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Ronald Y. Otsuka and Fangfang Xu, eds., Xu Beihong: Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting.

Ronald Y. Otsuka and Fangfang Xu, eds., Xu Beihong: Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting. Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2011. 227 pages.

Twentieth-century Chinese ink painting is quickly coalescing into canonical order. Given the millions that their works fetch at auction and the powerful vested interests that these prices imply, Qi Baishi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1864-1957), Zhang Daqian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1899-1983), and Fu Baoshi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1904-65) seem already embarked on the long excursion of the centuries. Huang Binhong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1865-1955), Lin Fengmian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1900- 1991), Zhao Shao'ang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1905-98), Li Keran [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1907-89), and Lu Yanshao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1909-93)--all splendid painters--are presumably headed in the same direction, though perhaps not amid the champagne of the first-class carriage.

The ambiguous case--the figure who underscores the nervous business of what Harold Bloom calls "canonical prophecy"--is Xu Beihong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1895-1953). A Chinese-born, French-trained painter of naturalist tendencies, Xu was the rare artist able to work in both the European and Chinese styles, sometimes juggling the two, sometimes attempting to mingle them. In recent years, China's nouveau riche have embraced Xu. They particularly prize his signature image in the traditional (guohua) style: wild horses in full gallop, manes dancing in the wind, perhaps a tuft of grass for background, all rendered in a few thick strokes of black ink. Iterations of this symbol of the proud Chinese spirit sometimes float past the million-dollar mark at auction. In 2007, Xu's plainly mediocre European-style oil painting, Put Down Your Whip (1939), which depicts the actress Wang Ying [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1913-74) engaged in an anti-Japanese street performance, fetched $9.2 million at Sotheby's, then the highest price ever paid at auction for a Chinese painting. In Xu's case, the challenge is to untangle patriotic appeal and aesthetic merit.

Xu Beihong: Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting, published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, is the first major Anglophone presentation of Xu's art. The kind of handsome if formulaic tribute that curatorial teams have become so adept at pumping out, the volume itself signifies Xu's ascension, and yet its contents--the images themselves--tend to raise questions about this ascension.

The volume's five essays, all a bit generic, take up Xu's life, his integration of Chinese and Western art, his gouhua-style animal paintings and landscapes, his handling of the human figure, and his relation to early twentieth-century China. In the first of these essays, Fangfang Xu, the painter's daughter, describes Xu's humble origins as the son of a struggling artist-farmer, the hardscrabble teenage years of tireless artistic self-education, his matriculation at Aurora University in Shanghai, the government scholarship that allowed him to decamp to Europe in 1919 (where he remained until 1927), study at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, and the ensuing years of achievement, celebrity, and ascent through the bureaucracy of Chinese art education. Indicating how far he had come, Xu stood behind Mao at the Gate of Heavenly Peace as the latter declared the birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949. As Kevin McLaughlin explains in his essay on "Xu Beihong and Early Twentieth-Century China," the "communists not only valued the themes, sentiments, and subject matter of Xu Beihong's work, but also found some of his views on art"--presumably his realism--"in keeping with their own" (83). It surely helped that Xu and Zhou Enlai had been friends in Paris.

A Derridean looking for a marginal detail with which to strike might seize on the fact that Xu's mentor in Paris was Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929), a capable practitioner of middle-brow naturalism who championed close observation and anatomical accuracy. Dagnan-Bouveret's friendship bolstered the young Chinese artist's confidence and probably allayed his loneliness, but he paid a price for this support, cutting himself off from the avant-garde that was listening to jazz and smoking hashish, possibly in the apartment just down the hall. Having spent the 1920s in the Paris of Joyce and Picasso, Xu returned to China as an academician of the 1870s, strangely and stubbornly committed to the ideals of the belle epoque. Lin Fengmian, who likewise ventured to Paris during the 1920s, hitched his star to Matisse and Modigliani, with more intriguing results (see Ross 2012 for a full discussion). Western modernism and traditional Chinese art share a metaphorical, allusive minimalism, which explains their easy commerce in Lin's Matisse-inspired odalisques. By contrast, Western naturalism and traditional Chinese art are antithetical, the Chinese tradition having consciously rejected the ideal of mimesis as spiritually shallow and aesthetically barren. Xu's self-imposed task was to wed these traditions--essentially, to reconcile the round hole and the square peg.

Xu Qingping's essay on Xu's integration of Western and Chinese art mentions none of this, preferring a certain airy encomionizing (e.g., "Appeal to divine powers on behalf of all humanity was the goal that Xu Beihong set for his own artworks to achieve"). Qingping proposes that "the enduring sentiment for Chinese aesthetics" naturally informed Xu's Western-style sketching and oil painting (43), but her attempts to define this Chinese aesthetic (e.g., "rich translucent layers with subtle nuances," the "sharp turns and gradual curves" of calligraphy) are amorphous. Summarizing Xu's artistic tendencies is admittedly difficult because they never settle. Despite the thousands of horse paintings with which he is most closely identified, Xu was an inveterate experimenter and fusionist, with scattershot results. His Western art occasionally reflects Chinese subject matter, landscape pattern (fig. 13), and vertical orientation (plate 15), while his Chinese art sometimes reflects Western coloration (plates 27, 46), anatomical emphasis (fig. 17), layering technique (fig. 24), and light, cloud, and water effects (plates 35, 50, 52). Just as often, Xu works in a fairly pure Western or Chinese vein, as if attempting to free himself from the awkwardness of this cross-cultural fence straddling.

Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore (1940), which depicts the Indian poet seated in a glade with a veil of green foliage to the rear, represents Xu at his most aggressively cross-cultural. The painting, which the editors rightly call "unique," is a European-style color portrait--almost Victorian in its bearded, seated formality--incongruously rendered in ink. In the European manner, the paper is entirely surfaced in paint; in the Chinese manner--perhaps even in the Qi Baishi manner--the leaves are rendered as stylized circlets. Though it pleased both painter and poet, the painting arguably embodies the worst of both worlds, at once lacking the mimetic nuance of oil and the calligraphic energy of ink. A detractor might call it a well-wrought cartoon. Xu's best works, like the Western-leaning Sound of the Flute (1926) and the Chinese-leaning Spring Rains on the Li River (1937), do integrate West and East with impressive seamless effect, but Xu apparently found this balance elusive, and, unlike Lin Fengmian, he never managed to systematize it.

The volume's 61 plates, which run such a wide stylistic gamut that they hardly seem the work of the same artist, generate a few improbable impressions. There is the sense that Xu, for all his fame and success, was not entirely comfortable working in the improvisatory Chinese mode, which presumes an essential analogy between painting and calligraphy. Qi Baishi and Zhao Shao'ang require only a few spontaneous lines to establish the most dramatic spatial tensions, but Xu has no such instinct. His Lacebark Pine (1935), Autumn Branches (1938), Banana Leaves and Bamboo (1938), Loquats (1938), and Chinese Redbud (1940) are mere tangles, when they should be calligraphic inscriptions rendered in the forms of the natural world. Furthermore, Xu's sketch-work tends to break down amid the improvisatory flurry. As his minutely accurate studies of European statuary demonstrate, he was capable of a very competent realism, and yet many of his Chinese forms seem botched. I recall a horse (1942) in the Freer Gallery that looks as if its left leg has been gnawed to the bone by wild dogs. Six Galloping Horses (plate 54) has problems of its own: the horse to the left seems to have only one rear leg, and this stump seems incapable of reaching the ground (see Plate 42 for a charming horse). I have related doubts about the eagle's palsied left wing in Airborne (1944), about the taxidermic central bird of Two Eagles (1939), and about the shoulder-less, neck-less feline of Tiger and Rabbit (1935). Tellingly, Xu's charcoal and ink sketch of Mao (1950), rendered with Western deliberation, is exact and subtle.

History is a dab hand at canon formation. From the vantage of its Mount Parnassus, it discerns those works that have become--perhaps without our realizing it--indispensable to our account of ourselves. Is Xu Beihong indispensable to our account of ourselves? Does our breath catch with recognition and wonder? His paintings may function as powerful totems in the penthouses of Shanghai's glass towers, but there are other mansions (in eternity, according to William Blake) with sterner walls.


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Ross, David A. 2012. The empty eye and the full heart: Lin Fengmian's figure paintings and modernist tradition. Southeast Review of Asian Studies 34 (2012): 196-206.
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Author:Ross, David A.
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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