Erjun and Her Art — An Interview with Zhao Erjun
— Julia Yu, Ph.D.
Zhao Erjun is also named Yiergen Juelu Erjun. Her ancestors were generals of the Royal Blue Flag Division of the Manchu in the Qing Dynasty. This female artist was once a young champion of table tennis of the city of Chendu, seemingly inherited the fighting spirit of her ancestors. However, today she is an art professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in America, famous for her figurative paintings of human bodies drawn in black and white. The contrast of her fate really trigs people to wonder what has happened.
I started to know Ms. Zhao at the 2006 annual Spring Art Salon, where I was drawn by her “Adam” –the “Between Black and White Series”. She reveals a unique talent in line drawing, especially with human forms: exquisite and esthetic。The nudes in her paintings are drawn with such skill and power that they are totally different from what I have seen by other Chinese painters. Besides, the free styled ink splash background, a traditional Chinese way of painting, provides fullness to her paintings and at the same time demonstrates a sense of post-modernism.
When mentioning her Between Black and White Series, Zhao is full of self confidence in her voice. Lines are her favorite way of expression in art. “Lines are for both forms and configuration. Abstract splash-ink interprets freely the blending of water and ink, I love the feeling how ink is vigorously forced and dissolved by water, just like the experience of vicissitudes of life, and like old running down statues are being washed by winds and rains of the times.”
Looking at her pretty face and dark eyes, I feel somewhat mystified by her presence. Why such an artist talked like someone who has undergone a rough life. So, I began to ask questions about her birth and life.
A Bitter and Depressed Childhood
The honorable royal family background did not bring any good luck and honor to Erjun. When the Manchu established its dynasty palace in Peking, the imperial court sent her ancestors to guard Sichuan. So, the whole division went to reside in the Chendu area, and established a famous Shao City in history. Erjun and her family used to live in a house with a courtyard. Many wealthy and well known families later moved to reside there.
Erjun’s father graduated from a normal university in Chendu and was quite talented. During the war against the Japanese invaders, he gave up his scholarship and went to join the army, hoping he would win honors in battles as his ancestors. None the less, he and his family suffered a great deal because of his decision as the army he joined was, years later, assigned to be under the control KMT’s special forces. After 1949, his father was labeled as a reactionary under the new communist system. So the whole family suffered misfortunes. The turmoil of the Cultural Revolution made their life more miserable. Just imagine what kind of life they lived for all those decades.
Erjun once was the champion of table tennis for youngsters in the city. But due to her family background, she had no chance to play in a professional team. She said: “ I have to double my efforts to get some kind of recognition. Most of the time, I worked much harder than others, but nothing would come out of it.”
Giving Up Table Tennis, Taking Up the Art
When her dream to become an athlete was shattered, the strong willed Erjun began to study under her sister, who had stepped into art by self study much earlier. Zhao picked up the brushes to paint in an attempt to weaving again her dream for life. “We all inherited our grandma’s art genes,” Erjun proudly talked about her grandmother, who was well versed in traditional Chinese paintings. With her sister’s help, Erjun made rapid progress. Her sister is now a famous master of crafts of the province and has won numerous awards. After the ending of the Cultural Revolution, Zhao got her chance for higher education. Her original wish was to attend the Sichuan Fine Art Institute. Again, her father’s problem dampened her dream. However, this time Suzhou Silk Art & Crafts Institute (now the Suzhou University) recognized her talent and accepted her. Finally Zhao became an art student. In 1979, according to the instruction of Deng Xiaoping, the then No. 1 leader of the country, her father’s name was cleared.
Later, Erjun went to attend the advanced study class offered by the Central Fine Art Academy in Beijing. She went to America with her husband in 1991, where she got her MFA degree and became a professor.
While in America exploring her own art style, Zhao felt deeply that she needed to find a stand point where the West and the East would be combined culturally, and that would be her starting point to establish her own style and position. She started with her “Dialog with the Master Series”, kept breaking own boundaries, moving forward step by step. She moved from the “Portrait Series” to the “Between Black and White Series”, and finally, found an art garden belonging to her own. Her achievements won her colleagues approval and praises. In 2002, ten years after she crossed the Pacific Ocean to seek for a new fate, she won a Professional Artist Award from Virginia Art Museum. Art critic Morris Yarowsky highly praised her solid traditional art skill and talent: “(She) combines these strengths (skills in all aspects of drawing and painting) in interesting ways with Western modern ideas.”
Human Bodies as Naked Souls: Touching People with Truthfulness
When asked why she loved drawing nude so much in her “Between Black and White Series”, she responded, nudes, just like naked souls, are true and forthright. Only when one knows about her family background, can one understand more thoroughly her interpretation of the word of soul; and why she has more passion for black and white than other colors. Her childhood dreams were not full of fresh colors, but they did have a kind of true and powerful strength of life, encouraging her to forge ahead.
The ink splash in her work is overwhelming and charming, like shadows as well as unlike shadows, and not restricted by light or shape. The vigor of the free style movements is requested by the need of composition, and at the same time it adds an atmosphere to the paintings.
“To me, human forms are like naked souls that have shrugged off layers of clothing of the secular world, just as those figures at the Gates of Hell by Rodin…..” Zhao says. She has always loved to gaze at statues in rains in the dusk of evening, especially in Europe. The statues, she said, evidently were in human forms, but in dim light, they looked as abstract as music; while in moonlight, they seemed coming from ancient myth….
Erjun often gives her Black and White artwork the title of Adam and Eve. But the art is full of oriental touches. In the paintings are flutes and music, appreciated by the imagination of the viewers. She describes her art: Naked bodies and exposed souls wander between life and death, being separated and reunited among the indefinable mess, between heaven and earth, surrounded by echoes of music, stimulating and provoking.
After experiencing the storms of the time, the conflicts between the cultures of the West and the East, and strife between various trends of ideologies, Zhao Erjun, who has exerted her efforts all her life, returned to an opening up China. She feels her career would take off to a new height in the booming city of Shanghai. Right now, she is presenting her “Black and White Series” with the hope that, through the ink and lines, people would join her to feel and to explore the meaning of life and the destination of our souls.