by Xian Zhang, from Hangzhou, China.

It’s summer and a group of Italian painters have arrived in Hangzhou a city 200km from Shanghai and the capital of the Nan Song dynasty. Retracing the footprints of Marco Polo, who visited 700 years ago, these Italians have come to paint the city that is my hometown.  On summer break from Bocconi University in Milan I joined the artists as they created works inspired by Hangzhou that will contribute to Italy’s Chinese Year of Culture.

It is the hottest time of the year in the hottest city in China, the temperature is above 35°C (95°F) and you feel like you are in a steamer. But the heat can’t stop the Italian artists from feeling like this is a “paradiso in terra” (paradise on earth), which is exactly how Marco Polo described the city.

Hangzhou + museum

Italian artists in the Zhejiang Art Museum

Maddalena Mauri came with her husband. This couple has found their ideal future “son-in-law” in Hangzhou. Just kidding! But they really like the Chinese guy who guided the art group. Maddalena’s paintings share one thing with Chinese art – fragility. She focuses her attention on the instant demise of things, in which she recognizes the fragility of Chinese art and finds a connection to it.

After meeting so many talented young Chinese students, Maddalena wants to open an art school here.  The most important thing she wants to teach is the “freedom” of art. Madalena comments on the young students she met: “They have excellent painting techniques but they don’t have space to think and express.”

It’s not difficult to tell the style Maddalena wants to use in her teaching. One day when she was doing a sketch in the park, a gardening girl was so interested in her painting that stood by for a while to observe. Maddalena then stopped and turned to teach the girl how to paint. The girl was allowed to change everything Maddalena had already put in her work. She was very involved in teaching people, or more specifically I should say, inspiring people. She encouraged the girl to do whatever she wanted on the canvas and offered her a new canvas to start another picture in the way she wanted. She gave brushes and oils as presents to the girl hoping that she could finish her first oil painting.

Hangzhou + Maddalena

Maddalena Mauri with her first student in China

Maurizio Diana is the eldest man in the group. In his words he is the one who has “conosciuto tante cose” (known many things). It’s the first time he is in China. Despite his age, he eagerly pursues the “enthusiasm” that he felt in China. He said he could sense the desire for progress in Chinese society and he admired what is going on in China. I mentioned to him that we are paying the price for some out-of-control development but he maintained his view that it is a phase a country needs to go through. And for Maurizio, the Chinese people’s “little sacrifice of liberty” is not a big problem. He strongly opposes the kind of life in which people work only “just so that they can reach their vacation.” In his point of view, this way of working to raise your social status can be seen as “dying before we’re dead” That’s why this painter coming from the bella vita of Italy finds the emerging China exciting and fascinating.

Hangzhou + Maurizio

Maurizio with the map of Hangzhou

Paolo Dolzan is a painter who lives in Trento, Italy. He described his painting activity as masturbation. It is only for self-pleasure and he never follows his own pleasure as a way to make others happy. He defines his works as a filter of reality. When I asked why he chose to paint a river dragon but turned it into an abstract and dark image during an in-field sketch, he said:

”The dragon is an important symbol for the Chinese and it is strongly associated with Chinese culture. And then, I added my personal components into the painting. My way of working is quite gestural and emotional. I want to present the overlapping of reality with my individuality.”

Hangzhou + boat

Hangzhou's famous dragon boat

Paolo observes the similarities between European paintings and Chinese writing: “Chinese poems are full of gestures which can be the source of a picture’s nutrition. The painter contemplates the subject and defines the concept he wants to present. While the painting is a flat surface, this surface is capable of accommodating the gestures. The gestural expressiveness of Chinese poems feeds the innovation of painting.” He appreciated the paintings of Qi Baishi, the maestro of Chinese painting. ”Qi’s paintings are at the same level of writing. He develops both the forms and the contents. They are like poems.“

Hangzhou + boat

Paolo while painting

Hangzhou + Peaches

Qi Baishi (1864-1957) | Peaches and Butterfly

One distinct trait of Paolo’s painting is that it clearly expresses his individual identity.  This is also a major characteristic of European painting, that is, a painter’s point of view is the base of the picture. While Paolo emphasized the individuality of European culture, he still praised the team spirit of the Chinese. He described every Chinese person as one drop of water in the sea, while the whole population constitutes the “collective ocean.”

The China that Paolo actually discovered in Hangzhou is different from his perception of it before he came. He understands the difference as a “cultural distance.” When he was in Italy his impression of Chinese culture was that it is characterized by philosophy and socialism. But when he was in China, he found it hard to understand why so many aspects of Chinese culture are now focused on a drive to the future. This is a question for the Chinese as well.

Hangzhou + pagoda

A pagoda in Hangzhou overlooking city development | photo courtesy Jakob Montrasio

A week later, Maddalena, Maurizio and Paolo left Hangzhou with memories of the people they met, the food they ate and the conversations we had. Those memories will be the source of concepts for their final painting about this tour. This October, their works will be put on exhibit in Venezia and I really can’t wait to see what my city looks like in the eyes of Italian painters!