Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904-1965), Metropolitan Museum, New York

‘Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904-1965)’, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Fu Baoshi spent most of his life pitched on an artistic precipice, poised between the pull of tradition and the dictates of propaganda. As deft a political creature as he was a painter, Fu thrived while China suffered through the death of empire, Japanese invasion, civil war, Communist dictatorship and famine. He found ingenious ways to adapt his conservative temperament to the staggering clip of change. Pale washes of ink on paper scrolls and silk fans gradually acquired streaks of official red. Scenes of robed poets amid plunging cliffs and misty forests gave way to coal mines and airports. His work, by turns magical, kitschy and weird, but always virtuosic, reconciled an assortment of seemingly incongruous references: European modernism, Soviet-style socialist realism, classical Chinese painting, and Japanese woodblock prints.

Fu, who died in 1965, is revered in his homeland but essentially unknown in the US. Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution, at the Metropolitan Museum, gives New York its first glimpse of an artist who, according to curator Maxwell Hearn, enjoys the kind of popularity in China that the west lavishes on Monet and Van Gogh. Thanks to a massive loan of 70 paintings from the Nanjing Museum, the Met can finally begin to repair that imbalance.

Born in 1904 in Nanchang, Fu came from an impoverished family and didn’t attend school until he was 14. But his prodigious talents were recognised early, and with assistance from supporters in the Nationalist party, he secured two grants to soak up the cosmopolitan environment of Tokyo in the early 1930s. There he encountered western trends such as modernism and also, ironically, discovered his own heritage. It was in Japan that Fu’s patriotic sense of himself as a Chinese artist took explosive hold. Accounts written by Japanese scholars exposed him to histories of Chinese art unavailable to him at home. Through them, he resurrected the bold strains of expressivity he felt were missing in contemporary art. Fu’s passionate and utterly idiosyncratic fusion of history and innovation became his trademark, and later his lifeline.

Back in China during the war, Fu invoked the age-old landscape tradition in monumental scrolls of soaring mountains and tufted clouds. He invented a technique – which critics later dubbed the Baoshi cun, or texture stroke – that involved splitting and spreading bristles, and skittering the brush across the surface with rough, grainy thrusts. Now he could freeze a brooding grove of dark trees in mid-gale, knit an unearthly veil of raindrops, or catch the gauzy gleam of clouds skimming granite peaks. Fu lived in a tiny cabin at the foot of a mountain, and he often painted in the open air, his inspiration boosted by more than a little wine. These works feel almost impressionistic in their fleeting immediacy, but they are also both traditionally Chinese and highly romantic, brimming with Fu’s intuitive response to nature.

The idyll ended with the onslaught of civil war and Communist victory in 1949. From then on, Fu had to traverse the shoals of capricious demands and intermittent crackdowns. Mao Zedong and his bureaucrats commanded artists to edify the people in a didactic style that emphasised heavy outlines and flat planes of colour. Wispy subtleties such as Fu’s were branded as elitist and retrograde. Things were tough: Fu struggled unsuccessfully to paint in the mandated style; his classes in Chinese art history, ink painting and calligraphy were cancelled.

But he soon cracked his way out of the impasse: he began to illustrate the chairman’s as yet unpublished poetry along with other revolutionary themes, co-opting aesthetic objections with overt propaganda. In “Crossing the Dadu River” (1951) a fragile Red Army boat steers through treacherous currents towards the shore of victory. Fu injects breathy spontaneity into the waves and rocks, but he turns these stylistic tricks to political ends. Perhaps he saw in the boat a personal metaphor for his own attempt to navigate fraught ideological waters.

A couple of years later, “The Far Snows of Minshan Only Make Us Happy” expands upon Mao’s poetic account: “The Red Army is not afraid of hardship on/ the march, the long march./ Ten thousand waters and a thousand/ mountains are nothing.” The tiny battalion huddles in a corner, in the shadow of a looming range. Not all his attempts at conciliation were equally successful. He took a silly turn with “Swimming: Poem of Mao Zedong” where we can just see the chairman’s oversized head as he floats, disembodied, in the vast and billowy Yangtze River.

Fu’s elegant compromises found admirers abroad, and in 1957 he led a Chinese delegation of artists on a trip to eastern Europe. While there, Fu applied his timeless mode to emblems of industrial progress. A Czech mountainscape is strung with thick black wire, and a pocket-sized cable car swings across the abyss. Soviet-bloc cities are bathed in twilit smog, and a view of the Siberian airport of Irkutsk becomes a grey nocturne suffused with lapping layers of ink.

The Met show offers something more than the story of an artist with a pliable talent and an instinct for self-preservation. There’s a poignant, even tragic tone running through the exhibition because in the end the authorities were not interested in letting Fu retain his dignity or protect his unique vision. When he returned to China, he discovered that his son, an art student in Beijing, had been condemned in the latest political purge. Fu redoubled his efforts to mollify the Communist party, even as the limits of the permissible narrowed. By then, the use of black was enough to bring down accusations of reactionary tendencies, so Fu deployed red strategically. In “Green Mountains Like the Sea, the Dying Sun Like Blood” (another reference to Mao’s verse) he daubs a pass with revolutionary flags and gives the horizon line a gory hue.

Fu died on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, which would surely have crushed him and his subtle negotiations between wistful past and glittering future. His valediction was an exquisite series of fan paintings that he managed to produce despite the political spasms that brutalised China. There are no planes or flags or mines in these private meditations – only burbling streams, shaded bowers, and lush landscapes that even in miniature dwarf all human anguish.

Continues to April 15,

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