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XU Beihong and His Times

Centennial Exhibition of Central Academy of Fine Arts

26/10/2018 - 1/12/2018

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), the exhibition focuses on Xu Beihong and artists in his times. It features a selection of 61 artworks by 33 artists, all on loan from the collection of the CAFA Art Museum and on display for the first time in Hong Kong.

Jointly presented by Central Academy of Fine Arts, Bauhinia Magazine and Sun Museum, the exhibition traces the relations between Xu Beihong, the first President of CAFA, and some famous artists of the 20th century. Their artworks, in both Chinese and western media, witness a significant era when Chinese art was on the road of modernization. They reflect a variety of innovative styles from masters like Xu Beihong, Huang Binhong, Zhang Daqian, Qi Baishi and Li Keran.

Message from director

Chinese dynasties placed enormous significance on art, amassed books, calligraphy pieces and paintings in imperial collections, monopolising cultural assets in the greatest possible quantity. To ancient Chinese, art and culture were national treasures for their embodiment of wisdom rather than monetary value.

Commanding the greatest collection of art and culture, the emperor was regarded as the master of wisdom, surpassing his officials and subjects through his ability and knowledge. He was proclaimed the most capable to rule the country.

This logic was heeded every time an incumbent dynasty was overthrown. The imperial collection would either be immediately usurped by the incoming authorities or destroyed by the dying dynasty refusing to pass down their source of wisdom to the next ruler, resulting in a cultural catastrophe.

This explains why art has always played a vital role in sustaining political purposes. Art has the power to communicate emotions and ideas, and affect a viewer of any social standing. It is particularly effective since most farmers and craftsmen were illiterate in the past. Their only window to understand and enjoy life was paintings and works of art.

The collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) precipitated decades of instability in China. It was a time when the traditional Chinese culture faced an existential crisis.

Many Chinese looked up to foreign culture and endeavoured to study abroad to acquire foreign knowledge. Among them was Xu Beihong (1895-1953) who travelled to France to learn western painting. After returning to China, Xu spent his life integrating his understanding of western painting into the tradition of Chinese art.

He succeeded in preserving and promulgating traditional culture at a time of turbulence, a contribution that deserves our utmost respect.

Xu inherited the Chinese belief that art entails actuality, goodness and beauty. Baimiao or line method is the Chinese version of sketching, using lines solely to delineate simple forms. Xu deduced that western sketching can portray complex forms through depicting layers of light and shade in addition to using lines. He therefore advocated western realism to pursue actuality in form, and sketching is the foundation of realistic depiction.

Ancient Chinese emphasized “spirit flavour” or spiritual resonance especially when it comes to figure and animal paintings. While “spirit” is constant and refers to the disposition of the depicted, there is no end to the variety of “flavour” which stands for form. Take the example of a lady. Her disposition conveys her spirit whereas each of her poses emanates a different flavour. Since she can strike multiple poses, she has different flavours of herself. These flavours are what makes a painting interesting.

Xu agreed with the importance of spiritual resonance but cautioned that both spirit and flavour are conditioned on the accurate depiction of the form. Indeed, the ancient Chinese promulgated the importance of capturing both form and spirit; the core principle of both Chinese and western painting.

Actuality is when art depicts realistically. Goodness is when art delights. Beauty is when art pleases the eye. Art is conducive to wisdom which in turn stimulates creativity, a crucial basis for progress and success. Born at a turbulent time of Chinese history, Xu fused western and Chinese elements together to propel a new form of Chinese art, characterising a great age.

While the ancient Chinese deployed art for political ends, Xu and his contemporary artists saw in art the patriotic possibility of sowing the seeds of art in every corner of China. Xu therefore got involved in art education to cultivate art talents for the country. Many of his students became prominent artists. Xu was strategic in gathering a group of like-minded artists to participate in art education and to transmit their artistic vision to the next generation. The achievements of the teachers and students of Central Academy of Fine Arts reflect Xu’s every success in art education.

Today, many Chinese artists have produced outstanding pieces of artwork. It is unfortunate that some are unqualified and are considered as “affected art”. One can simply see how pretentious and unconventional works are flooding exhibitions and fairs. Most of them are usually abstract ink paintings and mixed media installations without a defined theme, and are self-described as conceptual art and avant-garde by the artists. In response, some viewers pretend that they can understand and appreciate such artworks, resulting in the widespread of “affected art”. This unhealthy phenomenon shows that the pursuit of realism is losing steam.

Centred around ancient Greek culture, the Renaissance affected the next stage of development in western societies. In the twentieth century, Xu and his contemporary artist-educators called for not reviving but revitalising Chinese tradition coupled with merits of foreign art to create larger quantities of art that embodies actuality, goodness and beauty. They engendered the Chinese Renaissance.

As society needs progression, art also has to move forward. Art creation and art education are equally important in eradicating unhealthy artistic trends. A renaissance of art and culture is necessary for reviving China. To this we must pay tribute to the pioneers of the last century who attributed to the Chinese Renaissance.

Sun Museum is honoured to collaborate with Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Bauhinia Magazine for this exhibition. We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude for the opportunity to showcase valuable paintings lent by Mainland China for the very first time. With exhilaration, we congratulate Central Academy of Fine Arts on its Centennial Celebration!

Exhibits

Xu Beihong

Man Nude from Two Sides

Oil on paper

1924

52 x 44 cm

Li Yishi

Portrait of Chen Shizeng

Oil on canvas

1920

130 x 70 cm

Zhang Daqian

Plank Trail in Mount Huashan

Colour on paper

135 x 47 cm

Li Keran

Ode to the Plum Blossoms

Colour on paper

69 x 49 cm

Li Zongjin

Canteen

Oil on canvas

1947

63 x 80 cm

Exhibition catalogue