Fabienne Verdier, The Dragon’s Brush

A Journey to China in Search of a True Master

The book “Passagère du silence” – literally passager of silence – is translated in English under the title “The Dragon’s Brush, A Journey to China in Search of a True Master”. The illustrations are of my own choice.

When I was recommended “Passagère du Silence” for this blog, I was sceptical. Fabienne Verdier, for a blog about color? I associated her work with the power of black and gesture. And yet…

[…] in the infinite variations of Indian ink, you can interpret the thousand and one lights of the universe. […] Black has the infinity of colors; it is the matrix of all colors. […] With the resources of black and the emptiness of white paper, you can create everything, […]. Black is the primary revealer of light in matter.

Such was the discourse of her Chinese Master when, no longer able to work with black ink, Fabienne Verdier asked him if she could brighten up her exercises with a little color. As you will have understood, the master’s answer was NO; he nevertheless authorized her, after a few years, to come to color, and assured her that her interpretation of light would then be much richer.

In “The Dragon’s brush”, Fabienne Verdier retraces her career as an artist: a first chapter for her childhood and her studies at the School of Fine Arts, ten others for her apprenticeship in China and a last one for her life as a hermit painter in the countryside, in the Ile-de-France region.

Two traditional Landscape paintings by Day Jin

The book’s tone

The first sentence of this narrative sets the tone:

We suffer our childhood; we decide on our youth.

From the outset one can feel the determination, the will to go her own way, that of a painter that she wants to become, by leaving a single-parent family of which she is the eldest. So, at the age of 16, she joins her father with whom she had stopped living since the age of eight and starts her training with him. The shock of the harsh and austere countryside and a demanding education. After this apprenticeship as an “agricultural painter-worker”, she decided to continue her studies at the School of Fine Arts in Toulouse where her passion for calligraphy and animal art was born. It is the oriental painting of nature, Chinese and Japanese, which was the starting point of her quest, especially Hokusai’s research on plants and animals.

Artistic studies in France

In artistic curriculum at that time (the 1980s) self-expression was promoted without any learning from the masters of painting. The problem of knowing how to express oneself when no kind of language was taught drove her crazy.

Disappointed by the lessons, she does her own exercises at the Museum of Natural History, drawing everything she sees. She continued her learning on her own and even began to study Chinese.

During the exam, the other students, confident in their art, threw themselves into lyrical abstractions or morbid subjects. The result was an implicit work, an overrated violence. They thought they were echoes of the German expressionists who had suffered and expressed their misery. Most of the time they were only petty bourgeois from the provinces who wanted to please themselves. It would have been necessary to transcend these anxieties or visions to arrive at a more subtle language.

Fabienne quotes Kandinsky:

The artist must be blind to the “recognized” or “unrecognized” form, deaf to the teachings and desires of his time. His eye must be directed towards his inner life and his ear stretched out towards the voice of inner necessity. 

She will therefore present work that is “out of the ordinary”, out of the subject and brilliantly complete this course in three years instead of the five years usually required, while working at night as a graphic designer to ensure an independent life.

Arrival in China

She was then offered a scholarship to study in Paris, but it was to China that she wanted to go and will go; at the age of 20, she leaves her family and friends, guided by the telluric force that pushes her to take flight: destination school of the Fine Arts of Chongqing, in the province of Sichuan.

She arrives in Beijing on a Saturday, in bad shape, without a yuan in her pocket, after a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan, where she had a traumatic experience. No one was waiting for her, she was supposed to arrive the day before and the diplomats don’t work the w.e. She found refuge at the School of Fine Arts in Beijing, rather spartan, was treated in the infirmary, then finally, on Monday, she was welcomed at the embassy.

What a difference with the Chinese environment I had just come to know! The funny thing about China is that you often find yourself in surreal situations. […] I was deeply affected by what I had experienced in Pakistan, struck by this first shock with China. I wondered if I was going to stay. The reality did not coincide with my idea of this country and what I had come to find there. And so it was for years.

The French embassy was opposed to her departure for Sichuan province, where no Westerner had lived since 1949, but Fabienne Verdier, barely able to stand on her own two feet, insisted on her choice in any case, and had it accepted.

Chongqing Institute of Fine Arts

In the third chapter we plunge into the spartan life of the Chongqing Institute of Fine Arts where she stays – imagine a room, a window with bars, a small bed with a straw mattress, an enamel basin, all lit by the pale neon light. No water, except a ration of boiled hot water every morning. A shower every fortnight. The place to talk: the toilets, the smell is nauseating, it is a real pigsty, separated in two, one side for men, the other for women.
In the summary that follows, I will dwell on some excerpts thinking about artists, those curious about ancient Chinese culture and finally those interested in China according to Mao.

Jin Nong (1687-1763), “Willow”

The first meeting with the teachers of the institute to assess her artistic knowledge is on this point edifying.

They brought paper, an ink stone and a brush. Paint a tree and we’ll see your level, what we can teach you. – I can’t do that. I’ve never used ink sticks or ink stone. I don’t know your rituals and above all, I have never dared to work on the ground, on a horizontal plane. […] Allow me to take my sketchbooks, to go and study the trees in the garden, to imagine a composition. […] I need a canvas, an easel, a few tubes of color, one or two pig’s bristles, a palette, I don’t know what else… a painting knife. I’ll make a sketch by successive strokes, I’ll make the painting go up by stretching the colors, by laying layer after layer, with repetitions in different sessions […]. But I will need a few weeks to share with you the fruit of my work […]. They burst out laughing: OK, they told me, you’re starting over. I had just taken a masterful slap. I thought, they’re right, you have to start from the bottom up to acquire their knowledge; they start from traditions that I don’t know anything about.

Under the pen of Fabienne Verdier, we discover the spirit of China in the eighties.

In the Chinese painting workshop, neither poetry, aesthetics, nor calligraphy were taught, the features of which were taken up in traditional painting. This great painting of the literate was rejected, many works had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and were still regarded as decadent.

The need for a Chinese cultural background

In chapter four, six months have passed since Fabienne’s arrival in China. She discovers the surroundings of the institute, including a tea house, home of popular culture. There she meets survivors of the Cultural Revolution.

In the following chapter, we accompany Fabienne through her curriculum. I was particularly struck by the passage devoted to her apprenticeship in marouflage as well as in art history.

The art history teacher had lived through the Cultural Revolution at a very young age and had believed in it and wanted to destroy everything. Now, as China was opening up, he was rediscovering the richness of Chinese philosophy. Fabienne followed the slide projections that allowed her to discover the works, but this was not enough.

How can one understand Western painting, from the Romanesque frescoes to Delacroix, without knowing Christianity, Greek and Roman mythology, Renaissance humanism, etc.? 

She therefore asked her teacher for an introduction to Chinese thought, Taoist philosophies, Confucianism and Buddhism. She questions him.

Each time, I put him in an embarrassing situation because he no longer understood why he had taken part in this madness. One does not play with madness or stupidity with impunity: by dint of dumbing people down, they become really stupid, and by dint of fanaticizing them, they become really fanatical.

He gets passionate about it, gets caught up in the game.

Jin Nong (1687-1763), “Plum Blossom”

Learning through copy

In chapter five, we also discover the influence of Cézanne, Picasso, Van Gogh, Derain, Matisse, Chagall – all considered decadent by the regime – on a generation of young Chinese painters.

It was extraordinary to see these young people taking their inspiration entirely from a foreign culture. But what were they allowed to keep of their own? They had been denied this heritage on the pretext that it was just a bunch of old junk. Taking over a culture they knew only through reproductions was a totally artificial process for some, but for others it had become surprisingly internalized. 

She realized then that if she was able to master the art of the traditional Chinese brush as these Chinese artists had mastered oil painting, she could create a new painting.

I saw how they proceeded: they started by copying, copying tirelessly, and only then, after a long period of work, did some of them find their own writing. […] While at home, too quickly, students want to make original works, they continued to paint as they did in China, copying old masters. There, as in Europe, there is no such contempt for copying; on the contrary. Only then did they travel, discovering the Chinese landscapes, their traditional and above all modern culture to nourish their works.

However, Fabienne understands the danger of copying at all costs.

Calligraphy

In the same chapter she tells us about her encounter with the student who, clandestinely, practices calligraphy. He puts her on the trail of old masters who have not taught since the Cultural Revolution. She meets one, then the other, and literally falls under the charm of the latter, Huang Yuan. He refuses to teach her calligraphy — few women calligraphers are women — and besides, Fabienne is a foreigner, moreover he no longer feels able to teach. But she feels that she has found what she was looking for, she knows that she will have to convince him.

Chineese Calligraphy: An Inscription by Zhao Mengfu on the Copies of Wang Xizhi’s Zhanjintie and Hanshitie by Someone in the Tang Dynasty” in Running Regular Script, Ke Jiusi, Provenant de la collection : Long Museum West Bund

The very next day and for six months, in spite of the mockery of her classmates, she set about copying every day the calligraphies she found the most beautiful and left them in front of the master’s door.

In this solitary period, she decides to buy a mainate, a talking bird, to keep her company. This passage which closes chapter five, is simply exquisite: the bird that starts to speak after three weeks, their life together, and finally the visit of the master.

The teaching of the Master

Chapter six is dedicated to the Master’s teaching. A selection of his reflections is given to you as transmitted by the author.

Long and slow learning process

Huang Yuan tells her that if she starts with him, it’s ten years of apprenticeship with him, if not nothing! She has to start with an internship with a seal engraver. Her teacher will be a man whose hand was mutilated during the Cultural Revolution, mutilated for the simple reason that he was a traditional artist of great value.

The craziest paradox of these totalitarian regimes […] is that they annihilate in the weakest, the individual, his personality, his freedom. In others, on the contrary, as in the case of this master of the seals, who had no choice but to suffer the torments of history, they create or trigger a violent inner energy, a new power of survival. […] They have built themselves up alone, in the forbidden, and would probably never have attained this quality of “being true” in a normal life.

Calligraphy with the Master

Her learning of calligraphy begins with the horizontal line, which she learns to do for months. Then come the characters; Fabienne wants to know their meaning, her master gets angry, calligraphy being only meant to understand the creative principle.

Chinese painting is not, as in the West, a representation of the reality that surrounds us. […] We too use our mountains and valleys, just as we use the characters of the writing as a source of inspiration. There is still a relationship with reality, but it represents, if you like, an alphabet through which we create our inner vision, the spirit of the life of the mountain, or of the landscape we choose to interpret. Chinese painting is a painting of the spirit.

Jin Nong (1687-1763) ,two trees and calligraphy

Doubt, meditation and beauty

After months of work, Fabienne goes through a moment of doubt, much to the delight of her teacher.

You don’t know how much you make me happy! There are people for whom one life is not enough to understand their ignorance.

He teaches her to live the smallest gestures of daily life, to capture the slightest vibrations of things. He suggests meditation as a daily exercise; encourages her to talk to her plants, to her bird, to prepare tea, to clean her table, in short, a whole set of gestures, a ritual to get her in shape.

His initiation to calligraphy will last three years. She will then move on to landscape painting. According to the teaching of the old masters, as Master Huang used to say:

Beauty in painting is not beauty as we understand it in the West. The beautiful, in Chinese painting, is the line animated by life, when it reaches the sublime of the natural. The ugly does not mean the ugliness of a subject which, on the contrary, can be interesting: if it is authentic, it nourishes a painting. The ugly is the toil of the line, of the work too well executed, licked, the craft. Manifestations of the mad, the strange, the bizarre, the naive, the childish are disturbing because they exist in what surrounds us. They have their own personality and flavour, their own intelligence. They are moods that must be developed. You, as a painter, must grasp these subtleties. But addressee, skill, dexterity which, in the West, are often considered a quality, are a disaster, because you miss the essential. Clumsiness and failure are much more alive.

Chinese painting and calligraphy; left: Jin Nong (1687-1763), left: traditionnal calligraphy

Social activities and encounters

In chapter seven, Fabienne Verdier reveals a little about her social activities, her encounters outside of her initiation, such as the one with the photographer Frank Horvat, in search of a beautiful tree, or with Joris Ivens, who, in a wheelchair pushed by his wife Marceline, was looking for the impossible reality of the wind.

Journeys in China

Chapter eight is dedicated to the journeys made in the course of her studies. The city of Chengdu, the Taoist temples of the Copper Goat, or the Mountain of Purity, trips to Tibet, in the forbidden zone…Fabienne Verdier summarizes these trips and illustrates them with sometimes funny anecdotes and details worthy of an ethnologist’s work.

The Master Recommendations

In chapter nine, “the celestial tramps”, the recommendations of her teacher in relation to politics, during an excursion, appealed to me.

It is also the occasion for an initiation to Buddhism and Taoism. He suggests not translating the texts of these philosophies, as the terms are lacking in Western culture, which stems from Greek philosophy and Christianity.

He recommends borrowing words from their language rather than distorting them;

Tao is neither your God, nor the Being, nor a principle that governs the universe, but perhaps a little of all that. Li is not what you call reason or logic, but is not totally foreign to it. […] When texts interest you, try to find different translations. If you compare them, you will get a better idea of what they mean… provided the translators don’t copy each other! […]. The same concepts in authors of different centuries do not necessarily have the same meaning; some words have fallen into disuse and have been replaced by others. This is why our philosophical texts are always published with commentaries and explanations provided by successive generations. Perhaps you, too, should translate our texts with different, even contradictory comments. […] But in any case, beware of books: people believe too much in them simply because they are written. Learn our thinking mainly through the practice of painting. You will go much further that way.

Further on, on the side of a mountain, he exhorts her to use her spirit, her unconscious, to nourish her with what surrounds her, with her dreams, which he even suggests her to command. Finally, he recommends sincerity and to be wary of knowledge. Too much knowledge kills creation. Learn the techniques, yes, and then go beyond them. Stop thinking, wanting, calculating. Be generous, avoid concessions, put ambition on the back burner.

On one of these excursions, they discuss the Socialist Realism art that prevailed in China at that time. For the Master, the problem lies not in the subject, but in the lack of authenticity.

What an overstatement to speak in the name of peasants and workers when we know nothing about their way of life! How pretentious to maintain that we know better than they do what they want and even what they think! Much of our suffering is due to the fact that the Party leadership stipulates that it has a monopoly on what is good for the people. 

Detail of a Chinese painting

A mature student

Chapter ten reports on the last two years of study in Sichuan, funded by a grant from an American foundation. Fabienne Verdier decides to go more systematically to meet the ancestral Chinese culture. During one of these visits, she is fascinated by the dress of her hostess, wife of the great calligrapher Li Tianma. An ocher silk on the front, black on the back, worn out by time, extremely light, soft to the touch. Each time it is washed, this silk reveals new designs. The ocher dye obtained from riverbed sediments seduces Fabienne, who sees it as a means of transforming the too white surface of her paper into a background more conducive to creation. Later, she would use this silk dyed by herself for her first paintings.

In this chapter, we can feel the maturity of the student being born: discovering new masters of calligraphy again and again, she doesn’t throw herself into a frantic apprenticeship, she appreciates and realizes the thousands of possible syntheses of Taoism and Confucianism, and stops practicing one or the other technique when it doesn’t correspond to her nature. She also talks about her encounter with two women painters; she tells us about the moving life of one of them. The portraits of the “damned of China” are thus scattered throughout the pages of this chapter which took its name.

Graduation and departure

Chapter Eleven takes place in 1989, the year she obtained her doctorate, and the year of the Tiananmen Square massacres in Beijing. There she hears both versions of this tragedy: the version of foreign television stations that added to it, and the Chinese version that presented the demonstrators as horrible enemies of China.

Despite this tense atmosphere, Fabienne Verdier’s graduation exhibition will take place. The opening welcomed a large number of visitors; Fabienne saw it as an expression of hope for change, expressed there in a peaceful manner, to the great satisfaction of the Party. Given the worsening political situation, Fabienne Verdier had to leave the country as soon as possible. She would like to take her paintings, notes and sketches with her. Her friends advised her not to leave anything behind; they also feared that her notebooks of her entire apprenticeship with the old Master Huang would be taken at customs.

She then decided to burn everything, taking with her only certain paintings. Fabienne Verdier tells us about the moving parade of her friends on the eve of her departure, and the infinite sadness of her old master. The departure was a heartbreak. Arriving in Hong Kong in a pitiful state, she discovers what really happened in Peking, the tanks, the dead, the wounded; she then falls into a deep depression, she is taken to Paris, without money, with her rollers under her arm.

From Paris to Bejing

Welcomed by her aunt and uncle, who had already helped her in particular to obtain the scholarship, she is coming back to life, with the hope of returning to China, but above all, thanks to painting, to the work of writing her scholarship report and to the support of ethnologists, friends of her aunt.

Shortly afterwards, a new shock in Fabienne Verdier’s life: her aunt and uncle die in a car accident. But a few days after this sad news, she learns that she has been accepted as artistic attaché for the Quai d’Orsay in Beijing, where she had applied, on the advice of her uncle and aunt.

Three weeks later, she found herself in Beijing, where as a cultural attaché she still meets many artists. The pages devoted to the musicologist, painter, calligrapher, seal engraver and historian, Mr. Lan Yusong, are enchanting with the poetry of the character and the beauty of the relationship that is woven between them. In front of the vases, pots, bowls and tea boxes that fascinate the master, Fabienne Verdier thinks of Giorgio Morandi.

The return of the Old Master

Having learned of her return to Peking, her old master visits her,…to cover her with reproaches, disappointed with the direction her career as a bureaucrat is taking. He urged her to take up her brush again, convinced that she would make a better living selling paintings from time to time than working in an office. He imagines her already married, in pots and dirty nappies. She confesses to him that she has a boyfriend, which ends up making her old master despair.

In barely two pages, Fabienne tells the story of the meeting with the man who will become her husband. After being poisoned by rotten pork in a small restaurant, condemned to three months’ rest, she is settled at her friend’s house, who she has just met.

After this convalescence, it is impossible to go back to work. Her friend succeeds in convincing the old master Huang Yuan to live with them and together they set up a workshop for her. This passage in which she finds life again thanks to working with her master is moving, as is the happiness of the latter when officials and painters in Beijing recognize the quality of Fabienne Verdier’s work at an exhibition she organizes in Beijing and thank him for having passed on his knowledge to her.

Chapter Eleven ends with the celebration of his marriage, an exceptional celebration to which five hundred people will be invited, three hundred of whom will be among the greatest Chinese artists.

Life as a Painter

The last chapter evokes her work as a painter in Ile-de-France, in the countryside, where she found her balance as a painter. Since her return, based on what she was taught, she tries to transmit the beauty and the feeling of union she feels with the universe.

I have understood that ecstasy, whether she shouts or remains silent, is not a gift from Heaven that one waits with folded arms, but that it is conquered, shaped and that intelligence also has its part to play in it.
For ten years, old Huang forced me to transcribe the color through a monochrome scale, mostly black, using wash and Indian ink. A difficult exercise to find, in the intensity of the blacks, the subtle richness of the lights of the universe. The neutral flavour of the wash nourishes the essential being. This beauty that we never tire of is not the beauty of appearances. Its sobriety and humility create an intense presence in its erasing.

But from time to time, Fabienne Verdier leaves the asceticism of black and white for color, drawing inspiration in particular from the chromatisms encountered during her stay in China.

It took her twenty years for the thought of her old master to decant itself, yet she still considers herself an apprentice painter in the field of art.


Review and personal rating: 5/5

This autobiographical book is fascinating, very well written and enriching. For the artist, it is a source of advice and reflections, probably more topical than Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a young poet which are often recommended for those who want to know if their destiny is to be an artist.

The encounter with another culture in the youth seems to me to be conducive to the fundamental questioning of one’s own culture and that of the other. This is an aspect that particularly touched me. Moreover, the rigor, the work, the reflections on art, on patience, humility, knowledge of the mind and the heart, all this makes this book an exceptional reading. Impossible not to be touched by the destiny of this extraordinary woman.

In Asian painting, my taste has always been for Japanese art; from now on I will look at Chinese painting and calligraphy with a different eye.

Detail of a Chinese bamboo representation

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