Figures from ancient myths and songs
One of China’s most famous 20th-century painters, Fu Baoshi (1904-65), is known for his revolutionary depiction of classical Chinese figures. A fervent devotee of classical Chinese literature, he often painted heroes and figures from the ancient myths and songs.
The work below, Playing Flute in Dongshan, depicts the historical figure Xie An, explains Sophia Zhou, Associate Specialist in Chinese Paintings. ‘He was a talented scholar from a noble family, during the Eastern Jin period [265-420 AD]. Frustrated and disappointed by political corruption, he spent years resisting the court’s requests for him to enter into imperial service.’
Instead of joining the court, Xie An chose to live in seclusion in the Eastern Mountains where he indulged his love for music, song and dance. ‘Fu Baoshi once said a painting should be like a song,’ says Zhou. ‘It should have the ability to move the viewer.’
The human figure as a pictorial device
The human figure in Chinese painting is often dwarfed by the majesty of the landscape, as with Shen Zhou’s Planting Bamboo, below, which dates to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). ‘In classical paintings, the human figure often functions as a pictorial device,’ explains Zhou. ‘The viewer is meant to identify with the figure to journey through the mountains and rivers of the landscape.’
‘For me,’ the specialist continues, ‘the aim of the Chinese painter is to encapsulate not only the outer appearance, but also the inner essence of the individual, his or her character, spirit and psyche.’
Chinese figure painting has a strong tradition of artist self-portraits. ‘In China, it’s believed that painting is not only a record of sensory experience, but also a reflection of the artist’s mind,’ says Zhou. Twentieth-century artist Zhang Daqian often painted himself in a floor-length robe with a flowing beard in order to appear as a ‘lofty scholar’.
In the above work, painted in 1982 when the artist was already in his eighties, Zhou depict himself as a younger figure, albeit one ‘with the wealth of experience behind him, radiating ease, composure and vitality’. Lofty Scholar by Lush Trees, says Zhou, shows its central figure ‘deep in thought, as if gazing pensively into the past’.
Tradition with a 21st-century twist
Contemporary ink master Li Jin, born in 1958, is also known for his self-portraits. Li, however, takes a more irreverent approach in Cultivating Interest. ‘Gone is the lofty ideal of the literati artists,’ says Zhou. ‘Instead, he whimsically presents a man sitting by a table, presumably a portrait of the artist himself, staring blankly into a fish tank.’
According to the specialist, the irony of the scene is heightened by its traditional medium, sending the message that ‘Li Jin’s cultivation of scholarly interests appears futile in contemporary society’. This impression is further emphasised by the work that accompanies this painting, in which a fish stares blankly back at us.