Xu Beihong (1895-1953) was a native of Yixing in Jiangsu Province. His father, from whom he learned painting in his childhood, was also a painter. At the age of 20, Xu went to Shanghai to sell his paintings. In 1918, at the invitation of Cai Yuanpei, he went to Peking University to work as an instructor at the Painting Research Society and started to learn Western artistic skills there. The next year, as many of his counterparts, he went to Europe to study Western art: he arrived in Paris then moved to Berlin and Belgium.
Back in China a decade later, he provided his own synthesis of Eastern and Western arts based on Western classical realist painting so as to regenerate Chinese painting. As that time as nowadays, people tend to see him as the pioneer of Chinese realist painting: does he really deserve this title or is it rather a simplification?
[...] kind of modernisation, in the sense that realistic elements started to appear sometimes even in classical Chinese ink paintings. Even the most traditional artists of Xu Beihong's time were (at least) aware of the fact that there existed an alternative to ink painting since western style drawing and painting had become compulsory in the curriculum of all schools. Therefore they started to perceive Chinese techniques as a language amongst others. Many artists in this early 20th century started to feel some limitations in Chinese painting. [...]
[...] Whether he was really or not the pioneer of Chinese realistic painting is of course questionable. But, what counts is that he was viewed as being so by his counterparts. He therefore was highly respected and, thanks to his diverse positions, very influential in the sphere of Fine Arts and could thus have conveyed his ideas to a whole generation of artists. Illustrations fig.2 (left) Xu Beihong: calligraphy (1943) fig.3 (right) Xu Beihong: calligraphy couplet (1938) fig.6 Xu Beihong Tian Heng and His 500 Retainers (1928-1930) fig.7 Xu Beihong Magpie on Maple branch (1944) fig Xu Beihong Galloping Horse (1944) Bibliography On Chinese Modern Art: Clarke, David (2000), Modern Chinese Art, Hong-Kong: Oxford University Press. [...]
[...] Not only was the political and social context favourable to the introduction of realism in Chinese painting but some people actually attempted to introduce it before Xu Beihong. Nevertheless, Xu Beihong at the same time benefited from the help of persons like Cai Yuanpei and seemed to be the one who provided the most accomplished synthesis of Eastern and Western art. II. The revolutionary synthesis of Xu Beihong While learning Western skills (oil painting and sketches specially nudes) in Europe, he deliberately focused on European classical painting. [...]
[...] If Xu Beihong can be recognized as the pioneer of Chinese realistic painting, it is probably due to his career as an Academician and Theorist During his life, Xu Beihong also devoted heart and soul to the education of new artists and made important contributions to fine arts education after the founding of New China. He was renewed as the master of Chinese realist painting and therefore was successively appointed at the head of different institutions. After he came back to Beijing in 1927, he served as president of the Beijing Art Institute, dean of the Art Department of Nanjing Central University and later as principal of the Beiping Vocational Art School. [...]
[...] He also had great admiration for Ren Bonian (1840- 1896) who often made sketches to make his painting more realistic and whose painting style combined fine brushwork with freehand brushwork, traditional Chinese skills with Western skills, and the work of the Chinese literati with folk paintings (see fig.4 Five Successful Sons). Still, Xu Beihong was the one who introduced the completely new practice of considering drawing as the basis of everything. His mastery of human bodies and sketches created a new kind of painting. [...]
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