Fu Baoshi @ Met, NY

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently presenting a retrospective of works by Fu Baoshi, one of the most renowned modern artists in China. Drawn primarily from the preeminent holdings of China’s Nanjing Museum, Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904-1965) showcase the artist’s 40-year career with some 70 paintings and 20 seals that have never been shown outside Asia.

These works chronicle Fu’s stylistic evolution from his student days in China and Japan to his life in the wartime capital in Sichuan, and through his career as one of the favorite artists of Chairman Mao. A notable highlight is the inclusion of a draft of Fu’s most famous commission—the vast landscape panorama he created in 1959 for the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.

Perhaps the most original figure painter and landscapist of China’s modern period, Fu Baoshi created images celebrating his homeland’s cultural heritage while living through one of the most devastating periods in Chinese history.

Trained in both China and Japan at a time when arts education stressed the need for the modernization of indigenous traditions through the study of Western methods, Fu developed a new style incorporating foreign styles and techniques, and began creating boldly individualistic and strongly nationalistic work. Noting that Chinese painting had evolved toward too great a dependency on monochromatic, calligraphic brushwork, Fu sought to revive earlier traditions of realistic description that made greater use of color and ink wash. He also stressed the need for an artist to be emotionally and physically present in his art. To achieve this end, Fu often painted while inebriated. He also sought spontaneity through a spattered-ink method of painting—a kind of “action art” that parallels the working methods of some of the Abstract Expressionists.

On view are Qu Yuan (1942), depicting the poet Qu Yuan (343-278 B.C.), who committed suicide to prove his loyalty; and Drunken Monk (1944), a portrait of Huaisu (725-c.799), a Buddhist monk known for his “wild cursive” calligraphy who, like Fu, is said to have done his best work while inebriated. Both works reflect Fu’s use of art to mirror his own state of mind and feelings.

During the war years from 1942 to 1945, Fu revived the millennium-long monumental landscape tradition to evoke the grandeur of China’s towering mountains and surging rivers. He sustained his creative vision while adapting his art to the socialist agenda of Mao Zedong’s New China. While he never adopted Soviet-style Social Realism, a group of works that Fu painted in 1957 during a study trip to Eastern Europe shows him applying his spontaneous ink-wash style to the depiction of aerial trams, factory towns, airplanes, and a flotilla of naval vessels.

During the final decade of his life, Fu drew inspiration from two sources that were beyond reproach—the poetry of Mao Zedong and China’s natural scenery. His success in interpreting both led to the most important commission of his career: a vast landscape panorama for the Great Hall of the People that had to be completed by October 1, 1959, in time for the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Such is the Beauty of our Rivers and Mountains (1959?), a preliminary draft for the monumental painting, is a highlight of the exhibition.