Studio visit: Ma Xinle

The Chinese artist, whose painting The Nine Galloping Horses was presented to HM Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her 90th birthday, reveals how he absorbs influences from both East and West — and why he collects paper up to 300 years old

‘As an artist, you have to take inspiration from nature, from your observations wherever you go,’ says painter Ma Xinle as we catch up with him in his Beijing studio. ‘For me, the studio is a temporary space for me to create my work; it is not a fixed place. Everywhere is my studio.’

Born in Xi’an, China, in 1963, Ma studied traditional Chinese painting at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts under the tutelage of modern masters including Cheng Shifa, Liu Wenxi and Huang Zhou. He went on to pursue an MFA in oil painting from Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, and to teach watercolour and Chinese brush painting techniques. 

Now an educator, art advisor and cultural representative to organisations including the Beijing Yanhuang Art Museum and the Rockefeller Art Foundation, Ma has been widely exhibited in China, the United States and Canada. In 2016 one of his paintings, The Nine Galloping Horses, was presented to Queen Elizabeth II on her 90th birthday as a state gift from the People’s Republic of China.

Ma currently divides his time between Beijing and Princeton, New Jersey. These days, he says, he is focused on painting in the traditional Chinese style — with a twist.

‘I do sketches from real life, and mix these with either calligraphy or painting copied from the Chinese masters,’ he explains. ‘When people see my work they feel that it’s fresh. It’s not totally like the traditional Chinese paintings they see in museums, and it’s not totally Western. It’s a combination of both.’

Ma Xinle (b. 1963), Horses, 2012. Scroll, mounted for framing, ink and colour on paper. 55 34 x 143 in (141.6 x 363.2 cm). Estimate $250,000-350,000. Offered in
Fine Chinese Paintings on 11 September at Christies in New York

Ma Xinle (b. 1963), Horses, 2012. Scroll, mounted for framing, ink and colour on paper. 55 3/4 x 143 in (141.6 x 363.2 cm). Estimate: $250,000-350,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Paintings on 11 September at Christie's in New York

This cultural melding reflects Ma’s belief in the importance of having a deep artistic appreciation of a wide range of styles, periods and cultures. ‘It is important for artists to have broad knowledge,’ he opines. ‘Even as a Chinese painter, you can not only paint or understand Chinese art.’ 

Ma’s incredible precision in his choice of materials adds to the power of his work. ‘I collect paper from different time periods,’ he explains. ‘The oldest in my collection is about 300 years old. Sometimes I keep new paper for years before I use it, because with brand new paper it is harder to achieve certain effects.’

Ma’s last name means horse, and he has always felt an affinity with the animals. ‘Horses have always been one of the major subjects in my paintings,’ he confirms. On 11 September in New York, Christie's offers Horses, a scroll painting mounted for framing that was commissioned by Steven C. Rockefeller, Jr. in 2012

The first version of the large composition of horses racing through a blizzard hangs in the main conference room at the International Conference Center at Yanqi Hu Lake in Beijing. Steven C. Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Kimberly have been enthusiastic collectors of Ma Xinle’s paintings for a decade, and their friendship has resulted in the coordination of several Chinese art and culture exchange programs, including Calligraphy and The Art of Business, now on view at Yale University. 

For Ma, though, the subject one chooses is less important than the primal desire to create art, which has always been central to his life. ‘When I was younger and determined to be an artist, art always followed me,’ he explains. ‘You can paint anything you like — it doesn’t matter what. Anything you think is beautiful can stir your heart and can move other people.’