Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Art Attack! Xu Beihong

Spring Rain on the Li River, by Xu Beihong, 1937

I recently took a trip to the Denver Art Museum to check out the exhibit on the Chinese artist, Xu Beihong (徐悲鴻 Bēihóng). 

Xu Beihong (1895-1953), whose name means "Greatness and Sorrow" (he changed it from his original name "Long Life and Health" after he found art), was an influential artist and art teacher in the early years of China's post-Imperial history.

The Denver show was the first time his works have been displayed in the United States. He was scheduled to have an exhibition in the U.S. in 1941, but the attacks on Pearl Harbor happened so the whole thing was cancelled.

Homemade chop: 阳朔天民
Xu was interesting because he was a master of the classical style of Chinese painting, but was also one of the first Chinese to master Western oil painting, and use it to portray scenes from Chinese legends. 

One thing that stuck out for me when checking out his exhibit was all the different seals, or chops, that he made and used on his works. Chops are usually made from carved stone or horn, and often serve as a sort of signature to a painting. But in addition to his chops with his name on them, he also made chops that are kind of whimsical and seem to reflect how he was feeling at the time.

It seemed like some paintings even required their own seal to be made. For instance, when he was living in Yangshuo, (which we visited last year), he painted a lot of mountain and river scenes. (See above: Spring Rain on the Li River)

The seal (above left) for many of those paintings says: "Resident of Yangshuo, Heaven," (阳朔天民 Yáng​shuò​ tiān​ mín), or as the translation in the museum said: "Such good fortune allows me to be a resident of Yangshuo."  If you have ever been to Yangshuo, you know what he means. It is a beautiful place filled with rivers and amazing karst mountains that jut up out of the earth. 

Another seal says: "Destitute hero from the south" (江南贫侠, jiāng​ nán​ pín ​xiá), apparently a reference to his fondness for martial arts. 

Yet another of his chops says "Pavilion of No Maple" (无枫亭 wú fēng tíng). The story behind this is that when Xu worked as a professor at Nanjing University in the 1930s, a hot female student "planted a maple tree in his courtyard," which may or may not be a euphemism for something. In any case, his wife at the time, Jiang Biwei, (蒋碧微, Jiǎng​ Bì​ Wēi​) totally freaked and ripped the tree out of the ground with her bare hands in a jealous berserker rage.

Xu was bummed about the tree, so he carved a seal to commemorate the lost maple. I may have embellished the story a little, but in her memoir, "Beihong and Me," Jiang does say that Xu had a  little "师生恋" (shī​ shēng​ liàn), or teacher-student affair when he was at Nanjing U! 

After he divorced Jiang in 1945, Xu dedicated most of his paintings (and many of the ones at the DAM) to his second wife, Liao Jingwen (廖静文 Liào Jìng​ Wén). He would include a line on the side of the piece that said: "For my beloved wife, Jingwen, to keep." (静文爱妻存 Jìng​ Wén​ ài qī​ cún) Okay, all together now: Awww

I thought the DAM put on a nice show of his works. Seventy years after it was originally supposed to happen, Xu made an impressive first foray into the American art scene.


Susan Moger said...

As always, pithy, interesting, post written so well in your inimitable style and tone. Loved it.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone direct me to anyone who can translate some Chinese paintings?