Walasse Ting endured poverty as a struggling young artist in Paris but became one of the world's most acclaimed painters. Now in his 70s, his interests encompass beautiful women, poetry, sex and listing his life's achievements. He also plans to paint 1,000 more pictures. Fionnuala McHugh meets a man with a mission.
It was in a state of mild anxiety that I went along to the Alice King Gallery in Prince's Building to interview the artist Walasse Ting. Our meeting would be his second interview with this newspaper in a week, the first abruptly terminated when Ting, on the line from Amsterdam, put down the telephone on a fellow journalist who'd asked the wrong question. Regular readers of this page will know it has often provided a haven for the difficult, the opinionated, for those marching to a different tune ... still, there are limits, and I was girding my loins for the fray with a deep sigh.
As it happened, Ting is fond of loins. Also of young women, sex, naughty words and apparently scandalous behaviour. At the front of the catalogue for his current exhibition, The Black and White World of Walasse Ting (which is on until May 25), he lists the prime activities of each of his 74 years. These range from the charmingly bucolic (three years old: 'first time catch grasshopper') to the puzzling (58 years old: 'first time discover look like panda') to the provocative (60 years old: 'first time make love with virgin'), plus some in between which can't be quoted in a family newspaper - you'll have to go to the gallery, I'm afraid, and read them for yourself.
I must say I laughed over his compendium, thereby gaining Ting's approval (he says he likes cheerful people - 'giggling' is one of his favourite words), and I'd be tempted to say we got on like a house on fire except that his house did catch fire a couple of years ago (72 years: 'first time fire burn house'), so perhaps it isn't an entirely happy simile. 'Arson,' explained Ting, matter-of-factly. 'A man renting another floor. I was asleep. If 10 minutes later, I would have died. If not for Andrea, I'm dead already.'
Andrea is Ting's 35-year-old Dutch girlfriend, currently convalescing in Amsterdam with a broken leg. They seem to be an accident-prone pair (73 years: 'first time fell down broke shoulder'), but Ting looks fit and handsome, and when we met he was wearing a jacket of ultra-dazzling colours; he has another 500 at home, part of an unsuccessful attempt to break into fashion.
As colour is usually his Big Art Statement, I wanted to know why his odalisques and sirens and seductive maidens were confined this time to black and white. 'Alice [King] said can we do this,' said Ting, with a shrug. 'I said okay. I painted a lot of black and white before but I never show it.' I asked, pen poised in art-critic mode, if he felt different working in black and white, and Ting, who had obviously decided that this interview was full of droll possibilities, replied, 'I'm colour blind. I hide inside the universe, inside the earth ... But of course, I take the aeroplane to Hong Kong.'
It was from Hong Kong that he set sail, fourth class, for France (22 years: 'first time take big boat to Paris'), having spent his childhood in Wuxi, where there are now plans afoot to set up a museum in his honour. I asked Ting what his father did and he cried, 'Never did a thing! Never washed a dish in his life!' He must have done something, I argued, and Ting replied, 'He smoked opium from 16 to 60, then the Communists came and he stopped. I had the worst time when my father died, I cried so much. He was 73, my mother was 74 when she died, my older brother died last year at 79, so I think: for me, three more years. In three years, I can paint 1,000 paintings.'
He's not lying. Ting has never been the sort of agonised artist who squeezes out a constipated canvas every couple of months: he likes to see himself as a samurai, slashing away relentlessly with his brush. 'I create five pictures at the same time - why not? Then, at the last touch, they all start singing a different song, very strange. And my pictures are mostly sold to beautiful women between 20 and 40. Very few ugly women buy my paintings.' Perhaps the beautiful women have ugly, yet conveniently wealthy husbands, I mused, and Ting grinned and said, 'Write that down, it's honest.'
Wealth is a topic close to his heart. (Literally - at one point, he produced a wad of cash, in a variety of currencies, and waved it about until I told him he was making me nervous.) Given that he told me of how his early days in Paris were spent plucking discarded baguettes from gutters running with dog pee, I thought he might treasure prudence, but no: like the brush-wielding samurai, he's a great believer in splashing out when you've got it.
'I'm very passionate, and like that you always want more things. More-passion people have longer life, I'm sure. I was born with enlightenment, I give so much away. But a lot of people spend money painfully, and then who gets it? The doctor! The lawyer! The government!' In Ting's case, however, the recipients would surely be: the champagne seller! The car dealer (he particularly loves Rolls-Royces)! The florist (62 years: 'first time bought whole truckload roses')!
And, in 1987, the travel agent. 'When my wife was dying, I take out US$50,000 (HK$390,000) cash and we travel around the world with the children. I want them to have a memory of their mother. They were 14 and 15 at that time. I said to her, 'Let them share our pain,' but she said no, not to tell them. So the mother died, then they start the pain, even now they have the pain. It's a catastrophe.' Ting stopped speaking for a moment. 'She died, 49 years old. This is like a story of a family - so normal and so different.'
He showed me some of his poetry. 'If you quote one, quote this one,' I was told. It went: I save tears for 40 years/Enough for a whole bathtub/My sweetheart/You come to me/We hug each other in the bathtub/We are just like two pickles. That made me smile - it seemed absurdly touching - but when I asked him about unhappiness, he replied, airily, 'Oh, I can't even tell you, it's gone already.'
The last line in his life-list, at 74 years, reads 'first time doctor say not paint any more'. He obeyed for two months. What's his state of health now? 'I do too much, that's dangerous . . . I burn everything up, especially now when I get older.' He brooded on that thought, then visibly perked up, no doubt thinking of Andrea and all those first times which still lie ahead. 'If Vincent Van Gogh had had a girl, more sex, more vitamins, he'd have painted another thousand paintings,' he said, with some satisfaction. 'Vincent never painted a very juicy painting.'