Xu Wei - Grapes (1521)

 Critique by Judy Winters
Fact Box

Grapes (1521)
Author: Xu Wei
Location: Palace Museum (Beijing, China)
Technique: Ink on paper, ink wash
Genre(s): Nature, calligraphy, hanging scroll
Estimated value (2016): $72,000
Popularity (polls): 80% liked, 20% neutral, 0% disliked

Background

Nicknamed "Green Vine", Xu Wei was one of the foremost Chinese painters. His works and style were frequently referenced as inspirations by many great Chinese painters. Some called him the Eastern version of Vincent van Gogh and it is for a good reason. Xu's life shares many parallels with his Dutch counterpart.

Although he was considered a prodigy in literature and the arts, he faced many life disappointments and suffered numerous bouts of madness during his life. Xu failed his country's provincial civil service exam (which was a prerequisite to taking the imperial exam) as many as eight times. Since the provincial exam was held every three years, he effectively wasted 24 years of his life trying to pass the exam. For a notable prodigy, this failure must have been incredibly distressing and was probably the cause of his future mental illness.

After his benefactor, General Hu, was arrested and removed from office, Xu became mentally unstable and attempted suicide nine times including axing his skull and drilling his ears. Note how Van Gogh was also known for inflicting physical harms to himself. He was later sentenced to prison for the murder of his second wife. After he was freed, Xu spent the rest of his life in poverty much like Van Gogh.

Composition

Xu Wei's Grapes combines the three elements of his artistic talent -- painting, calligraphy and poetry. For the scroll painting, he used an ink and wash technique that was considered revolutionary at the time. Xu nixed conventions for free form, allowing the painting to be expressive and unique. The poem in the painting compares the depicted wild grapes to Xu's own life struggles. Wild grapes taste better and are more beautiful than garden grapes, but their values are unrecognized by society.

The poem was penned in calligraphy (which he claimed to be his favorite talent). There is apparent wildness in his calligraphy, which implies Xu put a lot of emotions on his brush strokes.