Last week I had the opportunity to see an exhibit at the Met on Fu Baoshi, a Chinese painter known for modernizing traditional Chinese art with influences from Japan and Europe. I must say that the Met is absolutely masterful at making seemingly esoteric art very accessible to the public. I wandered in not expecting much, not knowing much about the history of Chinese art, and left feeling much more connected to it through an artist who wasn’t even on my radar moments before. Such is the undeniable beauty and power of art (all images via metmuseum.org, visit link to see full collection).
What drew me in to the exhibit was an appreciation for the beauty of Chinese landscape paintings (which closely resemble Persian landscape paintings). Fu started off studying Chinese masters of this art to perfect his ink brushing technique. What’s interesting is that his own contemporaries saw traditional Chinese art as archaic and backward, so much that Fu had to travel to Japan, where Chinese art was still revered, to study his own country’s heritage. I love that he ignored popular sentiment and followed his own path, and as a result actually ended up swaying popular sentiment to view previously shunned Chinese art in a new light.
By mastering Chinese tradition and learning both Zen art and European impressionist techniques while in Japan, Fu created his own style that helped Chinese art regain respect both internationally and among the Chinese themselves. The exhibit allows you to see the progression of his style from his early days copying Chinese masters, to the time he spent in Japan learning from Zen monks, to the culmination of his own technique that combined the two. For me seeing how an artist’s style evolves is as important as the work itself. I respect that his devotion to his country and the Communist movement did not prevent him from adapting techniques from other cultures in order to enrich his own, because as my blog emphasizes again and again, I’m no fan of isolationism.
Fu’s later figural work further hybridizes Chinese, Japanese and European influences. He often illustrated beautiful goddesses in Chinese myths with the feel of Zen monk apparition paintings and a subtle nod to realistic Western shading techniques. I love the depth he builds, first with gradations of blurry ink washes, and then with scrubbed textures that create a shimmery effect.
Thanks to this exhibit my appreciation for Chinese art now extends a little beyond a superficial appreciation of landscapes. It’s all in the details, and in this case coming to understand how Fu combined one brush technique with another – something I never would have noticed otherwise – illustrates the innovations he brought to Chinese art.