Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.
"A Quiet Night Thought" by Li Bo (Li Bai)
Moonlight before my bed
Perhaps frost on the ground.
Lift my head and see the moon
Lower my head and pine for home.
Renowned 8th-century Chinese poet Li Bo (aka Li Bai, 701-62) well understood the heart wrench felt by people living far from their homelands. He spent most of his sixty years traveling throughout the vast empire of Tang-dynasty China. Whether merely wandering for literary inspiration or forced into exile due to political conditions, Li famously captured in his poetry not only his admiration of the country's landscapes and his lifelong love of wine but also a deep, mournful longing for home. This longing no doubt resonates with many residents of California, where almost one third of the population is foreign-born and many more hail from other states in the US. Though some of us settled here by choice, others arrived here after fleeing their countries for economic, social or political reasons, leaving behind people, traditions and places they love. As Li discovered long ago, a glance up at the moon one night can be a sad reminder of the distance separating us from our birthplace.
Chinese artist Lan-Chiann Wu remembers learning Li Bai's poem by heart when she was in 2nd grade in Taiwan. At that age, the poem meant very little to her, but now, living in Granada Hills with a family of her own, she is deeply moved by the verse, so much so that in 2009 she painted a work inspired by it. "Li Bai's Moon" is a haunting depiction of a full moon shown through the branches of a gnarled old tree. In the work, the delicate, fingerlike branches of the leafless tree appear to be reaching out to bathe in the warm glow of the moon. "Li Bai's poem is about the umbilical attachment we have to our homes," she explains. "It is a universal and timeless theme, and I wanted to capture it in this painting." The tree in the painting is actually located in Woodland Hills, but her masterful brushwork -- combined with her nostalgia for Chinese culture and a desire to bridge her two worlds -- has transformed the tree into a dramatic form that evokes the moonlit plum branches of classical paintings from her homeland.
Wu's paintings are a unique cross pollination of traditional Chinese ink painting and Western artistic styles and techniques. At first glance, works such as "Impromptu Concert at Coral Lake" (2004) appear Chinese in style and subject - a mostly monochrome in painting depicting figures in Chinese traditional dress playing Chinese instruments in a pavilion. Yet, the shading and layering of ink on the rocks and trees, the depth of perspective, and the graded applications of subtle color are all Western in derivation. As with her painting "Li Bai's Moon," the night scene here is illuminated by a warm glow of color which invites emotional engagement.
Wu's painting style is well grounded in the Western and Chinese styles and techniques that she studied while in Taiwan. A passionate young student of art, Wu studied Western sketching, painting and sculpture at high school and was keen to travel to Paris or New York to continue studying Western art. However, her parents, though highly supportive of her dreams of becoming an artist, insisted she complete her college education in Taiwan. So she attended Chinese Culture University in Taipei. While there, she took the advice of her high school mentors and studied Chinese painting with Au Ho-nien, one of the greatest living masters of the Lingnan School painting school and among the best instructors in Taiwan. She became Au's assistant, grinding his ink, cutting his paper and making his tea, and despite her strong attraction to Western art, she was soon awed by the depth of Chinese painting, in particular its philosophical richness and the ability of its masters to capture the spirit of a subject as well as its form. "My teacher would get up early in the morning to paint a cherry blossom," she recalls, "because he wanted to capture its essence at that particular moment in time."
After graduation, Wu came to the United States and studied fine art at New York University, focusing again on Western artistic techniques. In the years since then, although she has been known as a Chinese painter and has taught widely about Chinese traditional painting, her work has bridged many cultures in an attempt to convey universal themes that connect people across time and space. For example, "Reflections of the Past" depicts the Japanese summer festival of Obon, in which people welcome home the souls of deceased family members by floating paper lanterns on water. This gentle image, with color used delicately to illuminate the lanterns, expresses a universal human desire to connect with our ancestors who gave us life and taught us our culture.
One of her most captivating paintings is "Lantern Festival I," a vertical aerial scene intricately rendered almost entirely using black Chinese ink, and lit by sporadic hazy red spheres. At first, the work appears to represent a traditional Chinese lantern festival, but the buildings have several stories and chimneys - not Chinese, but Italian. The view is of Florence, portrayed from the high vantage point of a church tower perhaps. Here, Wu seamlessly juxtaposes the two cultures to create an almost surreal physical space in which our thoughts and emotions can roam freely.
In the dark night of Lan-Chiann Wu's ink paintings, there is always light emanating from windows, lanterns or the moon to create a deep yin-yang harmony and the emotional intensity of a poem. We may not have traveled to the places she paints, but her masterful brush work and manipulation of color transport us to her worlds. In her gentle paintings, as in Li Bo's melancholy poem, we may travel thousands of miles, but the path home is beautifully lit.
Lan-Chiann Wu will join internationally renowned pipa player Wu Man, also based in Southern California, at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino to explore the sources of their creativity, including Li Bo's poem. The event is sold out.