American students may learn of the brutal material realities of 20th-century China, but rarely do they hear of the internal conflict between ancestral loyalties and desire for modernization and recognition on the world stage.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, in conjunction with the Nanjing Museum, reveals one artist's efforts to define his national identity in Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution, a sprawling exhibit of the modern master Fu Baoshi (1904-1965).
Fu's work was informed by deep and sincere patriotism and Chinese aesthetic heritage. This lent his talents to propaganda during the revolution; many of the paintings on display here are illustrations of Mao Zedong's poems. Fu's seminal work was the monumental-scale "Such Is the Beauty of Our Rivers and Mountains," based on Mao's "Snow." An early draft of it greets attendees to Age of Revolution. Though smaller than a sheet of printer paper and rendered in simple black, green, and red ink, the sketch is inexhaustible in detail and deep in its foggy, mountainous space.
As in more fully realized pieces on display — particularly the two-armspan-wide scrolls "The Three Gorges" and "Heavenly Lake and Forest Sea" — Fu uses color wash to simulate atmospheric haze. The effect increases the scale of the peaks and establishes a visual flow that moves the eye over the entire vista, as if one were looking through the artist's turning head.
Fu's work was not merely a nationalist project, but one informed by concerns beyond his time and circumstance. Awe at natural grandeur, fascination with the human form and its moods, and a wish for roots are universal experiences, and Fu eloquently expresses them at all points in his career.
An art historian in love with traditional Chinese painting, Fu nonetheless recognized stagnation in the proud schools of landscape painting, and he set about remedying it. Instead of copying the tropes of his tradition, he turned to nature itself: hiking near and distant mountain trails, striving to capture the uniqueness and dynamism of individual forests and hills. In brief, he emulated "the actual appearance of China," says Anita Chung, the museum's curator of Chinese art.
"He would go to landscapes and use techniques from history to relate a fresh experience of nature," Chung says. "He wanted to move tradition towards a sense of movement and authenticity."
Fu's work has been called "impressionistic," and the description is apt to the extent that Fu and the impressionists emphasized the individual artist's particular perspective in time and space, resulting in superficially similar styles. But that is the extent of the similarity. Ink and paper, rather than oil or watercolors on canvas, are the materials of Eastern painting. The difference is not an accident of material economy. Long before Fu's time, spontaneous but disciplined use of brush and ink was a mode of emotional expression, a means of personalizing impersonal scenes. Impressionists pictured the world in patches of vivid color filling the entire canvas.
Fu's palette is more austere, using only a few shades of gray, green, red, and blue in a given painting, and he is far more liberal in his use of white space. Skies might be clouded by shading, but also might be left blank. An uncolored swath represents a river or road. Figures are often drawn against stark white backdrops.
Fu employed this convention to profound effect in "Along the Shanyin Road." It is a meditation on natural majesty that illustrates its point not by depicting nature itself, but by recording blissful human responses to it in subtle facial detail. Four male travelers in traditional garb are abstracted from the breathtaking beauty of the forested route, but retain their expressions of contemplative joy. The blue-robed central figure smiles slightly, with eyes turned placidly upward; another figure in gray still registers his open-mouthed grin.
Sometimes, Fu's efforts at modernization took more overt forms. Though most figures wear archaic flowing garments, 20th-century technological objects periodically appear. These are usually only props to Fu's trademark landscapes, however. "Prague Castle," painted during Fu's 1957 Eastern European tour, is populated by red lamplights and the background of a turquoise-roofed palace. In between is a grove of impossibly lush and tall park foliage.
"Glimpse of the Coal Capital," a nearly abstract piece, captures Fu's initial horror and eventual appreciation of a strip mine. Through black air, industrial cranes rise up from blasted hills. Such paintings, so conscious of their past and yet so modern, happily play with expectations.
Though framed by national customs and techniques, Fu's subject is ultimately individuals' encounters with the grandeur of their environment. This humanistic impulse allows him to speak even to viewers squeamish with the political dimension of his work. For Fu, China was more than its heavy-handed government, and his work persuades the recognition of this fact.