Revolution, and he was using a leather prosthesis. People who met him for the first time couldn't help gasping! For three years, Fabienne followed his training. After these years of exhaustive training, she chose the characters FA and BI to sign her work. FA in the Taoist tradition is “the Law, the Way”, whence France (the country of Laws); BI means “comparative study”:  “Keep your name”, her master told her when she said she wanted to adopt a Chinese name, “you couldn't find a better one”.

In 1987 Fabienne received a grant from the Fyssen Foundation to follow up her study of the traditional transmission of  Chinese Art. She visited the last surviving masters who were  hidden in large cities. The ritual was always the same. She would send a few rolls of her works to the master. It was only after checking that she was worth meeting that they would send somebody to guide her to their place. She spent days discussing with them, listening to how they had learned their art, skimming through their books, looking at their work, and eventually criticising it. All these men (painting is a man’s affair in China) were in their late 80’s or 90’s -- all the more so desperate as there was no new generation of artists to take over. The Cultural Revolution had destroyed their students.

Tiananmen

While the Chinese students were massacred on Tiananmen square in Beijing in 1989, Fabienne got her diploma. Tanks were also rolling around the College of Arts in Chongqing while her masters and students were examining her work. What is probably even more important for Fabienne at this time, is that she was also admitted as a member of Sichuan’s Association of Calligraphers. “Most probably, I am the only foreigner to enjoy such a membership”, she says proudly.

Fabienne was exhausted by all these difficult years. She had been living on a scholarship of 100 Yuans (about 20 dollars) per month, of which she was giving back half to her old master. Her health began to show the strain, so when she learned that the French Embassy was looking for a cultural attache in charge of relations with the artists, she applied for the job -- and got it.

For three years, 1989-1991, Fabienne lived the life of a diplomat. Over were the days when she was living like a Taoist hobo. She now spent her time between cocktails and dinner parties in expensive restaurants. However, her work with the Chinese artists was quite disappointing. The painters she saw in Beijing understood how to cope with the system and make a living. Some of them were painting like Matisse, Chagall or Van Gogh for the foreign community. It brought them good money. Others were exploring various fruitful schools, like the German Expressionism and Pop Art. Others were following the rules of the old Soviet Socialist Realism. They got the official orders. She saw all kinds of painters -- except the kind of artist she wanted to help.

When she found one, living as a recluse, she could not do anything. The Chinese authorities would not give him a travel permit. She was spending huge amounts of money for cocktails and dinner parties, but her government had no money to help the artists. Every day there was a drama, and she felt totally powerless.

Probably a victim of the 'Chinese syndrome' after ten years in China, Fabienne was again physically sick and threatened by a nervous breakdown. It was then she met Ghislain, an internationa business consultant, whom she was to marry in 1992. "Ghislain saved me," says Fabienne. "He put a brush in my hand, and told me, 'show me what you have learned." After a very successful showing of her work in Beijing (she sold everything) Fabienne quit her diplomatic job.

Back to France: ASuccess Story

When Fabienne left China, her seals were confiscated by the Chinese customs. However, she did carry with her a most precious gift. Huang Yuan, her old master, gave her a roll of calligraphy by a 17th century master, Wen Zhen Min, saying, "I feel happier if you take care of it. My children don't understand what it is worth."

In 1992 Fabienne and Ghislain bought a farm house in a small village some 50km from Paris, where they fixed a large studio for Fabienne in a half ruined barn. The house looks south, the studio faces north, and an underground spring runs between the studio and the house. It couldn't be better for a Taoist follower.

In 1993, Fabienne was invited to show her work at Hong Kong within the framework of the 'French Month Festival'. The organizers were looking for an original idea, and they decided Fabienne's work was it. Her work was an amazing success. All the paintings shown on the two floors of the Contemporary Art Center were sold! The buyers were mostly Asians and Chinese. Among the buyers was Joyce Ma, an Australian Chinese millionnaire, the 'Coco Chanel of Asia', who owns a very profitable chain of 45 'life style' ready-wear shops.

Tired of the world of fashion, Ma wanted to start a new life promoting the Arts. She bought several of Fabienne's paintings and told her that she had recently leased an art gallery at the Palais Royal in Paris. There she wanted to show the best of Asian contemporary arts, including Fabienne's. "It sounded like a fairy tale," says Fabienne, "and I did not believe her."

Fabienne went back to France, where in April 1994 she gave birth to a son, Martin. She was going through the 'baby blues' convinced that she would never work again when she received a phone call from Joyce Ma, providing a new twist to her destiny.

Joyce Ma confirmed that she wanted to show Fabienne's work in her newly refurbished gallery. She had a brilliant idea. Until now Fabienne had been painting on silk screens hanging between two scrolls - the traditional way (even though her scrolls were made of plastic). Joyce Ma felt that the concept of a scroll was too alien to Western collectors. It was aimed at an exclusively Asiatic clientele. Traditional Chinese painting is also mostly made of small formats. If Fabienne wanted to integrate the world of Art, if she wanted to be bought by Western museums and art collectors, she had to paint on large size silk canvases framed on wood. "Joyce Ma understood marvelously well that in the West, if there is a frame, there is painting. If not, it is a mere piece of cloth.Withou a frame, there is no Art Work," says Ghislain. Fabienne's growing success proves that Joyce Ma was right. Without losing her Asian customers, who spend hours trying to decipher the characters of her paintings, Fabienne is winning customers from all over Europe and America. For the young woman who found the hard way to the 'Holy Mountains,' it is quite a reward. "Facing a cup of wine, everything is nothing but a dream... Nonchalant, I seize my brush, already inspired," wrote Su Dongo, in the year 1080, some 900 years before a young French woman began her adventure in the universe of Chinese calligraphy.

The Silk

Fabienne is painting on natural silk she imports from two workshops in China; it is a very resistant material old Chinese women and men still use to make their traditional garb; Fabienne likes its special color, a very dark red. It gets this special tobacco-like color after being immersed for days in muddy streams carrying the red silt so characteristic of Western China. At home, in France, Fabienne again treats her material, dipping it in vegetable colorings - she won't elaborate. It is her secret. After this treatment, the silk looks old, mysterious, with amber tones; it has a life of its own," says Fabienne. "Most Chinese painters today use a terrible yellowish industrially dyed silk, but new fabrics are not interesting for an artist."

Pasting the Silk and Preparing It

Such a treatment alters the fibers of the silk which has become fairly fragile. Before she can begin painting, Fabienne has to paste the silk on rice paper (also imported from China by Fabienne) on a provisional wood board, following a century old Chinese technique. It is a long and difficult process. Then using a very modern compressor, Fabienne sprays several layers of transparent varnish on the silk to give it the "transparency" and the "translucence" of Flemish paintings. It is also a slow process which takes at least another week.

The Brushes

There is a very special atmosphere in Fabienne's studio, created by the large nuber of brushes hanging all over one wall and from the ceiling. Fabienne uses different brushes, according to what she wants to say, to make; some of them are small, like 'normal' brushes; others are huge. But each one had its characteristics: the hare's hair is straight and stiff - it is perfect for a complex stroke; sheep's hair is quite robust, but difficult to use because it is very flexible; wild cat's hair is silky; zibeline's is strong; duck's down is very useful to prepare tinting. She alo uses brushes of seal's hair, wild boar, rat, fox,etc. Each brush is made of a 'heart' (xin), a 'belly' (fu) and a 'mantle' (bei). "Some of them are more tuned with my sensivity," says Fabienne. "I have used them for ten years, but Idon't stop buying and trying new brushes."

The Inks

Like all traditional Chinese calligraphers, Fabienne herself prepares the ink she uses for her paintings. She uses a special stone to grind a small stick of black ink prepared in China - a mixture of pine fumes, vegetable oil, hibiscus, fish glue, with a few drops of musk and camphor. It takes hours to grind the ink. It is 'a ritual', says Fabienne, that allows one to withdraw completely from this world. Staring at a point on my stone, grinding around it, is a way to concentrate my mind on the figure I want to create, to evacuate everything that is secondary." It would take days to grind all the paint Fabienne needs for her large-size canvases, so she uses ready-made ink. Still, she does grind some ink every day to set her mind and exercise her hand. Fabienne also uses a beautiful red ink, made of cinnabar, and blue ink, made of cobalt.

The Water

Fabenne usestwo pots, one for clean water and the other to rinse er brush. To 'load' a brush with ink and to 'unload' it on the silk requires a techniquevtht comesonly with years of practice. "Te ink is the skeleton," says Fabienne, "but it is the water, the mixof ink and water, that brings life, hat gives shape to all the mutations of the universe. Look," she says, showing a detail of a painting,,"it looks likea furious sea. It is very cosmic."

Painting

When it is all set, Fabienne unrolls a Chinese carpet to organize the space in which she is going to work. Then she kind of dances around and kneeling on the ground, she starts painting on the provisional canvas, lying flat on the ground. "I superimpose classical texts of Taoist poetry which I interpret freely with my brush, writing several times on the same line, quasi automatically, emptying my memory," explains Fabienne. "Since I have a child, it is very difficult. Before, if I was inspired at 2 a.m., I could work until 4 a.m.; there wasn't any limit. Now, I can work only between 9 in the morning and 6 in the evening while Martin is with his nanny. Since I gave birth to Martin, I understand why I suffer so much to give birth to my paintings. I understand it is natural to go through great pains to create. If a woman also wants to take care of a house, of a child and a husband, it is very difficult to paint, to forget oneself totally." All this explains why Fabienne does not like to have a photographer moving around her when she paints. She cannot stand any disruptive elements around when she is calligraphing "poetic thoughts in an organized chaos."

Framing the Silk Painting

Fabienne and Joyce Ma met in HongKong. "Joyce is totally bi-cultural. Me too," says Fabienne. And indeed their minds meet perfectly. It is Fabienne, the French woman,who revived the century old Chinese tradition of calligraphy. It is Joyce, the Chinese woman,who convinced Fabienne to fix her paintings on a wood frame, as artists do in the West. The traditional scroll was too alien for Western art collectors. Joyce knows the rules of marketing. Both Fabienne and Joyce are perfect ilustrations of far-reaching cultural cross-over, and their meeting proves highly successful. Joyce also provides Fabienne with some advice that only a Chinese friend can formulate: while Western art collectors are sensitive to the beauty of calligraphed Chinese characters, working on other themes - landscapes, trees, etc. that are easier to comprehend - would allow Fabienne to widen her audience.

The Customers

Fabienne's paintings are bought by Westerners, like American fashion stylist Donna Karan (DKNY) and Asians like Joyce Ma and Yohji Yamamoto, the Japanese stylist. Unable to afford expensive fashion gowns, Fabienne sent her catalogue to Yamamoto with a message asking him if he would eventually lend her a few evening dresses. She was told that Yamamoto had a quick look at her caalogue and, loving it, immediately told his assistant to send her a few dresses. He asked Fabienne if they could make a deal and barter a dress for a painting.

 

 

(Topia, Baltimore, USA,Summer 1996)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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