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Xu Beihong was born in Yixing, China in the province of Jiangsu. He was born into a poor background and all the skills that he acquired at an early age including seal engraving, Chinese classics, calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting were from his father who in turn had acquired them through self-teaching.
He was born on the 19th of July, 1895. He began commercially selling his work in 1915 when he relocated from his home town to Shanghai. He mainly sold paintings and other illustrations that were used in different publications. A government scholarship saw him enroll into the Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in France in 1919.
This is where he acquired the skills of oil painting and sketching as he travelled widely through Western Europe. He observed the works of western artists in different countries including Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, and Italy. He returned to China in 1927 and began teaching at what is presently Nanjing University and formerly the National Central University. Here, he taught in the department of fine arts and eventually headed it.
Xu Beihong is so influential in Chinese art that you cannot talk of the 20th century in terms of art without the mention of his name. He has over a thousand works done in ink, oil and also as sketches. The vastness of his works makes him a legend in themselves. The number of his works is however dwarfed by the amount of literature that has been written analyzing his work which has been both positive and negative.
He is regarded by many as the vanguard of 20th century Chinese art and has a whole museum dedicated to him. The major reason he is so highly regarded is the incorporation of western realism in his Chinese works. His style that is regarded as social realism has dominated the art scene in China up until the 1970’s.
Among the works that have become icons of Chinese art are: The Astute Judge of Horse, The Foolish Old Man Removing The Mountain, Tian Heng and His Five Hundred Followers and Awaiting For Deliverer. The art of this great artist is seen more as the perfect blend of traditional Chinese art with that of the West. They are lauded for depicting virtuosity and patriotic ideals.
While Mao Zedong was so moved by The Foolish Old Man Removing the Mountain that he incorporated it in his political rhetoric, critics like Michael Sullivan claim that the painting is “one of the most unpleasant works to ever come out of China” (50) and that the works of Xu Beihong are “seldom more than merely competent.” (Sullivan 72)
The thought processes that make people take such extreme positions when discussing Beihong’s work are influenced by preconceptions of what modern Chinese art should be, political preferences and personal tastes.
Pheng Cheah concedes that these criticisms can be as a result of “dogmatic application of untested universalism” by the Western nations and “a dubious cultural relativism” by other nations in the East (54). This means that the work of an artist is viewed from a single dimension which may not produce the best results. There should be an appreciation of the arts present by the analyses of these works through a multidimensional scope (Eco 108).
This paper seeks to examine the work of Xu Beihong in a wide perspective and not just against the narrow scopes including modernism versus realism, western oil paintings versus Chinese traditional ink paintings or left versus right. Here, we are going to examine the influence that this artist had on Chinese art as a whole.
Xu Beihong was not the first Chinese artist to attempt modernizing Chinese art. He was however the most successful since he used the method of realism that was common in the 19th century and had long been proven in history as very effective. His works were successful partly because they depicted the problems that dogged the people of the time with relative accuracy. His however was a personal statement given his background.
Before he was born, the Chinese had lost in the First Sino-Japanese War (1884-5). The political upheavals that followed including reform and revolution undoubtedly affected the perspective of this artist (Shen 172). The background of Xu Beihong helps us to discern the thought that he was “modern” due to his role in modernizing Chinese art.
The experience that Xu Beihong had in the French school where he was enrolled made him view the world in a different perspective. First, it removed the pressures that are accompanied by being in familiar surroundings and helped him to be more objective even with himself. While studying the western way of art, he thought of the situation in his home country as he viewed himself an alien in another land.
Western art drew its inspiration from mythology and antiquity and thus was able to tell a story by looking at it. This was the inspiration that led Xu Beihong to produce paintings that were capable of telling stories. His major context was on historic Chinese texts while incorporating the western style of painting. T
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hree of his most iconic works namely Awaiting for Deliverer, The Astute Judge of the Horse Jiu Fanggao and Tian Heng and His Five Thousand Followers were all produced immediately on his return from France in 1927. Tian Heng and His Five Thousand Followers told the story of Tian Heng who was a legendary figure and the ruler of the Qi dynasty. However towards the end of his reign (221-201 BCE), he chose to protect his integrity by committing suicide rather than be captured by Liu Bang who was the leader of the Han dynasty.
The Astute Judge of the Horse was painted in 1931 and incorporated the traditional Chinese methods of painting that only used paper, ink and brush. The story is of the protagonist Jiu Fanggao who was said to be an excellent judge of young men who were to serve the nation as scholars and were metaphorically referred to as horses. The last piece, Awaiting for Deliverer, was a very large oil painting.
The painting was depicting a suffering people in the era of the Xia dynasty (2000-1600 BCE) as they waited for a savior to deliver them from the oppressive regime. The concept was borrowed from the Book of Documents. The shift from contemporary styles to realism based on classical academics was a very effective tool for educating people and also for artistic convictions. This made the work of Xu Beihong distinguishable from that of other artists of his time including Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) and Liu Haisu (1896-1994).
The fame of Xu Beihong took him to many countries where he exhibited his work. In addition to his exhibitions in Europe and China, he went as far as South and Southeast Asia. It was in India in 1940 that he did his other very influential piece known as The Foolish Old Man Removing the Mountain. This was in the period of the Japanese Resistance War (1937-1945).
The painting was based on an ancient parable in the Leizi text that told the story of an old man who saw it prudent to remove a mountain that was in front of his house (Hsia 533). Even if it was a tall order for him, he was convinced that his children would continue in this endeavor long after he was gone. The sentiments that were being depicted in this painting were of a nationalistic nature and that is why Mao Zedong saw it prudent to incorporate the painting in his politics.
The role that Xu Beihong played in modernizing Chinese art culminated in him being named the president of the fine arts department in the Central University in 1950. This was immediately after the war and after the formation of the People’s Republic of China. The communist regime continued the work of this legendary artist after he passed away in 1953.
China was a country that was ruled by dynasties up until the 1900s. The speedy development of Japan and other European countries meant that China only had a single option in order to survive; westernization. The establishment of the May Fourth Movement was the first step towards the “westernization” of China (Spence 223). This meant that for China to succeed, she had to embrace the western ideals so that she could become a superpower like Japan.
This was achieved by emulating western ideals of romanticism, symbolism and realism that was possible under the banner of democracy and science and was the focal point of the May Fourth Movement. This was the genesis of the art reform that led to artists like Xu Beihong going into foreign countries in order to learn their art.
Kang Youwei and Cai Yuanpei, who were the mentors of Xu Beihong and were responsible for him securing a scholarship in France, were supporters of the May Fourth Movement. Xu Beihong was a major player in the revolutionalization of Chinese art. As a whole, Chinese art was progressing steadily until it was disrupted by the Japanese Resistance War.
The other artists who assisted in the revolution were Japanese educated Chen Baoyi (1893-1945), Guan Zilan (1903-1986) and Guan Liang (1900-1986) together with French trained Pan Yuliang (1902-1977) and Pang Xunqin (1906-1985). They all were instrumental in creating the necessary hype for Chinese art that was always in sync with that of other cities like Tokyo and Paris.
Chinese peace was an uneasy affair as there was always tension between warlords, a threat from the rapidly developing Japan and the rift between the Communist Party and the National government. Xu Beihong found himself very patriotic in this times and was always eager to make history by fostering peace through his artworks. The emphasis was thus on the importation of western ideas that would assist in determining the national fate of the Chinese people.
This was the backdrop in which Chinese modern art was determined. Many artists held the ideal that the best way to change Chinese art was along the traditional lines and contemporary styles whereas a few advocated for an amalgam of traditional styles and those of the West. The western style had the advantage of being more socially involved than did the literati art that had ceased to be as popular in the late 18th century.
It was held that the best way forward was integrating the western style of art into the traditional Chinese art. It was thus up to Xu Beihong and other western educated artists to come up with the best way forward. The array of western educated artists did not have a common idea and a quandary of ideas was brought forth. There was a tug of war between realists and modernists.
Those that advocated for the latter were Liu Hansi and Lin Feingman who believed in everything that was after Post-Impression (Andrews 29). They considered the works of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Henri Matisse as the most fitting to decide the way forward for Chinese art (1869-1954) (Wong 91). The dissenting voice was however that of Xu Beihong who was convinced that the answer to Chinese art was in the 19th century classism and realism in Europe.
Xu Beihong did not however give in to the whole concept of modernization. He was not interested in the whole context of modernity that was occurring in the West (Clark 4). In fact, he was only focused on the depiction of realism in the Chinese context. He claimed that the definition of realism that the western critics and his Chinese counterparts held was not his understanding. His main aim was in depicting reality in his artwork.
Additionally, although he was a strong believer in academic realism, his works were broader than what was entailed in realism and contained other concepts including naturalism, romanticism and realism in the broader western sense. Xu Beihong groups all arts as either being based on realism or conceptualism. The latter he associates with traditional Chinese aesthetics.
The Chinese culture is no different from any other in the world. The culture looks to the social function that art plays in politics and in the definition of culture itself. Xu Beihong depiction of moralistic overtones that were largely sourced from historical sources means that the artist was free of self inclination a far cry of other modernists.
It is remarkable that after eight years in France in the midst of fauvism and post-impressionism, Xu Beihong still had a fondness for 19th century classism. In a world where people are constantly changing with the times, remaining true to a single conviction can be a tall order.
Xu Beihong produced numerous works during his lifetime. However, his most profound works that gained international acclaim are five in number. The common feature of these pieces is that their concepts were borrowed from Chinese history that was a parallel to the success of European pieces based on mythology and antiquity. The pieces were also developed in the years after Xu Beihong returned from France.
The turbulent history of China and especially its war with Japan had a great influence on the way that Xu Beihong crafted his pieces. This was the reason that his works were used in political rhetoric. He is considered the father of modern Chinese art that borders on realism, rightly so as he undoubtedly shaped the way that art in China was viewed and presented a platform onto which modern Chinese art has blossomed.
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