Perhaps the most original figure painter and landscapist of China's modern period, Fu Baoshi created indelible images celebrating his homeland's cultural heritage while living through one of the most devastating periods in Chinese history. He was eight years old in 1912 when China's last imperial dynasty was overthrown and the Chinese Republic was established. He subsequently witnessed the divisive warlord era and Communist rebellion of the 1920s, the Japanese invasion and occupation of eastern China from 1937 to 1945, and the Communist Revolution and establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Over the last fifteen years of his life, his art reflected China's political transformation under Mao Zedong. Throughout his career, however, Fu remained one of China's great individualist masters. This exhibition treats Fu's forty-year career with some seventy paintings, including many of the artist's recognized masterpieces, drawn from the preeminent holdings of China's Nanjing Museum. The exhibition, augmented by superb works from a New York private collection, is the most comprehensive treatment of the artist's oeuvre ever presented outside of Asia.
Trained in both China and Japan at a time when arts education stressed the need for the modernization of indigenous traditions through the study of Western methods, Fu developed a new style incorporating foreign styles and techniques, and began creating boldly individualistic and strongly nationalistic work. Noting that Chinese painting had evolved toward too great a dependency on monochromatic, calligraphic brushwork, Fu sought to revive earlier traditions of realistic description that made greater use of color and ink wash. He also stressed the need for an artist to be emotionally and physically present in his art. To achieve this end, Fu often painted while inebriated. He also sought spontaneity through a spattered-ink method of painting—a kind of "action art" that parallels the working methods of some of the Abstract Expressionists.
About the Exhibition
An introductory section features a rare group of Fu's earliest extant works in the manner of traditional Chinese masters, followed by an in-depth examination of some of his finest works from the early 1940s. On view in this section are Qu Yuan (1942), depicting the poet Qu Yuan (343–278 B.C.), who committed suicide to prove his loyalty; and Drunken Monk (1944), a portrait of Huaisu (725–ca. 799), a Buddhist monk known for his "wild cursive" calligraphy who, like Fu, is said to have done his best work while inebriated. Both works reflect Fu's use of art to mirror his own state of mind and feelings.
During the war years from 1942 to 1945, Fu revived the millennium-long monumental landscape tradition to evoke the grandeur of China's towering mountains and surging rivers. Whispering Rain at Dusk (1945) exemplifies Fu's unrivaled ability to achieve rich and often brooding atmospheric effects through layered applications of ink wash suffused with pale color.
The remainder of the exhibition is devoted to works of art created after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. This part offers insight into how Fu sustained his creative vision while adapting his art to the socialist agenda of Mao Zedong's New China. While he never adopted Soviet-style Social Realism, a group of works that Fu painted in 1957 during a study trip to Eastern Europe shows him applying his spontaneous ink-wash style to the depiction of aerial trams, factory towns, airplanes, and a flotilla of naval vessels.
The Far Snows of Minshan Make Us Happy (1953), a bold image of soldiers enduring the hardships of the legendary Long March as they traversed the Min Mountains of Sichuan in 1935, is an example of the kind of image Fu was required to paint celebrating the history of the Party after the Communist Revolution of 1949.
During the final decade of his life, Fu drew inspiration from two sources that were beyond reproach—the poetry of Mao Zedong and China's natural scenery. His success in interpreting both led to the most important commission of his career: a vast landscape panorama for the Great Hall of the People that had to be completed by October 1, 1959, in time for the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. Such is the Beauty of our Rivers and Mountains (1959?), a preliminary draft for the monumental painting, is a highlight of the exhibition.
From this time forward, Fu often enhanced the political content of his images through the simple device of adding a red flag or a glowing red sky. The exhibition includes Heaven and Earth Glowing Red (1964), depicting a red globe floating over the ocean, which romanticizes the vision of Communist world domination. Also on view is Jinggang Mountain (1964), presenting a powerful image of a mountain known also as the "birthplace of the Red Army and the cradle of the Communist Revolution." But even when the subject matter of his paintings reflects the utilitarian and propagandistic roles that art was required to play, his dramatic ink-wash style and bold compositions remain highly personal interpretations.
The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Nanjing Museum.