rain over chongqing

goodbye beijing, hello chongqing

a traveling exhibition.

goodbye Beijing: After the exhibition in Beijing had to be repeatedly postponed due to the pandemic, the organizer moved the exhibition to Chongqing, to the Hong Art Museum Chongqing. [1]

That’s not a bad alternative for a few reasons: Chongqing didn’t have a lockdown, it’s quite a big city with over 30 million inhabitants and there are many rich people – so some can afford my paintings 😊 Now the exhibition will last 8 weeks instead of the original 4 weeks in Beijing. And I’ve been there three times before and liked the city. However, I find it somewhat unfair that my pictures undertake more extensive journeys than their creator 🙂

Having an exhibition in China these days is an expensive affair and I would never have agreed if I didn’t have energetic supporters whom I would like to thank again. [2]

Below is my recent work on Chongqing – the spring rains there are special.

rain over chongqing, ink painting

It is always amazing how much China has changed in the last few decades. In a very short time, poor areas now are highly modern metropolises.

old chongqing peasants house and new chongqing skyscrapers
Chongqing in 1979 and now

Sechuan experiences

With Chongqing, I have some special memories. For me, this city is connected to a painter I know since 1979: Xue Mingde 薛明德. And he definitely is one of the most unusual artists I met in China. And about him and Chongqing, I want to tell you a few purrs:

1979, the bad days of the Cultural Revolution had just ended and tender shoots of freedom were beginning to sprout. Suddenly there was a so-called “democracy wall” on the most important street in Beijing and daring people posted their wall newspapers there with often quite critical content. At the time, I painted an oil painting with people in front of this “democracy wall” (Of course, the face masks have primarily symbolic meaning).

in front of the democracy wall in Beijing, oil painting
democracy wall. oil painting by friedrich zettl

There were avenue trees along the road (Chang’an Avenue) and Xue Mingde had stretched a line between 2 trees and hung his pictures on it (like hanging laundry out to dry). He had just cam from prison in Sechuan (With his irrepressible urge for freedom, he had taken on the local police.) and, convinced that he was one of the greatest painters of all time, he wanted the metropolis of Beijing to know that too. We got talking, he was very excited that a foreigner liked his pictures and soon we’ll see each other more often. I’ve met a lot of “introvert” artists, but Xue might top the list.

Xue was difficult to deal with and hyperactive, and the only way to endure being together was for us to paint each other. You could publish your own collection of stories about this man.

Xue Mingde portraits by Zettl, oils and charcoal
one of my oil paintings and a sketch of Xue Mingde

Chongqing 1

I first visited Chongqing when I took a boat up the Yellow River from Wuhan to Chongqing. [3] Unforgettable how I found a place at the bow of the ship in the morning hours and painted the landscape. Light, airy work with gouache. Behind me, one deck down, a Chinese music group played beautiful music…

As I stretched my legs and stood at the railing, I saw a dead body floating past the ship. Two Chinese stood behind me and one said: “Probably the only way for us Chinese to go abroad”. Another form to say goodbye.

Chongqing 2

When I came to Chongqing for the second time, Xue, who had just been released from prison, came to my hotel and wanted to show me the real Chongqing the next day. So we walked along the streets and soon it became clear what this special sightseeing should be: Again and again he stopped to proudly explain to the people: “This is my friend from Austria”. But that shouldn’t have left much of an impression. Xue was also relatively ragged for that time and with shaggy hair, and my appearance also took some getting used to long hair, a long beard, and a Mao suit….

Chongqing 3

A couple of years later I visited Chongqing again (honeymoon). I was very fond of Peking opera at the time and had only just started to discover local operas. So a visit to the opera in Chongqing was on the agenda. We hadn’t had dinner yet and saw a street food stand selling some kind of fondue. Well, it was an incredibly large pot, filled with water, and covered with a layer of oil and hot spices. You chose meat, vegetables… and the good man briefly boiled it in the broth and when he took it out, the food was of course coated with the spicy oil. Whatever you can imagine as hot doesn’t come close. Of course, we didn’t finish eating, and on the way to the opera the “hot “set in. At that time you could hardly buy drinks anywhere, our mouths burned like fire. Then we met a peasant who was carrying a bundle of cane sticks on his back. He sold us one, peeled it for us and we, dying of thirst, began to suck the sweet juice from the sticks.

But we were rewarded with one of the most unusual performances imaginable. Absurd, and surreal, outside of anything I’d seen before.
This is only an example of a more modern kind of Chongqing opera, which unfortunately does not live up to the old one. Still quite nice – watch the face: [4]



Hong Art Museum

Opening: 05.07.2022 – 15.00 Uhr

Duration: 05.07. – 05.09. 2022


[3] Three Gorges (san xia: 长江三峡水利枢纽工程)

[4] This example here is a specialty of Chongqing Opera: bian lian (变脸 change faces). Each time the performer lifts his fans from his face, a different face shows up.

girls – girls – girls | Out of the Blues into the Blue


29 responses to “goodbye beijing, hello chongqing”

  1. Mike U. avatar

    I absolutely love these travel tales of yours. I watched the video and even though I’m deaf, I think I would actually enjoy seeing something like this in person for the sheer spectacle of it. So unique! Xue Mingde sounds like quite a character, and your painting and sketch of him are brilliant. It’s wonderful to see your earlier works compared to your modern-day pieces. Fascinating all round. I’ll bet you’ve got a million tales to tell of all your adventures, not only in China but in other locales around the world, too. Best of luck with your exhibition in Chongqing. Exciting stuff, Friedrich! 🙂

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you Mike for your kind comment and good wishes for my exhibition! Yes, there would be a lot to tell 🙂 I don’t often show my earlier work, but I think it’s always good to be able to follow the development of a painter.

      1. Auden James avatar

        I can relate to that just all too well! I think that with time there develops a kind of special relationship to one’s own earlier works which isn’t necessarily always a smooth and trouble-free affair. Or does your experience as an artist differ from that, Friedrich?

      2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        Thank you for your kind opinion! My previous works are nostalgia for me. Some associated with special memories that often cloud my factual view. I still like some of them a lot though. But basically it is a very nice experience to switch from the figurative to the abstract.

      3. Auden James avatar

        Good to know, though, that you can still see your earlier works in a positive—even if tinged with nostalgia—light! And memories, especially special ones, are to be treasured. As Nabokov put it so poignantly, “One is always at home in one’s past . . .” (from “Speak, Memory”).

    2. les2olibrius avatar

      Bonne chance pour votre exposition. Cet illusionniste était particulièrement doué ! Vos oeuvres antérieures sont superbes et bien plus faciles à percevoir que l’art abstrait, pour mon intellect limité. Merci de les avoir montrées.

      1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        Merci pour vos aimables paroles et vos bons voeux! Mes œuvres antérieures reflètent un autre monde et représentent pour moi un bon moment. Avec mon glissement vers l’abstrait, c’est un monde spirituel, philosophique qui s’ouvre. Les deux ont leur charme.

  2. swabby429 avatar

    I enjoyed your reminiscing and the video. Best of luck with the exhibition.

  3. rabirius avatar

    I really like your picture.
    And also what you have written about Chongqing. I’ve never managed to travel that far east but I really like to hear from there.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much! I am happy you like it.

  4. Auden James avatar

    A very personal and interesting account! Indeed, the changes China has undergone in the last few decades are nothing short of amazing. Though, as you say so yourself, it might be a tad unfair that your paintings seem to travel there more often than their creator these days!

    Anyway, since we’ve briefly touched upon film in the comments to another of your recent blog entries, I’d like to know what you think of the film “Farewell My Concubine” (1993) by Chen Kaige? As it chronicles the lives of two Peking opera actors and you professed to have been very fond of Peking opera in the past, I’m led to belief that you might also have been interested in films about it. And talking about Chinese film, there’s also a recent film by Jia Zhangke, “Ash Is Purest White” (2018), which tries to capture the tremendous changes (and their rapidity) in China of just the last twenty years (against a backdrop gang criminality).

    But, as always, thank you for your art and writing!

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you for your contribution! “Farewell My Concubine” by Chen Kaige is one of my favorite films. Maybe also because I dealt with the character of Mei Lanfang, who is the main subject of this film, quite intensively. A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet his son when he was visiting Austria.

      And with great pleasure I saw that there are restored films with Mei Lanfang on youtube, colored 🙂

      Actually Picasso also met Mei Lanfang and was very impressed by his work.

      1. Auden James avatar

        That’s just marvelous! I didn’t know that Picasso also met Mei Lanfang. However, there’s also a second film by Chen Kaige which is specifically about Mei Lanfang, titled “Forever Enthralled” (2008) in English. It is less fictional and more autobiographical; it also was shown in competition at the 2009 Berlinale.

      2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        Yes, Chen Kaige was just great. This generation of filmmakers knew how to draw on tradition while conveying new content.
        BTW, you probably know this photo of Mei and Chaplin:

      3. Auden James avatar

        Ah, yes, Chaplin’s visit to Shanghai after the completion of “Modern Times!” Now, that really brings on feelings of nostalgia! Thank you for the photograph which is testament to the mutual appreciation of two great artists—perhaps even two of the greatest artists of their time and cultures, right?

      4. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        Yes, Mei Lanfang was definitely one of the greatest, but I’m not sure if non-Chinese can penetrate into the higher realms of Chinese opera. It’s similar to painting or calligraphy – a world that only opens up when you deal with it long and hard. But already, what is revealed to us is impressive enough 🙂

      5. Auden James avatar

        All true. I wouldn’t want to claim for myself to have fully grasped Peking opera! But, according to the sources we have, Chaplin indeed had more than just a layman’s appreciation of Chinese opera as Qu Guanliang, an employee of a travel agency who interpreted opera for visitors at the time, noted that Chaplin was rather a “knowledgeable fan.”

      6. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        I am sure he was a “knowledgeable fan.” I was thinking more of the likes of us who know something about western opera and just wanted to suggest that there is a lot more behind the surface. But in a way, that’s also the case with Western operas, so my comment is probably redundant 🙂

  5. Hangaku Gozen avatar

    The video reminded me of one of my favorite movies, “The King of Masks.” I believe the film was set in Sichuan in the 1930s and featured, alongside a local opera group, a street performer who specialized in the art of changing masks. A few of my Chinese friends think it’s sentimental drivel, but I like regional arts and Chinese cinema of the 1990s and early aughts, when artists had greater freedom to explore the development of individual character. (I am not sure that’s the case now after seeing what’s happened to Zhang Yimou under the current government.)

    Best of luck for your new show! I wish I could see it in person, but it appears it’ll be years before I can travel internationally again.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much for your kind words! Yes, Chinese films of the 1980-90s were very good. I once organized a major retrospective of Chinese film. On this occasion, I interpreted for Zhang Yimou 🙂

      Yes, the situation for artists in China is certainly not rosy at the moment 🙁

  6. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

    Interesting post, Friedrich. My best wishes for a successful sales return at the Chongqing exhibition. How unfortunate that you can’t be there in person!

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much, Rosaliene! Sales or no sales – it doesn’t mattter. I’m not even sure I would like to be there because the beautiful image I have in my head of this city would be shattered.

  7. Martha Kennedy avatar

    The opera reminds me of a recurring nightmare I had as a child, though the opera is not nightmarish, the undetermined, every-changing faces evoke that nightmare. Your friend reminds me of some of the truly intense and desperate talented Chinese I met who really believed that the “freedom” they were experiencing after the Cultural Revolution couldn’t last and they were frantically seizing the day. One such person was a colleague at the university where I taught who had attempted a translation of the poetry of Chen Jingrong. She knew her translations weren’t really English, so I ended up editing them. Later, Chen Jingrong was “rehabilitated” and her poetry was published in translation — not that done by my colleague and I. One of ours was published in the literary magazine for the University of Denver.

    Your two photos; Sichuan in 1979 and now says a lot to me. It’s exactly why I don’t much want to return to China. I realized at the time — when one of my students asked, “You think we are poor, teacher?” — that when everyone is poor no one is poor. It was a strange realization as was realizing I was paid more per month than Deng Xiao Ping was. The houses in my village looked like that one as did many inside Guangzhou, though most buildings were 3 stories. Just 3 stories.

    I wish you all the very best in your show. I love your painting of the Democracy Wall. You captured it — and the masks? There were so many people wearing masks in Guangzhou because of the pollution and because of airborne illnesses that when the mask thing appeared here in 2020, I wondered, “What’s your problem?” But there we were.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you Martha for your good wishes! Yes, how “rich” we, as foreigners, were back then 🙂 Today we wouldn’t even be able to afford to browse the menu in some restaurants. 🙂

      I also thought that China no longer interested me, but I’ve been there at least once a year for the last 15 years before Covid and was very enthusiastic. You just have to find your place.

      The masks were already being worn, but that was because of the spring dust that hit the city from the north.

  8. annieasksyou avatar

    Fascinating from start to finish. It certainly is worthwhile to see your work at various stages. And what a poignant anecdote about the people viewing the dead body in the water!

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you so much! I am very happy to hear you enjoyed it. Have a wonderful day!

  9. stolzyblog avatar

    Though I often have a challenge relating to abstracts, Freidrich, for a reason I cannot put my finger upon I quite like your Chongqing example. It seems in between abstract and figurative to me. I like the way the raw and impulsive calligraphy dominates the skies, speaking their incantation to a living landscape below. Also quite like your earlier pieces as illustrated in the post. Good luck with the exhibition.

    Seeing the before/after contrast of the city, I would almost be afraid to go back to Yunnan or Chengdu after three decades. 🙂

  10. Zettl Friedrich avatar

    Thank you very much for your kind comment! Yes, so much has changed in China! The last time I was in Kunming (Yunnan), I saw a farmer driving his pig on one of the main streets 🙂 As for the painting: moving between the abstract and the concrete is one of my goals.

  11. […] I had an exhibition in China, Chongqing, last year, Ms. Hu from Chinese TV contacted me. They wanted to make a contribution on television […]

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