Art Kaleidoscope

Between art and craft

Painting by Chinese artist Xu Beihong 1895-1953

Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore. 1940. Colored ink, mineral paints. Painting by Chinese artist Xu Beihong 1895-1953

Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore. 1940. Colored ink, mineral paints. Painting by Chinese artist Xu Beihong (1895-1953)

Painting by Chinese artist Xu Beihong
The post features life and work of the remarkable Chinese artist of the twentieth century Xu Beihong (19 July 1895 – 26 September 1953). His works – portraits, landscapes and images of animals – are well known in the homeland of the artist and beyond. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the personality of Xu Beihong in the artistic life of China. Unlike many of his predecessors and even his contemporaries, he influenced not only the development of any of the genres of painting, but also the fate of Chinese art in general. His rebellious seeking spirit, embodied in unique artistic images, still attracts us with his unbridled, overwhelming energy.
Unfortunately, Xu Beihong lived a short life (1895-1953). However, it was bright and eventful. Born in the era of turbulent political upheavals and explosions experienced by his homeland, he became not only a witness, but also an active participant in its revolutionary events and political transformations.

Painting by Chinese artist Xu Beihong 1895-1953

Morning songs. 1935. Ink, mineral paints. Painting by Chinese artist Xu Beihong 1895-1953

Master was born in 1895 in a village in Yixing County, Jiangsu Province. The first teacher of the boy was his father Xu Dazhang, a teacher of drawing in a village school, an engraver and a poet. A subtle connoisseur of ancient Chinese literature and painting, who himself worked in the classical manner of “guohua”, he instilled in his son a love of art, and revealed to him the richness and originality of China’s ancient culture. A dreamy and impressionable youth set out to follow in the footsteps of his father. Years of childhood spent in close collaboration with nature, largely contributed to the formation of the personality of Xu Beihong.

The beauty and pristine power of the surrounding plains, forests and mountains, the earthly smells of the field and the vegetable garden on which he worked with his father, left indelible poetic memories in his soul. However, life in the village was full of bitter experiences. Need early exhausted his father’s strength. He fell seriously ill, and sixteen-year-old Xu Beihong had to take his job to feed his family. In his early youth, he learned of hunger, grief, and deprivation. He received the burden of responsibility for life. But the tremendous energy of youth, a bright belief in the future, supported his spirit, allowing him to endure many misfortunes that had fallen to his lot.

In 1914, after the death of his father, Xu Beihong left his native village. After his many wanderings, he received further education at the Shanghai University. In these years, he makes his first successes as a painter and receives awards for two paintings, one of which he dedicated to the mythological hero of antiquity, the creator of Chinese writing, Tsang Tse. Money gives him the opportunity to make his first trip. He travels to Japan, where he spends several months traveling the country, and visiting museums.

In 1918, Xu Beihong became a member of the Society for the Study of Painting at Peking University. He lectures, draws pictures, and comes to prominence as an artist of the traditional direction. But by this time, his active, purposeful, unrestrained character develops. The painter is rethinking his creative tasks. Burdened by the limitations of his own knowledge, he understands the viciousness of the traditional Chinese education system. Distant countries irresistibly attract the young man, he wants to expand his horizons, to touch the masterpieces of world art. Having received a government scholarship in 1919, he leaves his homeland for a long time and leaves with a group of students to study in France.

In the years following the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty, the visits of young representatives of the Chinese intelligentsia have become quite frequent. Liberal circles of the Chinese bourgeoisie, supporters of reforms, called on the intelligentsia to learn from the West, because in this they saw the way to the renewal of Chinese culture.

A convinced follower of the realistic direction, Xu Beihong, having lived with little interruptions for eight years in Paris, remained indifferent to the influence of modernism. Instead, showing close attention to studying the classical heritage of the world’s greatest masters of art. These were the years of enthusiastic admission to the artistic culture of mankind. Especially attractive for him was the art of ancient Greece, which opened to him a whole new world of understanding of beauty. The lively and free plasticity of the beautiful human body, the nuances of the human soul, transmitted through the expressive facial expressions of the face, not only attracted the cognitive interest of the young Chinese painter, but also became the subject of his deep, purposeful study. We can say that the years of this second school in his life have made huge changes in the creative worldview of the master.

Life in Paris was for Xu Beihong not at all simple and easy. Deprived of the scholarship, Xu Beihong lived for years on casual earnings, in hunger and poverty, continuing to work hard. However, in mastering the classical heritage he saw not only the path to his own perfection, but also the path to progress, possible transformation of national culture. The study of anatomy, work with nature, the ability to draw a naked human body, the ability to capture the individual features of the human image in their living and natural uniqueness – features not only foreign, but also unknown to medieval Chinese art – has acquired special importance for him.

Xu Beihong again consciously undergoes a period of apprenticeship. He makes an infinite number of full-scale sketches gradually forming his skill, depicting the human body in various angles and poses, striving to comprehend the harmony of movements. Indeed, in many of them – the exact eye and hand of an experienced master. The forms gradually become sculptural, the cut-off modeling molds plastic volumes, the softness and grace revealed in the female images.

The years spent in Paris, were for the master not only a stage of comprehension of a life as a whole, but an important stage of self-knowledge. In search of his own direction, he manifests himself as a master of all-round talent. He paints a lot, portraits with oil and sanguine, creates oil-inspired compositions inspired by oil in pantheistic moods of past years, depicting scenes of harmonic unity of man and nature (“Sounds of a Flute”, 1926), and works in a national manner. The thirst for knowledge and new impressions attracts him to other countries – Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, where he makes copies of the famous works of the classics. Since 1924 in Paris, his paintings are beginning to appear at exhibitions, and Xu Beihong (or Ja Peon, as he then transcribed his name) is gaining fame in the artistic circles.

The twenties complete the period of his apprenticeship. Master gradually develops his original expressive techniques, approves his own artistic handwriting. Returning to his homeland in 1927, Xu Beihong devoted many years of teaching in the higher art educational institutions of China. From this time began the stage of his great social and intense creative activity. As a professor at the Shanghai Institute of Painting, Nanjing University, he worked in Chongqing and Beijing. He became one of the first who widely introduced young Chinese painters both to the history of world art and to the methods and methods of oil painting, teaching them to draw directly from nature.

Xu Beihong has devoted all his energies to turning China’s art from the dead copy of the examples of the past to the path of studying reality. Like Lu Xun in literature, he was one of the founders of the new national style of painting. He fought against everything that has outlived his time, that was not filled with living life. However, the activities of Xu Beihong did not always proceed in a peaceful environment. He repeatedly suffered persecution of reactionary press and had to change places of residence. But the belief in his rightness allowed him not to depart from the goals and objectives.

The numerous paintings of Xu Beihong that appeared in the thirties were portraits, landscapes, compositions made both in oil painting and in the manner of “guohua”. In particular, “Horses at the watering hole”, “The day is long as Year”, are significant not only because he enriched the familiar images and themes with the introduction of chiaroscuro, methods of linear perspective and voluminous modeling of the face. His work has opened up new opportunities for the circulation of Chinese painting to life. He showed Chinese artists how much their creative amplitude can be expanded and their attitude to the world deepened.

Despite the fact that Xu Beihong died long before the “cultural revolution”, it did not bypass his creativity. Pictures that make up the glory of the Chinese people, telling about his heroism and courage, about the beauty of nature, were withdrawn from museum collections. The house-museum of the outstanding Chinese painter was not only closed, but also wiped off the face of the earth. Both the artist’s brightest intentions and his friendship with progressive figures of other countries were subjected to a scandal along with the paintings.

Painting by Chinese artist Xu Beihong

Illustrated album “Xu Beihong” by N.A. Vinogradova. Moscow. Fine Art. 1980