Artist Huang Yongyu straddling two worlds

By Wang Chao ( China Daily ) Updated: 2015-03-24 08:19:05

Artist Huang Yongyu straddling two worlds

Established painter Huang Yongyu's book about his life in Italy became a best-seller in China, and has been translated into Italian. [Photo by Wang Chao/China Daily]

Years of living in Italy has had a big impact on Huang Yongyu. A lot has changed since the time the artist held his first exhibition in that country, to date, when he is celebrating his book Along the Seine River to Florence being translated into Italian.

During those two decades and more, Huang, now 91, became a household name in China. If you want to buy one of his paintings you had better be prepared to pay a pretty penny. His works command sums in the vicinity of 600,000 yuan ($96,000) per square meter.

Huang says he dislikes his work being pigeonholed and whenever he finishes a project he is quick to move onto something new.

"I'm a hen that lays only eggs. I will leave it to others to criticize the eggs. Some hens like to cluck every time they lay an egg, but I'm not that kind of hen."

There is no doubt that his works are influenced by Italy. He moved to the country 24 years ago after traveling from Paris to Florence painting people and scenery along the way. He noted down what he saw and experienced during his travels and assembled the paintings and stories into a book which became a best-seller in China when it was first published in 2006.

"The two countries are far from one another, but their attitude to family, their traits and even their good and bad points are surprisingly similar," Huang says.

Asked what he thinks of Italy today, 20 years after he wrote the book, Huang replies: "Italy is the same, but I am old."

He bought a villa next door to the former residence of the iconic Leonardo da Vinci in Florence. He calls it his second home.

"For me, going to Italy is like going home. What I like about Italians is that they have a sense of humor and are passionate about life. They are willing to befriend you and they remember you."

When the Italian version of his book was launched at the Italian embassy in Beijing, Huang told an anecdote to illustrate the Italian wit.

One weekend, he was wandering around an open-air market in Vinci, Tuscany, and started chatting with a person selling wild mushrooms. A man arrived and asked the mushroom seller: "Do you have any mushrooms that I can use to poison my wife?" His wife, right behind him, pinched his backside hard and everyone burst out laughing.

"I just love Italians," Huang says. "They are willing to trust you and get very near you. These days I come to China to see my relatives, and go to Italy to see my friends."

Long before Huang first set foot in Italy, art was his passion. He was born in Fenghuang county, Hunan province.

A river with crystal-clear water and wooden homes along the banks runs through Huang's hometown. It is a popular tourist destination and two of its most famous sons are Huang and Shen Congwen, a writer who also happens to be Huang's uncle.

Huang says that even during China's turbulent years in the 1950s and 1960s, Huang and his family saved to buy several meters of canvas to make a small tent so the family could go camping on weekends.

Huang's passion for art is reflected in the way his homes are decorated. In his garden in Beijing he grows lotus from across China, and calls it his "ten thousand lotus garden". The property, covering 4,000 sq m, is striking in its setting, a small suburban village in Beijing.

In the garden he has raised dozens of dogs and cats. He has given two of his dogs the names Kexue (science) and Minzhu (democracy).

Huang was born to a poor family and barely finished his secondary school. He repeated his second year five times.

During that lengthy stay, he says, he skipped classes and read a lot in the school library, mostly geography and meteorology books.

It was there that he started wood carving. After leaving school, he went to Fujian province to work as an apprentice in a small porcelain workshop.

He likes telling jokes, so he gained the nickname, "joker king", but says that name does not really reflect who he is.

"From when I was very young I lived a hard and even dangerous life. I just learned to cope with everything with the help of a cheerful attitude.

"I didn't leave my hometown with big ideals and ambitions, but purely to make a living. The alternative was to starve."

Although he became famous in China because of his art, he says his major passion is writing novels. He is now writing a book based on his own life. He says he has written about his life to age 12, but already has 800,000 words.

Each morning he writes his novel and during the afternoon he paints or meets friends.

"I would like to be a novelist, but there is not enough money in it. That's why I do all these paintings: to support my writing," he jokes.

Looking back over his life, he concludes that the path to happiness lies in freedom.

"Not only physically free, but mentally free as well."

He has pursued that freedom all his life, he says.

"I tried to adjust to hardship and I tried to find opportunities to paint. I have never regretted a thing."

Huang's artistic career has spanned many decades, during which he has had many accomplished Chinese artistic peers, such as Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi.

"Every era has its own peak. You cannot really compare art in different eras. Art is not about how to beat the last generation. Even the most avant-garde paintings now will appear traditional in the future, and both traditional and avant-garde art have good and bad points.

"Being new is not necessarily good, just like girls are not always good-looking just because they are wearing the latest clothes. The same rules apply to being old."

Editor's Picks
Hot words

Most Popular