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Art Review: Two Chinese Exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum

Xu Beihong: Six Galloping Horses

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.

Xu Beihong: Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting.

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

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

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

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

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: Silken Legacy of China’s Last Dynasty.

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

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.”

Dragon insignia roundel

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

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