Friday, February 3, 2012

The Unknown Chinese Revolution: the Sie Center, the defeat of Japanese imperialism and Xu Beihong

The Denver Art museum just finished an exhibit of Chinese textiles from its permanent collection and Xu Beihong, a fabulous modern painter of horses (so the advertising notes), from China. As his wife relates in a film on him, Xu had planned to come to the United States in December, 1941, but Pearl Harbor intervened. Denver was the first and only American city to which Beihong's works came.

The connection is museum trustee John Sie; he also contributed money for the Sie Cheou-kang building at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, named for his father, a friend of Xu’s. But here an important story unfolds in the exhibit itself, one accompanying the bursting out of a republic in China in 1911 led by Sun Yat-sen, his replacement by the dictator Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang's extermination of workers in Shanghai by having them burned – as Communists – in the railway engines in 1927, the beginning of peasant revolution led by Mao and the Communist party in the long march of the early 1930s, the ferocious Japanese fascist invasion of China, starting in 1937, and the overpowering effect of likely conquest on artists as well as others. Sie Cheou-kang is pictured in one of Xu Beihong’s paintings, Tian-heng and his 500 warriors - standing near the artist himself among the soldiers resisting oppression (there is also a separate portrait of Sie).

The horses – there are 6 powerful, restless, alive, endangered ones – measure, the artist says, speaking also of himself, the resistance of the Chinese people to Japanese aggression.

At Harvard as a graduate student, I intended briefly to go into Chinese studies. I started intensive Chinese late and took a vacuous seminar on Chinese government. The professor charted the offices of the Chinese government – the form on the blackboard still stares blankly at me in memory, but hardly a word from the many items – perhaps The People’s Consultative Conference – glimmers now. Nobody read Mao (it was sad; Benjamin Schwartz gave some lectures, trying a bit, but the lack of empathy for ordinary Chinese – a sort of opposite of Xu Beihong – compromised even his work).

I had read Chalmers Johnson’s Peasant Nationalism in Communist China, a book written while Johnson was a U.S. government agent, who still scorned the resistance in Vietnam and the American student movement. He later regretted his suffocating arrogance – see the introduction to Blowback. But he always looked down on the Chinese peasants, and at the time, sided with Chiang Kai-shek (perhaps he later regretted that, too).

And yet he alone revealed a startling fact about the revolution to me. Mao’s strategy was to organize a guerilla movement which would “swim in the sea of the people.” The Japanese aggressors decided to “drain the water.” In three provinces in North China in the winter of 1940-41, Johnson reported, they murdered 20 million people. It is worth stopping at the figure, taking it in…

The invasion was genocidal – but I have not seen it reported, let alone thought about, in the US corporate/governmental mainstream (I include much scholarship on China which has been influenced by the war complex) aside from Johnson’s book. This was, after all, the same era in which the US firebombed Japanese wooden cities, killing perhaps 10 million innocent civilians (see Errol Morris’s The Fog of War interviewing Robert McNamara who says, in grim self-recognition, that had he and Curtis Lemay lost, they would have been tried as war criminals. Unlike Lemay, McNamara was plainly deeply troubled about this. That film is the one place where I learned of this mass killing).

And the U.S. dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima (killing some 20,000 enslaved Koreans in addition to 60,000 Japanese civilians in the blast and more in the long, radioactive aftermath) and Nagasaki.

And locked Japanese-Americans in concentration camps…

There are dark reasons why American China education was then and is to this day amazingly censored and silly….

Xu had met Sie Cheou-kang when the latter was a student in France. As John Sie related amusingly at the fancy dedication of the center (where Bob Coombe, the Chancellor ably spoke, and Mayor Hickenlooper looked, dazedly but enthusiastically, on), as a student in France, Sie Cheou-kang supported Chinese agricultural workers on strike. Probably Xu did, too. Sie Cheou-kang was active in the early communist movement in China, a friend of Chou En-lai. He went to a conference of the communist international, but did not advance much in the party. He eventually became Chiang K'ai-shek's ambassador to the Pope between 1942-45.

John Sie would come to America, and make a fortune. But he is plainly bonded to his father’s experience in China and happy enough to have the story told afresh. He was instrumental in bringing Xu’s work – a stunning advance in Chinese art and something much more – to this international stage (Xu is widely admired elsewhere, including in Europe, but not of course in the United States where the curtain of anti-communist or anti-radical ideology and racism veils most of what happened).

Perhaps the best piece in the exhibit is an austere drawing of Gandhi – his face deep in thought - from a visit Xu paid to India in 1940, He went to Santiniketan and also painted Rabindranath Tagore – a much more “finished” (see the commentary below), but less interesting portrait. Gandhi’s spirit shines through (I have never seen another representation of Gandhi with near this power).

Xu combines the externality of French painting – of the impressionists and to some extent, Manet’s portraits which have some inwardness – with a Chinese or Taoist sense of the person within. Xu renews and strengthens this power. The cliché often said about his work combining Chinese style with Western techniques, hardly touches this.

The show, including two interesting films, interprets Shu’s significance as venturing into modern art as a Chinese artist (as even some Chinese commentators also say). Xu was sent to the West after the Revolution of 1911 by Sun Yat Sen and subsisted, often without money, in Paris, for several years. The review below of an exhibit in Singapore suggests that an exhausted, weak horse of 1941 is Xu the student in Paris; this is a remarkable disregard of the actually setting of the revolutionary war against Japan where, indeed, there were moments of faintness and suffering...

The portraits and the representations of animals - horses and eagles (representing Chinese planes, the few, flying against Japan) - combine Shu’s sense of the inner meaning of the historical situation, his and his countrymen’s and women’s worry about conquest as well as exultation in victories, and the spirit of the animals. It is stunning work.

Ho Chi Minh, my student Rich Rockwell tells me (Rich was a Vietnamese orphan flown out of Saigon in 1975 on a plane among some 300 babies that survived; the other, also carrying 300 babies, crashed and burned) admired Gandhi, too. Among those who resisted imperialism/colonialism in Asia, being for nonviolence and being a Communist were often not separable (my friend Haider Khan’s father was a close friend of Badshah Khan, leader of the nonviolent Gandhian resistance in the Northwest territories among Pathans, and also a communist).

Xu also depicted “The Foolish Old Man who Moved the Mountain” in front of his house. He got laborers, painted in their straining and power, physically, to move it because otherwise his children and grandchildren would have to. The painting interprets a thought of Mao about the need for the Chinese people "foolishly" to defeat the depraved onslaught of Japanese fascism.

When the Communists came to power, Xu painted a wonderful portrait of Lu Hsun, the great novelist who also became a Communist (I had known of Lu Hsun before), and a stunning portrait of Mao, unfortunately a preliminary to a larger painting of Mao as a leader of the people (not as good a painting, it seemed to me, from a photo). A sign invoked Mao's thought that there is a difference between art, including art that is political, and political slogans that purport to be art.

If one wants to understand the point, one might look at Xu’s work…

Xu was the head of the post-Revolution Art Academy in Beijing (today fabulously lively, for about 5,000 students). He died in 1953. There is a photograph of Chou En-lai with others at the memorial exhibition. In the cultural revolution, there were many attacks on the old culture (the other part of the exhibit, the tapestries, shows the immense beauty of Manchu weaving, and the utter odiousness of how beautiful tigers, butterflies and kingfishers can be integrated into the hierarchy of imperial offices . One point of the cultural revolution, however bizarre and destructive many of its manifestations, was to challenge the idea that ordinary Chinese people couldn’t remake the world, had no possibility of voice or political power...

There is, of course, the long history of peasant rebellions from below at the end of dynasties of which Mao was a student - it is the subject of Chinese novels including the Water Margin or All Men are Brothers - and on which he based his distinctive strategy (see "An Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan" - 1926). The glittering hierarchy, projected more majestically and ferociously perhaps even than those in Europe, had often fallen…

In the Chinese revolution itself, arguably the greatest popular revolution of the twentieth century, against Japanese genocide and American predation, the Chinese people did find many voices (Xu’s paintings are one of them).

The people rose up even more successfully, arguably, than the Indians who achieved independence under Gandhi. For India under the Congress Party has been predatory of the poor (read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things for a sense). In contrast, with enormous energy, the Chinese took up a new life.

But many of Mao’s ideas, before and subsequent to the Revolution, were not helpful, and in the famine accompanying the Great Leap Forward, horrifying. The West preys on the latter (ignoring its own crimes) not to notice the achievements.

Today, as Erica Chenoweth, my new colleague reveals, most movements for social change are strikingly nonviolent, for instance, from Arab spring to the Spanish indignados. The hope of the world, as I have often indicated, is in the persistence and radicalization of such movements (the means can be connected with social transformation). In contrast, violence by itself – aside from legitimizing vast reactionary government terror to some extent and producing trauma in the violent (see Barbara Deming’s discussion in "Revolution and Equilibrium" of Franz Fanon’s own evidence about an Algerian revolutionary who blew up a racist cafe, killing 10, went to France, met many who sympathized with the Algerians, wondered if some of the people he had killed were like these, and began to experience severe vertigo at each anniversary) - guarantees exactly nothing, as the great internal struggles in China after the Revolution show, about how to produce a genuinely cooperative and free regime.

In the cultural revolution, Chou En-lai was called upon to protect Xu’s paintings. He did.

Even now, the state of American academia and culture about China is roughly what might expect to accompany the sheer predation of American capitalism over the last 30 years. With cutbacks, the Denver Post barely employs an art columnist. I found no column on this exhibit; there was, however, a decent one from the California Literary Review. which, at least in a paragraph, notices the powerful influence of resistance to Japanese aggression.

And Obama would know of Gandhi. But in a major exhibition in Denver – the only American city lucky enough to see this exhibit, the influence of John Sie breaking through the curtain of silence and bigotry about the Chinese revolution and Chinese artists – there is no newspaper review and thus, no mention of the Revolution or of Gandhi.

I knew of Lu Hsun. But until I saw this exhibit and learned of John Sie’s father’s friend, the great painter of the Revolution, Xu Beihong, I had known nothing of him. It would be like knowing nothing, as a non-European, of Picasso...

I am grateful to John Sie for his loyalty to the experience of the Chinese people and his father, his interest in cultivating relations with China which have some trace of sophistication, his instrumentality in the Denver Art Museum in putting together, with Beijing, an exhibit which far exceeded the insight of the exhibitors (it is great to see the Chinese tapestries, which are really important creations, artistically, and in the Denver Museum’s own collection - perhaps, it seemed to the museum, a balance to the revolution's fierceness - i.e., democracy - in the 20th century...

But the curation from China, often remarking what Xu’s own characters or calligraphy on the paintings said - a natural thing to do but not often done in American or Western exhibits of Chinese art - did give a sense of the importance of Xu’s work which had escaped those who packaged and publicized the show.

I was blown away by it. Had this show not been about to close, I would have alerted my colleagues and students to come see it (the Sie center did some work around this). But I can at least say something about it after the fact.

Under Obama, the US is interested in connecting with Asia, combatting China (this is a fool’s errand, and he and American militarism may stimulate a self-destructive arms race that did not have to be - see Amitai Etzioni here. Conquering American racism and anti-radical or anti-communist ideology about the Chinese revolution, and actually seeing the greatness of this movement, as well as of the movement led by Gandhi in India – abandoning the optic of imperialism and colonialism and taking up a more humane vision - might be part of moving towards peace with the now very different China and some better and more cooperative world (a world in which humanity survives, a big problem given climate change, the tar sands – see here – and an American militarism/war complex, along with Israel, now baying for aggression against Iran). John Sie has made a real and important contribution to this in Denver.

It is thus an honor not only to teach at a school named for my friend Josef Korbel – see here – but one which has a Sie Cheou-kang center on security which works on U.S.-China relations and foreign policy. Both liked American democracy and both recognized that at least some reality is necessary in dealing with the history of American imperialism.

Before I heard John Sie speak and before I saw this exhibit, the sense that his father was a diplomat during World War II was not illuminated and deepened by the wild political and artistic history of Chinese resistance against colonialism and fascism.

Xu’s paintings are revelatory of this history. The horses of the Chinese people are great and have trepidation and power and resistance. The Chinese movement is famous for its internationalism toward the Soviet revolution – and the struggle against the Nazis in World War II. But internationalism in Asia – the idea of coming decently into the modern world for all those oppressed people who fought against colonial and fascist aggressors - took many paths. Xu’s portrait of Gandhi has a simplicity and inner power, which also embodies hope.

*My friend Steve Thomas at the University of Colorado at Denver is a great student of Chinese history. He is writing a book which captures the issue of Western imperialism toward China – the tributary system – in the late 19th century. British merchants and the government brought opium to China – through the opium wars they waged - and were death-dealing profiteers. And then came America...

American historians and political scientists have not been interested, so far, in Steve’s essays and proposals about this matter. But it tells a lot, as he has informed me, about Chinese attitudes toward Western investment today (keeping control to prevent being dominated by it) and banking (they have no speculative system in China, a main reason why they were not caught up in the American collapse of the world economy in 2008).

The story here is of a wonderful Chinese painter, one whose name should be known internationally and who wanted to come to America (Ho Chi Minh liked the Declaration of Independence, but American imperialism, first in its aid to French militarism and then in the Vietnam war, belied the Declaration). Perhaps Xu had more confidence (though of course one would have to think about American aid to Chiang Kai-shek who never fought the Japanese aggressors, turned his fire entirely on the peasant revolt…).

There is much here to be excavated…

California Literary Review
Art Review: Two Chinese Exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum
By Holly Hunt
January 3rd, 2012 at 10:01 am
See here for the original article which reproduces a number of paintings. Sadly, this program does not allow me to reproduce them.

Xu Beihong, Six Galloping Horses, 1942
Ink on paper, hanging scroll.
The Xu Beihong Memorial Museum

New Worlds, Old Worlds

This winter, the Denver Art Museum has mounted a pair of exhibitions evoking China before and after the revolutions of the twentieth century. Though radically different in contents and approach, when viewed side by side, “Xu Beihong: Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting” and “Threads of Heaven: Silken Legacy of China’s Last Dynasty” offer a fascinating perspective on cultural upheaval and transformation. While painter Xu Beihong — whose patriotic imagery of the new China would find favor with none other than Mao Tse Tung — was studying art in Paris, collector Charlotte Hill Grant was buying up court robes and ceremonial accessories from impoverished Manchu aristocrats. The fruits of these two very different journeys are now on display.


There’s no questioning the iconic position that the works of Xu Beihong holds in the modern Chinese consciousness. A relief carving in granite of his painting of The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains, an ancient Chinese fable immortalized in a speech by Mao Tse Tung, adorns the lobby of the new Chinese National Museum in Beijing. Reproductions of his bold ink paintings of horses have been issued as postage stamps. Video in the exhibition shows Chinese schoolchildren reading aloud from a biography of the artist that appears in their textbook. This, the first major exhibition of his work outside of China, drew the eager attention of the Chinese media when it opened.

Yet the first surprise of “Xu Beihong: Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting” is that all the works on display are, in fact, by the same artist. The careful drawings in chalk and charcoal of European nudes, of plaster casts of Hercules and the Venus de Milo, the rich colors and swirling brushwork of studies in oil from Allegory of Fertility by Jacob Jordaens, the Rokeby Venus of Velasquez, and a painting of Salomé by French painter Aimé Morot, clearly represent the young Xu Beihong’s years of study in Europe, which began in 1919, when the young artist received a government scholarship for study at the Ecole Nationale Supériore des Beaux-Arts. The inscription in Chinese on one of the nude sketches poignantly details the breakdown from cold and hunger of the artist’s health while an art student in Paris (Xu Beihong would die of a stroke in 1953, at the age of 58).

Xu Beihong, Study of a Male Nude, 1924
Drawing on paper
The Xu Beihong Memorial Museum

Chinese subject matter receives an even greater diversity of handling. Sound of the Flute, painted in 1926, a year before Xu Beihong returned in China, has an Impressionistic or even Barbizon-like delicacy in the atmospheric handling of the landscape. An undated early drawing, Qin Qiang Sells His Horse, uses Western perspective while hinting at the subject matter of his most famous later works. Chinese landscapes in oil from the thirties and forties, such as Landscape of Jiaoshanfrom a Bird’s Eye View and The Courtyard of the Temple of Jizushan have a faint air of post-Impressionists such as Cezanne. Yet there are also bold black-and-white ink paintings of traditional Chinese vistas of mountains and rivers, such as Spring Rain on Lijiang River, painted in 1937, between the two oils. And contemporary with these are scroll paintings of flowers and birds such as Willow Branches and Sparrows of 1938, combining a calligraphic lightness of touch with exquisite detail.

Xu Beihong, Sound of the Flute, 1926
Oil on canvas
The Xu Beihong Memorial Museum

Portraits in oil of the artist’s two wives seem very much in the Western style of the time, despite the occasional Chinese elements in their settings. Yet sketches of such notables as Gandhi and poet Rabindranath Tagore, who Xu Beihong encountered while travelling in India near the outbreak of World War II, do seem to blend Asian and European aesthetics in a new way. The ink and watercolor sketch of Tagore, showing the robed and bearded poet seated before a green tangle of vegetation, deeply evocative of classical Chinese painting, is especially memorable, whereas the portrait of Mao Tse Tung, in charcoal and ink wash, is perhaps too iconic to strike the eye as fresh. (Thanks to Mao’s patronage, Xu Beihong’s work was tucked away safely in the Forbidden City during the ravages of the Cultural Revolution).

Xu Beihong, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, 1947
Oil on canvas.
The Xu Beihong Memorial Museum

Then there are the large-scale works that sealed Xu Beihong’s reputation as a nationalist artist of the first rank: the vast watercolor scroll painting of The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains (1940), an equally monumental oil of Tian Heng and His Five Hundred Warriors (1928-1930), (depicting a famous last stand by a military leader of the Warring States period). These last two had, for me, an oddly Pre-Raphaelite air, perhaps because of the way they combine unabashed storytelling with naturalistic observation, an almost photographic clarity of detail and (in the case of Tian Heng) a palette that emphasizes primary colors. Many of the figures in Tian Heng are in fact portraits from life – the artist himself appears, as does his wife, and his friend Sie Cheou-Kang, father of DAM trustee (and major supporter of this exhibition) John Sie.

Xu Beihong, Tian Heng and His Five Hundred Warriors, 1928-1930
Oil on canvas
The Xu Beihong Memorial Museum.

Finally, there are the powerful ink paintings of lions, eagles, and galloping horses, naturalistic yet also deeply symbolic, produced and embraced as images of the Chinese national spirit in the dark days of the Japanese invasion and its aftermath. The energy and power of these are undeniable, and the intensely human expressions in the animals’ eyes clearly show that they are meant to serve as far more than studies of nature. Yet, looking at these scrolls in relation to the other works on display, it is a little hard to say where this work came from. Undoubtedly, Xu Beihong’s artistic response to World War II would have been different had his artistic background been different, but the spontaneity and intensity of these works seems quite different from the careful evocation of past styles that characterizes most of the exhibit.

Yet perhaps the very multiplicity of approaches in Xu Beihong’s art is part of what endeared him to his fellow citizens. This ability to take on board initially alien styles and techniques helped make him a major figure in the establishment of modern art education in China. He made western techniques – and the western artistic heritage – available to Chinese artists, while maintaining a different vision of the artist’s role in society. Westerners have long tended to view artists as privileged madmen whose oracular productions require interpretation and whose lives are best understood as either fantasies of escapism or cautionary tales (imagine schoolchildren being presented with Picasso or Gauguin or Jackson Pollock — or Caravaggio or Michaelangelo – as models of citizenship). In contrast, Xu Beihong — and his viewing public – seem to have valued a clarity of intention and a high-minded sense of purpose almost as remote from our experience as the Rokeby Venus once was from the the experience of the Chinese.


Threads of Heaven plunges the viewer into the world the revolutions of the twentieth century swept utterly away – the world of elaborate ceremonial and sybaritic luxury that was the court of the Qing Dynasty. This was a world in which the color of the glass finial on one’s hat indicated with precision one’s rank at court; in which the bird or animal embroidered in silk and gold thread on a silken badge indicated a civil or military official’s place in the hierarchy. (Degrees of civil officialdom were represented by birds such as cranes or pheasants, while military rank was indicated by fiercer animals, such as tigers, leopards, lions, and the legendary quilin.)

Crane rank badge, 1st rank civil servant, silk embroidery on silk.
China, Qing Dynasty, late 19th – early 20th century.
Denver Art Museum, Neusteter Textile Collection: Gift of James P. Grant & Betty Grant Austin.

Only members of the Imperial family could wear the Imperial yellow, and only those of the highest rank could have five-clawed dragons on their robes: if the garment was to be passed on to someone of lesser rank, a claw must be unpicked from the fabric. An embroidered design of peonies, magnolias, and crabapple blossom on the border of a woman’s robe would be understood as a complex visual pun that conveyed the message “May your noble house be blessed with wealth and honor.”

Rank badge: Dragon insignia roundel, silk and gold thread embroidery on silk.
China, Qing Dynasty, second half 19th century.
Denver Art Museum, Neusteter Textile Collection: Gift of Mrs. Carroll B. Malone

The pelts of rare Amur leopards might line a winter robe; a summer undergarment of fine silk mesh kept the wearer a bit cooler, while protecting the outer robe from perspiration stains. The Eurasian kingfisher was hunted to extinction in China so its dense and shimmering turquoise feathers could be inlaid like enamel in jewelry, and in the lavish headdresses of Manchu brides. Painfully tiny satin slippers for bound feet, and jeweled guards, many inches long, for fingernails that were never cut indicate their wearer’s remoteness from the world of physical labor, or even ordinary exertion. Yet the distinctive shape of long Manchu “horseshoe sleeves”, ending in points that shielded the wearer’s hands, and the manner in which the front closings allowed for movement, harkened back to the Manchus’ origins as warriors on horseback on the remote frontier of the Chinese empire.

Looking at these beautiful objects, it is hard not to think of other self-enclosed courtly worlds, such as ancien regime Versailles. No wonder aristocrats of the Rococo made such a cult of chinoiserie and of other Asian objets (the Empress Maria Theresa gave her daughter Marie Antoinette several pieces of beautiful Japanese lacquerwork). The intricacies of rank and etiquette, the ritual and spectacle of court life, evoke Byzantium, or Mervyn Peake’s fictional world of Gormenghast.

The occasional fading of the silken threads, which gives the embroidery on some garments the otherworldly hues of seashells or of gardens seen in moonlight, adds its own strange beauty to some of these garments. But the reds and purples have remained bright (the red of one winter robe seems to glow from within). Coral-hued peaches and peonies still glow against the deep turquoise silk of a woman’s jacket; the foxes and squirrels darting through the foliage embroidered on its sleeve-bands still carry their message of good fortune, even if the garment’s final owner may have seen undreamt of reversals of fortune.

As mentioned above, many of these garments were collected by Charlotte Hill Grant, wife of a doctor charged with establishing a department of public health at Peking Union Medical College in the 1920s; by then, the poverty-stricken former courtiers of Beijing were desperate to sell any remaining relics of their former lives. Grant’s contacts included a former lady-in-waiting to the dowager empress, who provided Grant with insight into the lost world of the court, allowing the collector to preserve something of the garments’ context and meaning. Viewed at the end of a tumultuous 2011, alongside Xu Beihong’s images of a radically transformed China, they are a haunting reminder of how even a seemingly permanent world may be turned upside down.

Xu Beihong: Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting, on view through January 29, 2012, Denver Art Museum
Threads of Heaven: Silken Legacy of China’s Last Dynasty, on view through January 29, 2012, Denver Art Museum

New York Times
Xu Beihong: A Chinese master of styles that straddle East and West
By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
Published: Friday, April 11, 2008

SINGAPORE — Xu Beihong is widely recognized as the father of modern Chinese painting, both for his innovative ink works that did much to revitalize the traditional Chinese form and for his willingness to embrace Western techniques, particularly French Realism.

And he was a patriot. Xu helped to bolster Chinese morale during the Second Sino-Japanese War, subtly working anti-Japanese themes into paintings done during those years, especially between 1939 and '41, when he was the height of his career and traveling throughout Southeast Asia and India hosting well-received shows. (He sent money raised through those shows back to support war-relief efforts.)

"Xu had an immense influence on the development of Chinese painting in the 20th century because he championed an expansive realism that included Romanticism and Expressionism," said Kwok Kian Chow, the director of the Singapore Art Museum, where an exhibition showcasing more than 90 of Xu's works opened this month. His style, Kwok said, was "predicated on the ocular world as opposed to the literati tradition of text."

The exhibition, "Xu Beihong in Nanyang," runs through July 13.

Born in Yixing, Jiangsu Province, in 1895, Xu grew up in an artistic family and showed talent at an early age. In 1915, he went to study in Shanghai, then a melting pot of Chinese and Western cultures. There he met the scholar and political reformer Kang Youwei, who would become his mentor and would greatly influence his thinking about the need to integrate Western practices and ideas into Chinese art.

"He felt that Chinese art had degenerated into pure copying of other paintings and was divorced from real life. This resulted in artists who did not see the need to learn from nature," said Chow Yian Ping, one of the curators of the show. "Xu was not the first to formulate the idea, but he was one of the first to offer a solution and a direction."

He came up with the idea of applying Western scientific methods, using very precise anatomical proportions and introducing a fixed-point perspective in his work, Chow said. Xu "combined them very freely with either freehand ink painting or the more formal style," she said.

In 1919, Xu traveled to Paris on a scholarship from the Chinese government. He shunned the burgeoning experimental art scene of the Surrealists and Expressionists, and instead embraced Realism.

"He felt painting should be real and should be understood by people," Chow said, "which is why he remained very much grounded in Realism throughout his life."

After returning to China in 1927, Xu co-founded and taught at the then South China Art Academy in Shanghai. He would hold a number of important posts, such as chairman for the Central Academy of Fine Arts and chairman of the National Artists' Association of China, ensuring him prestige and influence within China until his death in 1953.

In late 1939, Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate poet, writer and philosopher who, at the time, was president of the Sino-Indian Cultural Society, invited the artist to hold exhibitions and give talks in India. Through Tagore, Xu met Mahatma Gandhi, whose sketched portrait is included in the exhibition.

During his stay in India, Xu completed several works considered to be masterpieces, such as "Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore" (1940), in ink and color on paper, which is innovative because of its attention to details and the lack of white space left on the paper.

Another is "The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains" (1940), a 4.2-meter-wide, or almost 18-foot-wide, ink painting based on the Chinese legend of a man who persisted in trying to move a mountain that was in his way, arguing that if he did not finish the task his children, and then his grandchildren, would eventually have to do so. "This work is quite significant," Chow said. "It was his way to encourage the Chinese people in the anti-Japanese efforts, encouraging them to persist in the face of adversity."

Another important painting, "Put Down Your Whip" (1939), which Xu painted in Singapore after having witnessed the staging of a patriotic street drama about a father and his daughter in wartime exile, also illustrates his passion and patriotism. (As with many of the paintings in the show, "Put Down Your Whip" comes from a private collection. It was sold last year at auction for a record 72 million Hong Kong dollars, or about $9.25 million.)

Chow points out that many of Xu's paintings of animals carried very personal emotions, which are often explained in Chinese calligraphy set to the side. The ink and color "Lion and Snake" (1938) is a direct reference to the war between China and Japan, and a galloping horse full of energy and freedom expresses the way the painter felt after China won a particular battle.

"Xu is very well known for his horses and his ability to express his feeling through this animal," Chow said. She gave as example the painting "Sick Horse," (1941) in which the horse's tail is drooping and its head hanging down, as if in defeat. "The work is very much about himself," Chow said, "and the way he felt as a poor, lonely student in need of help when he was in Paris."

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