CHINA: Fabienne Verdier, a french master of the ancient Chinese art of calligraphy












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Fabienne at workSipping a cup of Chinese tea during a brief pause in the garden of her country house, Fabienne Verdier does not deny she is elated by the success of her work. She painted large size silk canvases for Joyce Ma’s shopping mall in Bangkok. After showing her work in Bangkok and at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, in Taipeh (Taiwan) at the beginning of 1998 she designed the first cover of a collection of books on China for a French publisher. All the paintings she put on show in a two floors gallery at Hong Kong were sold. Her Paris show was also quite successful: collectors from Asia, Europe and America buy paintings which fetch 20.000 dollars. And the first print of her new book, “The single stroke of the brush”, (Albin Michel, Paris), a beautiful artwork in itself, is sold out before reaching the shelves of the bookshops.

Fabienne’s life has not always been easy....

...Fabienne finally arrived in Chongqing, the most populated city in China and also the most polluted, in August 1984.  The university was located on the outskirts of the city, near a steaming Russian-built power station.

She soon discovered what it meant to live (almost) like a Chinese student. Fabienne had her own room -- a luxury. The room was a squalid one by most standards. In the room she discovered aneon tube for light, a bed with a straw mattres, a zinc wash basin and a Fabienne's toolsnumbered mess tin for her meals. Lights were switched off promptly at 10.30 pm. Rats ran freely in the darkened room. “Overnight, I had no private life. We had a shower once a week, at the power station. It was like a concentration camp. I saw one thousand naked women rubbing their bodies until they were as red as crayfish to get rid of the dirt. And every time I arrived, all of them staring at me, the only foreign girl...

Totally isolated from the other students

And I discovered the Chinese toilets -- 40 or 50 women squatting side by side”! At the same time, Fabienne was totally isolated from the other students. There was a piece of paper -- a “DaZiBao” -- on her door, which she did not understand: it said: “Absolutely Forbidden to Disturb the Young Foreigner”! For many long months Fabienne did not understand why she was so lonely. For her meals, Fabienne had special treatment. She was served in a small private room for guests, but the door was kept opened. The 2.000 students insulted her when walking near by. “I felt like a monkey in a cage”, says Fabienne who, after a long while succeeded in sharing the ordinary treatment of the students. Queueing with fellow students for hours to get a bowl of rice, she could meet them, talk with them and learn the language. The students in Chongqing did not speak the “Mandarin” that she had learned in France, but Sichuanese, a provincial dialect...

Fabienne's calligraphyChongqinq had one of the three best Colleges of Art in China. Fabienne followed the program for graduate students, a group of six students selected from among 2.000 candidates -- the best of the elite. The lectures were terrible. The teaching was totally westernized and influenced by the Russian school of “Socialist Realism”. Fabienne had private lectures! Again, the authorities did not want her to mix with the students.

“I fought with all my energy. I had not made it all the way to Chongqing for that. The problem was that when I arrived, the roots of traditional Chinese aesthetic thought, poetry, Taoism, the concept of space -- the whole history of art had been eradicated. All the heads of department and lecturers had done the Cultural Revolution; those who had a knowledge of the Chinese traditional art had not been rehabilitated”.

An old master who was living like an hermit

After one year at Chongking, Fabienne heard about an old master, Huang Yuan, who was living like a hermit. He kept calligraphing and reading old poetry books, totally apart from the official system. He only spoke Sichuanese. Through an interpreter, Fabienne told him that she wanted to study with him. He flatly refused, saying: “It is out of the question that I teach -- especially a foreigner. Even my own son does not understand what I am doing”... But Fabienne insisted so strongly that he told her to bring her work. He had a long look at it, and then, to assess her vision, he asked her to look at his books of calligraphy.

Unknowingly, Fabienne selected three famous masters: Huang Yuan was impressed, and decided to give her a chance. For six months, Fabienne spent ten hours a day studying calligraphy, copying and interpreting the old masters.Finally Huang Yuan decided  to give her a chance, and she became his student. This meant that she would spend a lot ot time traveling with him to the remote “Holy Mountains” in areas of China forbidden to foreigners. Some masters teach how to paint trees,flowers, animals or people. Huang Yuan taught Fabienne to paint landscapes: it was, he told her, the supreme art. But unlike painters in the West, who draw immediately what they see on a sketchbook: “He taught me to be overcome by a landscape, to live it fully ZEN, so that it could live in my memory; and then, afterwards, when we went back to a temple or to some friend’s house, to feel again the same emotion in front of a white sheet of paper, and to reconstitute the landscape, from memory... It took me a very long time to do it, especially when dealing with a complex landscape; but the result is far richer. It is a real work of creation. One learns to work like nature. It took me years to be able to do it”.

Dressed like a Chinese with plaits, Fabienne traveled on the roof of a bus to Tibet, hiding herself in a basket full of geese. She visited the Liang Shan district, at the border between Tibet and Sichuan. This area is inhabited by the Yi, a minority group whose members wear long pigtails and dress in animal skins -- still living as in the Middle Ages. They knew nothing about the outside world. Fabienne was the second White person they had seen, after a British pilot who fell from the sky during the war. They believed Fabienne also came from the sky!

A vision of art and life

Awakened each day at 5 am by her master, she learned to start the day with a ritual washing and some exercises in calligraphy. The entire day he taught her his vision of art and of life. At night, drinking hot water instead of tea or rice alcohol, she would listen for hours to her master and his friends speaking about poetry, philosophy and art. They slept in temples and in shacks. Fabienne’s experience was unique. She discovered China from inside like no other Westerner had. With her master’s friendship, her brushes and her sketchbook were her passport, along with a travel permit delivered by the director of her college.

She also experienced China’s misery, was often infested with fleas and different lices: she had to shave completely several times. She was sick with diarrhea, and collapsed once in the toilets of her university, without understanding the Chinese word used by her college friends who immediately made the diagnostic: she had a severe hepatitis.

Fabienne learned the art of landscape painting with her master, Huang Yuan. She learned the technique of pasting paper with a  university professor. She also wanted to learn the old art of engraving a seal. She found out there was a man who was living in the compound of the Russian power station who still knew how to do it. She was warned that his fingers had been chopped off during the Cultural Revolution, and he was using a leather prosthesis. People who met him for the first time could’nt help gasping! For three years, Fabienne followed his training. After these years of exhaustive training, she chose the characters FA and BI to sign her work. FA in the Taoist tradition is “the Law, the Way”, whence France (the country of Laws); BI means “comparative study”:  “Keep your name”, her master told her when she said she wanted to adopt a Chinese name, “you could’nt find a better one”.

In 1987 Fabienne got a grant from the Fyssen Foundation to follow up her study of the traditional transmission of  Chinese Art. She visited the last surviving masters who were  hidden in large cities. The ritual was always the same. She would send a few rolls of her works to the master. It was only after checking that she was worth meeting that they would send somebody to guide her to their place. She spent days discussing with them, listening to how they had learned their art, skimming through their books, looking at their work, and eventually criticising it. All these men (painting is a man’s affair in China) were in their late 80’s or 90’s -- all the more so desperate as there was no new generation of artists to take over. The Cultural Revolution had destroyed their students.


While the Chinese students were massacred on Tiananmen square in Beijing in 1989, Fabienne got her diploma. Tanks were also rolling around the College of Arts in Chongqing while her masters and students were examining her work. What is probably even more important for Fabienne at this time, is that she was also admitted as a member of Sichuan’s Association of Calligraphers. “Most probably, I am the only foreigner to enjoy such a membership”, she says proudly.

Fabienne was exhausted by all these difficult years. She had been living on a scholarship of 100 Yuans (about 20 dollars) per month, of which she was giving back half to her old master. Her health began to show the strain, so when she learned that the French Embassy was looking for a cultural attache in charge of relations with the artists, she applied for the job -- and got it.

For three years, 1989-1991, Fabienne lived the life of a diplomat. Over were the days when she was living like a Taoist hobo. She now spent her time between cocktails and dinner parties in expensive restaurants. However, her work with the Chinese artists was quite disappointing. The painters she saw in Beijing understood how to cope with the system and make a living. Some of them were painting like Matisse, Chagall or Van Gogh for the foreign community. It brought them good money. Others were exploring various fruitful schools, like the German Expressionism and Pop Art. Others were following the rules of the old Soviet Socialist Realism. They got the official orders. She saw all kinds of painters -- except the kind of artist she wanted to help.

When she found one, living as a recluse, she could not do anything. The Chinese authorities would not give him a travel permit. She was spending huge amounts of money for cocktails and dinner parties, but her government had no money to help the artists. Every day there was a drama, and she felt totally powerless.

Probably a victim of the “Chinese syndrom”, after ten years in China, Fabienne was again sick, physically, and threatened by a nervous breakdown. It was than that she met Ghislain, an international business consultant, whom she was to marry in 1992. “Ghislain saved me”, says Fabienne. “He put a brush in my hand, and told me “show me what you have learned”. After a very successful showing of her work in Beijing (she sold everything) Fabienne quit her diplomatic job...

(Topia, Excerpt, Summer 1996)










Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2002









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