In her early days in China in the 1980s, Fabienne Verdier travelled to some of its sacred mountains with other students from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.
At a certain spot, she set up her easel, just as Cezanne and Monet would have done years before in her native France.
But her companions and her teachers laughed at this Western notion: in China, the master told her, “You have to let the beauty of a landscape enter you. You have to wait until it’s been reduced to its essence within you before you can even think of painting it.”
Verdier, who was 22 when she arrived in Chongqing from Toulouse, the first foreigner on a post-graduate scholarship, stayed for a decade. What she seems to have reduced to its essence was herself: when she eventually left, it was because of ill health.
She had hepatitis and, after a horrendous bout of food poisoning, weighed 30kg.
She’d grown up painting on easels along the quays of Paris – her father lived on a houseboat – but the French conceptual movement of the 1970s had dissatisfied her, which was why she’d looked East.
In 1993, she returned to France where she had to find a way to reconcile opposite points of the compass, making them both a part of her so that she could create.
These days she lives about an hour’s drive northwest of Paris, not far from Auvers-sur-Oise where Vincent van Gogh spent the last few months of his life. This was the land of her grandparents.
The light, on a recent spring afternoon, feels as if an extra translucent dimension encloses both the old house, where she lives, and the modern studio, across the lawn, where she works.
Verdier, dressed in black and lithe in her paint-spattered trainers, understands fung shui: she built her atelier over a spring so that the energy of it could flow into her work.
Today, an exhibition of about 30 of her paintings opens at City Hall as part of Le French May. It’s a particular marker on her artistic road: Verdier exhibited in the first French May in Hong Kong in 1993 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, just as her own time in China was ending.
This new exhibition, Crossing Signs, has canvases so enormous that, in her French studio, they require two men to haul them into place for viewing.
The brushstrokes are huge, confident sweeps of ink, as if from some magnified corner of a Chinese scroll; yet the works have titles which refer to the great Flemish masters (Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes) of 15th-century Europe.
Verdier studied calligraphy with her own master, Huang Yuan, who was of the opinion that women shouldn’t study calligraphy at all; but in post-Cultural Revolution ’80s China, nothing was as it had been, and so he took her on. Huang told Verdier that calligraphy would open the doors of abstraction to her in a way that Western art could not.
She would have to go back thousands of years in order to advance into her artistic future.
“It took 10 years to forget what I thought I knew,” she says. “To contemplate and reflect on what I’d learned before, to work on my ego and learn modesty … The other Chinese students laughed at me, they were interested in realism, especially Soviet Realism.”
There’s a sense of isolation in her early work. A 1997 painting, Cinabre et sérénade, exhibited in her new show, is crammed with red calligraphy but contains a tiny enclosure of pale characters, like the determined speech of an as-yet unheard individual.
The appeal of those ’90s paintings relied on that era’s extraordinary sense of yearning expression just as China was opening up both to itself and to the West.
Back in France, Verdier’s own yearning was to have the tools to express more. All that silence was bursting out of her. For a long time, she worked with standard brushes; those years in China under Master Huang had taught her to make her working life a ritual of the inner and the outer, of proper breath and contemplation.
Any creation that fails to please her is burned; she estimates that she consigns 80 per cent of what she does to the flames.
But as the work grew, in every sense, she reached “a huge decision”. One night, “after a few glasses of wine”, with the help of her husband Ghislain, she cut the handles off her Chinese paintbrush and attached it to the handlebars of her bicycle. And with that severance, she discovered how far she could travel without leaving her atelier.
“I’m free to go wherever I want, to experiment here,” she says, demonstrating the sweep of her giant brush, which is attached to the ceiling and consists of 35 horse tails. (These were supplied, from Mongolia, by the late Jean-Louis Dumas, former chairman of fashion house Hermès, who, out of love of art and Asia, wanted to sponsor Verdier’s dream.)
Where she’s arrived now is a meeting-point between two cultures. She can borrow a visual line from the Flemish artists – for example, the skirts of praying women in Memling’s Moreel triptych – and create a Chinese-influenced abstract. Her atelier, she remarks, is like a chapel; this is her personal devotion.
Last year, the son of Master Huang travelled to the studio. He wanted to apologise for laughing, all those years ago at her old-fashioned desire to learn from his father. The senior Huang had recently died, the son had come to give the apprentice her master’s last brush.
This week will be Verdier’s first visit to Hong Kong – to China – since 1993. She’s left her garden and her lavender-scented study with its Chinese dictionaries, its deities, its notebooks and its cat (as thickly plump as a giant paintbrush) and climbed the path to the front gate.
On one of the steps are the words: La beauté est pour moi assimilable à la joie d’exister, meaning “Beauty is for me similar to the joy of existence”.
Now she’ll start to measure the distance she, and China, have covered in the intervening decades since she learned to carry its landscape inside her.
Fabienne Verdier – Crossing Signs, Exhibition Hall, HK City Hall, Central, until June 8 (an accompanying exhibition of Verdier prints, “The Ink Discipline”, is at Alisan Fine Arts, room 2305, 7 Tin Wan Praya Rd, Aberdeen, until June 7)