Born on the historic Greek Peninsula of Attica jutting into the Aegean Sea, Sophia Vari’s extraordinary and peripatetic life story reads like an art history of the twentieth century. Hailing from a Classical Greek tradition she firmly believes is ‘in the blood’, Vari has spent a lifetime traveling and absorbing the many cultures that have fed her artistic imagination. From Mayan to Egyptian, Olmec to Cycladic, and periods spanning the Ancient to Baroque and movements Cubism to Surrealism, Sophia Vari has known the great artistic figureheads of her time, including Henry Moore, and Maria Callas, who sat for Vari in the creation of a bust one week before the singer’s untimely death. For nearly the past four decades Sophia Vari has been married to Columbian artist Fernando Botero and their life of adventure and artistic critique has clearly been one of beauty and mutual benefit to their distinctive practices. Once claiming “painting is an illusion”, Vari skips between oils, watercolours, mixed media and collage with ease, as well as jewellery in silver, gold, wood, ivory and coral, or 'portable sculptures', as she prefers to call them. Yet it is with large and monumental sculpture that Vari is clearly in her element, stating in 1976: “I want to touch, I want the volume, I want to be able to walk around my work, I want to create into a space… to feel my own existence.” Vari's sculptures have evolved through several stages over the course of decades dedicated to perfection and she is seemingly just as active today as she was fifty years ago, working every day for up to eight hours. Indeed Sophia Vari is a study in contrasts. Slight and statuesque, Vari’s feminine frame is at variance to her chosen materials of bronze, marble and silver; the weight and physicality of her work constantly exploring a delicacy of balance. She is fascinated by the tension between gravity and levity and her work remarkably exudes both in equal measure.
Beginning to sculpt in the 1960s, the young Vari was preoccupied by the human form and Classical techniques. Moving into rounded abstraction by the 1980s, in more recent years her work has evolved into constructed and planar forms, often painted in polychrome to contribute a sense of movement to the work, with occasional Mondrian reds, blues and yellows adding a certain playfulness. While today Vari pays homage to her Greek heritage through the marble and bronze media of her work, she has freed herself from the human form over the years to explore a more complex presentation of the interaction of form. And her play with contradictions never really ceases for the viewer. The contrast between seeing reproduced images and being exposed to Vari’s work in person is stark: when experienced, there is a surprising subtlety and moreover, sensuality that is unexpected for such heavy material and formations. Vari has said to have been entranced by the sensuous women in Rubens' paintings from a young age and there is an undeniable sexuality to her own work which is sophisticated. Just as with Rubens, in Sophia’s sculpture the robust and light coincide as forms engage with space and at times appear almost suspended. Italian schools have also clearly been a great influence, and the simplicity and vitality of Giotto and Piero della Francesca may be the defining objectives for Vari. The Italian art critic Vittorio Sgarbi once said Vari “humanises geometry”, but she rather sees geometry as a tool of discipline which she uses to make the work “clean and clear” and “permits indulgence with other things”, such as the beauty of the materiality and the patina.
In our interview by phone from a little Greek island to Beijing I am struck by Sophia’s energy, her ease at witching languages, and the memory of a mind that too is clean and clear. She speaks of conquering adversity early on in the aftermath of World War II, learning salient lessons of overcoming cultural isolation, and a cool-headed pragmatism she inherited from her grandmother. Besides the formative relationships of her life which all centre upon art and creation, Sophia speaks frankly that art is not catharsis for her as the artist, but her great aspiration is rather to ‘do something good’ with her art for others. She speaks unpretentiously of the peace that ink art offers the viewer, confiding that while she has a feeling for it she could not do it, and generously praises the works of ink artist Li Yongfei. Unlike Li Yongfei, who believes the otherwise ethereal practice of meditation has a practical and direct influence on his artistic practice, Sophia ingeniously admits to a corporeal, almost workmanlike approach to her art. She does not claim to enter a creative Gestalt, a ‘creative whole’ between her life and work, her greater concern being “bringing clarity and ethics to creation”. The septuagenarian continues:- “if I can give a little bit of harmony and peace to the viewers of my work then I am satisfied. Peace provides clarity for thought, which in turn provides the way to a practical solution”. In achieving a masterclass in aesthetic balance the ends may be the same for the two artists, but their approaches could not be more dramatically different, both philosophically and practically. While Sophia is concerned with morality, Li Yongfei is preoccupied with a Confucian ideal of harmony above morality. I imagine Sophia in her studio determining proportions in clay and toiling with casts for bronze in foundries, while half a world away a young ink artist sits as if in complete stillness.
If Sophia Vari’s sculptures are an education in form and balance, the tradition of Chinese ink painting is a continual pursuit of gesture over form, with the physical link of the artist's body to paper through brush being paramount. In Li Yongfei’s steadily growing body of work over recent years subjects centre upon the tradition of mountains, mythical creatures and cloud seals (yun zhuan), reinvented in the mind. Monochromes have evolved to combine with increasingly rich colouration in works that literally collect the imprint of the literatus’ study. From tea to charcoal from burned incense to life-affirming orange zhusha mineral pigment, all of these agents act to disperse and manipulate the ink for the viewer’s pleasure. Li Yongfei’s thorough devotion to literati customs becomes clear on a visit to his studio. Here heady scents of ink mix with incense as the artist relays stories learnt by heart of myths and heroes, demons and dragons, all previously brought to life by the artist through careful consideration of the brush. Just as ancient Chinese artist-scholars spawned the phrase wen ren yu cha, ‘scholars and tea’, to embody a sense of art, a studio visit would not be complete without sampling one of this northern-born artist’s selection of southern-harvested tea. Indeed, the considerate and charismatic Hebeinative may be the personification of a modern literatus, self-cultivating through regular practice of The Three Perfections of calligraphy, painting and poetry, of which he now counts volumes of his own compositions. But it is the process behind this young artist’s new abstract works that is perhaps most intriguing. In recent years Li, Central Academy-trained in the most fastidious and demanding of all ink brush painting, the hairline-fine gong bi, has sought to find unmitigated ways to transmit his physical - and spiritual - life to paper. For an artist devoted to extending the limits of the brush, his solution has been extreme, not to mention brave, in deciding to abandon the brush altogether. It has also been a keen lesson in self-abandonment.
Relinquishing himself to his materials rather than exerting control over them through his tools, Li has led a search of indirect means to direct ink and water. And the practice to which the artist has turned to is meditation. Rather like a practitioner of taichi, Li Yongfei has engaged with material control alongside release through meditation, or as he calls it "the direct and indirect flow of energy on the paper". Commencing his study of meditation with a Taoist philosopher a number of years ago, Li cites amongst his earliest experiences water placed in vials before each practitioner during meditation, and then submerged in ice at the end of the session. The resultant ice crystals of those more experienced in meditation being far more complex than those less experienced left a profound impression on the artist. It brought to his mind the phenomenon of ‘Water Memory’, the purported ability of water to retain a memory of substances previously dissolved in it even after a number of dilutions, and the claimed mechanism by which homeopathic remedies work, although diluted to the point that no single molecule of the original substance remains. Li Yongfei too attests to a related effect in his artistic work that heavily relies on water as he has practiced meditation in parallel. While his immersion in meditation has deepened, Li firmly believes that his state of mind and moreover the power of his meditative practice at any one time affects the property of water in his works and therefore the formation of ink and mineral in them. He explains the basic practical and more esoteric aspects to his practice:
"When water and colour and ink are mixed on a piece of paper, several effects and forms can emerge. One is an yong (a kind of stippling effect), one is flowing and the other is merging. For these effects and textures to appear on the same piece of paper, I manipulate the water. But it also depends on factors such as temperature. If I work in the winter, the results are quite different from the summer. Water also gives the effect of depth - raised and sunken areas. It’s a bit like making wine. After I put all the ingredients together, I let it ferment... Yet the most profound effect on my work is meditation… In many ways I’ve abstracted the method. In my works, there are no outlines, no lines at all. It’s more like yi tuan qi (a cluster of energy). So I think it’s more pure. It’s just qi flowing on the paper... In this series I want to express particular elements of Chinese Taoist culture."
Li Yongfei’s statements call to mind the words of the ink artist Liu Dan with whom I recently had the privilege of spending time in his studio. The soft but decisively spoken master gave me pause for thought when he declared: "the majority of Western artists need to conquer materials, whereas an ink artist must surrender to his materials, they conquer him". It is undeniable that there is an honesty that ink and water on paper demands, they are relatively unforgiving, and do not allow for temporal lapses as other materials might. Liu Dan’s words have held resonance as I’ve visualised Sophia Vari in Pietrasanta, the ultimate in feminine grace wielding a masculine impetus of bright, yang energy in the context of a bustling Tuscan foundry, all expanding and contracting vigour like the very bronze alloy in its cast, indeed conquerer of her materials. Trip an auspicious eight thousand kilometres east from Pietrasanta to Beijing to find Li Yongfei - all tamed, yin energy enveloped in a dark studio only suffused by the gentlest of aromas of tea mixed with incense, his environment creating xian tian (‘what comes from heaven’), a primeval quality and the kind of innocence (hun dun) he uses to describe his works.
Ink and Innuendo is an exploration of contradictions within dualities: of finding form in gesture and the inverse; the physical mind, the quietened body; masculine yang in a sculptress of bronze, marble and silver and feminine yin in the delicacy of water and ink from the resolute hand of a literatus. I hope visitors to the exhibition and readers of its catalogue will enjoy it as much as I have in bringing together these two dynamic, divergent artists My sincere thanks to Sophia Vari and Li Yongfei for their uncompromising commitment to their crafts and their generosity of time in giving insightful interviews contained in this catalogue. Thanks always to my team, Michelle Ho in Hong Kong and Michelle Feng in London. My thanks also to Jeremie Thircuir, Liu Yaping, and to Zheng Yuxin of Galerie Dumonteil, Shanghai. And last but not least, sincerest thanks to Andrea Herrera Goulandris and her husband Leonidas for so generously opening up their unique home in Beijing’s Liuyin Park that is such a magical setting for the contemplation of art. - Emily de Wolfe Pettit