140 Warriors or More, by Marion Bertagna

140 Warriors Or More stands out as one of Zhao Xuebing’s most striking drawings on canvas. It features a dense throng of armored warriors, intertwined into a flamboyant symphony. Executed with meticulous details and rendered with a crystalline delicacy and clarity, it is hard to conceive that such a composition was executed with a very fine ink pen directly on the canvas without the preparation of a preliminary sketch or draft… Zhao Xuebing draws with great liberty, in full command of his draftsman’s technique. One can only be struck by the consummate cleverness and dynamism of the drawing.

Zhao draws his subjects from the literary and visual references that have fueled his insatiable curiosity and populated his prolific imagination since childhood. In this drawing, we encounter a whirlwind of source material that has been woven into a grandiose composition, including illustrations from Chinese historical novels, such as Outlaws of the Marsh or The Three Kingdoms; Faihai Temple’s Ming dynasty murals; traditional landscape ink painting; anatomy; information technology; graphic design; and most prominently, Chinese, Japanese and Korean warrior iconography. Upon close observation, one can even find a David-like Napoleon hidden in the crowd, or ancient Greek or Roman armor scattered here and there, and a myriad of other incongruous and often humorous pictorial elements…

The mind-blowing details of the drawing stimulate continued study and engagement. In China, the literati used the expression to “read a painting” (du hua) rather than to “look at a painting” (kan hua) to describe the experience of unrolling and slowly studying a handscroll. The former phrase can also be used to describe one’s experience with 140 Warriors Or More. In fact, Zhao Xuebing likes to stress the opposite effects created by the work whether one stands close to it or at a distance: “What is crucial in a work is not to lose sight of the idea you have in mind when you start it. I wanted to create a gray abstract surface.”

From a distance, the rhythm of the drawing, in its abstract, is created by the faces of the warriors: curiously left blank, they offer an essential visual respite in a composition which might otherwise feel intolerably dense and oppressive. Like pawns on the board of a Go game, they seem to be the quiet aftermath of a fierce battle. The overall rhythm of the drawing is further accentuated by the fluid movements of the warriors’ bodies and their soft interactions, which remind us of the natural though carefully studied choreography and postures of Beijing Opera actors. Zhao Xuebing also states: “Just like in Beijing Opera, all the weapons in this drawing are fake. They have to be fake so that the painting remains abstract.”

Although flat, with no shadow or perspective, the drawing gives a strong impression of depth, like a valley in which one can easily get lost. Despite the whirlwind of lines and movement, there is an unexpected feeling of peace and serenity to the work. In a sense, these “abstract” warriors are only a pretext for an incredible composition. In that sense, they present a similarity to the Xi’an Terracotta Warriors: removed from the violence and fierceness of their profession, they actually exude an atmosphere of solemn dignity, peace and culture.

Marion Bertagna