The early 20th century is remembered as an era of humiliation in Chinese history. But for the outside world, it was a time of rapid advancement. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and many scientists emerged with significant theories and amazing inventions.
As an artist who is keen on history, Du Xi explores industrial reforms and that era in China using his powerful imagination. His Industrial Reforms series is one the four sections in his 2014 album of paintings titled Daydreams on the Canvas.
“I love the world in my paintings. It’s the adventurous and romantic world that every boy dreams about in his childhood,” he says. “The themes I pick are always related to what I’m interested in at a certain period, whether a book, a movie, or anything else that can inspire me.”
Du’s interest in history comes from the stories of his grandfather. “Most of my favorite childhood memories involve talking about history or literature with my grandpa while playing chess,” Du says.
The Flying Ark, completed in 2013, marked a turning point in Du’s art style. This painting depicts eight people from different classes in modern times seated on a flying balloon ark that bears the character “dragon.”
“I originally intended to paint the legend of The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea. But at the time I was reading a book about reformers in China, so this idea popped into my mind. I changed the eight images of the gods into different modern figures and their boat became an airship, symbolizing industrial development,” Du says.
After several months of work, the finished painting gave him a new direction for his art.
Soldiers are a recurring them in his paintings. Born in 1980 in Kunming, Yunnan province, Du grew up in a military family.
“But in reality, the military and war have left cruel impression on people. So I put my soldiers in an imaginary world,” Du says. “Additionally, I’m interested in the atmosphere of older times, so most of the pieces are set at the dawn of the 20th century.”
The Group of Sea Gulls Show depicts a steam ship setting off from the harbor. Sailors in white naval uniforms wave good-bye to the people on the shore. Beneath the seemingly pleasant atmosphere is unease and sadness, because the people can’t guess whether the sailors will make it back alive.
“I hope viewers can connect with the ideas behind my paintings,” he says.
It’s not hard to find Chinese elements in his works. Cirrus clouds, clothing, seawater, weapons and stone lions are drawn delicately. The structures and colors of these traditional symbols seem inspired by ancient paintings, although Du relies on oil painting skills to express them.
After graduating from Yunnan Arts University, Du studied in the US from 2004 to 2005. His uncle, Shang Ding, is an oil painter who lives in California, and Shang helped him to communicate with American artists.
But the cultural differences were hard for him to overcome.
“Experiences play an important role in one’s understanding of arts. It’s very difficult for a foreigner to surpass a native in understanding his culture,” Du says. “After coming back, I found the most touching thing was the oriental spirit I had learned since birth.”
Du’s work is mainly exhibited at galleries in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. He works in Beijing during the spring and fall, and is beginning to work with several domestic organizations.
Aside from oil paintings, Du has also experimented with printmaking and sculpture in his present series as well. He says he plans to expand to other painted media, videos and installation as the series develops.