|Artist Ding Liren has bugs to thank for transporting him into an unknown world of colour and style. Everyday insects, whose intricacies are invisible to the naked eye and whose habitats were the surprise trigger which fired his furtive imagination to new heights, were translated to his canvasses.
With his simple plain style of dress, affable and moderate manner of talking, Ding looks rather like a retired middle-school teacher.
But he loves strong colours and heavy strokes. Through the surprising medium of drawing insects in the Shanghai Insect Institute 40 years ago, Ding developed his painting style -- primitive and crude -- while simultaneously highlighting the ironically elegant and powerfully animated.
Arts critic Yin Shuangxi once remarked on the way Ding manoeuvres his art: "He doesn't want to pursue meaning, neither to duplicate nor dissect this world. He just keeps expressing his perpetual amazement and affection of the world, delighted by the random moments when the heart is suddenly illuminated during the hazy course of artistic creation.''
To Ding Liren, life is perpetually full of happy surprises, and painting is a way to express joy.
When he was a child, the story of "Journey to the West'' told by his nanny aroused in him an unquenchable curiosity of the world.
"I used to raise my head and look up at the sky, hoping I could see something in the depth of the clouds, like one or two warriors of heaven, or a gate of the splendid palace of the upper kingdom,'' he recalls.
The vague images of the characters in the stories crammed his mind and disturbed his heart, until one day he decided to try and capture them on paper, drawing them in a similar style to those he had seen in cigarette pack cartoon cards.
This first encounter with art was pivotal and Ding's life-long artistic pursuit has been an echo of it, namely, to capture what is envisaged in his fancy, to give expression to a heart amazed and entranced.
Youth with a passion
By every standard of 1950s Chinese society Ding was a reckless young man.
Born into a family of liberal intellectuals in 1930 in the countryside of Taizhou, East China's Zhejiang Province, from early childhood Ding grew up accustomed to letting his passions lead the way in his life.
With his parents very much preoccupied with the many painters, musicians and writers of Taizhou, a place famed for its profound cultural atmosphere, and with little restrictions placed on him by his family, young Ding extended his childhood playground to the whole range of the wild hills surrounding his hometown and the wonderland of the arts.
In his middle school years he was intensely aroused by the many translated foreign novels belonging to a cousin which he read. He also spent much time writing, organizing literary societies and publishing literary magazines. Although he did not feel compelled to become a writer, the passion burning in his heart drove him to be involved in such activities.
An innate lover of music, he also invested a lot of his youthful energy in learning to play an assortment of musical instruments, both from China and the West.
As a young man he transferred his attentions and talents to three universities and three very different subjects in the space of two years.
The first he entered in 1950 was the biology department of Nanjing University.
"In my high-school time, the lectures given by my biology teacher had greatly intrigued my curiosity on life sciences,'' said Ding.
But after just a year, he found that science was, after all, too rational and consequently at odds with his nature. And when his appeal to the university administration to transfer to the art department was rejected he simply dropped out and retook the entrance exam.
His rather rash action paid off and he was offered a place by both the Arts Department of Nanjing University and the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Although both are renown institutes, he was forced to make a choice and opted to turn down the former.
At that time, however, the political movements going one after another until the end of the "cultural revolution'' (1966-76) in China were beginning. Like other higher educational facilities across the country, the authorities of the Central Academy of Fine Arts were driven by the dogmatic ideologies of the period to occupy their students with political movements.
Renowned artists like Huang Binhong, Lin Fengmian and Pan Tianshou were ousted from the faculty and denied the right to meet students.
"The atmosphere discomforted me immensely,'' Ding recalls. And after just three months there, he decided to leave.
"What I thought at that time was that the arts could be studied outside the academy perfectly well. In that way you were more free of outward interference, and had more chance to develop an independent personal style.''
By dropping out of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, he marginalized himself from the mainstream political trend. During the ensuing decades he moved from one inconspicuous position to another, breaking loose from the main body of the social machine in search of a private space where he could keep an independent, free spirit.
`What bugs brought me'
After leaving the Central Academy of Fine Arts he took his third entrance exam in two years, and was admitted by the Aquatic Products Department of Shandong University in Qingdao in East China's Shandong Province in 1952, to study sea algae cultivation.
"I hoped I could cultivate sea algae on a green island surrounded by blue waves and lead a peaceful life far from the maddening crowd,'' mused Ding.
These vain hopes were quickly dashed. But life often presents all kinds of curiosities and opportunities, sometimes in the most unexpected ways.
In 1959, because of his biological background, he was assigned to work in the Shanghai Insects Institute.
Before long after settling down in Shanghai, he became acquainted with some distinguished older generation artists, such as Liu Haisu, Lin Fengmian, Zhu Qizhan and Guan Liang. He listened to them talking about the arts, watched them work, read the many books and saw the many paintings they had collected. It was from them, that he obtained several years of invaluable artistic instruction.
In the insects institute, because of his artistic background, Ding was assigned the job of drawing pictures of insects.
Under the microscope, magnified dozens and even hundreds of times, these creatures take on the appearance of gigantic, grotesque creatures, comparable to the gargantuans of the natural world, such as crocodiles, hippos, and made-man leviathans such as heavy bombers. Humans, by comparison, are dwarfed. The artist in him was captivated.
"I found a cosmos within the tiny lens,'' he recalls in an essay entitled "What bugs brought me.''
Ding said: "It's just like surveying the landscape from a plane, or to wander in the labyrinth of the core of the Earth.''
The painting of insects requires extremely meticulous exertion. For example, to paint a leg of a fly, one must make it strictly clear "how many hairs there are on the leg, among them how many long ones and how many short ones, how many thick ones and how many thin ones. And how these hairs are arranged, what is the angle between a hair and the leg, what is the radian of each curved hair.''
Over the course of about 10 years, the demanding, finicky practice tempered in him a high degree of craftsmanship in copying and line drawing.
And here also was opened a door to the realm of colour. When enlarged the shell of a black beetle becomes magnificently colourful and shining.
"The mysterious, dazzling colours excite, thrill and unnerve you, and make you feel like shouting,'' Ding enthused.
The colours are also constantly changing as the weather, altered by light and position. "The ever-changing, elusive colours would seduce you to draw and draw with unabated gusto.''
Besides painting insects, Ding also needed to capture in his works the relationship between insects and their environments. To do this he had paid frequent visits to the countryside of Southeast China. Those journeys delighted him and he began to paint the landscapes and living patterns of the country.
One day, after sauntering into the kitchen of a country house, he was confronted by something extraordinarily beautiful. It was a painting of the kitchen god hanging near the stove.
"The kitchen was gloomy, narrow and low-thatched, but the vivid picture made the room radiant. I felt more excited than if I had come across the Dunhuang Grottoes.''
When he was a little child, he remembers it was customary for his family to invite theatrical troupes to play Peking Opera or Shaoxing Opera in their large house. Having lived with the troupes, watched their rehearsals and played an accompaniment on a variety of musical instruments, the painting vividly revived memories of those operatic scenes from his youth.
His imagination once again captivated, Ding began to trawl the rural coastal areas of Southeast China, carefully copying every painting he found.
Several years later he joined the Folk Fine Arts Society. At that time he was also editing the Nanjing-based Folk Fine Arts magazine. Both positions afforded evermore opportunities to see folk arts.
From the late 1970s, Ding began to develop his distinct personal artistic style. With strong colours, heavy strokes, he paints traditional Chinese operatic scenes with everything exaggerated, amplified and distorted. His characters are dressed in flamboyantly costumes, their gestures invariably exaggerated and their expressions alternate between the comic and serious. The canvases more often than not are permeated with something childishly exhilarating.
"For the sake of passion, I had to paint. And only for the sake of passion,"