Xu Wei (1521-93), an exceptionally talented painter, calligrapher, writer and poet, was later widely considered as the founder of modern painting in the country. His xieyi, or expressive free-style painting, was not only fashionable in the decades after his death, but also influenced many Chinese artists in the following centuries, including great painters such as Bada Shanren (1626-1705), the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou during the middle Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) as well as modern masters such as Wu Changzhou (1844-1927) and Qi Baishi (1864-1957).

Xu Wei

Xu Wei is often compared with his counterpart in the west, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90), aBecause of their brilliant talent, imbalanced mental-health and posthumous recognition.Strangely, there’s even more coincidences between those two talents:

1. They both suffered from mental problems

Za Hua Tu Juan (Floral Sprays Scroll), Xu Wei

It is said that Xu Wei was already showing symptoms of mental disorder by his early twenties. Xu had attempted to hit his own head with an ax, and stabbed his ear with an awl. When he failed to pass the imperial examination, Xu made repeated suicide attempts. Later, when he was about 40, he became so paranoid that he killed his second wife in a fierce rage, believing her to be involved in an extramarital affair.

2. They both started their career at the late stage of their life

Xu learns start to paint at the middle age.

3. They both tried to suicide

Xu Wei’s Calligraphy 

Xu attempted to suicide for 9 times, he hit his own head with an ax, he broke his skull but he was not dead, he also stabbed his ear with an awl, he thought he was dead but he’s not, he even tried to hemmer his testis, he’s still not dead; Van Gogh also attempted suicide, and he is not died until two days after.

4. They both paint by instinct

Xu Wei’s Grapes. “Grapes” has not only been widely acclaimed as a great xieyi masterpiece, but also as one of his most representative creations.

Van Gogh’s Grape Harvest

There is a fine line between inspired creativity and insanity. Just like the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, it was this insanity that made him one of the greatest artists in Chinese history. The way Xu drew the vines of the wisteria in Za Hua Tu Juan (Floral Sprays Scroll) – the strokes are totally wild, far beyond normal reckoning. People who are mentally imbalanced see the world through different perspectives and these mad artists present their experiences through their paint brushes.

5. They are both poor when they live, and not recognized by the public until they dead

Like Van Gogh, Xu Wei was unlike any artist of his day, or even later. Van Gogh only sold one painting of him during his life, the only painting that been sold was even bought by his brother who was tried to courage him. Xu didn’t die after he suicided, but dead because of poverty when he’s 72.

Qi Baishi (齐白石) (1864-1957) once declared his admiration for Xu in a poem that said: “How I wish I’d been born 300 years earlier so I could grind ink and prepare paper for the Xu Wei”. Even four hundred years later, you can still feel the fluid flow of ink on paper. There is music in it, like a symphony you cannot forget.