Shadowlands – Love, Loss and Memory in Li Wei’s New Series (by Diana Freundl) Back

Shadowlands – Love, Loss and Memory in Li Wei’s New Series

Diana Freundl


There is a sense of melancholy that befalls us every autumn. It is arguably the most beautiful of the seasons, certainly the most colourful, but as the days become shorter and colder, there is a wave of darkness that rolls in like a seasonal tide washing out the bright, merriment of summer. It is both the birth of a harvest and the death of another year. 


I am reminded of the well-articulated words of Welsh landscape painter Kyffin Williams (1918 - 2006), “There is poetry in the dying of the year and mystery as well.” Like Williams, many literary authors have penned odes to autumn such as William Blake’s (1757-1827) To Autumn (1783) and John Keats’ (1795-1821) Ode to Autumn (1819). While there is no shortage of literature dedicated to fall, particularly among the Romantics, several Chinese poets have also written volumes about seasonal transitions. 


Rosy tender hands, rich fine wine, 

The whole city blossomed with signs of spring. 

By the palace wall the willow swayed 

To and fro, to and fro.


The above verse by Lu You (1125 – 1210) was written during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279)The poem, Phoenix Hairpin is a proclamation of love by Lu You to his ex-wife and speaks of the sorrow the two lovers endured after a forced separation. The love of Lu You’s life was his cousin, Tang Wan. They were raised in the same household and wedded when he was twenty. They were only married for one year, as his mother never liked Tang Wan and forced them to divorce. Nearly ten years after the separation, Lu You had a chance encounter with Tang Wan and her new husband during a visit to the Shen Garden (now Shaoxing). After the meeting he composed the poem Phoenix Hairpin on a wall in the garden. Later, Tang Wan saw the poem and wrote one in reply; on the same wall.


Li Wei has based her new series of paintings on one line from Phoenix Hairpin; “by the palace wall the willow swayed.” Lu You’s description conjures an image of branches brushing across the wall, which becomes etched in the mind of the author and reader. His narrative evokes elaborate and dramatic imagery, which Li Wei realizes in her paintings. If we are to envision the poem as depicted in Li Wei paintings, it is not the willows that she paints but their absence – the shadow. 


Li Wei’s red and green monochrome paintings capture the sentiment of loss depicted in Phoenix Hairpin by emphasizing absence through the subject of shadows. Focusing on the visual landscape as described in the poem, Li Wei’s paintings such as Palace Willow (2015) use the silhouette of the willow form as a metaphor for memory and loss. This representation is even more pervading in her most recent works, The Bird’s Cry(2015) and Bird of the Beijing Palace (2015) which can be interpreted as the lovers Lu You and Tang Wang. Their silhouettes are a symbol of their separation from one another yet their presence is felt in the painting.


The shadow as a metaphor for suffering recalls David Allan’s infamous painting The Origin of Painting, (The Maid of Corinth), 1775, that illustrates an anecdote by the Roman author Pliny. Pliny claimed that the art of painting had first been invented by a Corinthian girl who traced the outline of her lover’s shadow on the wall before he went into battle. In Li Wei’s new series of paintings, she paints the shadow of the willows from Lu You’s poem representing the departure of the author’s wife, which creates a container of inaccessible love.


In Affect/Effect, Li Wei continues her pictorial strategies of deconstructing and rebuilding China’s landscape scenery. Echoing the melancholic tone of her willows along the red walled palace, she has also created a series of green bamboo paintings as homage to her historic predecessors of traditional ink paintings for whom the symbolism of bamboo, birds and lotus flowers in poetry and painting is abundant. However, in Li Wei’s paintings such as Rustling Bamboo (2015) and Gather the Duckweed (2015) they are similar to those of traditional Chinese ink painting in subject only. Li Wei has developed her own technique of contemporary landscape painting. It is an arduous process that begins with a photo documentation enlarged to a point of pixel abstraction and later returned to a recognizable image through several layers of paint on canvas or silk. The layers of process and meaning are unfolded and revealed to viewers as they reflect on the perception of time. 


Approached through more formal aspects of painting, the Li Wei’s use of shadows can be regarded as the mysteriously withholding of information in which is particularly apparent in the most abstract works such as Purple Inflorescence that provoke the imagination of a viewer. In Western art history emphasis on light and shadow in painting are essential elements to create depth and space. Much of the emotion in Li Wei’s painting however is achieved from the sensitive use of shadow as the subject in her work. Her use of light is minimal to maintain a flat surface that resembles a walled exterior, with a rough, unfinished texture similar to that of historical architecture, such as a temple or palace. 


We can trace the symbolism of the shadow to ancient civilization. It is an integral part of most belief systems and appears in ancient texts, mythology, folklore, and psychology. The dark, enigmatic essence of Li Wei’s willow, bamboo and bird silhouettes are intriguing because of their muted depiction of sequestered love in Lu You’s true to life tragic romance. Very literally they represent both the absence and presence of the willow, which we know to signify the affection between Lu You and his wife. While sounding disheartening the pain they suffer is a reminder of the happiness that once existed. It’s a deal we make and a cycle we repeat year after year, as summer ends and autumn begins.