Friday, March 16, 2012

Fu Baoshi

Fu Baoshi, Autumn Landscape From The Four Seasons, 1950

After a doctor's appointment today, I decided to play hooky from the piles of work I always have to do, and went to the Metropolitan Museum. I went to see three shows, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed, but one was a real discovery. I saw the show of the Stein collections with major works by Matisse and Picasso that are always a pleasure to see in the original. Another was a second trip through the show of Renaissance portraiture which was more than worth a repeat visit. The discovery was a large show in the Chinese painting gallery of the work of a 20th century artist Fu Baoshi. I visited the show after reading an article about him by Jonathan Spence in The New York Review of Books. I've never heard of this artist before and his work is a revelation to me. I just loved it.

Fu Baoshi lived through the most turbulent period of modern Chinese history. He was born in 1904 in the last days of the Qing Dynasty and died in 1965 on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. He was born the son of very poor Chinese peasants. He was the youngest of seven children, but the only one to survive to maturity. The family moved to Nanchang where his father worked in an umbrella factory. His father died when Fu was 11. Fu went to work as a child in a ceramics factory where he became fascinated with the pictures and inscriptions added to the wares. He spent time in a neighboring shop that made stone seals for marking paintings and formal inscriptions. He learned how to make stone seals, how to write calligraphy, and how to paint on his own. His prodigious talents soon attracted the attention of local officials and notables who sponsored his formal education in China, and among Chinese exiles in Japan. It was in Japan among Japanese scholars that he learned about the long distinguished history of Chinese painting and calligraphy, the richest and most varied in the world together with the West. He began by copying the works of famous Chinese masters from the past. Many of them would have a lasting influence upon his own work, especially the dense and turbulent compositions of Wang Meng, and the expressive and bold use of ink and color in the work of Shitao. Fu also wrote a lot of scholarly literature on Chinese painting and calligraphy still read and studied today.

Fu Baoshi continued to make stone seals all of his life and became celebrated for the amazing skill of his carving. He wrote an authoritative history of seal carving in 1930.

Fu Baoshi, stone seal carved for Chairman Mao Zedong

Impression from Fu Baoshi's own personal seal

Fu Baoshi wanted to preserve Chinese artistic traditions at a time when all sides in China's conflicts wanted to discard them. Chinese artists went abroad to learn Western painting forms and techniques in oil painting. Whole shops full of artists worked in factories in major port cities like Shanghai cranking out cheap oil paintings on canvas for sale in Western markets. Political and military leaders saw Western art as embodying progress and success. The native art of China looked to them to be backward and parochial.

Fu Baoshi worked to preserve this painting by breathing fresh life into it. While in Japan, he absorbed the influences of Japanese art, and Western art and adapted them both into Chinese modes of painting. He incorporates the perspective depth found in both later Japanese painting and in Western art, together with something like Western chiaroscuro.

He had to make much of this art while on the move in the warfare that wracked China at the time. He made some of his finest work while in exile in Sichuan province during World War II. He painted striking visions of the great river gorges and soaring mountain ranges of that province.

Fu Baoshi, Xiling Gorge, 1964

Fu Baoshi, "The Far Snows of Minshan Only Make Us Happy," 1951

Fu Baoshi, "On a Lake, I Listen to the Sound of Rain"

Fu liked to paint on rough handmade paper made out of mulberry leaves with stiff bristle brushes. He painted in a wet into wet technique combined with a very rough crackling dry brushwork to create a striking range of tones and effects enlivened with bold calligraphic strokes.

Fu Baoshi, Sightseeing Around Mount Taihua

Fu Baoshi, Crows in a Willow, 1944

In Chinese painting, the line between text and image is a very blurry one. The same means used to write down words and concepts are used to turn them into images. Chinese writing, the oldest system of writing still used anywhere in the world, began as pictograms. In the West, the line between text and image is clear and absolute. The screen you are looking at now is a perfect example. In China, image and text harmonize with each other. The reading of poetic inscriptions written directly upon the image is part of the experience of the painting, and inaccessible to those of us who are not literate in Mandarin Chinese. What is accessible to us is the pleasure of seeing calligraphic writing forms morph into imagery.
Chinese landscape painting rarely if ever shows literal views of actual places. It is not topographical landscape. A landscape painting creates the vicarious experience of walking through nature, of gazing at mountain heights or over distant vistas through all kinds of weather. The point is not to render a specific view, but to recreate the experience of moving through the landscape in ink and colors on paper and silk.

Fu Baoshi brought this tradition into modern experience. He brought Japanese and Western topographical landscape into Chinese painting, emphasizing the personal re-creation of the experience and their vicarious pleasure to the viewer so central to traditional Chinese painting. In his later life, his painting incorporates specifically modern subject matter alongside more traditional subject matter.

Fu Baoshi, Electric Power Lines, 1954

Fu Baoshi, Gotwaldov, Czechoslovakia 1957. Fu Baoshi made trips to Romania and to Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. He painted European landscapes and subject matter (including St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague) in a Chinese idiom. Fu also incorporates the very unChinese concept of topographical landscape, recording specific views of literal scenes, into his work.

In his last years, Fu begins using more red pigment and the titles and subjects of his work become more stridently political. I think this reflects less his own convictions than the increasingly difficult political position of his work as the Cultural Revolution approached. Fu had very powerful friends and admirers in the top ranks of the Communist hierarchy. He made a large and important painting for the central entrance lobby of The Great Hall of the People in Beizhing. There were those in the Party sympathetic to his desire to bring traditional Chinese culture into the 20th century. Mao Zedong himself was a gifted poet and calligrapher.
Fu also had powerful enemies. The radical faction of the Communist hierarchy saw his work as a throwback to the old long vanquished feudal culture of dynastic China. The radicals valued political utility and ideological purity above all else in matters of culture. They wanted to replace China's native painting traditions with Socialist Realism, a type of propaganda poster art pioneered in the Soviet Union intended to compel public opinion.

Fu died in 1965, possibly of a heart attack. In retrospect, his untimely death was a mercy. It is not at all likely that he would have survived the terrible calamity of the Cultural Revolution. His final work reflects his increasingly desperate efforts to stay afloat in the constantly shifting tides of Communist China on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.

Fu Baoshi, Ya'nan, 1964, one of a series of paintings of sites in China sacred to the Communist regime. Ya'nan was Mao's headquarters in his war against Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists.

Fu Baoshi, Heaven and Earth Glowing Red, 1964

These paintings below I think show us where Fu's heart really lay. They are both his own personal versions of very traditional Chinese subject matter.

Fu Baoshi, The Poet Qu Yuan

Fu Baoshi revered Qu Yuan, the earliest recorded Chinese poet, all his life. Successive 20th century Chinese regimes from the Nationalists to the Communists sought to claim Qu Yuan as a paragon of patriotism. Qu committed suicide by drowning himself in a river rather than submit to the service of the King of Qin in his effort to unify all of China under his rule. Qu's first loyalty was to his home and to his own king. I would imagine that for Fu, the great ancient poet personified the flinty integrity of the old Chinese literati class at its best.

Fu Baoshi, The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove

The Seven Sages in the Bamboo Grove is an old and very common subject in Chinese art. It represents a group of scholars employed in the imperial civil service who retired and withdrew together into a bamboo grove rather than serve what they saw as one of the corrupt and illegitimate contenders for power during the Three Kingdoms period in the 3rd century CE. They traded in the rewards of wealth and power for the gratifications of friendship in the common pursuit of virtue and natural harmony. The Sages composed poetry together, painted, practiced Taoist medicine and divination, enjoyed the pleasures of nature, and they drank together.
All of the Sages are actual historic figures. Some of them returned to the civil service under the rule of the very same Jin Dynasty that they all despised. Apparently, they all remained friends.

Qu Yuan and the Seven Sages represented for Fu those enduring values of integrity and of finding pleasure in virtuous companionship and common purpose. The beautiful landscapes of China are home to the cosmic harmonies that will always outlast whoever claims sovereignty over them.


Fu Baoshi and Guan Shanyue, This Land is So Rich in Beauty

This is the painting Fu made for the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, a huge painting (5.5 by 9 meters) based on a poem by Mao Zedong.

Fu's enormous painting makes a cameo appearance in the opening scenes of the famous propaganda spectacle commissioned by Zhou En Lai in 1966, The East is Red. It hangs at the top of the grand staircase of the Great Hall of the People.

1 comment:

JCF said...

Lovely, interesting post. Thanks, Doug.

May I confess I actually like some Communist agit-prop art? [As long as it isn't too "tractor-tarian", and the proletariat don't look too Master Race-ish] "Heaven and Earth Glowing Red" reminds me of one of my faves from the early USSR, A New Planet]

His landscapes are very evocative: placid, mysterious, terrifying.