- Paradox of Modernity: Xu Beihong’s Paintings in Twentieth-Century China
Being Chinese and modern at the same time is often seen as a paradox. Even today, it is still common to hear comments about a modern Chinese painting that it is not executed in traditional medium or style and, henceforth, is not Chinese. This paradox, for better or for worse, has been a dominant theme in twentieth-century Chinese art history. Living in an epoch of national crisis and jostled by competing ideas of reform at the turn of last century, many overseas-educated Chinese artists took onto themselves the task of reviving Chinese art through the infusion of Western approaches and techniques. The predicament that they faced—and a problem that keeps on puzzling many contemporary artists—is how the modern can be identified conceptually, pictorially, and stylistically in a Chinese context. Regarded as one of the most influential Chinese artists of the twentieth century, Xu Beihong (1895–1953) and his works assume a defining role in the aesthetic canon and institutional power of modern Chinese art.1 His paintings, especially those of horses, are extremely popular throughout China as well as the global Chinese community. They continuously set world records for modern Chinese art at auctions—the current record for modern Chinese paintings and calligraphy was Xu’s painting of three farmers with an ox that sold for 266.8 million yuan (U.S. $42 million) in 2011, breaking the previous world record that was also set by another Xu painting for 171 million yuan in 2010.2 Still, the highly admired and sought after artworks of Xu are “relatively unknown in the United States” (p. 17). Xu Beihong: Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting, the first and only comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s works to date in North America, was on view at the Denver Art Museum from October 30, 2011, to January 29, 2012. This volume accompanies the exhibition, bringing together five essays in English along side sixty-one colored illustrations of his work and a photographic chronology of his life.
The articles in this collection all focus on the theme of Xu’s remarkable career as the “pioneer of modern Chinese painting”—promoting the study of European arts and techniques, establishing the Western practices of sketching from life and figure drawing (even for traditional paintings) in art education, instilling a sense of patriotism in history paintings, and thus providing “a new direction for Chinese art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” (p. 38). The “new direction,” of course, is realism or, more precisely, the academic realism of late nineteenth-century Europe. Much ink has been spilled on the limitations of Xu’s steadfast [End Page 357] paradigm, which was later reinforced by the government, enhanced by social realism from the Soviet Union, and developed into the artistic apparatus in China over four decades.3 This book, however, is not meant to be a critical retrospection but a celebratory ode to the master, whom many lauded as the father of modern Chinese painting.
Honoring the father, indeed, is what the first two essays aim to accomplish. “Xu Beihong’s Life and Art,” by Fangfang Xu, and “Integrating Chinese and Western Art, Xu Beihong’s Sketching and Oil Painting,” by Xu Qingping, are written by the artist’s daughter and son, respectively. The latter is also the deputy director of the Xu Beihong Memorial Museum, from which the exhibited paintings were on loan. The two contributors’ affection and admiration for their renowned father are noteworthy in their pieces. Fangfang Xu provides a biographic narrative of the artist, a suffering yet talented young painter who sojourned to Europe and fought against all odds to rise as one of the eminent artists of twentieth-century China. In particular, his experiences at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he studied under Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret; his extensive traveling and connections with the world; his love...