Sunday, September 23, 2007

Modern Chinese Master

Xu Beihong is one of China's best known 20th century artists.

I got to know him through his paintings of horses.

My father has a copy of one of his works of a horse trotting towards the viewer. It looks lively and energetic, with the wind flying through its mane.

Many credit Xu for bringing traditional Chinese painting back into fashion. Originally from Yixing, Jiangsu province, Xu learned the art form from his father, as well as calligraphy. Later, Xu junior studied western-style painting, and taught at Beijing University's Art Research Association. He taught that only the realist approach from western-style painting could revive Chinese painting.

He then studied in Paris and Berlin before going back to Shanghai for his first solo exhibition that established him as a modern Chinese artist.

A contemporary of Lu Xun, Xu was also caught up in politics, and according to the Communists, the Kuomintang banned Xu's works. He supported the Communists and created many paintings of allegories alluding to their cause, and sold his work to raise money to fight against the Japanese. For his artistic efforts, Xu has been praised as a patriot and there is a museum near Hou Hai dedicated to him.

In front is a bronze statue of him holding a palette and paintbrushes, looking serious and determined.

However, the inside of the museum is a bit disappointing. Right in the foyer is a gift shop pushing all kinds of gaudy trinkets as well as cheap imitations of Chinese paintings, thankfully not of Xu's.

Also, there aren't many good examples of his work on display. Apparently his wife and family donated many of his paintings to the museum, but only a handful are typical Xu paintings. This is probably because many of his works are in the hands of private collectors and other museums.

The paintings are put behind glass enclosures that aren't carefully monitored for humidity, and in some rooms, supervisors have fallen asleep or finding their reading material more interesting than guarding what little precious treasures they have.

His allegorical paintings remind me of Bibilical ones, exaggerating movements and facial expressions to illustrate a point.

But it's his sketches that are most impressive. He not only captures the likeness on paper, but also the emotion, perspective, light and dark. Most memorable are the portraits he did of his children when they were young.

It's too bad that this museum has neither the resources nor the energy to spruce up the place.

Xu deserves a better tribute.

Xu Beihong Museum
No. 53, North Xinjiekou Street


ks said...

with his strong background in traditonal chinese caligraphy and painting xu has combined his western training in paris with chinese technic bridging the gap between east and west. he has been despised by the traditional chinese painters at home. but he stood the test of time. afer the establishment of the chinese people republic he influenced a whole new generation of water color paintings in recent years- utilising western water color but painting in chinese style with ink and brush.
the set up at the museum is disappointing. the front of the 2nd floor loby should be a feature wall. but it was occupied by mediocore cheap paintings for sale just like any tourist joint, not fit for a museum. why cant the administrators have a gift shop at a less conspicuous spot?
xu has spent some time in singapore during the 2nd world war. i believe a huge amount of his paintings are left there, also a lot in the hands of private collectors. again there is a lot of fakes circulating in the art market.
i am particularly interested in a couplet he caligraphed. it is the famous couplet written by lu xun, and a piece given to him by kang yu wei.

ks said...

one piece of caligraphy worth mentioning is written by chou en-lai. it is a large sign 1/2 by 3 feet:" bei -hong's former residence". the four individual characters with firm and forceful strokes shows a quality of determination of a revolutionary.