The Asian Wall Street Journal
June 15, 2001
During the early 20th century, in a relatively short period of time, China’s longstanding imperial traditions crumbled and gave way to the painful birth of a new republic. These were highly tumultuous times when the Middle Kingdom was forced to redefine its place in the world. Changes in politics, society and ideology colored every aspect of life in China and this radical climate is marvelously captured in the art of the era.
The exhibit “Modern Chinese Painting 1860-1980,” on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through August, traces a period when traditions in painting, many in place since the Song dynasty over a thousand years before, were transformed.
New themes and techniques in painting reflect the turmoil in the years after the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1911 when native conventions wrestled with the innovative or foreign. The old artistic style, characterized in part by technically masterful landscapes or flower-and-bird compositions promoting the values of society and state, gave way to exploration of foreign styles and reinterpretations of calligraphic modes.
Talk of anything China-related these days can seldom be separated from politics, sometimes lamentably overshadowing the art itself. In the case of the Met’s exhibition, however, viewing the work in the cultural and social context of its creation adds a rich and important layer of significance.
In 1919, Chinese painter Xu Beihong became the first government-sponsored artist to study in Europe. The influence of his training in Paris and Berlin leap off the page in “Horse” (1932), an ink on hanging scroll that, despite its traditional media, is revolutionary. Rather than defining the horse with labored precision, ink wash is dashed with bravura to suggest light and dark. Canted limbs are foreshortened and the tail swishes with multiple tonalities. Imbued with a distinct impressionist sensibility, Xu’s horse is something a Chinese Degas might have painted.
The carefully curated exhibition is arranged chronologically in four serene galleries within the Met’s permanent collection of Chinese art. Ninety paintings, selected from nearly 500 pieces from the collection of Robert Ellsworth, are the focus. The first two galleries display the work of Shanghai masters, the third shows pieces that reformed Chinese art through adoption of foreign techniques, and the fourth showcases “new traditionalism” — a composite of influences.
Comparison of two works by Qi Baishi echoes the climate of change in China as two millennia of imperial rule were dismantled with the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. “Scuttling Crab” of 1919 depicts its subject in a traditional manner. The creature is defined with individual, painstaking brushstrokes and sits stiffly within a rather static composition.
But after Qi’s mentor in Beijing advised him to break away from his technical training, a looser style is at work in the lyrical “Shrimp,” painted in 1927. To depict the prawns, Qi systematically repeats brushstrokes — much like those used in Chinese characters — thus allowing freedom to explore tone and composition.
A cascade of crustaceans flow across the page, framed by the swaying drape of leaves overhead. This fluid, expressive style is Qi’s hallmark and his artistic epiphany is reflected in the inscription on “Shrimp.” He writes: “If you can forget painting theory, you will not suffer from its deeply rooted bad effects. Then your brush will fly like a heavenly horse moving through the sky.”
Outside influences came not just from the West but also Japan where many Chinese artists studied. The effects of nihonga — Japanese style art — are visible in the works of Fengzi Kai where animated color and form take cues from Japanese cartoons of the time.
Fu Baoshi also studied in Japan but integrated the effects of Western watercolor in his 1948 work “Playing Qin and Watching Geese in Flight,” which depicts a musician playing a zither on a desolate plain. A servant inconspicuously crouches against an embankment, seemingly oblivious to the music. The bleak sky is suffused with liquid light and dark tones, and a sense of melancholy, reminiscent of German Romanticism, is created.
On a literal level, “Playing Qin” could serve as allegory for the worsening political situation as the war between the communists and nationalists waged on, but the musician’s erect posture and determined playing speak of a universal resoluteness in the face of despair. I
n the years following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, free expression was stifled by the communist mandate for social-realist art. Wu Guanzhong, who studied in Paris in 1947, was sent to labor in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. It was not until 1976 that Wu resumed exploring his individual style, such as seen in “Seascape at Beidaihe” (1977). The roiling, dynamic scene is dominated by gray waves except for tiny boats at the topmost edge of the scroll. Like Cezanne might have done, Wu used white pigment to outline waves — something never done by Chinese traditionalists — setting them shimmering in a glorious sea of movement that verges on total abstraction.
The painting was ostensibly inspired by a poem written by Mao Tse-tung about Beidaihe, his summer residence. But this reference to the chairman might also be a protective measure against any potential political backlash, such that Wu painfully experienced during the Cultural Revolution.
Lin Fengmian broke new ground — and created some scandal — by painting nudes, a genre practically unseen in Chinese art, and painting figures in new geometric forms, in the tradition of Matisse. Lin’s work alarmed conservatives in Beijing and the artist established his own school in Hangzhou.
When the Cultural Revolution began in the 1970s, Lin destroyed hundreds of his own paintings to avoid seizure by the Red Guards. Fan Zeng’s 1979 painting depicts Tang dynasty legend Zhong Kui, the stout figure who, according to Chinese custom, is said to ward off evil spirits.
But Fan’s inscription hints that his Zhong Kui, boldly wrapped in robes much like Rodin’s Balzac, would expunge those who had wreaked havoc in modern China; the “evil spirits” here refer not to mythical ones of yore, but to contemporary political demons: the Gang of Four. The protecting figure of Zhong Kui, like China’s modern art in general, was interpreted anew according to the influences of the era.