Chapter of Change

By Liao Danlin Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-26 19:34:05

A portrait of Chen Shizeng by Li Yishi painted in 1920 Photo: Courtesy of CAFAM
A portrait of Chen Shizeng by Li Yishi painted in 1920 Photo: Courtesy of CAFAM

Art school exhibit shows how Western aesthetics got into Chinese oil painting

These days there are so many young Chinese artists specializing in oil painting, but of course that wasn't always the case. In fact it wasn't until the first decades of the 20th century that artists began to travel to Europe and Japan to study Western aesthetics after building their foundation on Chinese techniques.

Now, young artists don't even need to go abroad: they can get an education in Western painting techniques here in China. But what people commonly forget is how young the systematic development of this field of study is in China as compared to the West.

To present this important time period in Chinese art history to a modern public, the Museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts is holding an exhibition of documents and selected oil paintings created at the National Beiping Art School. The rather limited in number exhibits (around 40) allow scholars and the public to analyze this important transition period and will be on display until April 25, 2013.

History reviewed

National Beiping Art School was founded in 1918 by Cai Yuanpei, the then president of Peking University. As the first national art school in China, it is connected with many big names, including Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong, whose works easily sell for millions of dollars at auctions now.

By merging with the art school of Huabei University in 1950, it became what it is today - the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFAM). It experienced many changes due to political and social movements.

Standing at the time of the New Culture Movement (1915-23) and facing transitions between old and new, tradition and modernization, power and knowledge, National Beiping Art School and the related works and people were not only a key part of Chinese art history but also an important part of Chinese cultural history. "Unfortunately, our perception and research on the school remained at the threshold for long." Wang Huangsheng, curator of the exhibition wrote in his preface.

The War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) - China endured hard times in the last century, which makes the rediscovery and preservation of artworks during this time period very difficult, not only technically but also ideologically.

One of the paintings not included in the exhibition portrays a Kuomintang army unit after Japan's defeat. It was damaged with a big black cross on the painting during the Cultural Revolution. Wang told the Global Times that he struggled to decide whether to restore the painting. Technically it would be difficult to remove the cross, and emotionally, the cross is a part of its history. "Some scholars suggest keeping the cross as it is a reflection of the history," said Wang.

After a long process of rediscovery, systematic research and scientific classification of some key artists' works from National Beiping Art School, many of the paintings are making their debut to the public for the first time in this exhibition.

Rare works

Dai Ze, 90, the only living artist in the exhibition, once expressed to media when he saw the exhibition, "I am impressed. Many of the paintings I've only heard about but have never seen before."

The exhibition includes a portrait of a man by Xu Beihong, which he painted in class while studying in France. Qi Zhenqi, one of Xu's outstanding students, died at the age of 32. Within the very limited number of his works shown, paintings featuring Beijing people's daily lives such as Dongdan Playground and A Small Market in Dongdan are the most representative ones.

"They are like antiques that once were damaged or lost but are rediscovered today," said Cao Qinghui, art director of the exhibition.

Two big portraits by Li Yishi, the first artist who received a professional art education in the UK at The Glasgow School of Art, are attracting a lot of attention at the exhibition. "People had no idea that Li had such oil paintings," said Cao.

One of the portraits, featuring Chen Shizeng, another big name in Chinese contemporary art history, raised the topic of how Chen and Li, who held differing academic positions, remained close friends.

Significant implications

Cao told the Global Times that one of the reasons that Beiping Art School played a crucial role in Chinese art history is that the academic tradition has been passed down over the generations and is still influencing China's art education today.

Xu Beihong was the president of National Beiping Art School from 1946 to 1949. His academic proposition - to work closely with real life experience, drawing inspiration from the observations of daily life instead of solely practicing with still models in a studio - remains an important school in China's art education today.

Many of the paintings in the exhibition are examples of how artists use Western aesthetics and skills to portray Chinese content. They also show how some Chinese artists that received Western art training kept Chinese features in their works. Wang Huangsheng told the Global Times that in paintings of Wu Fading, the first artist that had an education in France, the simple style without any emphasis on colors was like traditional folk Chinese paintings.

Another example is Li Yishi's portraits. The items included, the chosen background and the relation between the character and its background all carry Chinese cultural features. The relation between Chinese and Western techniques and styles in oil paintings "has always been a hot topic for modern Chinese artists. It is valuable to see such reflection in works from the 1920s," said Wang.

"Why is Chinese art today like this?" artist Xu Bing asks. Xu believes that the exhibition and study of the works from National Beiping Art School are a great help to scholars in understanding the inner characteristics of Chinese art.

While for curator Wang, the way of study and research, comparing which country the artists studied in, which school they attended, and which professor they followed, becomes particularly meaningful.

"An exhibition is not about whose painting in which year. It is about what these works reflect, where certain differences stand and why? The study and research of each work within its historical and cultural context create a new angle of putting out exhibitions," said Wang.

Posted in: ARTS

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