China’s Fu Baoshi Dealt With Boozing, Despots: Lance Esplund

"Yan'an" (1964) by Fu Baoshi. This late work depicts Yan'an, the base of the Chinese Communist Party from 1936 to 1945. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg

“Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904-1965),” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is the first comprehensive survey held outside Asia of the landscape painter, art historian and translator Fu Baoshi, who is revered as the Van Gogh or Monet of his native China.

Artistically uneven, politically charged, in turns academic and sublime, the show may have more historical than aesthetic importance.

It is certainly timely, and feeds present-day Western appetites for all things Chinese. There is also much here to ponder beneath the surface.

Comprising about 90 paintings and 20 hand-carved seals spanning four decades, it marks the first time the Met has devoted a retrospective to a 20th-century Chinese artist.

He’s a talented, pioneering painter equally influenced by ancient Asian brush painting and Western Modernism -- which aren’t easy bedfellows.

Looking at his work, which illumines the conflict among art, government and globalization, increases our understanding of contemporary Chinese artists like Zhang Huan and Ai Weiwei, who came of age during the Cultural Revolution.

Happy Boozer

We see how Fu, a traditionalist and nationalist, struggled politically and artistically. And how he -- remarkably, as he was often drunk -- navigated the treacherous waters between opposing shores of old and new, East and West, freedom and oppression.

Fu lived through the communist rebellion, the Sino-Japanese War, the civil war and the Communist Revolution.

His artwork argued for the magnitude and beauty of China’s cultural past, as it embraced the turbulent world of his present.

In late landscapes such as the visionary, nearly abstract “Heaven and Earth Glowing Red” (1964), which is dominated by a large communist-red globe, Fu professes his love of Chinese painting (and perhaps even of Kandinsky) first, with Communism taking a far-distant second.

A Communist artist working under the regime of Mao Zedong, which favored banal, propagandistic, Soviet-style Socialist Realism, Fu courageously modernized Chinese painting through a process that grafted it to its ancient roots, which had been severed by industrialization and by prejudice against the imperial “decadence” of traditional Chinese painting.

Early hanging scrolls such as “Viewing a Waterfall From a Mountain Ridge” (1940s) and “The Drunken Monk” (1944) -- without Western perspective -- hover dreamily and move vertically, impressing like poetic, reflective verse.

Meanwhile, the panoramic landscape “Approaching Yanbian” (1961), painted from a sketch made at dawn from a moving train, zigzags far into the distance, as if in a Cezanne.

Perhaps because of his divided loyalties or an addiction to booze, Fu was unable to synthesize conflicting influences into a consistent oeuvre.

But this was not for lack of trying.


The exhibition begins, in the 1920s and ‘30s, with Fu’s devoted homages to Chinese painters such as the 14th-century Yuan master Wang Meng -- a passionate influence that would pervade his work.

His career represents a love affair with Chinese art -- and with China itself. It is also a record of survival. It demonstrates how an artist keeps alive -- furthers -- the language and traditions of an art form threatened by the prejudice and ignorance of despots.

In China, where traditional culture continues to be under threat -- by government and postmodernism -- Fu’s battle with globalization goes on.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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