Painter's pilgrimage

Li Xiaoke paints the Potala Palace during one of his trips to the Tibet autonomous region.[Photo/China Daily]

Li Xiaoke, an artist from Beijing has spent the past three decades drawing inspiration from areas where members of the Tibetan community reside.

Li, 74, has captured the natural scenery and the people of the Tibet autonomous region, and the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan, in ink paintings he created during dozens of journeys he's taken since he first set out on foot in 1988. "A mysterious retreat that would haunt one's mind after you have left the place," is how he describes his visits.

Before that discovery, Li's main role was that of a student and an assistant to his late father and celebrated painter, Li Keran, whom he accompanied to social events and generally looked after.

But as Li Xiaoke began his trips to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, he also felt the pressure of his hailing from a prominent family easing. The areas helped him to develop an individual style of painting.

He likens painting to pilgrimage. "It is tough and yet simple."

The viewers of his art can probably share this sentiment when visiting Zang Ji (traces in Tibetan areas), an exhibition now on at the gallery of Li Keran Art Foundation in Beijing, where paintings, prints and photos produced by Li Xiaoke reflect his intimate exchanges with those distant parts of western China through the years.

His paintings depict the signature monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism such as the Potala Palace and Drepung Monastery, both in Lhasa. He shows the local culture and natural scenery by applying layers of paint to ranges of mountains and temple structures in his artworks, where monks and pilgrims usually appear smaller at the bottom or in a corner.

His approach to composition when showing the relationship between humans and their surroundings follows that of ancient Chinese landscape artists: Figures are often portrayed in a small size, hidden among the mountains and water, almost merged with nature. This accords with an inherent spirit of Chinese art which espouses that people are always trivial in front of the power of nature.

During his first journey to the Tibetan-inhabited areas, Li Xiaoke accompanied a photographer named Zheng Yunfeng to the mouth of the Yellow River in the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai. They carried a calligraphy scroll in praise of the river's grandeur that was written by Li Keran, and had the characters inscribed on a stele and placed it on the river bank.

Their travels in Qinghai in 1988 lasted some 45 days, during which Li Xiaoke was overpowered by what he calls the "purity of Tibetan lands and the innocence of the people".

This led to further trips to the source of the Yangtze in the Danggula Mountains in Gansu province's southern areas, and other regions inhabited by Tibetans.

"His initial trips to the area were somewhat against the will of his father who worried about his safety," says Liu Ying, wife of Li Xiaoke and secretary-general of the Li Keran Art Foundation.

"But he found a brand new world there, where he was motivated to become an artist outside his father's influence."

Photos recording Li Xiaoke's journeys are also shown at the ongoing exhibition.

Liu points to one photo that had been taken during her husband's 11-day excursion in Qinghai in 1990, spotting an old down jacket he wore to keep himself warm in the freezing cold of that winter, and says the jacket was hers.

"Sometimes because of poor communication, we lost contact, and I didn't know his whereabouts for a couple of days. It also happened when he traveled years later," she says, adding that such trips were expensive. "We sold our cameras to raise money for transportation."

Li Xiaoke returned from his most recent trip last year. He has developed a heart problem and therefore is unable to undertake another expedition this year.

He often made sketches on paper sitting outside the monasteries he visited. Several of these meters-long ink works done over the past two years are also on show at the current exhibition.

Luo Yicheng, a friend and commentator on culture, says that when looking at Li Xiaoke's lengthy sketches, one would feel that sketching is not something that can be done leisurely, it is like pilgrimage during which one should respect every life and embrace kindness, just like Li does.

Since he turned 70, Li Xiaoke has emphasized the variations of lines in his paintings. These days, he explores the thickness of ink more. He utilizes the possibilities of monochromatic color to depict, for example, the solidity of architecture, the width of trees or the softness of temples' curtains flying in the wind.

"With a brush, ink and water, he displays Chinese brushwork well, turning sophistication into simplicity and uses simplicity to reflect sophistication," Liu says.

Even when he needs to add other colors, Li Xiaoke only adds them to the people in his paintings, the blossoms and the sky.

Li Xiaoke says painting is not just about skills or personality, it is about every stroke an artist makes with a peaceful heart and mind. He says it is like farming, where one reaps what one sows.

"Only when people are down to earth, and put themselves in a humble position, can they gain an objective view of the world."