Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Artworks and Masters – Xu Wei (徐渭/Hsü Wei): The Tragic Revolutionary

A Short Biography of Xu Wei (徐渭/Hsü Wei)

Xu Wei must be one of the most tragic figures in the whole of Chinese painting history, who suffered a number of setbacks during his lifetime: When he was 14, his mother died. His first wife, whom he married at the age of 21, died five years later. Xu attempted to enter civil services, but failed the examinations eight times. He nevertheless managed to serve among the coastal guards, but when his leader got arrested, Xu Wei feared for his life. His mental imbalance – academics today believe that it was caused by Bipolar Disorder – led him to attempt suicide nine times and to kill his second wife, being paranoid that she would betray him. He was imprisoned for seven years and freed at the age of 53. He later applied himself to painting, poetry, and his work as a playwright.

Xu Wie is today seen as the founder of modern Chinese painting. In a time in which painting styles followed a more conservative direction, his works with its free painting methods and expressive styles must have been somewhat revolutionary. Too revolutionary maybe, he had little financial success and died in poverty at the age of 72. It was only after his death that his works started to get appreciated. Painters such as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou or Qi Baishi found inspiration in Xu Wei’s work.

The Paintings of Xu Wei (徐渭/Hsü Wei)

What strikes first when looking at the works of Xu Wei is the feeling of impatience that seems to emanate from every single one of his brushstrokes. With lines of varying size, he depicts plants and leaves, formulates rocks with hurried, harsh texture strokes, and even manages to add some kind of instability into his ink washes by mixing lighter and darker shades with hasty circling brush movements on the surface. One can almost feel Xu Wei’s inner quarrels that tortured him in the latter part of his life. His heavy use of very wet, diluted ink leads to a variation of ink shades, but other than coeval and subsequent artists, who combined different tonalities by layering of strokes, it seems as if Xu Wei consciously allowed the ink to blend on the paper surface.

Xu Wei was the first painter whose style was named “xieyi” (寫意); “painting the idea” or “recording the meaning”. It alludes to the fact that Xu did not depict his subjects in a naturalistic way, but a more personal style, and thus expressed the “essence” of his motifs.